Barry Boyce talks to Irshad Manji about her new book, The Trouble with Islam, and her call for an age of Islamic reform.
The Open Letter is stock in trade for passionate, high-minded reformers. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In the same spirit, a young Muslim woman, Irshad Manji, is telling the world — in a 250-page open letter to her fellow Muslims — that her religion must change.
Manji’s book, The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith, has excited interest and provoked denunciations since its publication in the United States early this year, exactly as the author expected. Irshad Manji is a gadfly, a woman who fervently believes herself to be a good Muslim and also defiantly proclaims that Islam as it manifests today is deeply flawed. For starters, Manji feels mainstream Islam resists diversity and marginalizes women, which can alienate someone like Manji — a young lesbian of South Asian descent.
Manji was born into a thriving Muslim community in Uganda in 1968, but moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, when Idi Amin expelled South Asians en masse in 1972. In her adopted country, Manji went on to become a popular broadcaster with a young following.
Manji traces her interest in Islamic reform to her experience at the Islamic religious school, or madressa, she attended as a child. She was put off that the library had to be cleared of men before she could use it, that girls could not lead prayer, and that anti-semitism was an unofficial element in the curriculum. Manji acknowledges that there are prejudices alive within all faith communities, but contends that in Islam “deep-seated prejudices against women and religious minorities” are a hallmark of the mainstream. She points out that even Sufi practitioners, the contemplatives of Islam, are marginalized by the powerful clerics and government leaders who guide Islam. Manji fears that if Islam does not go through a period of reform and promote social diversity and doctrinal heterodoxy, it will continue to encourage an exceptionalism that will harm “millions and millions of people — Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Manji’s book is passionate — and frequently caustic — when making its case that modern Islam actively promotes human-rights violations, principally in the form of sex discrimination, anti-semitism and slavery. She also makes a passionate case that Islam’s basic teachings and the practice of many Muslims during its golden age (from the ninth to eleventh centuries, in Manji’s view) do not support such prejudices.
In a recent conversation I had with her, she stressed that a vast number of Muslims favor reform but will not speak about it publicly. “Since the release of The Trouble with Islam,” Manji says, “I’ve received a flood of support and a warm, even loving, reception for what I am doing. Mostly Muslim women and young Muslims express relief that somebody is saying publicly what they have only allowed themselves to fantasize about. One of the great challenges for liberal reformers like me is to find ways of transforming the underground hunger for change into an above-the-ground phenomenon.”
The cornerstone of Manji’s program of reform is the revival of an ancient Muslim practice, known as ijtihad. Manji describes ijtihad as “Islam’s tradition of independent thinking.” She says that in contrast to the methods that were used at her school to indoctrinate her in the “approved” (and literal) reading of the Koran, scholars would, in the spirit of ijtihad, “teach their students to abandon “expert opinion” if their own conversation with the Koran led to evidence for their own ideas. One of the Koran’s most profound statements is that God deliberately created the world’s breathtaking multiplicity and that God creates “whom he will.” That includes women, people of different shades of skin, gays and lesbians. I’ve never understood how it was any kind of tribute to God to reduce his creations to automatons.”
Economic empowerment is naturally paired with ijtihad, in Manji’s mind. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, Manji points out, small loans from nongovernmental organizations are helping women become a force to be reckoned with. Conditions tied to the loans require recipients to do family planning, teach children to read and write, and learn to read the Koran for themselves. “These loans,” she says, “become incentives for women to develop themselves as human beings, not just small entrepreneurs.”
One of the most daring assertions in Manji’s book is that the piety of Islamic fundamentalists has its sources in cultural imperialism and territorial greed. While ancient Islam adapted itself to varying cultures and mores, Manji feels that today’s Islamic community, spread across the globe far more than at any time in history, is nevertheless held in the grip of what she calls “foundamentalism,” the belief that the culture in the area where Islam was founded — the Arabian desert — is a concomitant of Islamic faith. The Koran doesn’t prescribe any form of government, Manji says, yet Muslims are taught “to imitate the power dynamics of an Arabian tribe.” “Foundamentalists,” she says, “are not interested in the time that Jews and Christians and Muslims worked side by side to revive Greek philosophy. They are interested only in power and controlling land under Muslim governance.”
Despite her many objections to Islam’s status quo, Manji is committed to remaining an adherent of her faith, because “it’s vitally important that people speak out against their faith’s rights violations as Muslims, because more Muslims will listen to them.” However, she says that if she detects no appetite for reform, “particularly among fellow Muslims in the West,” she will consider leaving the faith, because she “will not be complicit in a belief system that is harming too many people too much of the time.”
In the spirit of ijtihad, Manji is a Muslim on her own terms. “Until I was 25,” she says, “I prostrated to Mecca and engaged in the conventional type of Islamic prayer. But then I realized that washing prescribed parts of my body, bowing at a non-negotiable angle and reciting specified verses of the Koran all at assigned times of the day amounted to little more than rote ritual for me.” To revive her faith, Manji felt she had to inject more meaning into it, so for many years her prayer has taken the form of ‘spontaneous conversations with my creator.”
Although Manji knows that many Muslims dispute her version of Islam, she adamantly regards herself as “faithful.” Faith, Manji says, “is secure enough to handle questions. Faith is not threatened by questions. Dogma, on the other hand, is. I consider The Trouble with Islam to be an act of faith rather than a repudiation of it, because I am asking questions that God has given me the brain and the soul and the heart to pose without worrying that this will somehow dilute my understanding of the majesty that is this world.”