Reading <i>The Trouble with Islam</i>, Part 1

The Trouble with Islam : A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith. By Irshad Manji. St. Martin's Press

I started reading this book on Eid-ul-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice in which Muslims around the world commemorate the Abrahamic story of the near-sacrifice of his son Ishmael. Goats or other animals are slaughtered, and the meat is shared with family, friends and the poor. I was alone that evening, having few friends or family around in New York City to celebrate the holiday with, and without this social component, there was little else to commemorate the occasion. It was fitting, then, to sit down with Irshad Manji's The Trouble with Islam. Irshad Manji formulates the book as an open letter to her 'fellow Muslims' and since I consider myself one of those, I relaxed and tried to imagine a sheaf of letters coming through the door, all written by someone I maybe knew from Islamic school growing up.

She starts: "I have to be honest with you. Islam is on very thin ice with me. I'm hanging on by fingernails, in anxiety over what's coming next from the self-appointed ambassadors of Allah. When I consider all the fatwas being hurled by the brain trust of our faith, I feel utter embarrassment. Don't you?"

Yeah, Irshad, I'm with you so far. Like a conversation with a girlfriend or sister, the first question rhetorical, I'm drawn into an emotional space, full of difficult questions. She soon follows up with a battery of quick jabs, "questions from which we can no longer hide," such as: "Why are we all being held hostage by what's happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis? What's with the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in Islam? Who is the real colonizer of Muslims — America or Arabia? Why are we squandering the talents of women, fully half of God's creation? How can we be so sure that homosexuals deserve ostracism — or death — when the Koran states that everything God made is 'excellent'? Of course, the Koran states more than that, but what's our excuse for reading the Koran literally when it's so contradictory and ambiguous?"

Whew.

It made for an interesting Eid night, and, reading the rest of the book over the following week, I was alternately engaged and kind of put off. Not that she offended any religious sensibilities I have (like most of her Muslim critics), but I felt a bit like I was watching TV, bombarded by rhetorical questions and quick intellectual montages that don't quite hold together if you really look at the juxtaposed images, or watch them in slo-mo. Irshad is, in fact, a journalist and "television personality" as proclaimed under her spiky-hair perky photo on the book jacket. She has worked in Canadian television for many years, most notably with a start-up show called QueerTelevision. Her personality — and this TV-style — is all over the book; and whether you find her engaging or not I think will largely inform whether this book is interesting to you; whether you can take the overall lack of subtlety to really appreciate some of the book's wonderful moments.

These moments come nearly all in the form of interesting, incisive, difficult questions that she poses to the reader, questions that as a young girl she started asking in her Muslim community. Manji's family fled Uganda along with thousands of other South Asians in the early 70's. They settled in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada, and began life as struggling Asian, Muslim immigrants in a growing multicultural community. Manji, in fact, began her religious education at the hands of the local Baptist Church's free babysitters. Her innocent curiosity (Where did Jesus come from? What was his job?) led to her winning, at age 8, the Most Promising Christian of the Year Award! This sweet, funny moment is followed up in this opening chapter with her quickly being ushered into the new madrassa, or Muslim religious school. Her curiosity and questioning lead her to ask why women can't lead prayers, and what exactly is this Jewish conspiracy? Eventually, she's kicked out of the school, being told either to believe or get out. Manji, to her credit, continues believing ("I loved God") and searching for answers to her questions, eventually getting hold of an English-language Koran, one that wasn't available in the Arabic-infused madressa.

Finding opportunities and openness in Canadian institutions like the libraries and schools, led her to ask the question: "Why did the Richmond madressa, set up by immigrants to this land of rights and freedoms, choose autocracy?" Her questions bugged her junior high school principal, but she wasn't shut down there, and "the dignity of the individual prevailed." This is in contrast to the madressa: "I entered its premises wearing a white polyester chador and departed several hours later with my hair flattened and my spirit deflated, as if the condom over my head had properly inoculated me from 'unsafe' intellectual activity." A funny but bitter observation, one that I can relate to, as, I'm sure, many of her Muslim readers who were similarly educated. (Although, to be fair to my early religious educators, we had plenty of translated materials, and did learn about ijtihad and other ideas).

