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Muslim Scholars Give Hirsi Ali a Mixed Reception

A critic of fundamentalist Islam – Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- has been making media appearances in recent weeks, in part as an effort to promote her new book, “Infidel: The Story of My Enlightenment.”

Hirsi Ali – a Somali-born activist and former Dutch legislator – criticizes, among other things, verses of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, which she said encourage violence against women, minorities and the West.

Hirsi Ali blames passages of the Koran for the harsh treatment of some Muslim women including wife beating, and in her own case, female circumcision and an attempted arranged marriage by her family. She notes that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and those who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 use the Koran to legitimize their actions.

Not all Muslims share her views.


Mohammed bin Uthman is the chief imam of the Sahaba mosque in Kano, northern Nigeria.

“Our Islam is not an apologetic Islam. We can hold our heads high,” he said.

Imam bin Uthman said those who question the written word of the Koran are not true Muslims. He uses scripture to make his point: the Koran (25:31) warns that sinners and criminals will question the character of the Prophet Mohammed. The Kano imam said the holy texts treat women well, and accuses Hirsi Ali and others of criticizing Islam to gain status in the West.


Imam bin Uthman acknowledges that the Koran includes a verse(4:34) that allows the man to beat a disobedient wife.

“"The God that created woman put her under the care of man, and that is something natural. It is a matter of belief. If you believe it, practice it,” said bin Uthman. “If your wife misbehaves, the Koran says beat her. What kind of beating? The [religious scholars] explain the way you discipline her ... No obedient woman would misbehave to the point that her husband would raise his hand against her."

Nur Dogan Hamurcu, the spokesman of the Turkish Muslim group Milli Gorus (National Vision) in Amsterdam, has a different view.

“The Koran is not an encyclopedia. You cannot use it as an index from A-Z to (determine) whether is it accepted or forbidden to beat your wife,” he said.

Dogan said one must study the example set by the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the context of the scripture.

For example, he said that the Prophet Muhammad never beat his wives. He said the Prophet had most of his children through his first wife, to whom he was married until her death. (He later married 12 other women).

On the other hand, he said the marriage of the Prophet to his second wife, who was nine years old, must be seen in the context of politics. After the death of the Prophet, her father Abu Bakr, became the first leader, or caliph, of the Muslims. Dogan said Europeans similarly married young girls centuries ago, and that Muslims today, like Christians, are more likely to accept modern standards.

In contrast, Imam Muhammad bin Uthman of Kano said parents can marry girl children off at a young age, though he recommends that the husband refrain from relations with her until her body is developed enough to safely handle pregnancy.


Another Muslim who favors a figurative – and not literal - interpretation of Islamic texts is Farid Esack. The South African scholar, who was appointed by Nelson Mandela as commissioner to South Africa’s Gender Equality Commission, said he looks for the principle behind the Koranic stories.

Esack, who is a now a visiting professor at Harvard University’s Divinity School, said the Islamic holy book was quite progressive in its treatment of women in the 7th century. Prior to its introduction, for example, he said the birth of a girl child was seen as bad news. In comparison, the Koran taught that the birth of a boy child should be greeted by slaughtering two sheep, and one for a girl.

“The issue,” he said, “is not one sheep or two sheep, it was the principle of not mourning the coming of a girl child and celebrating her coming.”

As for wife-beating, Esack said the verse in question suggests violence only as a last resort. The way to approach the verse, he said, is to consider how can couples relate to each other so that violence is never reached. Even then, despite the Koranic sanction, he believes that no form of spousal violence is ever acceptable.


Human rights activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali also criticize female circumcision – which is practiced in some Muslim countries.

Some Muslims scholars note that one saying (hadith) of the Prophet acknowledges the practice. However, they say it is only permitted under Islam, not mandated.

Literalist Muslims like Imam Muhammed bin Uthman of Kano, Nigeria, defend the right of religious teachers (or ulema) in the community to decide whether there is a qualified Muslim surgeon to perform the operation safely.

Farid Esack of South Africa said female circumcision had its origins in Egypt, and is not known in much of the Muslim world.

“If you look at the Nile and Nilotic region,,” he explained, “the Coptic Church of Egypt and Ethiopia are the only Christian(churches) in the world to think that female genital mutilation is a religious obligation. There are a number of scholars who say this had nothing to do with Islam.”


Esack disagrees with Hirsi Ali that the texts of the Koran lead to violence:

“You don’t read the Koran, grab a bomb, and go,” said Esack. “This is a very simplistic and ahistorical way of explaining how religion functions in the lives of people.”

Rather, he said, economic, historic and political issues often drive violence. Other scholars say holy texts that espouse violence against unbelievers are often those that deal with warfare, and respond to attack.

Muslim leader Nur Dogan Hamurcu and Farid Esack agree that Muslims should consult centuries of scholarship and even apply modern thinking to understand Islam in the 21st century. Esack criticizes Hirsi Ali for leaving Islam, for labeling herself a “Muslim atheist” and “infidel.” Change, he said, must come from within Islam.

But others like Imam Muhammed bin Uthman said the texts are literal and unchangeable. Those who call themselves moderates or liberals are not true Muslims, he said, even if they’ve been to Mecca a hundred times.