Irshad Manji thrives on controversy. Her early career included hosting a Toronto-based TV show exploring gay and lesbian issues. She later turned her attention to the Muslim faith in which was raised. Her 2004 book, The Trouble with Islam Today, was translated into many languages and catapulted her to international fame. Her most recent opus, Allah, Liberty & Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom, is in many ways a sequel to her earlier book. Both books challenge the stifling conformity in which she says Islam is trapped, and both question what she sees as errant and perversely violent interpretations of verses from the Qur’an (her preferred spelling). The first book paints a bleak picture of contemporary Islam, a faith she nonetheless refuses to abandon, while the second book seeks a more hopeful way forward.
The central concept she espouses is ijtihad, derived from the same verbal root as jihad, or struggle. Manji defines ijtihad as the Muslim tradition of dissenting, reasoning and reinterpreting. “Ijtihad is about struggling to understand our world by using our minds,” she writes, and this “implies exercising the freedom to ask questions – sometimes uncomfortable ones.” This tradition, she argues, has a glorious past. Its revival would help Muslims enhance their faith and throw off oppressive strictures.
Her message is by no means directed only to Muslims, and indeed much of her audience is non-Muslim. Her earlier book, along with her subsequent media activity and public appearances, unleashed a torrent of responses, running the gamut from adulation to death threats. It has also been used as ammunition by self-described enemies of Islam. This, of course, is not something she can be blamed for. But she can be questioned about stances that appear to make common cause with Islamophobes, such as her remark that she is “offended” by the proposed building of a Muslim community centre in Lower Manhattan “at the edge of” (in reality, several blocks away from) Ground Zero.
Allah, Liberty & Love has a curiously self-centred focus. It often seems to be as much about Irshad Manji as about Islam. The 12-page introductory chapter contains the word “I” no fewer than 86 times (not including quotes from other people). For good measure, “me,” “my” and “myself” appear a total of 61 times.
This, unfortunately, is a foretaste of what follows. Numerous pages are devoted to messages she has received in response to her earlier work, along with her snarky replies to detractors and compassionate advice to individuals awakening to the value of independent thought. Many of the messages, from young Muslims in particular, convey a fear of family and societal ostracism if they dare question the prevailing orthodoxy (by no means an exclusively Muslim phenomenon, as many Jewish critics of Israeli policy can attest). Manji is obviously filling something of a void, even though other Muslim writers have also stuck their necks out. But does she always have to be in the centre of the picture?
Irshad Manji is often lumped together with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-American (by way of the Netherlands) writer whose autobiographical memoir Infidel made sweeping generalizations condemning Islam based mainly on her experiences among Somalis, whose clan-based social structures seem peculiarly ill adapted to the challenges of the modern world. Manji avoids this trap. She notes the western tendency to identify Islam mostly with the Arab world, even though only one-fifth of the planet’s Muslims are Arabs, and she repeats the observation that “tribal culture has merged with Islamic practice” to create what a Turkish commentator has labelled “Islamo-tribalism.” This applies in particular to the reactionary Wahhabi version of Islam exported by Saudi Arabia through lavish support for mosques, schools and social programs around the world.
Manji engages in some generalizations of her own, however. “Moderate Muslims … deplore violence committed in Islam’s name but reflexively recite that ‘Islam has nothing to do with it’,” she states. Prefacing this with “many” might have been more accurate. Two pages later, she contradicts herself by listing several “moderate” Muslims who have indeed recognized the roots of religious-based violence and have fought to correct them. It would be worth learning more about individuals and groups who have challenged the twisting of religion (again, not a uniquely Muslim phenomenon, as Norway’s Anders Breivik recently showed the world).
But that would be the subject of a whole other book by, perhaps, another author.
Eric Hamovitch is a Montreal writer and translator who has worked as a journalist in Canada and Latin America.
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