Mohammed: the Anti-Innovator, with Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Human Rights Activist

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now, argues that Mohammed was a great innovator who, upon his death, froze innovation in Islam forever.

Within relatively short order during his lifetime, Mohammed went from obscurity to leading a new, united Arab nation. In the process, says Ali, he underwent a transformation from seeker to autocrat. As a result, she claims, Islam has resisted social and ideological progress since his death.

  • Transcript


Ayaan Hirsi Ali: Early on, it seemed as if Mohammed's ambition was simply to go from door to door from person to person and say, "Leave alone what you believe in. Believe in the one God, the one who spoke to me through the angel Gabriel." That's how you say it in Arabic and Gabriel in English, and then exhort people to do certain things that in the 21st century we understand as religion: prayer, fasting, congregations — that sort of thing. In the first 10 years in Mecca, I would say largely harmless. There's that Mohammed. And in a very modern way, I don't know if you know Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but you can understand him as a Dr. Jekyll. Then he goes to Medina and there you have the Mr. Hyde side of Mohammed. Suddenly there's a militia. And now he's a politician. He's not only preaching please come to the one God; he's demanding come to the one God and accept me as the prophet and if not, I declare war. And he declares war. And with a relatively small militia, at least according to the Islamic perception — these are the Muslim documents — with a relatively small militia or small number of men he defeats much larger, a much more well-established army. And that victory leads to another victory and it leads to another victory and it leads to another victory, but it also leads to complexities. Because the more he gains power he has a say over more people and that then leads to the necessity of legislation. In hindsight, if you're in the 21st century, you are a political scientist, a sociologist, a psychologist, a historian, any kind of social scientist. You look back at that time and you read that narrative, you'll be impressed. You'll say goodness this man was great. He defeated large armies; he established an empire; he legislated; he kept them together; and he left a narrative behind that lasted for many centuries, well beyond he was born. Wonderful.

Of course I don't argue with that. But, what he also did was he froze his innovation in place. He was the last prophet. Nobody else could come and innovative on what he said. In fact he declares innovation the biggest sin that a believer can commit, thus the fate of the heretics of Islam. And so if you take Mohammed as the Steve Jobs of the seventh century, I want you to imagine, I want you to think of a Steve Jobs leaving a legacy behind where he says you can never and you may never change, the minute he finds himself on his deathbed, never change the iPhone 4 or the iPad Air; I forget which rendition these things were back then or the Mac, so that Tim Cook could never have. He would only have one thing, which would be to continue it and to say these are timeless. And that's pretty much what Mohammed did. The Koran is a timeless document. His example is rendered timeless. And I think that is a disservice that Mohammed did to his own innovation. His great achievement was the fact that he managed, if that narrative, again that narrative is a contested narrative, but if that narrative is true, his greatest innovation was to unite the Arabs, make them transcend themselves, unite into a super tribe and conquer. But the biggest mistake he then made would be to freeze things in place. That is the curse of Islam is the fact that innovation is a sin; innovation is bad thinking. They closed the gates of reason. That is the curse; that's the firewall to Islamic thinking. And we can see the result in everyday life. Again I repeat, it's the perception of the people who put these beliefs into practice; what really happened is still a Muslim study.