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

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Overview

"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 this open letter, Irshad Manji unearths the troubling cornerstones of mainstream Islam today: tribal insularity, deep-seated anti-Semitism, and an uncritical ...

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

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Overview

"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 this open letter, 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's will. But her message is ultimately positive. She offers a practical vision of how Islam can undergo a reformation that empowers women, promotes respect for religious minorities, and fosters a competition of ideas. Her vision revives "ijtihad," Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking. In that spirit, Irshad has a refreshing challenge for both Muslims and non-Muslims: Don't silence yourselves. Ask questions---out loud. The Trouble with Islam Today is a clarion call for a fatwa-free future.

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Editorial Reviews

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

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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312327002
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/16/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 698,550
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Read an Excerpt

The Trouble with Islam Today

1
HOW I BECAME A MUSLIM REFUSENIK
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, rarely 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, hardenough 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. Many 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 affiliationstake 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. Seducedpartly 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 our vice-principal thought reasonable. 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 beharder 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 thesexes 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 mymadressa 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. Khaki's stock reply to my questions--"Read the Koran"--fell about as flat as my chador-chastened hair.
Over time, this read-the-Koran response generated more questions: Why should I perpetuate the fib of reciting Arabic if it makes no practical sense and strikes no emotional chord? Why must we suspect that every English translation of the Koran "corrupts" the original text? I mean, if the Koran is as straightforward as the purists tell us, then aren't its teachings easily translated into a thousand tongues? Finally, why should stigma stalk those of us who haven't been weaned on Arabic when the fact is that no more than 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are Arabs? Translation: At least 80 percent of us aren't Arabs. "Know Your Islam," they say blithely. Whose Islam? Is this a faith or a cult?
All right, time-out.
Let's pick up my original question to Mr. Khaki: Why can't girls lead prayer? Figuring that the Koran's answer would be repeated in some other book I might have a prayer of understanding, I attempted to access the madressa's library. What a production to arrange that trip. The library was a series of racks situated at the top of the stairs on the men's side of the mosque--off-limits to ladies without advance approval. Being eleven years old and of "obligatory age," I couldn't consort with adult males. So I had to persuade a boy under the obligatory age--twelve or younger--to run upstairs on my behalf and secure permission for me any time I wanted to browse. Assuming I got the green light, all the men had to clear the area before I could ascend the stairs and pick through the collection of cheap brochures in the racks. Of course, my time was severely restricted since the men were waiting to return to their space. I managed to borrow a few pamphlets each time, but their contents were so hard to follow, I don't know where their authors went to school. Two years of getting the runaround inside the mosque proved fruitless. At thirteen, I realized that I'd have to circumvent Mr. Khaki and the madressa in order to have my question addressed.
I became a mall-rat. My mission? To track down an English-language Koran. Lansdowne Centre delivered, may God bless my town's bazaar of beliefs. Freedom of information might have frightened Mr. Khaki, but it was exactly this freedom that allowed one of his students to find more meaning in her religion--a meaning the madressa wouldn't supply.
What did I learn about why girls can't lead prayer? I can't tell you right now. Because even if mullahs and madressa teachers supply pat answers, the Koran doesn't. What I can tell you is that in between elections, drama rehearsals, part-time jobs, volleyballpractices--up to, into, and beyond university--I made my way through the scripture with the "woman question" top of mind. I'm still reading. To divulge my conclusions at this point would be to leapfrog into my adult life. First, I have to deal with something else.
The Jews. It's the other question that perturbed me during my madressa years because the Jews came in for a regular tarring. Mr. Khaki taught us with a straight face that Jews worship moolah, not Allah, and that their idolatry would pollute my piety if I hung out with them. What planet, I wondered, did Mr. Khaki inhabit? Was he willfully blind to our surroundings? Richmond, a below-sea-level suburb, was more likely to drown in Asian commercial influence than to become submerged by any mountain of money the Jews could stockpile. If Richmond had even one synagogue at the time, I didn't know about it.
Then again, maybe I was an agent of their shadowy power, because I certainly managed to disrupt Mr. Khaki's passionate history lessons with questions about Jews. I remember asking why Prophet Muhammad would have commanded his army to kill an entire Jewish tribe when the Koran supposedly came to him as a message of peace. Mr. Khaki couldn't cope. He shot me a look of contempt, gave an annoyed wave of the hand, and cut short history class, only to hold Koran study next. Me and my big mouth.
A year after I bought my English-language Koran, Mr. Khaki and I reached an impasse. Nothing I had read so far convinced me of a Jewish conspiracy. Granted, a year is scarcely enough time to digest the Koran and, at fourteen, there's a lot of mental maturing still to do. I couldn't quite brush off Mr. Khaki's anti-Semitic harangues. Who was I to decide he was full of bunk until I had all the evidence? So I challenged him to provide proof of the Jewishplot. What he provided was an ultimatum: Either you believe or get out. And if you get out, get out for good.
Really? That's it?
That's it.
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 my 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 door and yell, "Jesus Christ!" A memorable exit, I hoped. Only later would I realize just how memorable. Jesus was a Jew!
 

