The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim

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Topics: Interfaith Issues & Dialogue. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

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  1. Review

    The author was four years old when her family emigrated from Uganda after General Idi Amin Dada proclaimed that Africa was for blacks and gave all others a few weeks to leave or face death. They settled in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia in 1972. She is a journalist, a television personality, and writer in residence at the University of Toronto. She conceived her book as The Letter to My Fellow Muslims because she wanted it “to feel as immediate as a conversation.” Since she did not want to “interrupt the flow” with source notes, the reader can find them on her website.

    She begins her Letter, “I have to be honest with you. Islam is on very thin ice with me. I’m hanging on by my fingernails, in anxiety over what’s coming next from the self-appointed ambassadors of Allah.” She calls herself a Muslim Refusenik, using the phrase that described the Jews who championed personal and religious freedom in the Soviet Union. In that spirit, she is driven to ask questions “from which we can no longer hide,” because “totalitarian impulses” flow in the mainstream of Islam. She is convinced that “if there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it’s now.” She writes, “That’s one hell of a charge, I know. Please hear me out. I’ll show you what I mean, as calmly as I possibly can.”

    She shares her story of how she became a Muslin Refuesnik, beginning with her childhood in Uganda. At an early age she was aware that Muslims treated native blacks as slaves. In her own home, her father beat their domestic, Tomasi.

    In stark contrast, several years after her family had immigrated to Richmond, she became aware of the democratic environment in which they now lived. Her father discovered free baby sitting services at the Rose of Sharon Baptist Church where she and her older sister were “dumped”. It was there that the lady who supervised Bible study helped her realize that her questions were worth asking. When she was eight years old, she won the Most Promising Christian of the Year award. Shortly thereafter, her Father withdrew her from the church program and enrolled her in the newly constructed madressa, an Islamic religious school, which she found was governed as an autocracy. Because she insisted on asking questions, she was asked to leave. She also stopped attending the mosque. Of her experience she writes, “Thanks to the freedom for me in the West – to think, to search, speak, exchange, discuss, challenge, to be challenged and rethink – I was poised to judge my religion in a light that I couldn’t have possibly conceived in the parochial Muslim microcosm of the madressa. No need to choose between Islam and the West. On the contrary, the West made it possible to choose Islam, however tentatively. It was up to Islam to retain me.”

    She states that the trouble with Islam is that the Koran is taught as the “final manifestation God’s will” and, in spite of contradictions and inconsistencies, is not to be “questioned, analyzed or even interpreted, but simply believed.” In addition, through centuries, scholars have issued “authoritative” reports of what Muhammad said and did during his life time and selections from these have been chosen by the imams to also be believed without question. She concludes that the norm in mainstream Islam is “imitation of authority.” She reminds the reader that a spirit of inquiry and questioning “animated Islam’s golden age, between about 750 and 1250 C.E.” But after that time, using the pretext that the integrity and unity of Muslim lands from Spain to Iraq were threatened by Christian influence, scholars “formed a consensus to freeze debate within Islam”. She comments, “But I’ve got news for you: The Islamic empire no longer exists. I say it again. The empire’s gone. We’re here.” She wonders why Muslims must still believe without thinking.

    After sharing an account of a trip to Israel and the West Bank, talking to Israelis and Palestinians, she provides an overview of the movement to establish the state of Israel, the reaction of the Palestinians, and the conflict which has involved all the countries of the Middle East. On reflection, she wonders, “Since neither Israel nor America lies at the root of Muslim misery worldwide, is it Islam that does?” She believes the answer is Yes because Muslims are not “really joined by faith in God but by submission to a particular culture,” dominated by the “power dynamics of an Arabian tribe, where sheikhs rule the roost and everyone chafes under their rule.” She writes, “Seems to me that in Islam, Arab imperialists compete with God for the mantle of the Almighty.” To oppose this cultural domination, she suggests Muslims have to tackle three challenges: first, by using all the talents of all people, particularly women, in the world of Islam to revitalize the economies of Muslim countries; second, to encourage multiple interpretations of Islam; and third, to work with the West. She writes, “In each instance, what we’re undermining is horary tribalism.”

    At this point, the author says she has ceased to be a refusenick and wants to sign up for Operation Ijtihad, a campaign to change Islam. It must begin with the “empowering of Muslim women to become business people.”A collateral result of this would be to break up institutional monopolies that “enrich clerics and their paymasters at the expense of ordinary people.” Arab Muslin countries need to be opened to the competition of ideas, including alternative interpretations of Islam, which could open conversations with Jews and Christians. This could result in a “take-no-prisoners” debate about conditions in Saudi Arabia, the center of “tribal” Islam.

    Irshad Manji’s testament is witness of her liberation from mainstream Islam, her courageous call for reformation and her vision of how the West can help. She reflects, “Had I grown up in a Muslim country, I’d probably be an atheist at heart. It’s because I live in this corner of the world, 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.”

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