Books Review


By Irshad Manji, St. Martin's Griffin, ISBN: 0-312-32700-5 Reviewed by: Mohd Asim Siddiqui

There is a long history of venom-spewing Orientalist texts going back to the period before the Crusades. The East (read Islam for the most part) has always been considered a repository of values that the West rejected. Consequently the East becomes the other of the West. The last few decades have especially witnessed a score of books on Islam reworking all the old arguments against the Muslims, Islam, the Koran and the Prophet. Those which readily come to mind include W. Cantwell Smith?s Islam in the Modern World, H.A.R.Gibb?s Modern Trends in Islam, Philip K Hitti?s Islam and the West, Samuel Huntington?s Clash of Civilazitations and Bernard Lewis? numerous books on Islam. The thesis in most of these works, to quote Ziauddin Sardar, ?is that Islam is incompatible with the modern world?[1]. Irshad Manji?s book entitled The Trouble With Islam is marked by a misplaced missionary zeal in portraying Islam in all negative light [2]  What makes Irshad Manji different from her more celebrated predecessors is her insistence on her identity of a Muslim refusenik. All through the book Manji tries to pass as a Muslim using the all too familiar ?we Muslims? subterfuge. However it will be a very na?e reader who will fail to realize that the book displays an almost pathological hatred of Sunni Muslims and an uncritical, nay awed, admiration of Judaism and! the Jews. There is absolutely nothing about Islam that can please Manji and absolutely nothing about Judaism that meets her disapproval. In her enthusiasm to ?reform? Islam, Manji ignores the simple fact that Muslims, of whatever persuasion, consider the Koran a revealed book and as such worthy of highest degree of reverence. Manji does not evince any respect for the Koran. For her the Koran ?is a bundle of contradictions?and is not transparently anything except enigmatic?(pp.47-48). She is also out to prove the role of Judeo-Christian culture in shaping the Koran. Also she conjectures that some verses of the Koran might have been manipulated to suit the political interests of the Arab colonialism. Echoing Salman Rushdie, Manji is almost convinced that ?a set of Satanic Verses reportedly passed muster with Muhammad and got recorded as authentic entries for the Koran?(p.58). Manji also does not agree with the view that the Koran cannot be translated into a thousand tongues or that every English translation of the Koran ?corrupts? the original text. It is obvious that Manji is not ready to accord any textual uniqueness to Muslims? holy book. Not only is the Koran a revealed book but it is also revealed in Arabic. Douglas Pratt puts it succinctly: ?Revelation is both a linguistic as well as a religious phenomenon? [3]. The formal features of the Koran can not be separated from its message. Manji ought to be aware of the discipline of Translation Studies which addresses the issues of the relationship between source and target texts. Sometimes the translator is akin to a creative artist who ?ensures the survival of writing across time and space? and at other times the translator is more like a colonizer who can not escape the inequalities of power relations in his act (p.4). Either of these perspectives would suggest that the uniqueness of the Koran can not be captured, in letter and spirit, in a translation, be it in English or in, as Manji says, a thousand tongues. A translation will remain an interpretation and as such will not come close to the revealed status of the Koran.

Manji is also not too impressed by the Prophet of Islam. In fact, what will appear sacrilegious to any Muslim, she seeks a parallel between the life and mission of the prophet and Osama bin Laden. Osama?s spending time in caves, preferring an austere life to an ostentatious one, his anti-establishment stance, his technological-savvy mission convinces Manji that bin Laden is modern day Muhammad. This kind of analysis can be attempted only by a captive mind hell-bent on a systematic demolition of Islam.

A major problem with Manji?s understanding is her very cloistered view of Islam. She reduces Muslims to one monolithic category. Her Muslims are obscurantist, Taliban-like and at best potential terrorists. She coins the term ?foundamentalism? to what she understands as Muslims? ?defensive preoccupation with the past?(p.162). However, the connotation of her use of this term is not materially different from fundamentalism, a misleading term used by the West or its cohorts, mostly quite indiscriminately, but which certainly succeeds in creating a powerful stereotype of Muslims. Even a very cursory survey of the life of Muslims in different countries would suggest that today Muslims are living in different worlds. Their problems are very different in different places. Their emotional, intellectual and ideological responses to different issues, political or religious, are not the same every where. Moreover they are a persecuted lot in a number! o! f countries. In countries where they are a minority, they face a lot of prejudice because of their negative image projected by the media. But Manji would accept none of this. She also prefers not to consider the United States a colonial power. Rather she would welcome if the United States crushed what she calls ?tribal? or ?desert Islam? practiced almost all over the world. In fact she appears to grudge the acts and incidents of decency towards Muslims by the people of the United States following 9/11 tragedy.

However, Irshad Manji has a point when she talks about the need of loosening the stranglehold of Mullahs on Islam and interpreting the Koran in the context of our time. In the chapter titled ?When did We Stop Thinking?, Manji briefly touches on the history of rational thought and the spirit of inquiry in Islam. These are rare moments in the book when she praises, though grudgingly, anything to do with Muslims. Thus she does not find faults with al-Mamun, a ninth-century Baghdad caliph who constructed the first institution of higher learning in the Islamic and the Western world or ibn Rushd, the Spanish philosopher and mathematician who spoke up ?for the equality between the sexes? (p.69).Manji praises them for displaying the spirit of ijtihad, something which marked the glorious period of Muslim history between 750 and 1250. After the spirit of inquiry died out, ?the right of independent thinking became the privilege of the mufti, the lawyer-priest, in each city or state (p.73)?. However naming just two ?enlightened? thinkers out of a long history of Islam is like saying that exception proves the rule of Muslim intolerance, orthodoxy and their being brain-dead. This possibly explains Manji?s omission of Jamal al Din Afghani, Mohammad Abduh and Rashid Rida because they all advocated the cause of rational outlook. Manji?s invocation of ijtihad is also partly due to her need to reconcile her lesbian orientation with Islam. All religions of the world speak against homosexuality and however liberal one is in interpreting the Koran, by no stretch of imagination can Islam accommodate lesbian feminist perspective. She tries to justify her homosexual preference by asking a counter question: ?if the all-knowing knowing, all powerful God didn?t wish to make me a lesbian, then why didn?t He make someone else in my place (p.33)?? This kind of biological determinism can be invoked to justify everything in the world. It will exonerate Hitler from his crimes. It can justify the actions of Bush. It can help bin Laden. Perhaps Manji would do well to think about the concept of free will which makes an individual responsible for his or her actions. One also fails to understand as to why should there be any need for Manji to reconcile homosexuality with religion. Nobody stops you from following your preferences but why drag religion into it that too when you call yourself a refusenik. But her avowal of homosexuality does beg the question what will be the fate of the world if everyone turned homosexual.

[1] Ziauddin Sardar, Orientalism (New Delhi: Viva Books Private Limited, 2002) p,78.

[2] Irshad Manji, The Trouble With Islam (Edinburgh, London: Mainstream Publishing Company,2004) All references to this book are indicated in the text of the paper by page numbers only.

[3] Douglas Pratt, The Challenge of Islam (Hampshire: Ashgate, 2005) p,37.

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