 

ARE YOU WONDERING WHY, AFTER MY EXPULSION FROM THE madressa, I didn't damn the whole religion and get on with celebrating my "emancipated" North American self? In part, the imperative of identity kicked in. You know what I'm driving at. Most of us Muslims aren't Muslims because we think about it, but rather because we're born that way. It's "who we are."
My madressa meltdown embarrassed my mum, yet she'd lived with me too long to believe she could order me to grovel for Mr. Khaki's forgiveness. Not a chance. Nor did she force me to go to mosque with her. For a couple of years, though, I actually did. It was the one place that remained open to me on the map of my fragile Muslim-hood. I loved God, and I wasn't about to punish the mosque for the sins of the madressa--until it gradually sank in that the madressa I loathed was an extension of the mosque. Attending the mosque might have allowed me to identify as a Muslim, but it also obliged me to sacrifice that other, equally sacred, part of my identity: thinker.
Let me tell you another story. Among Islam's five pillars is charity. So, a buzz of approval permeated the air one evening when the loudspeaker on the women's side of the mosque, blaring the voice of the mullah on the men's side of the mosque, announced a drive to raise money for our Muslim brothers and sisters overseas. We were to have our checks ready in a few days. During that interval, I asked a member of the ladies' auxiliary where the money would be sent. She mentioned an Islamic organization with a clunky name. I asked her what the funds would be used for. To feed our fellow Muslims, she replied. Recalling TV news stories about fraud charges against Christian charities, I asked how we'd know that the money would end up where we intended. "It's going to Muslims," she snapped. "That's all you need to know."
Do you buy it? I didn't. My quarrel wasn't with alms-giving but with information-hoarding. Why should I rest easy merely because people who call themselves Muslims will have my donation? Is it that by virtue of being a Muslim, every Muslim is, well, virtuous? Talk about faith. Where was the crime in my queries? Or were the queries themselves the crime? My beleaguered mother didn't appear altogether shocked when I explained that I couldn't add to the family's donation because, really, who cares what religion a hungry person is, and besides, I was wary about the scheme being sold to us. Instead, I said, my alms would go to a nonreligious charity whose credentials I would research.
The more the mosque felt like the madressa, the less I attended. I started to decentralize my faith, cultivating a personal relationship with God rather than assuming it had to be mediated through a congregation. In that spirit, I prayed in solitude ("bowing alone," as the Harvard sociologist, Robert Putnam, might say). Every day for years, I'd wake up early and shiver my wayinto an unheated bathroom--my refugee mother believed in low bills as much as in a higher power. After washing my feet, arms, and face, I'd unfurl my velvet rug in the hallway, position it toward Mecca, lay down the piece of Arabian clay that my forehead would touch, and spend the next ten minutes praying. It's a discipline-building exercise, especially since you cleanse yourself two more times a day, and utter four more sets of prayers.
Still, the entire exercise of washing prescribed parts of the body, reciting specified verses, and prostrating at a nonnegotiable angle, all at assigned times of the day, can degenerate into mindless submission--and habitual submissiveness. If you haven't seen this tendency in your parents or grandparents, you're some rare Muslim, my friend. I realized that what began as a guide to godliness had become rote, compelling me to replace my prayer "routine" with something more self-aware: candid, unstructured conversations with my Creator throughout the day. It may sound flaky, but at least I can say those words were my own.
It wouldn't have been a much greater leap at that point to renounce Islam wholesale and walk away from my Muslim identity. You know what stopped me? A devotion to fairness. I've always believed in giving Islam a fair shake because, to my Western sensibility, merit ought to matter. I needed to discover Islam's personality instead of its posturing. An analogy: When I was thirteen or so, my mother urged me to make nice with an obnoxious cousin. "She's family," Mum reasoned. "She's our blood." I retorted that blood meant nothing to me. The relevant question was whether I would choose to be her friend at school if we weren't related. With a personality like that, forget it. To expend energy "liking" my cousin would be a charade, and I had better things to do with my time. Although Mum understood, shedidn't agree. For her, family took precedence. For me, lineage didn't equal merit. Personality did.
I brought the same standard to religion. In order to decide whether I should practice Islam, I had to discover its merits--or lack of them. And I had to discover this for myself, replacing the mosque and its programmed pieties with my own quest for the personality of Islam. Maybe the Koran really does dehumanize Jews and subjugate women. Or maybe Mr. Khaki was a lousy teacher. Maybe God commands that everyone speak Arabic. Or maybe that's a manmade rule to keep most Muslims dependent on higher-ups. Maybe diverging from the spiritual script insults the Almighty. Or maybe we pay tribute to Allah's creative powers when we use our own. I didn't know. But without exploring the alternative, walking away would have felt like running away.
The good news is I knew I lived in a part of the world that permitted me to explore. Thanks to the freedoms afforded me in the West--to think, search, speak, exchange, discuss, challenge, be challenged, and rethink--I was poised to judge my religion in a light that I couldn't have possibly conceived in the parochial Muslim microcosm of the madressa. No need to choose between Islam and the West. On the contrary, the West made it possible for me to choose Islam, however tentatively. It was up to Islam to retain me.
 

