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Religion Theology

The Trouble with Islam Today

A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change

by (author) Irshad Manji

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2005
Theology, Islamic Studies, Fundamentalism
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    Publish Date
    Aug 2005
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The Trouble with Islam Today is an open letter from award-winning journalist Irshad Manji to concerned citizens worldwide–Muslim or not. The book is a lively wake-up call, a demand for honesty and change in Islamic countries and the West. With guts and sincerity Manji insists that readers face some of the most important questions troubling the world today.

A self-proclaimed Muslim Refusenik, Manji exposes the disturbing cornerstones of Islam as it is widely practiced: tribal insularity, deep-seated anti-Semitism and uncritical acceptance of the Koran as the final, superior manifesto of God. But the book begins with and repeatedly returns to Manji’s own experience of Islam, from a teenage debate with a madressa teacher who couldn’t explain to her why girls weren’t allowed to lead prayer, to how she discovered what’s worth salvaging about Islam, to the surprising conclusions she reached about the Arab-Jewish conflict after traveling to Israel — a part of the Middle East that few Muslims dare visit.

Irshad Manji doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but in the book’s first two chapters she relates how, through her journey from childhood to adulthood, she came to ask several key questions about Islam that continue to concern her (and that few other writers have had the courage to raise): Why was her B.C. public school so open and tolerant, but her religious school bigoted and rigid? How could she reconcile her faith with the misogynist, homophobic and anti-Semitic violence committed in its name? Why are rote, literal readings of the Koran the mainstream of Islamic thought today?

“When Did We Stop Thinking?” she asks in chapter three, unearthing Islam’s tradition of creativity and curiosity — a tradition that died for entirely political reasons. Then, trekking through the Middle East, that Islamic countries’ difficulties can’t easily be blamed on the usual scapegoats: Israel, she discovers, is a fiercely pluralistic society that should be an example to Muslim nations; the United States, surprisingly, is admired by many Muslims and is seen more as an unrealized hope than as lead criminal.

This being the case, Manji wonders if the Muslim world is being colonized not by America, but by Arabia. Because Islam was founded in the land of Arabia, in the language of Arabia, for the people of Arabia, Muslims around the world have succumbed to “foundamentalism.” Even non-Arab Muslims — Islam’s majority — have come to imitate the seventh-century tribal rites of the Arabian Peninsula. But this narrow, intolerant and paternalistic system isn’t the only way to be a Muslim.

“Ijtihad” (ij-tee-had) is the positive message of this book. Ijtihad is Islam’s lost tradition of independent thinking, which flowered in the Islamic golden age between 700 and 1200 CE. Reviving ijtihad requires Muslims and non-Muslims alike to stop spouting received wisdom, start thinking for themselves and take action. For example, Manji writes, we can revitalize the economies of the Islamic world by engaging the talents of female entrepreneurs. When offered micro-business loans, women accrue assets, become literate, read the Quran for themselves and see the options it gives women for self-respect as well as for respect for the “other.” Through this and other practical ideas, Manji shows how ordinary Muslims, with a little help from their friends, can have a future to live for rather than a past to die for.

Of course, her campaign to revive ijtihad raises concerns: For Islamic countries, does becoming more humane mean becoming more Western? Can one sow reform without being a cultural colonizer? Manji addresses these questions head-on — and reminds us of a crucial fact: In the West one can ask dissenting questions about religion and society without fear of being raped, maimed or murdered by the state. Manji gives thanks for these precious freedoms and she challenges Muslims in the West to exercise them. She also invites non-Muslims to step out of “orthodox multiculturalism” and expect better of Muslims, both at home and abroad.

Irshad Manji remains a Muslim, one who takes seriously the verse in the Quran that states: “Believers, conduct yourselves with justice and bear true witness before God — even if it be against yourselves, your parents or your family.” In that spirit, she ends her open letter by asking critics to tell her where her analysis has gone wrong. The result is an intense discussion on her website. Whether you agree or disagree with her argument, one thing can’t be disputed: The Trouble with Islam Today has already created a worldwide conversation where none existed before.

