The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, by Irshad Manji (St. Martin’s, 240 pp., $22.95)
Monotheism has been afflicted throughout its history by backslidings into idolatry — the worship of the creature instead of the Creator. Mankind has been fortunate to have, in those periods of decay, prophetic voices of reform and restoration. One of those voices in our own time is . . . a Canadian lesbian feminist.
Irshad Manji is a 35-year-old pepperpot, and the author of the compelling — and deeply heartening — new book The Trouble with Islam. Manji is a believing Muslim who is fearless in confronting the crimes and hypocrisies of the self-appointed leaders of her religion. “Not solely because of September 11, but more urgently because of it, we’ve got to end Islam’s totalitarianism, particularly the gross human-rights violations against women and religious minorities,” she writes. “If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it’s now.”
She recounts her experience in Muslim school as a teenager in a Canadian suburb. “Mr. Khaki taught us with a straight face that Jews worship moolah, not Allah, and that their idolatry would pollute my piety if I hung out with them.” A savvy kid, Manji would ask her teacher for evidence of his wild anti-Semitic allegations of Jewish conspiracies. He refused, telling her to either “believe or get out.”
She was expelled from the madrassa — but her belief in God and in Islam remained strong. She became taken with the Islamic concept of ijtihad, a process of independent reasoning capable of adapting religion to changed circumstances. Her book is addressed to her fellow Muslims, and asks them to make use of their own faculties along these lines; and she shows how the tragedy of Islamic history is in large measure the result of a failure to allow rival interpretations to flourish. The temptation of power has usually been too great, even for nominal liberals; the author recounts, for example, that a ninth-century caliph of Baghdad declared that the Koran was not of divine origin — and then proceeded to persecute those who disagreed with his interpretation.
The West came earlier to the realization that truth and power did not necessarily inhere in the same persons — and this has made the West much more welcoming of positive change. In this regard, at the very least, Islam stands in desperate need of Westernization.
Manji is not afraid to place the blame for Islam’s problems squarely where it belongs. “You know what I find instructive about [the fall of Moorish Spain]?” she asks. “That [it] didn’t crumble because of ravenous Christians. Oh, sure, Christians scooped up the pieces, but the brutes who brought down Muslim Spain were Muslims. . . . 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.”
Manji’s book is passionate and fascinating — a conversational romp through the world of Islamic history and practice, and a moving tribute to some of mankind’s highest religious values. “Had I grown up in a Muslim country,” she concedes,
I’d probably be an atheist in my heart. It’s because I live in [the West], where I can think, dispute, and delve further into any topic, that I’ve learned why I shouldn’t give up on Islam just yet. After so much exploring, my personal interpretation of the Koran leads me to three recurring messages. First, only God knows fully the truth of anything. Second, God alone can punish unbelievers . . . Third, human beings must warn against corrupt practices, but that’s all we can do to encourage piety and purity . . . Our resulting humility sets us free to ponder God’s will — without any obligation to toe a dictated line.
This will be tough medicine for many of the world’s Muslims; but it’s the only way they will be able to save their religion from its darker angels.