 

I DIDN'T OBSESS ABOUT RELIGION, BUT EVERY NOW AND AGAIN A question would pop up, and I hunted for answers in the only place I thought might have some. Picture it: The public library in the pre-Internet period of the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of what I'd read about Islam exuded a textbook tone. Lots of reference, little risk. Then, on February 14, 1989, Iran's AyatollahKhomeini declared a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. This "unfunny Valentine," as Rushdie would later call the fatwa, demanded of Westerners more than a collective tiptoe around theocracy. Many people in the West did take a stand against the death warrant and I'd be disingenuous to deny that. But the commentaries I tracked down at the public library seemed satisfied with merely explaining Muslim outrage; they steered away from asking if the Koran is as virgin, as divine, as the effigy-burners would have us believe. What happened to the religiously respectful yet intellectually messy West I'd fallen in love with? Was multiculturalism losing its mind?
In a crucial sense, I think so. I say this because my trips to the library coincided with the era of Edward Said. He was the Arab-American intellectual who, in 1979, used the word Orientalism to describe the West's supposed tendency to colonize Muslims by demonizing them as exotic freaks of the East. A compelling theory, but doesn't it speak volumes that the "imperialist" West published, distributed, and promoted Edward Said's book?
Within a decade, Said was all the rage among young academics-turned-activists in North America and Europe. Their worship of him effectively stifled other ideas about Islam. By the time Salman Rushdie came out with The Satanic Verses, Said's acolytes stood ready to denounce as "Orientialist" (read: racist) just about anything that affronted mainstream Muslims. In my experience, the public library didn't escape this chill.
I began to regain faith, in both the West and Islam, after the mid-1990s. Praise Allah for the Internet. With the Web making self-censorship irrelevant--someone else is bound to say what you won't--it became the place where intellectual risk-takers finally exhaled. They reasserted what makes the West a fierce if imperfect incubator of ideas: its love of discovery, including discovery of itsown biases. And as the critics probed Islam, I picked up on some jaw-dropping aspects of my religion.
How many of us know the degree to which Islam is a "gift of the Jews"? The unity of God's creation, the inherent and often mysterious justice of God, our innate capacity, as God's creatures, to choose good, the purposefulness of our earthly lives, the infinity of the afterlife--these and other biggies of monotheism came to Muslims via Judaism. This discovery astounded me because it suggested that Muslims need not be steeped in anti-Semitism. If anything, we have reason to be grateful rather than hateful to Jews.
Nor, until educating myself, did I appreciate that Muslims worship exactly the same God as do the Jews and the Christians. The Koran affirms this fact. Truth is, though, I had to read a recent book by the British religious scholar Karen Armstrong before that point penetrated my madressa-molded mind. (What can I tell you? Deprogramming is a many-splendored thing.) Armstrong emphasizes that Prophet Muhammad didn't claim to introduce a new God to the entire world. His personal mission was to bring Arabs into the "rightly guided" family of Abraham, the first prophet to receive the revelation that there's one sovereign God. Growing up, I never heard Abraham's name in a history lesson. A glaring omission, given that Abraham's progeny went on to found the Jewish nation. Being the debut monotheists, the Jews laid the groundwork for the Christians and, later, the Muslims to emerge. So, you see, Muslims didn't invent one God; they renamed Him Allah. That's Arabic for "The God"--the God of Jews and Christians.
Where in the madressa curriculum was that acknowledgment? It's as if nothing happened before Islam. Yet, if all pre-Islamic experience counts for naught, then so must a slew of our principles as Muslims. If more of us knew that Islam is the productof intermingling histories, as opposed to a wholly original way of life--if we understood that we're spiritual mongrels--would more of us be willing to accept the "other"? I began to wonder why we're so reluctant to acknowledge outside influences, except when blaming the West for assorted colonial injuries. Which, in turn, raised a fundamental question: Is Islam more narrow-minded than the rest of the world's religions?
There's a party-wrecker of a topic. From university on, whenever people did agree to a discussion about Islam's intolerant bent, they would caution me not to confuse religion with culture. "Stoning women has everything to do with tribal customs and nothing to do with Islam," tutored one woman at a dinner. I remained a skeptic. If Islam is flexible, then it can adapt for good and not only for ill, right? So why didn't anything about my mosque resemble Richmond's democracy--the very democracy that allowed Muslims to erect a mosque there?
It wasn't just the modern Muslim in me who had to wrestle with these issues. My career as a TV journalist and commentator placed me on the front line of the public's own questions about Islam. Having seen my face in their living rooms, average folks feel no hesitation about approaching me in shops, restaurants, and subway cars to voice a basic concern: If you're going to be a beard-busting, chador-defying Muslim, God help and save you. But as long you choose to stick with Islam, how do you account for so much bigotry under its banner? More precisely, they've asked, "Are you allowed to be a Muslim and a feminist?" "What does it take to turn a devout Muslim into a suicide bomber?" "Why aren't more Muslims speaking up?" "Aren't you afraid to speak up?" And, "How come I've never heard a joke about a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah?" Since getting hit with that last stumper, I've done some serious digging,and I think I've gained an insight. Permit me a quick diversion.
