“Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Somalian born Ayaan Hirsi Ali is undoubtedly one of the most powerful liberal voices of the present century. She puts forth powerful arguments in order to prove that Islamic extremism is rooted in Islam itself. As the Muslim world struggles to come to terms with the challenges of modernity, believers have no option but to reconsider their stance on crucial concepts such as jihad, polygamy, talaq, inheritance rights, and a host of other issues. The attempt to adapt 7th century teachings to 21st century aspirations is causing much heartburn. The Arab Spring and Islamic State are manifestations of the soul-searching that is happening within the Muslim world.

“The UN estimated in November 2014 that some 15000 foreign fighters from at least eighty nations have travelled to Syria to join the radical jihadists,” she points out. The threat posed by terrorist groups is very real and the need to tackle the root causes is urgent.

“The call to violence and the justification for it are explicitly stated in the sacred texts of Islam,” the author opines. Her reasoning is not unsound. Demonstrating the power of indoctrination, she writes of her own intolerant past self, “When Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran called for the writer Salman Rushdie to die after he published The Satanic Verses, I didn’t ask if this was right…….Everyone in my community believed that Rushdie had to die; after all he has insulted the Prophet. My friends said it, my religious teachers said it, the Qur’an said it, and I said it and believed it, too.”

Ayaan focuses on five areas that need re-thinking: (1) Muhammad’s infallible status (2) the Sharia (3) the glorification of the afterlife (4) the call to wage holy war (5) the practice of empowering individuals to enforce Islamic law. “I bear witness that there is no God but Allah; and Muhammad is His messenger.” The author notes that today the Shahada is not merely the Muslim profession of faith but the banner of IS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram. She says, “We must reject the notion that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islam is inherently ‘racist’”.

The author expresses the hope that the movement for reform is already under way. She recounts certain events that give room for hope. On New Year’s Day 2015, the President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, gave an astonishing speech at Al-Azhar University. He asked, “Is it possible that 1.6 billion people (Muslims) should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that they themselves may live? Impossible!” He went on to say: “I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move…..because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost – and it is being lost by our own hands.”

Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood once said: “If they had gotten rid of the apostasy punishment, Islam would not exist today. Islam would have ended with the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him.”

I can’t help thinking Ayaan ought to have visited India, especially Kerala, where peace-loving Muslims are in a massive majority. Or Indonesia. Or Malaysia. Perhaps she might modify some of the harsher postulates based on her own experience of militant Islam in Africa and Arabia. Moreover, she would realize that Hindus comprise only 15% of the world population, and they too indulge in honour killings and inhuman punishments.

Overall Assessment: To describe this book as thought-provoking and path-breaking would be an understatement. But I suggest you read “Infidel” first.


Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan


“If you do not have a sword,” Jesus instructed his disciples, “go sell your cloak and buy one.” Was this the same man who said, “Turn the other cheek” and “Love thy neighbour as thyself”?

Iranian born American author Reza Aslan makes a valiant attempt to unveil the real Jesus – and in the process unearths some curious facts. The gospels were recorded by Greek speaking diaspora Jews. The gospel of Luke was written in Antioch and that of John in Ephesus. Almost every story written about Jesus was composed after the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. (In 70 C.E., the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground.) The Kingdom of God never came. But Jesus, the messiah, was gradually transformed from a revolutionary nationalist into a spiritual leader espousing a message of peace and brotherhood.

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus seems to have pre-dated the gospels and other written sources. But only two facts about Jesus are absolutely certain: Firstly, that he was a charismatic preacher who led a Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century. Secondly, that Rome crucified him for this crime. The plaque they placed above his head on the cross read, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”. (However, Mathew and Luke claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.) There’s no evidence for the ‘born in the manger’ story or the ‘immaculate conception’ theory.

Jesus performed faith cure and exorcism – and never exacted a fee. There’s more historical material confirming his miracles than either his birth or his death.

Jerusalem had a history of conflict long before the birth of the saviour. The story of Moses and the great exodus is well known. But the Jews did not live happily ever after in the Promised Land. The Babylonians obliterated King Solomon’s temple in 586 B.C.E. Later they were defeated by the Persians who allowed the enslaved Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Then Jerusalem fell to Alexander the Great and was subsequently ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty. In 164 B.C.E. the Jews regained power and held it for the next 100 years. Roman dominion began in 63 B.C.E., and when Herod died in 4 B.C.E. a period of violent uprisings followed. Jesus was born sometime between 4 B.C.E. and the takeover of Jerusalem by Roman troops in 6 C.E.