This frustration would continue in her life, as she pursued Islam on her own, and began a career in TV. Her visibility as an openly gay Muslim TV host placed her in the middle of the public fault line of religion, politics and identity. It is from this place that her later inquiries and battles take shape. This is relevant to note because media stories and images inform much of how she places Islam in the contemporary world. At one point, her boss gives her a story of a young female Nigerian rape victim being sentenced to 180 lashes, despite producing 7 witnesses to the crime. Her boss bald-facedly confronts Manji with this story, asking her how she can reconcile her faith with this. Now this question — so loaded, coming from her boss, etc. — might provoke a number of suitable retorts, but Manji takes it seriously as a personal call to search deeper.

Going from madressa to Nigerian victim, we've jumped from Manji's criticisms being rooted in her own personal experience to an event external to her and her immediate society. When this happens in the book the narrative is less rooted and strong. Her strength is her own character — not some anonymous Nigerian woman — and I wish more of the book could be plainly rooted in this. However, this dilemma is true I think to how many Muslims experience Islam in this world: through a difficult binary of personal experience and secondhand, impersonal events that come by way of the media. Why do some Muslims take personally the actions of others? And what effect does this have on us? These are my questions, not Manji's, and I wish she could slow down, but instead she shows a lack of observation about her own observation.

The Nigerian incident leads quickly to her finding "brutal humiliations" in almost all Muslim countries, rampant jew-bashing and gross mistreatment of women and minorities. In her quickfire way, she soon links many of these issues to ambiguity within the Koran itself. Most Muslims have been raised to accept this book as the Word of God, and thus perfect. However, Manji can't reconcile the disparate messages that different verses reveal on the treatment of women and minorities. "I couldn't glibly say, as I've heard so many Muslim feminists do, that the Koran itself guarantees justice. I couldn't cavalierly shrug that those whacko Nigerian jurists who apply Sharia law have sodomized my transparently egalitarian religion. The Koran is not transparently egalitarian for women. It's not transparently anything except enigmatic." So Manji calls for openly questioning the perfection of the Koran.

These comments on the Koran are what rile many of her fellow Muslims. To her credit, I think she's brave for stating many of these questions openly: many people have them, but few say them. However, by rushing through so many issues so quickly, and linking current events with the spirit and substance of this religious text is to invite too easily a glib and surface understanding of both the events and the text in question.

What Manji soon realizes she's engaged in is ijtihad, which she defines as the "Islamic tradition of independent reasoning." (I've typically understood it as 'interpretation' and learned about it in Islamic school growing up). Ijtihad, she says, once flourished in the Islamic world, along with innovation and creativity. She attempts an historical gloss of this fabled golden age and then states that it crumbled — in the instance of Muslim Spain- not because of the Christians, but because of Muslims, that "our problems didn't start with the dastardly Crusaders. Our problems started with us. To this day, Muslims use the white man as a weapon of mass distraction — a distraction from the fact that we've never needed the 'oppressive' West to oppress our own."

So aside from being criticized by Koranic purists, Manji will also be criticized by the leftists and other dissectors of colonialism, imperialism and global power. (She takes on this academic group, in glib tones about Edward Said-followers). She does not deny legacies of Western colonialism, but she chooses to emphasize colonialism from within. And then a surprising turn occurs in the book, at least for this reviewer. Manji launches into a consideration of the rampant anti-Semitism that Muslims feel and express. OK. But before we know it, she's on a plane heading on a 'Zionist-sponsored' trip to Israel.

Israel? This Israel chapter will be received with all kinds of whistling and protest. In first reading it, I wondered why someone who's got a beef with Muslim behavior wouldn't visit any number of so-called Muslim countries. Why Israel first? And why, after initially asserting that Muslims were held hostage by the whole Palestinian-Israeli affair, venture into this steel-jawed trap? Manji doesn't come out too well; she comes off as that TV personality who can be 'on ground' a few days and get the whole story. Her political analyses, especially those concerning power, oppression and race come woefully short of insightful analysis you can find elsewhere. But what saves the chapter for me is reading about the personal experience she had at the Dome of the Rock. Despite being covered head to toe, she is forced by the male Palestinian 'caretakers' to wear a girdle. Only then is she allowed in, and after that is forced to recite lines from the opening chapter of the Koran to prove she's a Muslim. Something similar happened to me while trying to pray at the Dome of the Rock many years ago, and it was a humiliating, horrible experience to go through at one of the so-called holiest sites in Islam. I was shocked to be treated this way. Manji, at least, deals with it with more humor and aplomb than I did. In her case, as in mine, the story says a lot about how we're treated by our 'own' people, by the personal and political traps in identifying with causes and co-religionists. It illustrates how our shared spaces (mosque, community, even Koran) have come to be owned and regulated by a select few who abuse their powers. And again, I feel that because this incident happened to her it carries more weight, seems more honest, than her rushed judgments about a political situation she's been dropped into for a few days. Maybe she shouldn't so easily shake off this incident by playing the journalist attuned to the story outside her.

