The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith

The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith

3.6 5
by Irshad Manji

"I have to be honest with you. Islam is on very thin ice with me....Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves. We're in crisis and we're dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it's now. For the love of God, what are we doing about it?"



"I have to be honest with you. Islam is on very thin ice with me....Through our screaming self-pity and our conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves. We're in crisis and we're dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it's now. For the love of God, what are we doing about it?"

In blunt, provocative, and deeply personal terms, Irshad Manji unearths the troubling cornerstones of mainstream Islam today: tribal insularity, deep-seated anti-Semitism, and an uncritical acceptance of the Koran as the final, and therefore superior, manifesto of God. In this open letter to Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Manji asks arresting questions. "Who is the real colonizer of Muslims - America or Arabia? Why are we all being held hostage by what's happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis? Why are we squandering the talents of women, fully half of God's creation? What's our excuse for reading the Koran literally when it's so contradictory and ambiguous? Is that a heart attack you're having? Make it fast. Because if more of us don't speak out against the imperialists within Islam, these guys will walk away with the show."

Manji offers a practical vision of how the United States and its allies can help Muslims undertake a reformation that empowers women, promotes respect for religious minorities, and fosters a competition of ideas. Her vision revives Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking. This book will inspire struggling Muslims worldwide to revisit the foundations of their faith. It will also compel non-Muslims to start posing the important questions without fear of being deemed "racists." In more ways than one, The Trouble with Islam is a clarion call for a fatwa-free future.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
The Trouble With Islam is a memorable entrance. It isn't the most learned or scholarly treatise on the history or theology of Islam; its dabbling in geopolitics is haphazard and a little naive; its rhetorical hyperbole can sometimes seem a mite attention-seeking -- like that final ''Jesus Christ!'' in the madrasa. But its spirit is undeniable, and long, long overdue. Reading it feels like a revelation. Manji, a Canadian journalist and television personality, does what so many of us have longed to see done: assail fundamentalist Islam itself for tolerating such evil in its midst. And from within. — Andrew Sullivan
Publishers Weekly
Islam is "on very thin ice" with one follower, Canadian broadcaster Manji. Her book will be an unsettling read for most of her fellow Muslims, although they may find themselves agreeing with many points. She describes how childhood days spent at her local mosque left her perplexed and irritated; she complains that the Middle East conflict has consumed Muslim minds. She highlights several grievances many Muslims probably share: what she casts as Saudi Arabia's disproportional and destructive influence on Islam, how the hijab, or veil, has become a litmus test for a Muslim woman's faithfulness, and the need to question the accuracy of hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad). The exclusion of women from Muslim leadership is criticized as well. However, Manji's arguments would be better taken-and easier to follow-if not accompanied by an unceasing list of Islam's misdeeds. Manji often chooses the most controversial Koranic passages (rarely providing current scholarship for a more accurate reading of key verses), and her treatment of Islamic history is selective. She mistakes the negative fan mail she receives from Muslims who have seen her on television for the views of all Muslims, and lambastes those who present a sympathetic view of Islam, including the late scholar Edward Said. The writing, though energetic, is unfocused, with personal stories that are sometimes confusing. Although the book raises important points, Manji's angry tone and disjointed writing may obscure some of the valid questions she asks of Islam and Muslims. (Jan.) Forecast: Manji, a self-proclaimed "Muslim refusenik," is a media personality in Canada, and hosts a weekly television show aimed at the university crowd. This book is already being compared to The Satanic Verses (a connection the publisher seems to be encouraging by including a photo of Manji with Salman Rushdie in the press kit). If the book incites a Rushdie-like controversy, sales will be very strong, despite the flaws in the book itself. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
As a child emigrating from Uganda to Canada, journalist Manji found her religious education unfulfilling. Thus began her search to better understand her faith and its political, religious, and social issues. Her discussion of the ways Islam appears unable to meet the current political climate and world is most provocative and unique. She writes about her trip to Israel, lending her perspective as a gay Muslim from Canada to ask hard questions about the actions of Islamic countries. She also discusses the lack of democracy in Muslim countries and problems related to women's and human rights in Islam and explains the ways the Islamic empire does not exist. Her voice is a welcome one during a time when so much attention is given to political and religious extremists. This book is appropriate for those libraries with readers who follow the news and are interested in politics. Readers need no advanced training in politics, Islam, or history. Recommended for all libraries.-Naomi Hafter, Baltimore Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"...feels like a revelation...a raw nerve ending for the West - shocking, raw, but mercifully, joyously, still alive."