In 28 C.E. an ascetic preacher, John the Baptist, began baptizing people in the River Jordan. Jesus was baptised by him – and probably began his ministry as John’s disciple. Sometime between 28 and 30 C.E. John the Baptist was put to death by Herod Antipas, one of Pontius Pilate’s lieutenants.

After his baptism Jesus went out into the wilderness of Judea – and returned home only after the arrest of his mentor. By then he had metamorphosed into a preacher. He called himself ‘Son of Man’. He had both male and female disciples who followed him from place to place. Women disciples named in the New Testament include Joanna, Mary, Salome, Susanna and Mary of Magdala.

The matter of Jesus’ bachelorhood also remains unresolved. Celibacy was extremely rare in Jewish society, being restricted to monastic orders such as the Essenes (custodians of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

The prophet Isaiah had foretold that Israel would be redeemed, that God’s Kingdom would be established on earth. Jesus merely said the Kingdom of God is at hand. But it amounted to saying the end of the Roman Empire was imminent. His “blessed are the poor….” statement implied a reversal of the prevailing social order. It was a call to rebellion. Consider this quote from Matthew and Luke, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”

After Jesus’ death his brother James became leader of the early Christians. The Lord did have brothers and sisters – which goes to disprove his mother’s perpetual virginity. Joseph, the father, disappears after the infancy narratives. He is mentioned only by Matthew and Luke, as is the story of the virgin birth. According to the gospel of Mark, when Jesus first begins preaching in Nazareth, the villagers ask, “Is this not Mary’s son?” Males in Palestine were never called by their mothers’ names. Burial after crucifixion was not normal practice either. It was customary to leave the corpses on the cross to be devoured by dogs and birds of prey. So why and how did Jesus get a burial?

Saul of Tarsus (who became Paul after his conversion) rejected Jewish law and began teaching believers not to circumcise their children. He had serious conflicts with James and the apostles. In the early sixties Paul was arrested and extradited to Rome, where Peter, the first of the 12 apostles was already living. In 66 C.E. as Jerusalem erupted in revolt, the emperor Nero had Peter and Paul executed. Their martyrdom made them the most important figures of Christiandom. There had been messiahs and martyrs before and after Jesus, but today he alone is God.

Though James headed the first Christian community and eventually died a martyr, he was overlooked in later chronicles, and almost wholly excised from the New Testament.

The book throws light on some ancient Jewish traditions. I was struck by the uncanny resemblance of the daily rites of the Temple of Jerusalem to that of our Hindu temples. The burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, the sounding of trumpets, and the animal sacrifices (which are now unlawful), the purification rituals and the shaving of heads would be all too familiar to any practising Hindu. Menstruating women were not allowed to enter the Temple.

Overall Assessment: Great read, though it does appear that the author has a bee in his bonnet.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
AUTHOR: Reza Aslan
PUBLISHER: The Westbourne Press

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Everything about this book is shocking. The words are gentle, yet the message is powerful and the story spectacular. It’s an autobiographical account of a woman’s birth in Somalia, growing up in Saudi Arabia, Kenya and Ethiopia, and migrating first to the Netherlands where she is elected to Parliament and then to the United States, where she is on a mission to exorcise the ghosts of Islam.

“We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mindset of the Arab desert in the seventh century,” she writes. “We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves.”

The author’s account of her early life in Somalia is hair-raising. She gives a blood-curling description of her experience of forced circumcision at the age of five, as also that of her elder brother and younger sister, all performed on the same day at the initiative of her maternal grandmother. “Female genital mutilation predates Islam. Not all Muslims do this, and a few of the peoples who do are not Islamic. But in Somalia where virtually every girl is excised, the practice is always justified in the name of Islam.” Though she squarely condemns FGM, she does not ask the question why boys need to be circumcised.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali talks of her stay in Saudi Arabia, where gender based segregation was strictly enforced and public beheadings were commonplace. “It was a normal, routine thing: after the Friday noon prayer you could go home for lunch, or you could go and watch the executions. Hands were cut off. Men were flogged. Women were stoned.” The author points out that the Prophet did say, “Wage war on the unbelievers.” She adds, “Christians can cease to believe in God. But for a Muslim, to cease believing in Allah is a lethal offence. Apostates merit death: on that the Quran and the hadith are clear.”

She prayed five times a day and wore the veil. But soon she began to question her own beliefs. Was her religious instructor Boqol Sawm translating the Quran properly? “Surely Allah could not have said that men should beat their wives when they were disobedient? Surely a woman’s statement in court should be worth the same as a man’s?” She describes her gradual loss of faith, her life in Europe where she learnt that human rights and dignity were cherished values, her outspokenness and the heavy price she had to pay for it, the murder of her friend Theo Van Gogh in the Netherlands, her persecution by religious extremists, and her eventual escape to America, the land of the free.