I fear I'm giving away too much of the book. I'll jump to my favorite chapter. Chapter 6, entitled "The Hidden Underbelly of Islam," might be of particular interest to South Asians because in it Manji claims that Arabs have laid claim to the overall Islamic agenda. She wonders if Muslims now are "not so much an international community as an Arabian tribe" — and as such, subject to allegiance to sheikhs, conformity, and male-domination. Loyalty to the tribe enforces codes in which dissent equals treason. She asks if "the norms of the desert can be dislodged from Islam?" (I would take this even further, noting that all monotheism is based on desert tribalism). She considers how military conquest and religion advanced the world hand in hand for Islam, and wonders which served which first. She wonders why the empire flourished at one point, and "if it was the concept of a future;" if through such victories, "Arabs felt they had an appreciable and secured future." So, then in losing this empire what became forfeit was "the balance between past and future, tribalism and tolerance." She follows through lucidly, briefly stating that losing battle after battle with non-Muslims led to a sense of their very future defeated. She heads for the close with: "The only undisputed glory that desert Arabs could now claim was the glory of Islam's founding moment. That the Koran emerged from the heartland of Arabia, in the language of Arabia, signified that Allah's 'final' revelations would forever belong to the representatives of Arabia. Nobody else could get as close, geographically or spiritually. Therein lay dignity, even salvation, after such a spectacular free fall. But this balm was a bomb. The crucial equilibrium between past and future steadily degenerated into a defensive preoccupation with the past — and, in particular, into a fixation on the founding moment. I call it foundamentalism."

It's a good phrase, a nice and Islamically-particular way of understanding fundamentalism, and the self-assigned gatekeepers who seem bent against innovation and ijtihad. She goes on to make some interesting and valid points about Saudi Arabia's 'colonizing' of Muslim minds, and these points are worth reading. But I believe this 'equilibrium between past and future' is what's at the root of so much turmoil, both within the Muslim individual and within communities. This tension is a way of understanding how people can martyr themselves, launching themselves straight from the textual past into a future that doesn't take place in this world, but in the next. Many young people, in general, wonder of what value their futures hold. The hold of the past is strong, the present tenuous, and the future... well..?

This balance between past and future is much more interesting and nuanced than that of Islam vs. the West. Manji comes back to the West at the end of the book in her last chapter "Thank God for the West." Now, I chuckled when I saw this title — is she naive, a cheerleader for western power? And she does single out that post 9/11, "decency has erupted in spades" in North America, challenging in some ways the backlash against Muslim/Asian/Arab immigrants rounded up for registration and deportation. I don't think this decency is untrue; but she registers it as a way of appreciating the society that has sheltered her own work, life and ideas. She doesn't spell out the hate crimes and selective profiling. Maybe she should have — certainly, it's another criticism that many in the community will have — loosening her grip on polemic. Maybe she assumes that we know this, and is trying to show us another way of looking at the glass of water, so to speak. Her summary of this issue: "If the nuances of Islam deserve to be recognized, so do the nuances of the West." OK, but her own arguments could begin with this nuance.

Although she states that the West is where the promise of a future for Islam can take hold, many wonder whether this book furthers this promise, or is simply a captive to 9/11. Certainly publishing in the Western market a book that's critical of Islam post 9/11 invites the question of who and what 'agenda' the book serves. Does the book simply feed anti-Muslim sentiment; does it simply give the conservative hawks more fuel to ratchet up the war on terrorism? Does this book even get into its intended hands, those of her fellow Muslims? She is out there in the world, speaking and drawing audiences. And there certainly are plenty of responses from Muslim readers on her website (www.muslim-refusenik.com), but, for me, this site seemed more about self-promotion than about movement-building. And when and how, in such a polarized climate, does someone like Manji do in the 'right way,' if there is such a thing? The book's very existence invites these questions, and in fact, feed off the highly charged, polarized energy now.

