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?