I Know Why the Caged Virgin Sings


Having so recently been accusing of gloating over Ayan Hirsi Ali's misfortunes, I'm hesitant to link this critique of her essay collection "The Caged Virgin" by Laila Lalami. The Nation reviewer accuses Hirsi Ali of "stunningly ignorant scholarship" and blanket smears of Islam and Muslims.

Take her statement on abortion: "According to Islam, an extramarital pregnancy brings great shame on the family, but you can still redeem yourself in the eyes of Allah. Abortion, though, the killing of an innocent baby, is a deadly sin, for which there is no forgiveness." But abortion is not universally disallowed in Islam, simply because there is not a uniform position about the issue. In the Hanbali, Shafii and Hanafi schools in Sunni Islam, for instance, abortion before the fetus has developed into a human being (what is called "ensoulment") is, in fact, permissible. Scholars differ on the lengths of time "ensoulment" takes, with definitions as narrow as forty days and as broad as 120 days (i.e., the first trimester). All schools of thought allow abortion if the pregnancy is liable to cause medical harm to the mother.

Lalami also takes on the Canada-based writer Irshad Manji, whose work has been less controversional and career less dangerous. But most of the criticism falls on Hirsi Ali. The soon-to-be-Washingtonian exposed very real oppression and discrimination in the Muslim community, but it's worth asking if Manichean views of an Islam-West confrontation—expressed more floridly by Oriana Fallaci, who shares much of Hirsi Ali's American audience—have any use beyond getting readers' (or in Hirsi Ali's case, voters') blood boiling. If Islam is more creative, less oppressive, and contains more pockets of liberalism than its most famous critics are willing to admit, isn't that promising?

NEXT: Is Your Town Safe From Terrorists?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. “but it’s worth asking if Manichean views of an Islam-West confrontation . . . have any use beyond getting readers’ (or in Hirsi Ali’s case, voters’) blood boiling.”

    No, it’s readily apparent that it serves no other purpose, at least in the US and Canada, where Muslims only make up about 2% of the population and even less of the electorate. The hysterical, daily “Muslims are plotting to impose shari’a on us all!!!11!1!!1 ZOMG!” stories available daily from WND, WS, NRO, etc., obviously have no reason to exist except to foment bigotry since the plausibility of Islamic rule being imposed on either country in the next 50+ years is about the same as the LP winning both houses of Congress and the White House.

  2. 120 days (i.e., the first trimester)

    This may be too picky, but since when does 4/9 = 3/9? And if we’re going to delve deeply into Muslim rules re abortion, what do they have to say about notification of dad/husband? Not that I care enough to follow a discussion on this, mind you, but the “pockets of liberalism” in the modern Islamic tradition, welcome as they are, always seem to turn out smaller and more restricted upon investigation.

  3. There are indeed pockets of what answers for a libertarian tradition in Islam, in the mystical movement called Sufism (confirmed for me in conversation with a Pakistani Sufi in the apartment of a Serbian dissident in Belgrade). It’s illegal to even call yourself a Sufi in Saudi Arabia.

  4. I think it might be profitable to look at how Islam regards the “other”, both in the Koran and through history.

    Historical note: the German Government’s (1933 to 1945) implimentation of the yellow star and other similar marks was a long standing feature of Islamic culture.

    Pagans Islamics get to kill out right. People of the book are subject to severe oppression and the theft of their children and very high taxes payment required on pain of death.

    So let us all hear it for the religion of submission with their “liberal” understanding of abortion. A step closer to Libertarian utopia no doubt.

  5. The Sufis do have a mystical tradition.

    Their attitude on the Jewish question is no different than that of the Saudi Salafists.

    Such charming people.

  6. People of the book are subject to severe oppression and the theft of their children and very high taxes payment required on pain of death.

    M. Simon, where do you come up with this bull shit?

  7. Historical note: the German Government’s (1933 to 1945) implimentation of the yellow star and other similar marks was a long standing feature of Islamic culture.