The Trouble With Islam is not a great scholarly work. (I was annoyed that I had to look up her sources on her website). Irshad Manji is trained as a journalist, but as such, and as a concerned Muslim, she asks good questions. The questions have urgency, integrity and weight, and are asked in this historical time that so many of us consider an Islamic dark age. Whether the answers she provides are right or not, is really not important. I appreciate the fact that unlike a lot of writing done by Muslims, she doesn't rely on having the right answers — her questions are what fuel this work, and are clearly more important to her than the answers she gives and invites responses to. This, ultimately, moves dialogue and communities forward. By asking the questions she's lighting a few torches in the dark with us and taking a look around. Amen to that.

Back to the idea of sacrifice, coming back to the Eid of sacrifice, the night I first picked up this book. The idea behind this day is that of being ready to sacrifice something dear in order to move closer to the divine. Leaving goats aside, the question I wonder about is who and what is sacrificed — ijtihad, creativity or 'non-believing' citizens and martyrs — and in whose vision of the divine? The question of sacrifice, I realize, is very real, not just symbolic these days.

It's no small thing to be brave. Perhaps to write a brave book is harder than a good one! To be brave is to sacrifice comfort, comfort in silence or conformity or anonymity. I commend her for writing and being very public about ideas that, at the least, are not popular and are, at worst, blasphemous (either to the political left or the religious right). The hope I have in beginning this book on Eid-ul-Adha is that Muslims will not continue to make sacrificial lambs out of some of our most interesting and creative individuals (Rushdie, Nasrin, Mahfouz; all the people we don't hear of), nor of the viable, promising and peaceful future most of us want.