- Andrew Sullivan, New York Times Book Review, 1/25/2004

"Irshad Manji is a fresh, new and intriguing voice of Islamic reform. This wonderfully written book will surprise you, educate you, even entertain you."

- Alan Dershowitz, author of The Case for Israel

"[Manji's] ideas have already set off a searching debate."-Clifford Krauss, The New York Times

"Tightly reasoned and packed with knockout punches."-Pat Donnelly, Montreal Gazette

"Manji is blazingly articulate."-Margaret Wente, The Globe and Mail (Canada)

"The Trouble with Islam is beyond controversial. It may ignite a firestorm of protest...her easy conversational style, addressed to 'my fellow Muslims,' makes it accessible to a wide range of readers."-Leslie Scrivener, The Toronto Star

Alan Dershowitz
"Irshad Manji is a fresh, new and intriguing voice of Islamic reform. This wonderfully written book will surprise you..."\
Clifford Krauss
"[Manji's] ideas have already set off a searching debate."
Pat Donnelly
"Tightly reasoned and packed with knockout punches."
Margaret Wente
"Manji is blazingly articulate."
Leslie Scrivener
"The Trouble with Islam is beyond controversial. It may ignite a firestorm of protest…her easy conversational style, addressed to 'my fellow Muslims,' makes it accessible to a wide range of readers."

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St. Martin's Press
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A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith
By Irshad Manji

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2003 Irshad Manji
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-312-32699-8

Chapter One


Like millions of Muslims over the last forty years, my family immigrated to the West. We arrived in Richmond, a middle-class suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1972. I was four years old. Between 1971 and 1973, thousands of South Asian Muslims fled Uganda after the military dictator, General Idi Amin Dada, proclaimed Africa to be for the blacks. He gave those of us with brown skin mere weeks to leave or we would die. Muslims had spent lifetimes in East Africa thanks to the British, who brought us from South Asia to help lay the railways in their African colonies. Within a few generations, many Muslims rose to the rank of well-off merchants. My father and his brothers ran a Mercedes-Benz dealership near Kampala, benefiting from the class mobility that the British bequeathed to us but that we, in turn, never granted to the native blacks whom we employed.

In the main, the Muslims of East Africa treated blacks like slaves. I remember my father beating Tomasi, our domestic, hard enough to raise shiny bruises on his pitch-dark limbs. Although my two sisters, my mother, and I loved Tomasi, we too would be pummeled if my dad caught us tending to his injuries. I knew this to be happening in many more Muslim households than mine, and the bondage continued well after my family left. That's why, as a teenager, I turned down the opportunity to visit relatives in East Africa. "If I go with you," I warned my mother, "you know I'll have to ask your fat aunties and uncles why they practically enslave their servants." Mum meant the trip to be a good-bye to aging relations, not a human rights campaign. In order to avoid embarrassing her, I stayed home.

While Mum was away, I thought more about what it means be "home." I decided that home is where my dignity lives, not necessarily where my ancestors put down roots. That's when it dawned on me why the postcolonial fever of pan-Africanism-"Africa for the blacks!"-swept the continent on which I was born. We Muslims made dignity difficult for people darker than us. We callously exploited native Africans. And please don't tell me that we learned colonial ruthlessness from the British because that begs the question: Why didn't we also learn to make room for entrepreneurial blacks as the Brits had made room for us?

I don't apologize for being offended by the notion of having a Tomasi. Most of you, I'm sure, oppose servitude, too. But it wasn't Islam that fostered my belief in the dignity of every individual. It was the democratic environment to which my family and I migrated: Richmond, where even a little Muslim girl can be engaged-and I don't mean for marriage. Let me explain.

