Parish Universalist Church
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The Trouble With Islam
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 18, 2004
One day in 1982, in a middle-class suburb near Vancouver, British Columbia,
a 14-year old girl dressed in a white polyester chador stalked
out of a Saturday afternoon class at a local Muslim madressa, or
religious school. She had just had a heated argument with her fiercely anti-Semitic
teacher about why, if the Prophet Mohammed came to proclaim a message of
peace, he would order the massacre of an entire tribe of Jews.
“Mr. Khaki [the teacher] couldn’t cope,” Irshad Manji writes. “He shot me a look of contempt, gave an annoyed wave of his hand, and [gave me an ultimatum]: ‘Either you believe or get out. And if you get out, get out for good.’
“Really? That’s it? [Manji asked]”
“With my temples throbbing and my neck sweating under the itchy polyester chador, I stood up. As I crossed the partition checkpoint, I could have uncovered by head for all the boys to see, but I didn’t want to risk the humiliation of being chased out by an even more scandalized Mr. Khaki. All I could think to do was fling open the madressa’s hefty metal doors, and yell, ‘Jesus Christ!’ A memorable exit, I hoped.”
This “madressa meltdown’ (as Manji characterizes the episode) marked the start of Irshad Majni’s “trouble with Islam”. And maybe of Islam’s trouble with her…
Ms. Manji is today a well-known Canadian television personality and an outspoken critic of both extreme and mainstream Islam. She calls herself a “Muslim refusenik”—taking the name of the dissidents who refused to go along with the Communist system during the years of the Soviet Union. She refuses, she says “to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah.” For her stand, she has been applauded by many (non-Muslims, especially) as a fearless critic of all that’s wrong with the world of Islam, and condemned by many (mostly Muslims) as a traitor and a mouthpiece of Western imperialism and Jewish Zionism. Because she loves the West, admires the State of Israel, and is openly a Lesbian (something the Koran explicitly prohibits), she gives her enemies plenty of ammunition. (Indeed, there have been death threats made against her, and she has hired a bodyguard and installed bullet-proof glass in her home in Toronto.)
Manji conceived The Trouble With Islam as a conversation with her fellow Muslims, trying to explore some of the things that she thinks is wrong with the faith she says she still practices. Her tone alternates between the studious, with page after page about Arab and Muslim history, the development of the sad situation in the Middle East, and similar matters—to hectoring, nagging, sometimes humorous, sometimes banal reflections that sound like they came from a bright and argumentative adolescent (a sort of Muslim Lisa Simpson), rather than a more staid scholar of serious matters. She is fond of blunt and straightforward statements (such as saying “Yes, I’m being blunt,” or “Let me be blunt” a lot). She comes across sometimes as markedly undiplomatic and strident, as when she tries to discredit someone she disagrees with with lines like “This is a big lie. Do you hear me?” She is fond of jokes (of the “One day, a priest, a rabbi, and an imam were talking...” ilk) and puns and invented words, which can amuse and move the book along sometimes, but can also get in the way when we’re considering somber subjects like terrorism and the slaughter of innocents in the Middle East and elsewhere.
But if we look beyond these quirks of character and style, we have to admit that she packs a lot into just over 200 pages. It also seems to me that Ms. Manji has a few points here which are certainly worth considering, mainly that all too many Muslims have stopped thinking; that their faith has been hijacked by tyrants and bullies; that it has become morbidly infested with all kinds of hatreds—against Jews, against the West, against women, against gays—that obscure its central message of obedience to the will of God, care for one another, and peace. Instead of confronting these issues directly and honestly, most Western Muslims (the people Manji addresses, mainly, in her work, because they’re the ones who have the freedom and the opportunity actually to make changes within Islam) have retreated into silence or victimization, and have sought to appease the barbarians and Islamo-fascists who have hijacked their faith.