Islam has a popular teaching against "excessive laughter." No joke. In a booklet titled Problems and Solutions, Sheikh Muhammed Salih Al-Munajjid spells out the teaching. While "the Muslim is not expected to be dour-faced," an abundance of laughter proves that we Muslims have been manipulated by charm and wit, which softens our character and piety. I recall an uncle lovingly but firmly warning me one New Year's Eve not to laugh too hard as doom would be sure to follow. Here's where my uncle and the sheikh lose me: If the black magic of laughter is so offensive, why isn't the hypnotic, lyrical effect of the Arabic language, recited aloud, also frowned upon?
Given that I glimpsed this silly side of Islam because of someone's expressed hope for a punch line involving a priest, a rabbi, and a mullah, I have to say that I love the curiosity of the public. For years, that curiosity has nourished my own. The more opportunities I've seized to be in the spotlight, getting noisy about this social problem or that global trend, the more I've needed outsiders to keep me on my toes about why I bother associating with a faith that beats at the center of so much international turmoil and individual torment. People are right to ask. Two questions, in particular, have rocked my world--both for the better, but neither without pain.
The first question is, "How do you reconcile homosexuality with Islam?" I'm openly lesbian. I choose to be "out" because, having matured in a miserable household under a father who despised joy, I'm not about to sabotage the consensual love that offers me joy as an adult. I met my first girlfriend in my twenties and, weeks afterwards, told my mother about the relationship. She responded like the wonderful parent she is. So the question of whether I could be a Muslim and a lesbian at the same timebarely unsettled me. That was religion. This was happiness. I knew which one I needed more. I carried on, intermittently studying Islam, learning the fine art of sustaining relationships with women (which is another book unto itself), producing television programs, and generally living the multidirectional life of a twenty-something in North America.
As my TV work made me a more visible public figure, my hope of reconciling homosexuality with Islam evolved into a preoccupation. Viewers wanted me to justify my improbable combination of identities. I was plunged into a serious bout of introspection, even flirting with the possibility of finally giving up Islam for the sake of love. Hey, what better motive is there to sacrifice anything? But each time I reached the brink of excommunicating myself, I pulled back. Not out of fear. Out of fairness--to myself. One question begged for more thought: If the all-knowing, all-powerful God didn't wish to make me a lesbian, then why didn't He make someone else in my place?
Hostile challenges to "explain myself" became a near daily occurrence after 1998. That year, I started hosting QueerTelevision, an unprecedented TV and Internet series about gay and lesbian cultures. The show was about people, not porn, and yet avowed Muslims joined Christian fundamentalists in petitioning against my presence on their screens. In truth, I expected nothing less. But was I naive to expect a little more--conversation, instead of mere condemnation?
Believe me, I tried to do the dialogue thing. As a lover of diversity, including diversity of perspectives, I never trashed my detractors' missives. In fact, I regularly aired them on the program. An example: "I am writing to inform you that the one and only real God, the God of the Bible, makes it painfully clear that all Sodomites (meaning 'homosexuals' or like deviants) have forsakentheir humanity for their deranged, perverted, evil lusts. Thereby they have become abominations, no longer human, and are to be executed immediately according to Leviticus and Deuteronomy ..."
The many Muslims who called and e-mailed QueerTelevision agreed with these Christians. (Except for the part about the one and only real God belonging strictly to the Bible.) Yet not a single Muslim addressed my counterchallenge, my repeated stab at conversation: How can the Koran at once denounce homosexuality and declare that Allah "makes excellent everything He creates"? How do my critics explain the fact that, according to the book by which they scrupulously abide, God has deliberately designed the world's breathtaking multiplicity? The question that pits homosexuality against Islam tested my faith alright. But thinking it through has made me realize that a healthy exchange is possible if we all care less about where we stand than where God might.
Now for the second question I promised to tell you about. It was asked of me mere months before September 11, and it precipitated my biggest test of faith.
In December 2000, an interoffice envelope arrived on my desk at QueerTelevision. The envelope came from my boss, Moses Znaimer. Scrambling to complete as many episodes of the program as possible by Christmas break, I felt at once drained and in need of distraction. So I opened the envelope and pulled out a newspaper clipping. It featured a brief report from the Agence France-Presse:

