A Flawed Vision of Islam

A Muslim scholar finds catharsis but no compassion in Irshad Manji’s diatribe.
Sheema Khan
December 2003
Literary Review of Canada


The Trouble with Islam:
A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change
Irshad Manji
Random House
247 pages, softcover
ISBN 0679312501


In her opening chapter, Irshad Manji lays out the premise of her book: “Prophet Muhammad … said that religion is the way we conduct ourselves towards others—not theoretically, but actually. By that standard, how Muslims behave is Islam.” The remainder of the book is a collage of Muslims behaving badly. In the mind of the author, the problem is thus with Islam and, by corollary, its prime source, the Qur’an.

The problem is that Manji’s selective reading of the quote is nowhere remotely close to what the Prophet said or meant. The first rule of Islamic scholarship is that one should undertake a comprehensive review of related Prophetic narrations and Qur’anic verses. Knowledge of the original language—classical Arabic—is an asset, if not essential. Such a comprehensive approach leads to deeper understanding and safeguards against jumping to false conclusions—much like a scientist performing several types of experiments to derive meaningful laws or conclusions about a given subject.

In this case, a literal translation reads: “the religion is how you deal with people.” An indepth study reveals its meaning: Islam is a fulltime endeavour, forming the basis of a Muslim’s relation with the Creator and with the creation. It reminds the believer that one’s faith is not merely confined to acts of worship (such as the ritual prayer, fasting, and so on), but to how one deals with people. The Qur’an rebukes those who pray yet refuse even the smallest acts of kindness. Muslims are enjoined to treat the creation—animals, people, the environment—with justice, mercy and respect. There are numerous Qur’anic verses and examples of the Prophet’s life to attest to the highest standards of behaviour. If anything, this hadith, or saying, points out the imbalance that exists in many parts of the Muslim world where there is excessive emphasis on observing ritual worship of God, yet less than exemplary treatment of His creation. If Muslims are misbehaving, it is in spite of the exhortations of the Qur’an to do otherwise. Manji’s convoluted methodology of interpretation is repeated throughout the book. She frequently relies on literal translations of Qur’anic verses, disregards context and shows no interest in probing deeper. She has chosen to ignore completely centuries of vigorous interpretive discussion, diversity and dialogue on the Qur’an. Anecdotal evidence forms a weak foundation for her generalizations, while the canvas of history is painted with the broad strokes of a revisionist’s paintbrush. A dose of honesty in scholarship would be welcome. But this is Islam, the West’s favourite whipping boy, where anything and everything goes.

And so half-baked, academically discredited theories are presented as the norm. She points to “Professor Luxemberg” (a pseudonym), who believes that the Qur’an had its roots in Aramaic, and thus the word “hur” has been mistranslated for 14 centuries as “wide-eyed virgins,” instead of the “correct” meaning of white raisins. Manji then postulates that if Muhammad Atta had only sought to question the traditional meaning of hur (along with other descriptions of heaven), perhaps he would not have followed through on the mass murder of September 11. Convince a martyr-wannabe that white raisins, instead of virgins, await him in heaven, and voilà—no more suicide bombings.

Of course, we are not told that the professor and his university are thus far unknown, or that his work has failed to appear in any academic journal—only in Newsweek. For 1,400 years, there have always been groups in the East and West, of Muslims and non-Muslims, faithful and skeptical, who have written volumes about the history and language of the Qur’an.What is agreed upon is that Jesus spoke in Aramaic, the Gospels were written in Greek and there is no solid evidence of Aramaic influence in the Qur’an. Manji shows little desire for historical accuracy throughout The Trouble with Islam.

Even her anecdotes raise questions of honesty. She recounts an exchange with Jamal Badawi, one of North America’s most eminent Islamic scholars, about the Qur’anic verse “Women are your fields. Go, then into your fields when you please. Do good works and fear God” (Chapter 2, verse 223). He explains that the verse implies partnership in the sexual relationship between husband and wife, and advocates foreplay on the part of the husband. This is in harmony with a comprehensive study of other related verses and hadith, which also give women sexual rights. This dialogue took place during the taping of CBC Newsworld’s “Hot Type” last March. Yet in her book, Manji objects: “But he has only addressed the words ‘Go into your fields.’ What about the words, ‘when you please’? Doesn’t that give men undue power?” It is a dishonest ambush of the scholar, considering that she never asked him about “when you please” (I questioned him about the interview myself). An iota of research would have revealed that there are times when a man is forbidden from having sexual intercourse with his wife: during menstruation, post-partum bleeding, the fast of Ramadan, the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) or if she is ill. In the words of Aldous Huxley, facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.