About the author

Irshad Manji is a writer and broadcaster living in Toronto. A widely sought-after commentator on social, political and cultural issues, she has been named by Maclean's magazine as one of "100 Leaders of Tomorrow." Previously national affairs editorial writer for the Ottawa Citizen and former co-star of the TVOntario debate show Friendly Fire, she now produces and hosts "In the Public Interest," an investigative feature on Vision TV's flagship human affairs program Skylight.

Irshad Manji's profile page

Excerpt: The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-up Call for Honesty and Change (by (author) Irshad Manji)

My fellow Muslims,

I have to be honest with you. Islam is on very thin ice with me. I’m hanging on by my fingernails, in anxiety over what’s coming next from the self-appointed ambassadors of Allah.

When I consider all the fatwas being hurled by the brain trust of our faith I feel utter embarrassment. Don’t you? I hear from a Saudi friend that his country’s religious police arrest women for wearing red on Valentine’s Day, and I think since when does a merciful God outlaw joy -- or fun? I read about victims of rape being stoned for “adultery,” and I wonder how a critical mass of us can stay stone silent.

When non-Muslims beg us to speak up, I hear you gripe that we shouldn’t have to explain the behavior of other Muslims. Yet when we’re misunderstood, we fail to see it’s precisely because we haven’t given people a reason to think differently about us. On top of that, when I speak publicly about our failings, the very Muslims who detect stereotyping at every turn label me a sellout. A sellout to what? To moral clarity? To common decency? To civilization?

Yes, I’m blunt. You’re just going to have to get used to it. In this letter, I’m asking questions from which we can no longer hide. Why are we all being held hostage by what’s happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis? What’s with the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in Islam? Who is the real colonizer of Muslims -- America or Arabia? Why are we squandering the talents of women, fully half of God’s creation? How can we be so sure that homosexuals deserve ostracism -- or death -- when the Koran states that everything God made is “excellent”? Of course, the Koran states more than that, but 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 we don’t speak out against the imperialists within Islam, these guys will walk away with the show. And their path leads to a dead end of more vitriol, more violence, more poverty, more exclusion. Is this the justice we seek for the world that God has leased to us? If it’s not, then why don’t more of us say so?

What I do hear from you is that Muslims are the targets of backlash. In France, Muslims have actually taken an author to court for calling Islam “the most stupid religion.” Apparently, he’s inciting hate. So we assert our rights -- something most of us wouldn’t have in Islamic countries. But is the French guy wrong to write that Islam needs to grow up? What about the Koran’s incitement of hate against Jews? Shouldn’t Muslims who invoke the Koran to justify anti-Semitism be themselves open to a lawsuit? Or would this amount to more “backlash”? What makes us righteous and everybody else racist?

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?

You may wonder who I am to talk to you this way. I am a Muslim Refusenik. That doesn’t mean I refuse to be a Muslim; it simply means I refuse to join an army of automatons in the name of Allah. I take this phrase from the original refuseniks -- Soviet Jews who championed religious and personal freedom. Their communist masters refused to let them emigrate to Israel. For their attempts to leave the Soviet Union, many refuseniks paid with hard labor and, sometimes, with their lives. Over time, though, their persistent refusal to comply with the mechanisms of mind-control and soullessness helped end a totalitarian system.

Not solely because of September 11, but more urgently because of it, we’ve got to end Islam’s totalitarianism, particularly the gross human rights violations against women and religious minorities. You’ll want to assure me that what I’m describing in this open letter to you isn’t “true” Islam. Frankly, such a distinction wouldn’t have impressed Prophet Muhammad, who said that religion is the way we conduct ourselves toward others -- not theoretically, but actually. By that standard, how Muslims behave is Islam. To sweep that reality under the rug is to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our fellow human beings. See why I’m struggling?

As I view it, the trouble with Islam is that lives are small and lies are big. Totalitarian impulses lurk in mainstream Islam. That’s one hell of a charge, I know. Please hear me out. I’ll show you what I mean, as calmly as I possibly can.


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 they 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 I, my two sisters, and my mother loved Tomasi, we too would be pummeled if 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 ageing 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 originate. 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?

