Only after I started reading this book, which was lent to me by a friend, did I discover that it had been originally written in English and what I was reading – as part of my efforts to improve my French – was its translation into French. But I persevered with the translated version, and feel a sense of achievement at having finally finished reading this well-constructed set of opinions and ideas about the Muslim religion. The title of the original English version was ‘The Trouble With Islam.’
The author was born into a Muslim family living in Canada, so therefore she grew up in a modern, pluralistic and capitalist society while being educated in the tradition of the Muslim religion. In the first part of her book she identifies herself as a lesbian, a journalist and a feminist with an enquirinig mind and openness to interaction with other cultures. She has studied the Koran and the various Muslim texts extensively, and has come to the conclusion that the way the religion is pursued in most Muslim countries today is in fact a travesty and a distortion of its original principles.
Irshad Manji has a great deal to say about the way Muslims treat women and minorities in their midst. She regards the fact that women are regarded as inferior and legally defined as minors in many Arab countries as a distortion of the teachings of Mohammed. She points to the inherent injustice of depriving women and minorities of equal rights, of basic human rights, although she claims that Mohammed taught otherwise. Her contention is that the mediaeval clergy highjacked the religion and twisted its teachings. Her study of the texts and of history has shown her that in its golden age Islam was the agent that stimulated and disseminated learning and interfaith cooperation. She goes even further by claiming that the ideas of Islam led to the Renaissance in Europe, since cooperation between Muslims, Christians and Jews gave rise to the translation and propagation of ancient Greek texts and subsequent intellectual and cultural interaction.
In her quest for understanding, Manji visited Israel and toured various holy sites. She points out that she was given unhindered access to most places, but that when she tried to visit the Al Aksa mosque she was stopped and obliged to conform to various religious demands as regards her clothing and demeanour. She noted that Israeli journalists are able to criticize their government openly, without fear of punishment, whereas that is far from being the case in the countries ruled in accordance with the precepts of Islam. She develops the theory that the traditions of the desert tribes who were among the first adherents to Islam has come to dominate the religion and that the habits and customs of ‘Islam of the desert’ have been inflexible and resistant to adapting to the changing world. Thus, the customs and attitudes of the desert tribes have taken over the religion that was once more tolerant and open to others. She derides Islamic countries like Pakistan and several Middle Eastern where poverty and ignorance prevail, and elementary human rights are not respected.
On the basis of her reading of the Koran and other ancient Muslim texts Manji has developed a theory for reviving the tradition of Ijtihad, the more open and accepting approach which, she asserts, once existed within Islam. Manji claims that this tradition was crushed by the mediaeval clergy, forcing the religion into a fossilized form that was intolerant of others and suspicious of any new idea. She goes further, maintaining that it is within the power of that approach to rejuvenate the Muslim religion and being it into line with developments in the modern world. She also points to the anomaly by which Muslims living in western societies are able to practice their religion openly and are not subject to prejudice, while Jews and Christians – and even Muslims belonging to different streams of the religion – are not tolerated in most Muslim societies. She points to Indonesia and Malaysia as examples of Muslim countries which do tolerate minorities, and puts this down to the fact that their form of Islam is not based so closely on the ‘Islam of the desert.’
Her book is written in the form of an open letter to Muslims everywhere, and she concludes by calling on all Muslims to join her in adhering to a more open and tolerant version of Islam. Whether she will be acclaimed or condemned for this is an open question, but I personally have not seen any indication of a seismic shift in countries under Muslim rule.