Perhaps the most gratuitous deceit is Manji’s take on dhimmis, or non-Muslims, in Islam, citing another academically ambiguous pseudonym by the name of Ba’at Ye’or, whose work appeared coincidentally at the time of the Serbian massacre of Bosnian Muslims. According to Ye’or,Muslims have never treated non-Muslims fairly, in their entire history spanning 14 centuries and three continents. Her source for this astounding statement is none other than the Qur’anic view of dhimmis. Not surprisingly, Manji fails to cite any other contrary view or source—yet purports to give Islam a “fair shake.”

Islam does not prohibit Muslims from being kind and generous to peoples of other religions, even if they are idolators and polytheists. Furthermore, Islam looks upon Jews and Christians as “the People of the Book,” indicating that they were originally people of a revealed religion. For this reason, there exists a relationship of mercy and spiritual kinship between them and the Muslims, all having in common the principles of the one true religion sent by God through prophets such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Muslims are required to believe in all the Books revealed by God and in all the Prophets—otherwise they are not considered believers. Consequently, the Qur’an praises the original revelations, messengers and prophets.

Islam does not order Muslims to show hostility to the followers of other religions merely for the reason that they happen to be non-Muslims. Muslims are warned from taking allies or befriending only those who harbour hatred and contempt against Muslims. Other than those, Muslims are ordered to deal with all human beings with kindness and fairness, for they are all members of the same family of mankind.

Jews and Christians who live under the protection of an Islamic government enjoy special privileges, being referred to as “the Protected People” (dhimmis), meaning that God, Prophet Muhammad and the community of Muslims have made a covenant with them that they may live in safety and security under the Islamic government. From the earliest period of Islam to the present day, Muslim jurists have been in unanimous agreement that dhimmis enjoy the same rights and carry the same responsibilities as Muslims themselves, while being free to practice their own faiths. They are exempt from military service and payment of the religious tax zakah, which is a religious duty for all Muslims. Instead, they pay a separate tax, jizyah, in exchange for services provided by the state.

Parroting Ye’or, Manji bristles at the idea of Jews and Christians paying a special tax—citing it as yet another example of entrenched discrimination, a price to pay for not accepting Islam. Shallow analysis fails to point out that asking non-Muslims to pay the zakah enjoined on Muslims is akin to forcing an Islamic duty on those who do not ascribe to the faith. As the ratio of these two taxes is the same, it is obvious that the jizyah is simply a technique used by Islamic governments to make sure that everyone pays a fair share. There are myriad examples throughout Islamic history of the flexible and reasonable use of the jizyah.

The red herring of “dhimmitude” is a prelude to one of Manji’s main contentions: anti- Semitism among Muslims. True, this blight is spreading. Who is to blame? According to Manji—none other than the teachings of Islam. Yet she fails to recognize that disputes between Muslims and Jews—past and present—have been rooted in political, not religious, conflict. The current Middle East crisis is no different. There have been courageous attempts by Muslim intellectuals to stop the spread of anti-Semitic sentiments by deconstructing weak religious, ethnic and social justifications in light of Qur’anic texts and authentic hadith of the Prophet. Tareq Ramadan, a professor based in Geneva, has written extensively on this subject, carefully separating legitimate criticism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians from racist diatribes. The gruesome death of the journalist Daniel Pearl has prompted much soul-searching in Pakistan, culminating in the participation of Pakistanis in the Daniel Pearl Foundation. Similarly, attempts by some Arabs to resurrect “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” have met with stiff resistance from others who vigorously demand intellectual honesty. And many scholars have chastised Muslims for blaming all of their ills on Israel.

All of this seems to have passed Manji by. She seems to take the Stockwell Day approach to the Mid-East conflict: Jews good, Arabs bad. Surprisingly, she sees no conflict of interest in taking a trip to Israel, courtesy of an unidentified “Zionist sponsor,” in order to write about Jewish- Muslim relations. No second thoughts about objectivity while visiting occupied Palestine with escorts from the same unnamed Zionist organization. The trip is an apologia for Israel, including a lengthy soliloquy on why Israel is not an apartheid state. Yet, the recent Or Commission report on the killing of Arab citizens by Israeli police in October 2000 highlights the state’s discrimination against its Arab minority, detailing the cumulative sense of rejection and hopelessness in a community that has never received its fair share of national resources. And while Manji justifiably denounces anti-Jewish bias in Arab textbooks, she fails to acknowledge the dehumanization of Arabs in Israeli textbooks over the past few decades. In An Ugly Face in the Mirror (published before the current Intifadah), Israeli researcher Adir Cohen studied how Jewish-Israeli children perceived Palestinians. The results were both shocking and disturbing: 75 percent of the children described the Arab as a murderer, one who kidnaps children, a criminal and a terrorist, while 90 percent believed that Palestinians have no rights whatsoever to the land in Israel or Palestine. Cohen also researched 1,700 Israeli children’s books published after 1967. He found that many authors of these books effectively instill hatred toward Arabs by stripping them of their humanity and describing them as murderers, snakes, dirty, bloodthirsty, vicious animals and warmongers.

