From Islam to the Enlightenment

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an impressive woman. In her late 30s, she speaks six languages — that includes both her native Somali, as well as Dutch, which she learned so she could run for the Dutch parliament.

Of course, she’s best known for what Theodore Dalrymple calls “her  public and uncompromising repudiation of Islam.” Her name made headlines around the world after the muder of Theo van Gogh, with whom she made a film condemning the treatment of women in Islam.

Ali has a new book out called Nomad, chronicling her intellectual journey from “pious, veiled Muslim woman to proselytizer for the European Enlightenment view of the world.” Now an atheist, she believes the problem with Islam comes down to Islamic doctrine itself:

Like 19th-century French thinker Ernest Renan, she believes that the greatest service that can be done for a Muslim is to free him from the hold his religion has over his mind. She believes that the Koran should be openly, freely and publicly subjected to the kind of historical and philological scholarship that has long been practised on the Bible.


Of course, we know perfectly well where such criticism would lead: to a decline in, if not a collapse of, the faith, in the same way that Christianity in Europe has collapsed. That is why they ensure that scholars who do not believe that the Koran is the unmediated word of God, but rather a post-facto concoction like the Bible, must work in the shadows, and will not allow the free dissemination of their work in Muslim countries. The hold of Islam in the modern world is thus strong but potentially brittle.

The book sounds like a zealous affirmation of Enlightenment philosophy, with all the shortcomings that implies. But I agree with Dalrymple that it might be intriguing to read the experiences of someone who’s lived in  both pre- and post-Enlightenment worlds.


Zoe Romanowsky


Zoe Romanowsky is writer, consultant, and coach. Her articles have appeared in "Catholic Digest," "Faith & Family," "National Catholic Register," "Our Sunday Visitor," "Urbanite," "Baltimore Eats," and Zo