‘The Trouble with Islam Today’

Sabre reviews Irshad Manji's controversial book which challenges some of the ways Islam is practiced

, 18 March 2009

As soon as I saw The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change by Irshad Manji in Waterstones, I knew I was in for an interesting and controversial ride. The provocative title, splashed boldly over an image of rows of praying men, piqued my interest, yet I imagine it would probably cause most devout Muslims to turn away immediately.

They would be wrong to do so. The Trouble with Islam Today is a refreshing and honest examination of the way that Islam is practiced and enforced in many places today, written by a lesbian Muslim woman who has managed to reconcile her identity with her faith by constantly questioning conventional beliefs. The book hurtles though a vast number of issues – education, anti-Semitism, desert tribalism, women’s rights and interpretations of the Quran – at breakneck speed. Manji is a well-known author, journalist and public speaker, and her writing is full of sharp criticism, humour and personal experience. I found myself unable to put the book down for days.

I should declare my personal interest here; like Manji I was born into an Asian Muslim family in east Africa, and as a child, moved to a Western country. I too questioned my culture and Islam, and felt the same frustrations at the unsatisfying answers I was given. I know the struggle to reconcile a religious faith with feminist and humanist principles. Where I differ from the author is that she has resolutely stuck to her faith and I have been agnostic since my teenage years.

Irshad Manji calls herself a Muslim refusenik. “That doesn’t mean I refuse to be a Muslim,” she writes, “it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah.” These automatons, Manji argues, include many so-called moderate Muslims in the West who do not dare to openly question the conventions of mainstream Islam. The book is written as an open letter to Muslims and non-Muslims, calling for a revival of Islam’s lost tradition of independent creative thinking, known as ‘ijtihad’.

The book delves into the various interpretations of certain verses, and demonstrates that the Quran can be used to justify all kinds of beliefs and actions. Some verses can be used to justify racism and misogyny, yet others promote gender equality and unconditional tolerance of other faiths

Manji begins with her experiences at the Islamic religious school (madressa) in Vancouver, where constantly questioning her anti-Semitic teacher resulted in her expulsion. Throughout the book she discusses her story and the experiences that made her determined to keep questioning rather than turn away from her faith. Although I feel some of her descriptions are rather simplistic, the questions she asks are valid ones, such as why are some Muslims so fixated by the Israel/Palestine conflict, yet don’t tackle the horrors of the Taliban regime? She also sheds light on the role of various Arab governments in exacerbating the suffering of Palestinians – did you realise that most Arab countries do not grant Palestinian refugees full citizenship? The point being continuously made through the book is that Muslims are often their own oppressors, yet this issue is usually shied away from in the Muslim community, with disproportionate blame being placed on the West, Zionists and other external forces.

The role of women in Islam is examined, although disappointingly there is no particular chapter dedicated to it. Manji asks, “Why are we squandering the talents of women, fully half of God’s creation?” and suggests that economic empowerment is a key route for Muslim women to gain independence and autonomy, citing examples of successful business schemes. More hilariously, she sets out to find the root of the belief that martyrs get 70 virgins in heaven and discovers that the old Arabic word for ‘virgin’ is the same as that for ‘raisin’, only with a different pronunciation. Raisins were a rare, expensive delicacy until recent centuries. I can only imagine the disappointment of a male martyr reaching heaven only to be presented a bowl of raisins rather than 70 lush girls.

The book will probably be uncomfortable reading for many Muslims, but overall it’s definitely worth a read if you want to ask questions, break away from the prescribed mould and define Islam for yourself

Most interestingly, the book explores the many contradictions in the Quran, showing that it is actually impossible to interpret the Quran at face value without employing some kind of Orwellian doublethink. It delves into the various interpretations of certain verses, and demonstrates that the Quran can be used to justify all kinds of beliefs and actions. Some verses can be used to justify racism and misogyny, yet others promote gender equality and unconditional tolerance of other faiths.

Not satisfied with merely criticising, The Trouble with Islam Today also outlines a global campaign to promote pluralistic and progressive approaches to Islam – a non-military campaign called “Operation Ijtihad”. Manji argues that Muslims in the West are particularly well placed to take on this challenge because of the relative freedom to think and challenge without the fear of state reprisal common in many dominantly Muslim countries.

The Trouble with Islam Today is stuffed with fascinating facts and arguments backed up with references – I simply haven’t got space to write about it all! It is not perfect; if I had to be picky I would say the dry sarcasm can become grating, significant chunks are anecdotal and complex issues aren’t always portrayed objectively. I would also have preferred more examination of gender construction and homosexuality within Islam. The book will probably be uncomfortable reading for many Muslims, but overall it’s definitely worth a read if you want to ask questions, break away from the prescribed mould and define Islam for yourself. It’s also of value to non-Muslims, whom Manji strongly encourages to constructively question Islam too, despite the real possibility of being branded racist for doing so.

Irshad Manji makes no secret of the varying responses she has received to her ideas, from supportive letters to death threats. I myself am wary of even writing this review for fear of getting negative responses. However Islam is very firmly on the global agenda this decade; almost everyone is affected by it in some way and nobody should be afraid to discuss it. The Trouble with Islam Today is a breath of fresh air in what often feels like a stale debate. It encourages us all (particularly Muslims) to reform and modernise outdated thinking within the world’s fastest growing religion – something that is definitely long overdue.

Sabre is a 26-year-old agnostic who bites her nails, hates getting her hands wet and believes that if she were an animal, she’d be a monkey

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