Today she continues to write and speak out. Fearlessly – but with bodyguards. Her speeches and debates are all over Youtube. As there is a fatwa against her anyway, she can keep writing anything and it can’t get any worse. She says in the Introduction to this book: “People ask me if I have some kind of death wish, to keep saying the things I do. The answer is no: I would like to keep on living. However, some things must be said, and there are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.”

Overall Assessment: Thought provoking. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is possibly one of the most impressive voices of the 21st century.

AUTHOR: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
PUBLISHER: The Free Press
Date of Publication: 2007

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

“In Search of Shiva- a Study of Folk Religious Practices in Pakistan” by Haroon Khalid

In Search of Shiva

“Dama dam mast Qalander……” The peppy tune echoed in my mind as I breezed through Haroon Khalid’s book. Whether sung by Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila or Pakistani Abida Parveen or the Wadali brothers, the song has a universal appeal. Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, the 12th century Sufi saint is not the subject of this book though. The author, an Islamabad-based journalist and educationist takes us on an unusual journey through little known villages in Pakistan, where religious shrines cling to relics and rituals of a long-forgotten pre-Islamic past, virtually presenting an alternative and liberal version of Islam. Khalid expresses concerns about the rising tide of extremism and intolerance in Pakistan and suggests that many of these quaint practices may soon be wiped out or driven underground.

“But nothing had prepared me for this, a Muslim shrine dedicated to the fertility cult, where women offer phallic-shaped offerings to the patron saint while praying for a child, ideally a boy.” Here, the author recounts his visit to the shrine of Aban Shah Shirazi. Glass bangles and white turbans were among the offerings. No sign of any shivling! Khalid and his fellow travellers finally discovered that an elderly woman had removed all the phallic symbols to hide them from prying eyes. It appears that concerns for modesty played a part rather than Islamic beliefs, or the other items would have been hidden too. When asked about the offerings, the woman said, “These are presented to the shrine by women praying for children. Some of them also bring toys for children and tie them around the trees outside…..Women sometimes come to pray for their cows to give birth to calves.” This in an Islamic country where Hindus comprise less than 2% of the population!

A 25-year old woman confessed that when she remained childless after five years of marriage and her mom-in-law threatened her with divorce, a simple phallic offering to the saint did the trick and she was soon blessed with two sons and a daughter. Wonder what the Prophet Muhammad, PBUH, would say to that!

The shrine of Baba Mast where thousands of eunuchs congregate, that of Peer Abbas, where dogs abound, the shrine at Kallar Kahar where peacocks are venerated (Babur camped here on his way to conquer India), the shrine of Ghore Shah where toy horses are offered, a shrine for the master of crows, what more do you need? A 75-year old dervish tells the author, “All langar provided to the devotees at the shrine is offered to the crows before anybody else. Children who stutter or have other speaking problems drink water from the same vessel as the crows and are cured.” He continues, picking up a little ash from under a pot, “This ash here is also sacred. Devotees eat it and all their problems are solved.”

In the city of Jhang, where the legendary lovers Heer and Ranjha lie buried in a single grave, the site has become a place of pilgrimage. The story is part of the oral tradition of South Asia, supposedly written by Damodardas Arora during the reign of Akbar and rewritten by Waris Shah in the 18th century. And young people come here in droves to seek the blessings of the long-gone lovebirds.

The book offers many glimpses of life in Pakistan. Here are some interesting examples: ‘Jihad is an obligation, now or never,’ said an advertisement sponsored by the Jamaat ud dawa organization, on the back of a rickshaw. “The (Friday) prayer would be preceded by a sermon from the local maulvi, who while stoking his oiled beard would pray for the demise of the United States, Israel and India, our own local version of the axis of evil…” The author notes the disappearance of kittens from the Billiyonwala Mazaar at Lahore and its rapid transition from a Sufi shrine to a regular mosque. He observes that the Eid Milad un Nabi celebrations are modeled on the Hindu festival of Ram Navami, and while the fervor with which Eid is celebrated has increased, its opposition from puritanical Muslims has also increased. Qawwali singing at Sufi shrines also irks the orthodox maulvis who believe that music is un-Islamic.

“I have often been told that there are certain topics pertaining to religion one should avoid writing about because of the negative backlash they are likely to invite. I, on the other hand, argue that one can get away with writing anything in Pakistan as no one reads,” Khalid explains. I hope his luck holds. We don’t want the young man to attract a fatwa or anything. We need sane voices from every country to keep speaking out, to keep writing, to move the dialogue forward.

The publishers could have could have done a better job of editing — I found several blatant errors in the text. But my overall assessment is still: Eminently readable.


Reviewer: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.