Hers is a call for an Islamic reformation—a remaking of the faith of Mohammed in the light of free inquiry, reason, progress, and human rights. “Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous silences,” Manji writes, “we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves. We’re in crisis, and we’re dragging the rest of the world with us. If there ever was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it is now. For the love of God, what are we doing about it?”
To launch this Islamic reformation, Manji proposes to revive Islam’s lost tradition of ijtihad—a tradition of independent thinking and self-criticism which flourished during Islam’s “golden age” of the 9th through 11th Centuries. To Manji, the chief enemy of progressive Islam is “literalism”—the belief that every word of the Koran is the direct exposition of Allah to the Prophet Mohammed, and that every word is literally true. Manji argues that the Koran is a complex, contradictory, ultimately human document (as are all “holy scriptures”). Its message is “all over the place”, she writes, counseling peace and toleration in one passage, and annihilation of those who disagree a few passages down (sounds sort of like the Bible, doesn’t it?). Manji agrees that all religions have their literalists—their fundamentalists. The difference, she points out, is that in Islam “the literalists are the mainstream”, and the fundamentalists control the theological discussion for the entire faith. Within such severe parameters, Islam will never grow and progress, and will remain a vehicle of oppression and tyranny. “Only in Islam is literalism mainstream,” she writes. “This means that when abuse happens under the banner of Islam, most Muslims have no clue how to dissent, debate, revise, or reform.”
“As I see it, the trouble with Islam is that individual lives are too small and the lies we tell to excuse that fact are too big. Neither has to be the case under a compassionate and merciful God, as Muslims like to describe Allah. The Trouble With Islam, then, is a plea for all of us, as citizens of the world, to help Islam fulfill its glorious humanitarian potential, so that we may gain in diversity, dignity, and security.”
Now, as Unitarian Universalist, there is, obviously, much in Ms. Manji’s worldview which we can embrace. As a religious people who affirm the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as one of our principles and “direct experience of the transcending mystery and wonder” as one of the chief sources (perhaps the chief source) of our faith, we sense in her call for Islamic reformation something of a kindred spirit. (Indeed, I couldn’t help thinking as I read her book that Manji might well be happier as a UU than as a Muslim—but who are we to say?)
Certainly, I doubt that many of us would take issue with her assertion that fundamentalism closes a thinking mind, and that “foundamentalism” (as she calls it)—that is, religions getting stuck on their founding moment; the insistence that a faith remain true to the original ethos of its founders—dooms a faith to stagnation at best, and totalitarianism at worst. Nor would we disagree with her assertion that even the most “inspired” scriptures pass through human hands before being presented to the world—often through generations of human hands—each with its own “spin” to put on the ideas being presented. We would agree that “revelation is not sealed”, and that no revelation contains the full and complete, final, “word of God”.
In preaching to us about these things, Ms. Manji is preaching to the converted. In preaching to her fellow Muslims, she faces a much harder sell. Nor has the reception from fellow Muslims been, in the main, friendly:
On Manji’s own website [http:// www.muslim-refusenik.com], there are comments like:
(To which Manji replied: “Yes—someone called a publisher is paying me to write these things…”)
One senses in comments like these just how tough a row Manji and those who want to liberalize Islam have to hoe.
But it is not Muslim extremists or those who refuse to think for themselves who have criticized The Trouble With Islam.
“This book should be called The Trouble With Irshad Manji,” the president of the Canadian Islamic Conference remarked recently. Other important Muslim voices would agree.
Many serious thinkers in the Muslim community question Manji’s authority to preach about Islam. “She simply doesn’t have enough knowledge of Islam,” says Isam Falk, president of the Muslim Students Association at McGill University in Montreal. “People [in the community] are generally ignoring her book as a result.”
Riad Saloojee of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Canada doesn’t believe that Manji is really saying anything all that new. “Manji doesn’t appear to know about the kind of diversity and debate that has gone on [in Islam] over 14 centuries of scholarship,” he says. “Manji is right to bring up issues like the dangerous anti-Semitism in the Islamic world,” Saloojee continues, “but her analysis is simply not informed.”