A couple of years after the family settled down, my dad discovered free baby-sitting services at Rose of Sharon Baptist Church. (Say "free" to an immigrant and religious affiliations take a backseat to the bargain at hand.) Every week, when Mum left the house to sell Avon products door to door, my less-than-child-friendly father dumped the kids at church. There, the South Asian lady who supervised Bible study showed me and my older sister the same patience she displayed with her own son. She made me believe my questions were worth asking. Obviously, the questions I posed as a seven-year-old could only be simple ones. Where did Jesus come from? When did he live? What was his job? Who did he marry? These queries didn't put anyone on the spot, but my point is that the act of asking-and asking some more-always met with an inviting smile.

Maybe that's what motivated me, at age eight, to win the Most Promising Christian of the Year Award. My prize: a brightly illustrated edition of 101 Bible Stories. I look back now and thank God I wound up in a world where the Koran didn't have to be my first and only book, as if it's the lone richness that life offers to believers. Besides, 101 Bible Stories riveted me with its pictures. What would 101 Koran Stories look like? At the time, I hadn't seen such a thing. Today, there's no dearth of children's books about Islam, including A Is for Allah, by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens). Free societies allow for the reinvention of self and the evolution of faiths.

Shortly after I earned the title of Most Promising Christian, Dad plucked me out of the church. A madressa, or Islamic religious school, would soon be constructed. This little geek couldn't wait. If my Sunday school experience was any barometer, the madressa would be fun, or so I innocently assumed.

Meanwhile, my new world was growing up with me. A sprawling mall that would be pivotal in my education as a Muslim, Lansdowne Centre, opened. The names of Richmond's founding Scots, emblazoned on outdoor signs-Brighouse, McNair, Burnett, Steveston-soon jostled for attention with words in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Japanese. These languages blanketed the interior of Aberdeen Centre, built several years later and billed as "the largest enclosed Asian-themed shopping plaza in North America."

Well before then, it struck me that a place like Richmond could accommodate just about anybody who expressed initiative. In the tenth grade, I ran for student body president at J. N. Burnett Junior High School. The year before, I'd lost my bid to become homeroom representative, the deciding vote being cast by a grungy twerp who didn't want a "Paki" in charge of his classroom. Only a year later, a majority of students in the whole school made this Paki their duly elected leader. In Richmond, racism didn't have to fence my ambitions any more than race itself had to define me.

A few months after I became student body president, the vice-principal of my school was strolling past my locker and stopped dead when he glimpsed the poster of Iranian revolutionaries I had taped inside. Sent to me by an uncle in France, the poster depicted women in black chadors smashing the wings of an airplane. The left wing had the Soviet hammer and sickle painted on it and the right wing sported the U.S. stars and stripes.

"This isn't appropriate," he cautioned me. "Take it down."

I pointed to the next locker over, whose door had an American flag hanging from it. "If she can express her opinion openly," I asked, "why can't I?"

"Because you're trivializing our democratic values. And as president of all students, you should know better."

I confess to not realizing that Ayatollah Khomeini's regime oozed totalitarianism. I hadn't done my homework. Seduced partly by propaganda and partly by the pride of living in a free society, I wanted to advocate diversity of opinion so that the Star-Spangled Banner wouldn't strangle other perspectives. So I argued. "I'm trivializing democracy? How is it that you're supporting democracy by telling me that I can't express myself, but," pointing to the flag-draped locker, "somebody else can?"

We stared at each other. "You're setting a bad example," the vice-principal said. He stiffened his back and walked away.

