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Monday, December 04, 2006

On "The Trouble With Islam Today"

Keeping this promise hasn't been easy. And I may not have done so at all, except for Ajmal Kamal's having placed the following comment in one of my subsequent posts: "I am keenly awaiting your review of the book which you promised to post in a fortnight or so." AK had, until recently, not read the English version of the book (far more readable than the Urdu translation) ... and I hope that, having done so, he will write a review that would counter or support some of my statements. Either way, it would offer a fresh look.

There's stuff in Manji's book (The Trouble With Islam Today) that's worth paying serious attention to. It makes a good case for Ijtihad. It demonstrates amply that Muslim leaders, both political and religious, have failed their people miserably. It holds a mirror to the Ummah and calls for reform. It points out, correctly, that literalism is going mainstream among Muslims. It speaks out against the deplorable lot of women in Muslim countries - a matter that needs far more attention by the 'moderately enlightened' than their bellowing about the so-called hijacking of Islam by the Fundamentalists.

On the other hand, there's also plenty in it to want to just cast the book away as her personal diatribe that, at best, has resulted from a specific upbringing and environment coupled with the reaction of other Muslims to her own beliefs and way of life. At worst, however, it sounds like the work of a publicity-seeking opportunist, cashing in on the Islamophobia of today. The long sections on her Israeli trip and the comparisons of Jews with Muslims, with the former being held in high regard - even when the point being made is a bit of a stretch - is hardly likely to convince her opposition of any other viewpoint.

Much has already been written about her book, which has received lavish praise - often quite a bit over the top, such as Charles Hill's quote: "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." It is obvious that despite his vast experience, his view of 'big ideas' seems rather myopic. Then, there's criticism - overwhelmingly by Muslims - a lot of which seems aimed more at her person than at the contents of this bestseller. In view of this, I would only wish to reiterate what I have said elsewhere: She has lost an opportunity -- through a very confrontational approach and, frequently, through dishing out misinformation -- to communicate to the audience that most needs to understand the justifiable parts of her criticism. Of course, that's assuming that she genuinely wanted that audience to understand and engage with her views and was not merely after cheap publicity and book-sales.

The book can roughly be divided into three themes. The first part of the book is mainly a critique of the absence of Ijtihad from the currently dominant Sunni Wahabi Islam that is (rightly) blamed for a major part of the mess that Muslims find themselves in. That is not to say that things are any better in the Shia lands, despite the presence of Mujtahids. The third is dedicated to her philosophy and activism focusing upon Operation Ijtihad - a commendable but, IMO, not-yet-well-thought-out idea that, one hopes, people will help her flesh out.

The second (or middle) part is rather ill-conceived. It reads at times like the literature El-Al could do with to promote tourism in Israel. Although I may not subscribe to such an idea, I would not be surprised if Muslims, ready at the drop of a praying-cap to pin everything on a Zionist Conspiracy, don't start alleging that this portion was added at the behest of the Jewish Lobby or suggested by Jewish Publishers to guarantee higher return on investment. I shall not go into this tedious middle portion at all - with its fallacious logic and a decidedly anti-Palestinian bias - for fear of being billed, at the slightest slip of pen, a typical Muslim anti-Semite, which I am decidedly not. In fact, I am as happy about my Turkish-Jewish ancestry (my Muslim ancestors had to convert into Islam from something!) as others are of their Rajput origins or the Syeds of theirs. And, unlike the latter's, mine's not even manipulated. ;-)
Before approaching the contents of the book, itself, I need to take one paragraph to point out that the absence of an Index in such a work (or the absence of Footnotes on the poor excuse of their being disruptive in the flow of the narrative) makes citation or quoting, and the verifications of 'facts', very difficult. Although there is a printer-friendly notes section, divided by chapters, on the net, there is no way to find out whether the specific portion one wishes to check up on has been addressed through a notation or not. For example, in the prologue Prophet Mohammad is quoted as having defined religion as 'the way we conduct ourselves towards others'. I wanted to know which Hadith or source Ms Manji got this from (I was sure she did not make this up - but I needed a reference for some other reason). So: shut the book; get up from the chair I am cuddled in; get to the computer in another room; open Browser; get to her website (luckily bookmarked); link to the 'sources' section; click 'Prologue'. Oops! No references. The 3 that are there, deal with matters I would have found no reason to check up on. Even armed for the future, with printouts that avoid the 'delay', this kind of referencing is a poor, if not outright useless idea. And what do the numbers in these reference sections denote, anyway, since no corresponding numbers are found in the text?
To begin with, it is clear that Irshad Manji's view of Islam and the Muslims she grew up with - some in Africa - is based (naturally) on an amalgam of life within her own home and (not so naturally) on a rather simplistic assessment of local conditions. Citing her father's penchant for beating the local servant as an example, Manji concludes, "The Muslims of East Africa treated Blacks like slaves". While I agree that her father was not unique in his attitude or behaviour, this was not necessarily a Muslim-only trait. Reading the sentence again, one wonders, "Were there no Muslims among Blacks?" I knew a few. "Did the Hindus treat Blacks as equals?" Many did not. I knew a few of those too. "Did White Christians?" Errr - next question!