Editorial Reviews

“This could be Osama bin Laden’s worse nightmare.”
United Press International
“Reading it feels like a revelation. [Irshad Manji] 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.”
–New York Times
“Manji has in no way abandoned her Muslim identity.... What exactly [she] is refusing to do is simple: she refuses to accept that Islam is a stagnant and unchanging structure.”
–The Friday Times (Pakistan)
“She not only has a funky hairdo, but her book, The Trouble with Islam Today, has caused much debate.”
–Jakarta Post (Indonesia)

“This fraudulent book has now become a guide to Islam.”
–Arab News (Saudi Arabia)

“I was deeply surprised by what she had to say. And deeply grateful.”
Columnist Hesham Hassaballa,
“Ms. Manji is a blazingly articulate young Canadian Muslim. The subject of her new book … is a loud, clear call for honesty and reform. It is wry, blunt and irreverent, but never bitter.”
–Columnist Margaret Wente, The Globe and Mail

“[The Trouble with Islam Today] has notably expanded the international sweep of Canadian writing; no other Canadian polemic has ever reached so far so fast.”
–Columnist Robert Fulford, National Post

“The democratic movements that have now emerged have shown just how many young Muslims want to give voice to their aspirations and achieve their full potential. If you want to get a taste of what they sound like, read Irshad Manji’s courageous book, The Trouble with Islam Today.”
Columnist Thomas Friedman, New York Times
“Bigger, much bigger, than girl meets God.”
–O, The Oprah Magazine
“One of the most hard-hitting analyses of Islam to appear since the Sept. 11 attacks.”
–Philadelphia Inquirer
“A manifesto for the progressive side.… Hot with revolutionary questions, anger and challenges.”
–The Independent (UK)

“Passionate, courageous and astonishingly funny.”
–The Jerusalem Post
“Beyond controversial.… Her easy conversational style, addressed to ‘my fellow Muslims,’ makes it accessible to a wide range of readers.”
The Toronto Star
“Direct, tightly reasoned, and packed with knockout punches.”
–Montreal Gazette
“A book that challenges the reader to ask questions and think. One doesn’t have to agree with everything she says. It is the duty of the silent Muslim masses to join in this conversation about Islam.”
–Winnipeg Free Press
“Crammed with acute observations and cogent arguments that show Islam is much more than fatwas and fasting.”
–Edmonton Journal
“Worthy of close attention and praise as a heartfelt declaration of faith in the power of argument to reveal important insights about a religion whose global significance increases every day.”
Georgia Straight (Vancouver)

“A brisk, brash, fascinating read. It bristles with ideas, both intelligent and challenging. Manji has done her homework and her vigorous defence of controversial positions is not only admirable, but convincing.”
The London Free Press
“Irshad Manji may appear an unlikely reformer, but who better to lead an international revolt than a former political refugee, a dimpled, brown-skinned lesbian, a supercharged, Blackberry-toting, 35-year-old media entrepreneur.”
–Toronto Life
“Irshad Manji breaks every taboo in the book, while also challenging our prejudices about Islam. What’s more, she does so as a Muslim, and not as a Westernized woman preaching from the pulpit of a feminist ivory tower.”
– (German Internet portal promoting dialogue with the Islamic world)
“An impassioned and committed advocate.... She dares to shine light on areas where Islam has gone wrong.”
–Folha de Sao Paolo (Brazil)

“This is a bold book, considering that many North Americans are still tending their wounds. Manji draws the line and crosses it, all in one graceful gesture.”
Avenue magazine
“Despite what Irshad Manji’s enemies say, her only crime is a questioning nature.”
–Sydney Morning Herald
“I cannot urge Irshad Manji more strongly to maintain her frank, open and intelligent approach. This cause is, I believe, the most important new movement in several decades.”
Jane Mansbridge, Adams Professor of Political Leadership and Democratic Values, Harvard University

“Some of the greatest world-historical changes have been sparked by one person with a love of humanity, a big idea and a commitment to see it take hold. That describes Irshad Manji.”
Charles Hill, Distinguished Fellow, International Security Studies, Yale University
“In the end, it is impossible to dislike someone who in her own idiosyncratic way asks, and tries to answer, one of the central questions of our time: ‘How do we sow reform in the Muslim world – without becoming cultural colonizers?’”
The Economist

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