You've got to credit him for letting diversity of opinion survive at Burnett Junior High. It's all the more admirable given his own embrace of evangelical Christianity. He didn't veil his personal beliefs, but neither did he foist them on the students-not when the student council president appeared to be a booster of Khomeini's theocracy, and not even when the students lobbied for school shorts that revealed more leg than he thought appropriate. After a heated debate with us and a few strategic delays, he okayed the shorts, bristling but still respecting popular will. How many Muslim evangelicals do you know who tolerate the expression of viewpoints that distress their souls? Of course, my vice-principal had to bite his tongue in the public school system, but such a system can only emerge from a consensus that people of different faiths, backgrounds, aspirations, and stations ought to tussle together. How many Muslim countries tolerate such a tussle?

Lord, I loved this society. I loved that it seemed perpetually unfinished, the final answers not yet known-if ever they would be. I loved that, in a world under constant renovation, the contributions of individuals mattered.

But at home, my father's ready fist ensured his family's obedience to an arbitrary domestic drill. Don't laugh at dinner. When I steal your savings, shut up. When I kick your ass, remember, it'll be harder next time. When I pound your mother, don't call the police. If they show up, I'll charm them into leaving, and you know they will. The moment they're gone, I'll slice off your ear. If you threaten to alert social services, I'll amputate your other ear.

The one time my father chased me through the house with a knife, I managed to fly out of my bedroom window and spend the night on the roof. My mum had no idea of my situation because she was working the graveyard shift at an airline company. Just as well; I'm not sure I would have crawled down for any promise of safety she might have offered. For the same reason that I liked my school and Rose of Sharon Baptist Church and, years later, Aberdeen Centre, I liked the roof. From each of these perches, I could survey a world of open-ended possibility. In the East African Muslim community from which I came, would I have been allowed to dream of a formal education? Of landing scholarships? Of participating in political races, never mind holding office? To judge by the grainy black-and-white photos that showed me, at age three, playing a bride with her head covered, hands folded, eyes downcast, and legs dangling from the sofa, I can only guess that unremitting subservience would have been my lot if we'd stayed in the confines of Muslim Uganda. How's that for a firm grasp of the obvious?

The bigger question is this: Why did the Richmond madressa, set up by immigrants to this land of rights and freedoms, choose autocracy? From age nine to age fourteen, I spent every Saturday there. Classes took place on the upper floor of the newly built mosque, which resembled a mammoth suburban house more than it did Middle Eastern architecture. Inside, however, you got stern Islam through and through. Men and women entered the mosque by different doors and planted themselves on the correct sides of an immovable wall that cut the building in half, quarantining the sexes during worship. Set in this wall was a door that connected the men's and women's sides. This came in handy after services, when men would demand more food from the communal kitchen by thrusting their bowls through the door, banging on the wall, and waiting mere seconds for a woman's arm to thrust back the replenished bowls. In the mosque, men never had to see women, and women never had to be seen. If that isn't the definition of assigning us small lives, then I'm missing something big.

One flight up was the madressa, with its depressing decor of burnt-brown rugs, fluorescent lights, and portable partitions that separated the girls from the boys. Wherever classes congregated within the wide expanse of that room, a partition would tag along. Worse was the partition between mind and soul. In my Saturday classes I learned that if you're spiritual, you don't think. If you think, you're not spiritual. This facile equation rubbed up against the exhilarating curiosity in me that Richmond indulged. Call it my personal clash of civilizations.

The solution wasn't simply to accept that there's a secular world and a nonsecular one, and that each has its ways of being. By that logic, the decidedly nonsecular Rose of Sharon Baptist Church should have quashed my questions. Instead, my curiosity brought me praise there. At Burnett Junior High, a secular school, my questions bugged the bejeezus out of my vice-principal but nobody shut me down. In both places, the dignity of the individual prevailed. Not so at my madressa. I entered its premises wearing a white polyester chador and departed several hours later with my hair flattened and my spirit deflated, as if the condom over my head had properly inoculated me from "unsafe" intellectual activity.

Before airing more dirty laundry, let me be fair to my madressa teacher-we'll call him Mr. Khaki. He was as sincere a Muslim as they come. This bony brother with a finely trimmed beard (signifying cleanliness) and a Honda Mini Compact (indicating modesty) volunteered his services each weekend (proving charity) to give the children of Muslim immigrants the religious education that they might otherwise forfeit to the promiscuity of values in a multicultural country. No easy task, since the madressa attracted students from across the age spectrum: self-conscious prepubescents struggling with acne, giggly types who took cover in the bathroom, adolescents sprouting moustaches-and that's just the girls. I'm kidding ... sort of.