While Manji will not defend settlers who torch olive trees, she calls them “infuriating, but relatively marginal,” betraying a lack of knowledge of the heavy influence the settler movement has had, and currently enjoys, in Israel’s political landscape—despite their illegality under all forms of international law.

In spite of the shallowness of her research, Manji does raise valid questions regarding the treatment of women by Muslims, the lack of creative thought (or ijtihad) in the Muslim community and the lazy reliance on victimhood. She is hardly the first person to call for reform on these fronts. But her abrasive, insulting style—meant to provoke—will only repel those she is purportedly trying to influence. To paraphrase Phil McGraw (for whom Manji expresses admiration), what gives this woman permission to use such abusive language? Even the Qur’an advised Prophet Muhammad not to be harsh, lest people be repelled from hearing his message.

And perhaps this is the main flaw of the effort. Genuine reformers approach people with love, mercy and respect. For Muslims, the Qur’an is the source of their faith and identity. It is highly presumptuous of Manji to declare that all of its adherents have not reflected deeply about its verses. Many converts have initially posed the same questions as Manji, but have dared to go beyond surface impressions. Leopold Weiss, a secular Jew, chronicles his path to Islam in his thoughtful memoir The Road to Mecca. Unlike Manji, he actually spent time with the “desert Arabs” about whom she speaks so disparagingly, coming away with a richer appreciation of the language of the Qur’an. A feminine perspective is presented in Carol Amway’s Daughters of Another Path, a collection of monographs by North American women (including her daughter) who have chosen Islam after much soul-searching and thoughtful study.

There are very few accounts, however, of second-generation Muslims, whose parents tried to bequeath whatever little understanding they had of their culture, heritage and religion. Many have attended weekend Islamic schools, learning the basics by rote, memorizing bits and pieces of the Qur’an in Arabic—but rarely more. The dissonance between the critical thinking encouraged in North American schools and the dry madrassah experience has turned off many Muslim youth, who believe that their faith cannot sustain critical analysis. Yet they experience a kind of split personality, trying to live in two disparate worlds—the one of their parents and the other of the mainstream. The dual game can only last so long, as the individual must define an identity that is whole, at peace with oneself. Enter a third way—the way of the Qur’an, which speaks to the heart of the individual, emphasizing reason as a means to recognizing revelation. Slowly, the seeds of faith that were planted in childhood sprout, calling the young Muslims to tend to their growth carefully, to use every faculty to explore the creation and to find signs of the merciful, compassionate Creator. By all means, seek the truth, but be ready to apply it to yourself first. This is the greater jihad emphasized by the Prophet—to work primarily on reforming one’s own soul.

One can sense that Manji is travelling on her own path, trying to reconcile a blurred vision of Islam with basic issues of justice. Yet there is no compassion, no mercy in her cathartic diatribe. Perhaps there are personal issues that need to be reconciled—issues dating to a traumatic childhood, where the healing powers of forgiveness could bring peaceful closure. It is almost as though she is trying to justify leaving the faith by pointing to fragmentary visions of history, biased analysis and the dysfunction of Muslims. In the words of the Qur’an, it is a behavioural pattern of “contending with falsehood to refute the truth.” Does she really believe her own rhetoric?

Muslims who are secure in their faith are not threatened by The Trouble with Islam. It is mildly annoying and downright irrelevant, for they are confident of dealing with contemporary issues within the timeless framework of the Qur’an.

A book like this does, however, affect Muslims’ daily lives, because it spreads so much false information about the faith,which in the post-9/11 era, heightens the polarization between civilizations. Manji has become a poster child for commentators such as Daniel Pipes and Margaret Wente, who have great antipathy toward Islam. One need only to browse online chat groups to encounter Manji’s cheering section, which thinks Islam and its followers should be relegated to the dustbin of history (to put it mildly).

Such controversies are not new, and Muslims in North America will need to rise to the challenge. While looking to the Qur’an for spiritual fortitude, they should be reminded of the hadith that “the best of you is the one who learns the Qur’an and teaches it to others.” In other words, excellence in Qur’anic scholarship is a means toward honour. The opportunity is available to those who will take it. One can still hope that Irshad Manji might choose to do so.m

Sheema Khan is a columnist for The Globe and Mail and the chair of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada, a grassroots advocacy organization. She holds a Ph.D. in chemical physics from Harvard, and is a consultant in intellectual property law.



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