GIRL COERCED INTO SEX TO RECEIVE 180 LASHES
Tsafe [Nigeria]. A pregnant 17-year-old whom an Islamic court sentenced to 180 lashes for premarital sex will give birth within days, her family said yesterday.
Bariya Ibrahim Magazu told the court in September that she had been pushed into having sex with three men who were associates of her father. The girl produced seven witnesses. The girl's family said she was due to give birth within a couple of days and was expected to receive her punishment at least 40 days later. AFP
In vibrant red ink, Moses had circled the word "Islamic," twice underlined the number "180," and penned a comment, Talmud-style, in the margins. It read:

IRSHAD
ONE OF THESE DAYS YOU'LL TELL ME HOW YOU RECONCILE THIS KIND OF INSANITY, AND FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION, WITH YOUR MUSLIM FAITH. M.
Oy vey. Wasn't it enough that viewers of QueerTelevision goaded me to choose between my sexual orientation and my spiritual orientation? Did my boss have to burden me ethically, too? Especially at a time of excruciating deadlines?
I pushed the envelope aside and got on with working for theman. But over the next several hours, Moses's challenge shook my conscience. Tell me it doesn't do the same to yours. The story of this young rape victim has to haunt any decent human being because, whatever the minutiae of her case, one reported fact couldn't be rationalized away: The woman, her dignity already violated, had gone to the trouble of rounding up seven witnesses. Seven! And she still faced 180 lashes! How the hell could I reconcile such an elemental injustice with my Muslim faith?
I was going to have to address it head-on. Not with defensiveness, not with theories, but with total honesty. Less than a year before much of the world was to be unmoored by September 11, I prepared to enter the next chapter of my life as a Muslim Refusenik.
THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM TODAY. Copyright © 2003 by Irshad Manji. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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Table of Contents

The Letter 1
1 How I Became a Muslim Refusenik 5
2 Seventy Virgins? 28
3 When Did We Stop Thinking? 48
4 Gates and Girdles 71
5 Who's Betraying Whom? 94
6 The Hidden Underbelly of Islam 134
7 Operation Ijtihad 158
8 In Praise of Honesty 187
9 Thank God for the West 204
Recommended Readings 219
Acknowledgments 227
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Reading Group Guide

"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 this open letter, 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's will. But her message is ultimately positive. She offers a practical vision of how Islam can undergo a reformation that empowers women, promotes respect for religious minorities, and fosters a competition of ideas. Her vision revives "ijtihad," Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking. In that spirit, Irshad has a refreshing challenge for both Muslims and non-Muslims: Don't silence yourselves. Ask questions---out loud. The Trouble with Islam is a clarion call for a fatwa-free future.

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Sort by: Showing all of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2007

    A reviewer

    As a Muslium woman there are things that need to be changed concerning women. I do not belive that she was discussing a generalization of the religion. I believe that she only concerning herself with the women.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 17, 2006

    Assailing Islam?