Most of us saw the madressa not so much as a place of learning, but as a pond from which to fish out our future mates. Because mouthy chicks don't get husbands, my girlfriends rarely argued with Mr. Khaki. So what was my problem? Didn't I want to be somebody's wife someday? Don't get me started. My problem was this: Enamored of that multilayered world beyond the madressa, I insisted on being educated rather than indoctrinated.

The trouble began with Know Your Islam, the primer that I packed in my madressa bag every week. After reading it, I needed to know more about "my" Islam. Why must girls observe the essentials, such as praying five times a day, at an earlier age than boys? Because, Mr. Khaki told me, girls mature sooner. They reach the "obligatory age" of practice at nine compared to thirteen for boys.

"Then why not reward girls for our maturity by letting us lead prayer?" I asked.

"Girls can't lead prayer."

"What do you mean?"

"Girls aren't permitted."

"Why not?"

"Allah says so."

"What's His reason?"

"Read the Koran."

I tried, though it felt artificial since I didn't know Arabic. Do I see you nodding your head? Most Muslims have no clue what we're saying when we're reciting the Koran in Arabic. It's not that we're obtuse. Rather, Arabic is one of the world's most rhythmic languages, and weekly lessons at the madressa simply don't let us grasp its intricacies. Haram, for instance, can refer to something forbidden or something sacred, depending on which "a" you stress. Forbidden versus sacred: We're not talking subtle shifts in meaning here. To the inherent challenges of this language, add the realities of life. In my case, a violent father who practiced religion mostly for show and a mother who did her best to be devout while striving to sustain a household on shift work. You can appreciate why Arabic study failed to rate as a family priority. Frankly, Mr.


Excerpted from THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM by Irshad Manji Copyright © 2003 by Irshad Manji. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Irshad Manji is a journalist, television personality, and writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto.

Irshad Manji is an acclaimed journalist, lecturer, and human rights advocate based in Toronto. Recognizing Irshad's leadership, Oprah Winfrey honored her with a Chutzpah Award for "audacity, nerve, boldness, and conviction." Ms. magazine has named Irshad a "Feminist for the 21st Century." She is also a recipient of the Simon Wiesenthal Award for Valor. She is the author of The Trouble with Islam and The Trouble with Islam Today.

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The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Manji comes from an interesting perspective to foist the blame on the problems within Islam on two things: The tribal mentality which has existed for hundreds of years and the unwillingness of tribal leaders to share power with the people. She also criticizes Islam's unwillingness to think critically about itself and about how many in Islam unfairly treat women and minorities. She has many excellent points to make. Unfortunately, those who do not want to hear them, do not like them.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I saw this book in the bookstore and got it from my local library. I tend to go towards books or information about what's wrong with a religion because the person will be more truthful than one that is deeply seated in it. I'm reading this book with an open mind and realizing that everything that she has said is true. (And it could be true of any religion.) It's doing the one thing that the critics here don't want to read or hear, especially if it comes from a woman. A woman that truly does know her religion better than anyone that I know. And she is right, Islam is stagnent, it's stuck in the medieval ways of thinking. And she is also right that if her family had stayed in Uganda or had resettled in a muslim country, she wouldn't have been given the opportunity to question any doubt she would have had, period. She would have been condemned. Any religion that says that a person must be killed because they choose to change religions is wrong. I like her book. The most people that would have trouble with her book will be the men of her faith that believe that women should be covered and in the home. I do encourage ANY one of ANY faith to read this book. It may lead you to do what she had done: question your faith. If it as strong as you believe, then there isn't any problem. She is insightful and uses her own personal experience with a religion that she was pretty much born into. I appauld her for her courage for asking the hardest questions to ask and showing you where you can find the information. Always learn whenever you can, you may learn something that you didn't know about.