This reaching of broad conclusions, based purely on personal experiences or flimsy evidence, persists throughout. Islamic Society is portrayed as anti-curiosity and development, as opposed to Christian Society. I agree with her wholeheartedly ... that is the fact when one looks at most Muslim-majority countries as opposed to most Christiain-majority countries. But to reach this conclusion because her Madressah didn't allow questioning and her Convent did is hardly worth a consideration. I studied in a Convent school, as did many others who have had to stand in corners, or on benches, or had our backs whacked, if the questions were the kind we were not supposed to ask. Specially in relation to the Holy Scriptures.
An aside: My own encounter with a priest's wrath came after I brought up the likelihood of the Bible being written by polytheists and mythologists as I felt by reading this:
And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4)
I got hit even before I had time to question why most humans did not (despite God's promise or intent) live to be 'an hundred and twenty years'. (Those of you looking for possible explanations to that inexplicable verse may want to visit a site that claims to offer God's POV.)
Back to Ms Manji's book. One of the biggest problems - and I offer it not as a criticism of her view but an explanation of why an overwhelming majority of Muslims disagree with her vehemently - stems from her claiming to be a Muslim but wanting to define 'true' Islam as she wishes. There's no doubt that there need be no mulla to define the Truth for a people who are being addressed by a Divine Being, via a Messenger. The Divine Being has sanctioned no other intermediary (although where Ms Manji places her Shia Imams is unclear). But there are certain basic tenets, such as the Oneness of Allah (Tauheed), and recognition of the Prophethood (as embodied in the Kalimah or Shahaadah) that cannot be denied if one wishes to remain in the Muslim fold. Among other, generally accepted, beliefs is also one that holds that the Qur'an has not been altered (and that other religious books have been tampered with). Ms Manji's disputing this (and stating the possibility that, perhaps, not all of the Qur'an is of Divine Origin or has been altered, since) casts her outside the pale of Islam in the eyes of almost all Muslims.

Yet another problem is created by the fact that Muslims view the similarities in the Old Testament and the Quran (and, thus, between Judaism and Islam) as being a result of emanating from the same Divine Source. Ms Manji's statement that much of Islam is "a gift of the Jews" and that "the biggies of monotheism came to Muslims via Judaism" has very different connotations.

The book is also sprinkled with 'observations' that state the obvious, leaving one looking for a deeper meaning or conclusion to be derived from their inclusion. Take, for example, "Most of us Muslims aren't Muslims because we think about it, but rather because we're born that way." --- Not profound, by any measure. So, upon reading this, are we to conclude that it's different in the case of people of other faiths?

Though there is much to dispute, in closing I shall confine myself to just 2 examples of misrepresentation and misinformation, which I earnestly wish had not been part of the book, for they have taken away from what - despite its tone and anger - could have been a text demanding attention of the younger and more liberal Muslims who do not share the prejudices of their elders. However, just as a confirmed perjurer is not really acceptable as a witness again, her subsequent claims begin to sound suspicious, even if true, and her credibility sinks.

(The page numbers refer to the Indian imprintOne Edition of 2005)

(1) Page 73: "In the Hadiths...nearly all mentions of black dogs appear alongside degrading references to women and Jews."

An extreme case of exaggeration: Googling 'hadiths black dogs' didn't turn up several such instances. In fact not even one turned up on the first few of the sites that Google threw at me. I gave up after that, since if it were 'almost all', surely some would have turned up in the first 4 pages.

This is not to deny that a Hadith of such nature will be found among the thousands of the ridiculous ones that have been collected (Read 'made up'! Some, even in the sources considered genuine, such as Saheeh Bukhaari, are so peculiar as to be absolutely unbelievable. Additionally, many not only frequently negate each other, some even negate the Qur'an!)

(2) Page 139 presents a modern day item and, therefore, easily verfiable. Referring to Prof Abdul Salam's Nobel Prize in Physics, she writes: "You'd think his country would have feted him. Instead rioters tried to prevent him from reentering Pakistan. An act of parliament even took away his citizenship."

Stuff and nonsense. True that - mainly as a result of Mr Bhutto trying to save his political power and position by bowing to the wishes of the murderous mullas - the treatment of Ahmadis in this country is disgusting and, shamefully, has legal cover. Also true: no official welcome or acknowledgement was made, nor the great professor officially feted, although private institutional meetings were held to honour him. The press carried the news with a mixture of pride, embarrassment, and fear (one Urdu paper even finding it necessary to save its ass by including the statement that Prof Salam was born into a Sunni family).

However, contrary to Ms Manji's misstatement, designed to raise the worst reaction from her gullible readers, no riots occurred to prevent him from reentering! No such act of Parliament was passed! Professor Salam remained a 'dedicated Pakistani' (his own words to me at one of the celebratory functions) to the very end. Think: Had his citizenship been taken away, why would a controversial non-citizen's body have been allowed to be flown in for burial in this country? Surely the bloody mullas would have tried to use legal pressure and their nuisance value (all they had, prior to Musharraf) to prevent this.