    No, the views above - some of them - are incorrect. Truth be told, moderate Muslims - aka Muslims living in contemporary society - will be wise to not only read books like this, but accept criticism and demand reform. I know, I know. Islam cannot be reformed. Then we are destined for a clash of civilizations: the 7th Century vs. the 21st. Open your minds!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 28, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A smart and informative book

    Ms. Manji's book is written in the form of an open letter which explains the sometimes scattered thought process. But she backs up her claims with actual facts and includes her interpretation of how these things have affected Islamic beliefs. I grew up listening to sermons about the perfection of the Islamic religion but have always wondered about the fairness of some of its principles. This book offers insight into where these incoherent ideas may have stemmed from. This is a great book for people who are wondering if what they hear in the media and their mosques are facts or just biased opinions. For those of you who refuse to acknowledge that Islam is not perfect - read a different book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2008

    'A Tale Told by an Idiot, Full of Sound and Furry, Signifying Nothing'

    I had seen the author on TV and decided to try her book. Honestly I could only get half way through after about an hour and then simply couldn¿t bear to finish. It was essentially a long, sloppy, somewhat incoherent rant. Gross generalizations, superficial analysis of complex social phenomena, and just general sloppy work. If you're looking for raw meet to bash Islam great book, if your interested in learning I'd recommend Akbar Ahmed, a Pakistani anthropologist with actual scholarly credentials, extensive experience in tribalism and it's interaction to Islam, and a willingness to examine social events scientifically, as opposed to intuitive best guesses, as the author here seems to enjoy using.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2007

    Cause and Effect: Author did not get it right!

    Yes, the author is smart, but -- unfortunately -- she failed to address the cause and effect equation correctly. It is true that the Muslim world has many problems today. However, is it because of Islam or because of some Muslims today? That is the point! If someone fails to follow the rules of a website, shall we blame the website or the user? Similarly, it is the behavior of some Muslims (besides some non-Muslim governments) that is causing the trouble in the world today. The book is biased. The author does not give the readers a true description of the message of Islam.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 9, 2013

    This book is well-thought out, well-written, and heartfelt.  It

    This book is well-thought out, well-written, and heartfelt.  It was compelling, the author was very thorough, and it was obvious that she knows her religion.  Well, almost.  You see, I was okay with everything she said, until she got to the part where she said she was a lesbian.  No offense, I have nothing against lesbians.  But her own religions does.  She even says it does, and accurately so.  So EVERYTHING she said, each and every argument she made...goes right out the window.  To be honest, I was...I could only shake my head.  She argued that one could not pick and choose aspects of Islam that they liked, but that they had to take the pure message of Islam and follow that.  And then, quite openly, she stomps on everything she believes.  Irshad, Irshad, Irshad....you are so nice.  Such a wonderful woman.  But this goes beyond the word "hypocrite".  You are guilty of the very same things you accuse the imams of, that of adding or subtracting from the Koran.  This isn't a buffet line.  You can't pick and choose!  Great book....but everyone should read it to find out who she really is, not what she purports to be.