But Manji would not claim to be the most erudite scholar of Islamic theology and history. She admits that she is no theologian; she doesn’t even read Arabic (and has read the Koran only in English translation). She is not an academic (though I found her sections on Islamic history quite thorough and detailed). She is a journalist; a popularizer; someone who made her name for herself on commercial television (as host of a program called “QueerTV”, for Allah’s sake). She is meant to be a firebrand, a gadfly, a provocateur—and for her open and inquisitive attitude, and daring to bring up issues like anti-Semitism, dogmatism, sexism, homophobia, and paranoia within Islam (indeed, within any religious movement), she ought to be applauded. She is a brave woman, and we ought to affirm her right to speak her mind openly, without fear, without threat of harm.
Which isn’t to say I liked everything about The Trouble With Islam. I finished it wondering why Manji still bothers to call herself a Muslim. There was a lot of criticism, a little of nagging, but too little love in these 200-plus pages. When Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, one couldn’t doubt that he loved the Christian faith at least as much as he loathed the papacy that had corrupted it. One is not so sure with Irshad Manji. We know that she hates the mullahs and the tyranny and hypocrisy of various Arab regimes. But we might doubt whether her deeper allegiance truly stands with the way of Allah.
She savagely (usually rightly) criticizes Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, multiculturalism in the West, and a host of other forces she sees as myopically “pro-Islamic”. But based upon a few days she spent there in the late 1990s, she gives Israel almost a free ride. (Something even she admits might have been overdone in later comments on her website.) She is enamored of the West—its freedom, its openness, its vitality—gifts we all should not take for granted. But there is little hint as to how the history of Western exploitation and the spiritual bankruptcy of Western values may well have engendered the seeds of Muslim rage.
The goal of any religion worth its salt, it seems to me, is to help us make sense of our life and the world in which we live. That is the goal of Islam, too. Throughout its history, Islam has seen itself primarily as a way of life, and not just an empty creed. The Koran is a scripture which emphasizes deeds, and not mere theological speculation. Its stress is more on how people are suppose to act, rather than on the fine points of what they are supposed to believe. As one writer has put it: “Islam is no Friday-go-to mosque” kind of religion.” It is a religion that declares that all days, all hours are, indeed holy—because each and every moment is a gift from God. True religion has to go beyond the church, the temple, the synagogue, or the mosque. It engages us where we are—where our lives are: as we awake in the morning; an we engage in our labors; as we gather with our families and friends; as evening falls about us; as we retire into the dark of night.
Islam is a faith with so much to offer the world. The Koran acknowledges the importance of Moses and Jesus and the Hebrew prophets. It acknowledges that Judaism and Christianity were also, in their day, valid and true religions. But Islam also declares that the Holy Koran is the sealed, final revelation of God to humankind; it is, according to Muslim’s, humanity’s only guide to holy living. That is, of course, much too limiting a view of religion for most of us to accept. The idea that “There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet,” is just too narrow for those of us who want to “Bring many names” to our celebration of the Spirit.
And yet, the voice of the Prophet Mohammed can speak to us:
“No one is a true believer unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself,” Mohammed said. His words could be those of Jesus. Or Buddha. Or Isaiah. Or Gandhi.
““What actions are most excellent? To gladden a human heart, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the downcast, and to remove the wrongs of the oppressed.” So teaches the holy scripture of Islam. And Christianity. And Judaism. And Hinduism.
“When we die, our neighbors will ask what goods we have left; but God will ask of is ‘What good have we done?’” So taught the prophet Mohammed. So have taught prophetic women and men of all centuries, including our own. Such is a word of challenge that echoes to all of us, ultimately, in the words and thoughts of Irshad Manji.
It is only by its fruit that we can judge the faith of another. May Manji’s forceful trimming and pruning help to lead, in time, to a tree of Islam that bears fruit of peace and justice and brotherhood and sisterhood. And may that tree of faith of faith be watered by the understanding, the patience, and the love of us all.
So may it be. Amen.