Comments

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I think Manji did a brave thing in coming out with this critique, not so much of Islam but of Muslims and how we behave toward each other and others outside our faith. It's time we Muslims owned up to our mistakes, rather than passing them off as 'Zionist conspiracies'. Improvement can only come with unstinting acceptance of our falts, which are many.
"The sheer reality of Manji's ""The Trouble With Islam"" is that it is not read for its utter brilliance, or its brutal honesty. Manji's book is only read because she defies what most Muslims stand for today, and thats upholding the so-called ""old-fashioned"" morals of yesterday. How often do you hear a Muslim claim to be gay, in comparison to how often you hear a Christian or a Jew say the same thing? I've often read articles written by supposed gay Muslims, and these individuals receive so much attention for choosing to defy their faith, yet if a gay Christian or a gay Jew wrote the same article, it would surely not receive as much publicity. Had Manji been a heterosexual, white female, her book would have never been given the time of day by any of her critics. As with any normal human being, she will obviously find problems with her religion if her life choices go against the values that it preaches. To date, I have never heard of a gay individual believing in the Christian/Jewish/Muslim idea that homosexuality will be punished in the after life, and logically, why would they, when doing so would be condemning themselves to hell? Most outrageous is Manji's comical idea of somehow ""reforming"" Islam to fit her homosexual way of life. If she finds Islam to be so ""troubling"", she should stop calling herself Muslim. I doubt they would miss her anyways, with the almost degrading way she has evaluated their faith."
Imagine the US destruction of Indochina, featuring assassination campaigns that killed tens of thousands; chemical warfare that destroyed lives and livelihoods; bombing and 'free-fire zones' that killed hundreds of thousands; and a whole army of intellectuals generating a minute-by-minute onslaught of lies in every newspaper, television program, and radio show in the country to justify and rationalize that murderous campaign that left somewhere between 2-5 million Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians dead in every brutal way imaginable. Now imagine that in the very midst of that campaign, a Thai-American, who had lived his entire life in the United States, had written a book called 'The Trouble With East Asia.' Imagine that the book was filled with the ills of Asian culture. Authoritarianism, the subjection of women, the rigid class and caste hierarchies. The dangerous tendency among Asians to adopt authoritarian Communist doctrines. Perhaps it could be peppered with lurid tales of violence by Korean and Chinese troops against Americans during the Korean War. Perhaps it could be filled with discussion of Japanese atrocities against the Chinese during WWII and the violence between the Communists and the Nationalists in China during the civil war there -- the book would say look, the worst violence suffered by Asians is against each other. Perhaps he might have topped off his book with a quick visit to Communist China, where he could talk about how ignorant some of the people he met were (in translation of course, since he wouldn't speak Chinese or any other Asian language). Some of the book would be true. Some of it would be half true. Some of it would be simple lies, manipulations, and garbage. Would it be difficult to see through such a book as an exploitation of the fact that the US was at war with an Asian country? An attempt to sell books by pandering to the worst kind of hateful racism? You can bet that such a book would have leapt off the shelves and gotten sympathetic reviews. This is an exact analogy of Irshad Manji's book: an entirely careerist and attempt at exploiting the fact that the US is at war with Muslim populations, contributing to that violence, apologizing for that violence, and using lies, manipulations, and distortions to do it. I actually did a review of this book for ZNet, before the book came out in the United States, hoping to do some harm to her career and provide an antidote to some of her lies. http://zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=22&ItemID=4624 I also got into a correspondence with her over an exchange we had at her public talk, which I published in my blog. http://blog.zmag.org/killingtrain/archives/000125.html http://blog.zmag.org/killingtrain/archives/000129.html Manji's ignorance and moral cowardice are an insult not only to Muslims, which was her intention: they are also an (unintended) insult to Israelis, Americans, South Asians, Canadians, and every other group she claims to 'represent' in her writing.
Yaar, this book was a lot trashier than Raeshma's review gave it credit for. Islam is on thin ice with most thinking Muslims, but to use that as a fig leaf to support Israel, how glib can we get? Tabeer has already debunked the 'courage' thesis. There are several 'courageous' Muslims around nowadays, from Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who contested in the Indian election on a BJP ticket, to Farid Zakaria, who offers 'balanced' analysis of the unwashed lunatics. It is much more difficult to offer a principled internal critique of Islam (see for example Omid Safi's 'Progressive Muslims', or books by Fatema Mernissi and Farid Esack), or a balanced analysis of Muslim 'fundamentalism' (Mahmood Mamdani's 'Good Muslim, Bad Muslim') without a capitulation to the tired tropes of Islamphobia. Also, how about the shameless identity-peddling? I am Muslim-identified and brown, so I can say what I want and be free of the constraints of 'responsible' representation. On the other hand, my critics are (nudge, wink) sexist and homophobic. There might be unintended benefits of such a book. Primarily, some of her real beef about the sexist and homophobic aspects of Islam might get some airplay. But overall, it is mostly sound-bites and self-promotion. Raeshma's review is beyond generous. Always in solidarity with all SAMAR contributors, I urge her to re-think.
"the reviewer states ""Perhaps to write a brave book is harder than a good one! To be brave is to sacrifice comfort, comfort in silence or conformity or anonymity."" If the reviewer is implying that manji has written a brave book because one of the symptoms being less than brave is staying within the comfort of anonymity and Manji is afterall now nothing if not anonymous-- she's appeared in my own experience on Now on PBS and on Howard Kurtz's CNN media show, sycophantly responding to both her hosts and curying their approval as an acceptable muslim-- I am not sure that that Rocharch test for bravery applies in her case. Manji was already a media personality in Canada, so when her editor poses to her the problem of Nigerian woman accused of adultery, attempting to chalenge her beliefs, sending her apparently on the odyssey culminating in this book, he is in a sense challenging her status as a media personality, her public personality. Bravery requires that we sacrifice the interest that others have vested in us, the side on which our bread is buttered, and act according to a truth which risks our positiion of safety. Manji maybe risking her safety from the Muslim community, some of whom, according to her have launched death threats against her, thereby deploying and circulating the tried and true self-serving rhetoric of a heroic muslim dissident, regardless of these threats having been issued in actuality. She does not risk the safety of her career though, the side of the bread which is buttered. I must confess I haven't read her book, so perhaps i ought not to be responding here, but in her appearences on television i have seen manji appears as a sycophant and a carreerist, attempting to insure that she become if she isn't one, in her mind anyway, a dissident that western media can turn to for views which blame the muslim victim for his troubles. The reviewer does Manji a favor when she places her in the company of Rushdie, Mahfouz. Both have won major prizes. Rushdie at least has talent despite his proclivity to abandon any semblance of reclusiveness for the warm glow of celebrities' gazes. I don't believe that Manji will be sacrificed by the mainstream muslim community, for to be scarficed, just as to sacrifice, one has to scarifice something meaningful. In serving the interests of her carreer and of her TV personality, Manji hasn't quite proved herself to be brave; she hasn't produced anything truly of the imagination that would make her a potent symbol of sacrifice. i dispute the reviewer's implication that Manji is being brave by having written her book. Thanks, tabeer"

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