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  • Posted August 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Enlightening, courageous, well-researched and thought out. A MUST READ.

    As a first generation Lithuanian-American whose parents fled approaching Communism in worn torn Lithuania in 1944, I grew up in a home where the intellectual development of females including higher education in the university system was not only encouraged but practically required. Lithuania, now a free nation once again, is a country where the literacy rate of the population at large is nearly 100 %. That is why it has always fascinated me that there are women in the world that have been kept in such darkness by religious clerics who claim to be doing the will of God. This is what originally drew me toward reading this book. In this book Irshad Manji so clearly describes what the trouble with Islam is today. After what happened on 9/11 there are many Americans, particularly New Yorkers, who would be tempted to blame Islam as having the fatal flaw of on the one hand, promoting peace and love, and on the other using any means possible to destroy anyone that does not adhere to their rigid belief system. As Manji writes in Chapter 2 Seventy Virgins "We have to own up to the fact that the Koran's message is all over the bloody map. Compassion and contempt exist side by side. Look to its take on women. Hopeful and hateful verses stand only lines away from each other. So, too with religious diversity. There's no single thrust in this so-called perfect, indisputable and straightforward text. The Koran's perfection is ultimately suspect." As a social worker who worked for many years with the female victims of domestic violence, I have been particularly appalled at the way Muslim women are mistreated using the Koran (a supposedly good and "holy" book) as justification for abuse. Manji made me even more aware of just how unjust these abuses have become. I did not know, for one, that the only women obliged by the Koran to wear veils were the wives of the Prophet Muhammed! No other culture in the world "has the hubris" Manji writes "to treat its female citizens as clones" of the prophet's wives. I was also shocked to learn how Pakistani General Zia al-Haq, in an effort to win favor among village leaders, mixed a punitive reading of Islam with tribal customs. It became a requirement that a rape be witnessed by four men before any offender could be charged. "But suppose a rape doesn't have the testimony of so many male eyes?" Manji questioned. "Then it must naturally be a case of adultery committed by the woman and therefore to be condemned by the stone." In other words, the VICTIM of a rape would end up being stoned to death as a legal punishment for adultery! What a travesty! Sometime ago I had been made aware that, as Manji wrote: "In an explicit passage that imams rarely publicize to the middle and lower classes, the Koran permits women to negotiate marriage contracts that meet their personal conditions. 'If a woman fear(s) ill-treatment..on the part of her husband.' says a verse in chapter 4, 'it shall be no offense for them to seek a mutual agreement, for agreement is best. People are prone to avarice.' Today, a woman's personal conditions for marriage might include: 'My husband can't lay an unwanted finger on me or on my earnings. If he does, I'll regard it as 'ill-treatment' and I'll have the right to divorce him."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2006

    Contrary to the Negative

    Irshad's book was a refreshing look at Islam and the grip that the Saudi-propagated mainstream is spewing. The candor of Islamic self-reflection was much appreciated. The concept of self evaluation (without the opportunity to blame others for your woes) and factual historical context was great!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2006

    Disappointing

    At a time like this when Islam has been so misconstrued one should not add more false statements and negative, untrue thoughts. This book did not describe True Islam. A dissappointment that does not help our world to become one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2006

    The trouble with twisted minds

    This book is absolutely a waste of time and faith, it's a self twisted personal ideas of Islam hatred that pulls out questions to explain the dark side of the author's soul, caused by the circumstances of her childhood. The book has nothing to do with the real Islam, which is far away from what's happening globally nowadays .. It's the untruth about Islam, built on what the press shows, not on reality.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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