Muslim Refusenik

Irshad Manji, author of ‘The Trouble with Islam Today,’ discusses the closemindedness and literalism of present-day Islam and her path to free thinking.

 April 8, 2005  |  This interview originally aired on Free Forum with Terrence McNally on Los Angeles’ KPFK radio.

At a moment when America is at war in a Muslim country due in part to the electoral muscle of the Christian Right, I agree with those who speak of a clash of civilizations. But I don’t see Jews and Christians versus Muslims. I see fundamentalist, pre-scientific, pre-enlightenment Jews, Christians and Muslims versus Jews, Christians, Muslims and non-believers who, in their search for meaning, ask questions and question answers.

In her controversial best-seller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Irshad Manji, a spike-haired, lesbian Canadian who looks younger than her 36 years, challenges fellow Muslims to revive a lost tradition of free inquiry within Islam. The book has been published internationally, including in Pakistan, and Urdu and Arabic translations can be downloaded free of charge from her web site (

Her earlier book, Risking Utopia: On the Edge of a New Democracy, called on young people to re-define democracy through new technologies and social networks. Manji produced and hosted “Queer Television” on Toronto’s Citytv, the first program on commercial airwaves to explore the lives of gay and lesbian people. She currently hosts “Big Ideas” in Toronto, featuring innovative thinkers from around the world.

Oprah Winfrey recently honored Irshad with the first annual Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness and conviction.” Ms. magazine has selected her as a “Feminist for the 21st Century.” Maclean’s, Canada’s national news magazine, named her one of ten “Canadians Who Make a Difference,” and in June, she received the Simon Wiesenthal Award of Valor.

Terrence McNally: The Trouble with Islam Today grows out of your own life experience, doesn’t it?

Irshad Manji: I think it’s vital that I convey what my lived experiences are, because that’s where the authenticity is, that’s where the sincerity resides. My family and I are refugees from Idi Amin’s Uganda. We settled just outside of Vancouver in 1972. I grew up attending two types of schools — the public, secular school of most North American kids, and then on top of that, every Saturday for several hours at a stretch, the Islamic religious school, the madressa. That’s where I regularly imbibed two major messages–that women are inferior, and that the Jews are treacherous, not to be trusted. Now Terry, I have never said, nor would I ever say, that every madressa teaches these things. How the hell would I know what every madressa teaches? I haven’t been to every one of them, thank god for them as well as for me. But, even back then, at the age of eight, nine, ten, I had enough faith to ask questions, lots of them, and that’s what got me in trouble.

As someone who went to Catholic school and did the same thing, I know what you mean (laughs).

(laughs) I can see the twinkle in your eye right now.

What kinds of questions did I ask? Questions like “Why can’t girls lead prayer?” A question I know many Jewish and Christian women have wanted to ask of their own ayatollahs, and some have. I graduated, entirely metaphorically, to asking more sophisticated questions, like “If the Koran came to prophet Mohammed as a message of peace, then why, even after receiving that message, did he command his army to slay an entire Jewish tribe?”

Now you can appreciate that such questions irritated the hell out of my madressa teacher, who felt quite entitled to put down women and slog the Jews. So it’s not surprising that he and I reached our ultimate impasse over yet another one of my annoying, ignorant questions.

At about what age?

At 14 I got booted out of the madressa, permanently. As I often have to remind my beleaguered mother, just because I left the madressa, mom, doesn’t mean I left Allah. As a matter of fact, I had a crucial choice to make at this point. Sure, I could have walked away from Islam and got on with becoming a secular, materially-oriented North American, as many Muslims quietly do, or I could have given Islam another chance, and more importantly, asked Islam to give me another chance. Out of fairness to my faith … I say “fairness” because maybe my madressa teacher was just a lousy educator. Why should my faith be punished for his shortcomings as a teacher? Out of fairness, I took time over the next 20 years to study Islam on my own when there were no interviews like this one, no spotlights, no journalists clamoring for commentary, no publishers approaching me, and no money to be made from the sale of books. In other words, I studied Islam with total and utter sincerity. I’m so pleased to say that as a result of all of that self-study, I came to discover a truly progressive side of my faith.

For much of that time, Islam wasn’t even on the radar of most Americans and Canadians. After years of searching, you ended up staying within your faith. How did that choice happen? And is the Islam you chose the same Islam that most Muslims find themselves a part of?

It’s a brilliant question because what I found to be so progressive about Islam has in fact been lost within Islam today. What I found was a concept called ijtihad, Islam’s lost tradition of critical thinking. It sounds frighteningly like jihad, and in fact it comes from the same root — to struggle. But unlike any notion of violent struggle, Terry, ijtihad is all about independent thinking and independent reasoning.

In the early decades of Islam, thanks to the spirit of ijtihad, 135 schools of thought flourished. In Muslim Spain, scholars would teach their students to abandon “expert” opinion about the Koran. Their own conversations with the ambiguous Koran yielded better evidence for their peaceful ideas. In Cordoba, one of the most sophisticated cities in Muslim Spain, there were 70 libraries — 70. That rivals the number of libraries in most cosmopolitan cities today. Islam had this 1,000 years ago.