Just to make sure that memory was not playing tricks on me, I cross-checked this with Dr Pervez Hoodbhoy, a student and close associate of Dr Salam. His response: "No, its absolute bullshit!".

Chalo. Qarz to utar gayaa ... Vaadah khilaafee naheen kee. The ball is in your court, Ajmal!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maaan. That was longggggg. I think humans cannot fully judge. Miss Manji is a confused woman. If she want with her heart she will be shown the right path. So you are not believe on Hadith? All or some. You are liking logic and are nteresting in this type of topic too so iI respect but you need to learn more. there may be some misreportting also, but one things clear, scholars have eliminated all what would contradict Quran. You shud stay within Sahih Bokhari Sharif.

05 December, 2006 09:35

Blogger Sidhusaaheb said...

I agree that the last thing that is required at this point of time is someone making an attempt at reinforcing the stereotypes that are being propagated in the West, by presenting false information or conclusions based on little or no research.

06 December, 2006 01:26

Blogger Zakintosh said...

@anonymous: Thanks for reading through, despite the unbearable length. My own opinions about the veracity or necessity of the Hadith would make for another debate. Since I will not be blogging anymore for a while, I cannot write at length about it. Everyone needs to learn more, and I need to do so more than many others. But the last couple of points you make can be answered even within my limited knowledge.

I disagree with your statement that "scholars have eliminated all what would contradict Quran". Ascribing a physical body to God would constitute such a contradiction, imho. So where does this leave Bukhari (10/129): "To prove His identity, God opened his legs and showed the Prophet His thigh" - ???

And what of the contradictions within Bukhari? "I am the most honorable messenger ..." (97/36) and "Do not make any distinction among the messengers; I am not even better than Jonah. (65/4-5) should qualify as contradictory, I think.

The fact is that origin of relying upon or believing in Hadith, in itself, lies in an interpretation of the Qur'an. The denial of Hadith (for which an equally good or bad supporting case can also be made from the Qur'an) in no way makes one a non-Muslim - contrary to the opinions of some mullaas. After all, everyone denies or refutes some of them, anyway, just as you prefer to stick to Bukhari, when there are other books that are considered at par and labeled 'Sahih' by much of the Ummah.

The selection of which Ahaadith to accept is motivated more by sectarian ideas, or by the family or region one is born into, and, frequently, by motives outside of religion (such as politics). Some are dropped off since they do sound too far-fetched, even if included by Bukhari, such as (63/27): "A tribe of monkeys arrested an adulterous monkey and stoned it to death, and I helped them."

I have tried to stay within your parameters, but thi comment, too, has become long. The subject is too engaging for me to stop at short answers.

06 December, 2006 15:04

Anonymous TpL said...

Excellent review! I have not read the book but have heard her speak on CBC radio here in Canada, and quite frankly for such a young woman, she is an awesome debater. i very much appreciated her stance that there needs to be an increase and acceptance of an open debate and critique and reflexivity in Islam. At the moment people are afraid to speak honestly and that is not good for anyone.

It was also great to read the review from Pakistan. In Canada, one of the great public issues re-Islam has been a perception that there is not enough of an Islamic public voice condeming some of the extremes we have witnessed in the last few years, and it is really important to temper misperceptions with voices from within the community spaking loudly and somewhat controversially.

it is unfortunate that her book, according to your review is a bit naive and in other spots seems like she has been irresponsible. But nonetheless, she has come out and spoken her mind and as a result has received numberous death threads and has her apartment window fitted with bullet-proof glass.

I wish i could read more analyses like yours that speak to the content of the book, it think this will help people like me understand the issues much better.


08 December, 2006 08:14

Blogger sabizak said...

This was a thorough and really well done piece and the best part was; it managed to sustain interest despite its length.

08 December, 2006 18:41

Blogger Zakintosh said...

@tpl: Thanx for dropping in and for your comments on my review. I really think that critics of Islam, like Irshad (if, indeed, their criticism stems from a genuine desire to improve things), as well as progressive supporters - such as Asma Hassan ("American Muslims"), need to be extra-careful in verifying their references. Although they are on the opposite sides of the fence, in some ways, their common opponent is the dogmatic Mulla - and wrong or shabby citing by these writers helps him get away by pointing to such passages and undermining the entire body of work.

Muslim youth are, for the large part, unaware of their religion, its history, cultural influences, or even its basic tenets, with any degree of understanding. They are, thus, fair game for everyone, from televangelists, to politically motivated religious personalities (like the the MMA leadership in Pakistan), the likes of devious Farhat Hashmi - a 'scholar' who has her 'marketing' strategy extremely well thought out - and that most dangerous and phenominal distorter of facts, Harun Yahya.

Open debates and critiques carried on in Christianity, today, e.g., 'The Jesus Seminars' and much of Rev. Spong's works, took years to emerge and are still met with great disapproval, even in the so-called enlightened West. With authoritarian regimes in cahoots with the theocracy rampant in the Muslim world, getting to such a space will take time.

But there are signs that 'the natives are restless' ...

09 December, 2006 10:55

Anonymous Sin said...

This is probably one of the best reviews I've read of Manji's book. Kudos.

12 January, 2007 02:18


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