I put Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change on this year’s reading list because I was inspired by the life story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali which she wrote about in Infidel. I should also mention that non-fiction is new territory for me and non-fiction that navigates its way through the historic complexities of Islam, is even more foreign. Let’s just say I’m treading less confidently in this review than I normally would be.
Irshad Manji is a muslim Canadian journalist. Her journey starts as a child when she questions the imams at her local madressa about points of history in Muslim teaching and doctrine. Her young experience of the world and her keen questioning intellect put her at odds with her religion from an early age but not nearly as much as being a queer muslim does.
Her inquiry into Islam starts with the personal and then moves into the larger historical context from the beginning of Islam to its polyglot hey dey, where it remained open to ideas and was inclusive, something which she vehemently believes to be the opposite of what Islam is today.
While Manji offers quite a bit of historic/religious/political detail to make her point (none of which I can comment on because I simply don’t have that knowledge base), it’s clear that she believes that it is people/clerics and imams who have made wrongful choices against the spirit of the true Islam.
“…and that’s when he discovered how dogs, women and Jews have been scurrilously linked as lesser beings, not by Prophet Muhammad, who apparently thought highly enough of dogs to pray in their presence, but by later intellects. Like the construct of Sharia law, the vilification of dogs (and Jews and women), has been a choice. God didn’t chose it, a bunch of godfathers did. Plenty of us buy into parts of their system, but we don’t have to swallow any of it. El Fadls and his wife, Grace have adopted three stray canines – on of them black. On top of that, Grace often leads the family prayer. Exercising ijtihad impels them to put the creator’s lover over man’s laws.”
She also argues that Islam was forged in the desert by Arabian tribalism and that the traditions that grew out of that experience are unique to those conditions alone if at all anymore. For example, the abaya may make sense in a desert but not anywhere else and certainly not now.
“Veils protect women from sand and heat – not exactly a pressing practical concern beyond Arabia, Saharan Africa and the Australian outback….to parrot the desert peoples in clothing, in language or in prayer is not necessarily to follow the universal God…These myths have turned non-Arab Muslims into clients of their Arab masters – patrons who must buy what’s being sold to them in the name of Islamic “enlightenment”.
All in all this is an interesting read. It doesn’t have the same kind of emotional resonance for me that Ayaan’s Infidel had which was a very personal journey into political awakening. Also, I’m not crazy about Manji’s writing style which feels at times like she’s screaming – it makes me feel like I am getting only one point of view. There is nothing wrong with that. The world needs Irshad Manjis to bring difficult topics to the table and there is no question that she does. But there were some points raised, particularly in regards to Palestine and Israel, that made me want to hear more from the other side.
She also ends the book with a blueprint for moving forward. I have to admit I admire her chutzpah for making her way through this religious/historic maze but as she says “I don’t care to ‘know my place.” Her blueprint begins with the acknowledgement of the Prophet’s first wife, Khadija, a woman who was 15 years his senior and a well-respected business woman. She posits that business and women have a rightful place in Islam. Through international efforts and micro-finance lending bodies such as the Grameen Bank which was developed by the Nobel Prize Winning Muhammad Yunus, would be instrumental in bringing about fundamental change for women.
Irshad Manji’s voice rings loud and clear in this book and the fact that it has been translated into 30 different languages says that there is a big audience for this topic.