    True, the yellow badge apparently has a long and distinguished history in the Muslim world’s practice of forcing non Muslims, (though Jewish people have been of particular interest) to wear distinctive clothing (traditionally yellow for Jews) which dates back to shortly after the time of Mohammed. But, it is hardly unique to them. It seems the European Christians were very quick to realize the benefits of this method for allowing the convenient and efficient persecution Jews; examples of Popes and Kings forcing Jews to wear distinguishing items, from yellow badges to cone shaped hats, abound.

    A few examples from the wiki piece:

    1215 Fourth Lateran Council headed by Pope Innocent III declares: “Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress.”

    1219 Pope Honorius III issues a dispensation to the Jews of Castile.
    1222 Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton orders English Jews to wear white band, later changed to yellow.

    . . .

    1415 Bull of the Avignon Pope Benedict XIII insists the Jews to wear a yellow and red badge, the men on their breast, the women on their forehead.

    . . .

    1555 Pope Paul IV decrees, in his Cum nimis absurdum, that the Jews should wear yellow hats.

    So it seems the Nazis has plenty of Christian tradition, as well as Muslim, to draw on when it implemented its yellow star requirements.

  8. the theft of their children

    Are you talking about the Janissaries?

  9. the other Mark,

    A number of Muslim armies were created by what might be called “child theft.” As I recall, Saladin himself to be where he was by those means.

  10. Good reminder of why I stopped reading The Nation years ago.

  11. Wonderful, another article on how Islam is really great and tolerant. I’ll remember that the next time I watch the Million Muslim “Let’s tolerate other cultures” March. I must have missed this year’s, was it before or after the massive turnout of Muslims who burned and killed over a cartoon?
    I don’t get this obsession with providing interpretations of the Koran to “prove” that Islam is really a peaceful religion supportive of an open society. It doesn’t matter what you think you can get out of the text, it matters how millions of muslims around the world are acting. Islam is not conducting itself as the “Religion of Peace”, no matter how many times you say it.
    I’m pretty sure when Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and company are talking about the evils of homosexuality, the Nation isn’t falling all over itself to explain how Christianity means love and tolerance, therefore Southern Baptists are actually the Religion of Gay Marriage.
    There is no such thing as what a religion “really” says about anything. The Koran means what its followers think it means (as does anybody else’s holy book). Religions are made up, and the made up interpretations of the moment are what matter.
    Don’t listen to me though, listen to the Nation. We shouldn’t make blanket statements about Islam, just because women have virtually no rights as individuals in any country which actually practices anything close to Sharia law.

  12. “I must have missed this year’s, was it before or after the massive turnout of Muslims who burned and killed over a cartoon?”

    Please identify for me a single “massive turnout” demonstration regarding the cartoons in any country other than Pakistan?

  13. Since there is at least some merit to Hirsi Ali’s claims–in that she exposes some real abuses within Islamic cultures–it seems appropriate to ask how and in what capacity she might do the most good.

    Not, it would seem, preaching to the deaf choir in Western societies where we already rush to judge the whole of Islam on the basis of its most reactionary elements, and certainly not within the right-wing Washington intelligentsia, where her professed atheism makes her a useful token but a marginal voice for any kind of global reform. She had better plan to find Jesus, and accommodate herself to Christian patriarchalism, if she plans to serve any purpose beyond simply rallying anti-Islamic bigotry.

    Now I happen to admire this woman’s guts. But if she indeed writes in hopes of influencing Islamic societies, what good can she possibly do hurling her verbal grenades from the comfort and affluence of the secular West like some kind of postmodern Lord Haw-Haw? Wouldn’t it be better if she spoke from a position of real risk, from within the Islamic world? The Edward Said question needs to be asked here, and it would appear doubly relevant in the case of an intellectual whose thesis about cultural conflict, and whose position in relation to that conflict, seems to make a mockery of the arguments she intends to make on behalf of women behind the Veil. At the very least, one would hope her conservative patrons would be prescient enough to find her a nice apartment in Cairo or Dubai. (Or perhaps they are prescient enough to consign her to American irrelevance?)

  14. I guess which version of Islam it is depends on where it is found. For example Malasya, Indonesia, Senegal are all islamic countries. So is Bangladesh (So is the Mohammed Yussuf, the fonder of the Grameen Bank). Before making blanket pronouncements of Islam, we should take a look as to how Islam works away from the Middle East.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.