The beauty of emphasizing this idea of ijtihad is that I’m not asking my fellow Muslims to import a foreign tradition, or an alien virtue, into the faith, not at all. I’m in some cases reminding them, but let me be frank, in most cases educating them, that Islam once had this progressive pluralistic tradition. There is no reason, save for pure politics, we cannot have it again.

One thing I’ve learned from Elaine Pagels and others is that the Christian religion in its early centuries, certainly the first 300-400 years, was the religion of the freethinkers, the religion of the rebels. When Constantine converted, it became the religion of the state, the religion of the Empire. At the Counsel of Nicea most of the books are thrown out and we’re down to orthodoxy. It sounds like something similar happened within Islam.

During Islam’s golden age, the Age of Enlightenment, between about the 8th and the 12th centuries, there was an Arab philosopher by the name of Ibn Rushd who may very well have been the first European feminist. He warned religious fanatics, mainly Christians at the time, that the reason for poverty in Christian societies was that women were treated as a burden on the men. He pointed out that we cannot know the full ability of women when they are reduced to the business of procreation, breast-feeding, and child rearing. What a fascinating observation: one that tragically has held true for the next many centuries, not just for Christian societies, but for the Arab and Muslim worlds as well.

What happened to the spirit of ijtihad? In the Christian case, we can pretty well peg it to Constantine’s conversion. What was it in Islam?

Once again, politics. Toward the end of the 11th century, something absolutely catastrophic happened in the world of Islam–the gates to ijtihad, the doors of independent thinking, were deliberately closed for political, not spiritual, not theological reasons. During this time the fragile Islamic Empire, from Iraq in the east all the way to Spain in the west, was experiencing a series of internal convulsions. And I’m not talking about the Crusades or the Inquisition. Those happened later.

You’re talking really internal.

I’m talking really internal. Due to all of this free thinking, dissident denominations were popping up and declaring their own runaway governments. The main Muslim leader, known as the calif, and based in Baghdad, became threatened politically.

He closed ranks and within a few generations, Baghdad oversaw the closing of the gates to freethinking. What did that mean, however, in reality? It meant that the 135 schools of thought that I just referred to were deliberately whittled down to only four pretty conservative schools of thought. This led to a rigid reading of the Koran, and also, to a series of legal opinions that we now know as fatwas, that scholars could no longer overturn or even question.

Again, it sounds so much like the emergence of the infallible pope in Rome. At one point there were seven Christian capitols, then there was one. And infallibility sounds a lot like fatwas.

I’m going to put the finishing flourish on all of this–innovation became such a threat to the Islamic Empire that it was deemed a crime, it was deemed fitna, something that causes division. In a logical sense, that’s true. Whenever you have innovation and creativity, people will not always act in uniformity. That’s the nature of creativity. But the real tragedy here, Terry, is that unity came to be confused with uniformity. This is the legacy that to this very day, a thousand years later, we Muslims have inherited. In The Trouble with Islam Today I point out that there is no reason that we Muslims, particularly here in the West, should not be rattling at the gates of ijtihad — demanding that the doors be open and the locks ripped off.

So the trouble with Islam today is this closed-mindedness?

You’re right. In a word, closed-mindedness is the trouble with Islam today. People say “Yeah, but there’s closed-mindedness in every religion.” No question about it. I point out in my book that there is literalism in American Christianity in the form of the evangelicals, some of whom populate the White House. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews claim to me that, “Hey, at least we believe in continuous interpretation.” I say, tell that to the Jewish women in Israel who have to seek divorces at the hands of the rabbinical courts and usually wind up getting not divorces, but the shaft.

… within the most extreme sects …

Within the ultra-orthodox sects. Even Buddhists have their share of fundamentalists. Now don’t ask me how that one works. That may be another book for another author and, if I may inject some cheap Buddhist humor, for another lifetime. But here’s the thing, only within Islam today is literalism mainstream worldwide. Let me explain what I mean by that rather sweeping statement: We Muslims, even in America, are routinely raised to believe that because the Koran came after the Torah and the Bible, historically and chronologically, it is the final, and therefore perfect manifesto of God’s will.

But here’s the kicker–moderates even embrace this supremacy complex. When there’s abuse under the banner of Islam, most Muslims today, even those of us with fancy titles and formal educations, do not yet know how to debate or dissent with the radicals. Not because we’re stupid, but because we have not yet been introduced to the possibility of asking questions about our holy book. The same cannot be said today for moderate Christians and Jews. Please, I beg readers to appreciate that distinction: While literalism is existent in every religion, in Islam it is mainstream. The same cannot be said in Christianity or in Judaism worldwide.

In Islam, people tend to close ranks and hold to the orthodoxy.

Never has there been a bigger intellectual uphill struggle than to have even a mainstream Muslim acknowledge that there are ambiguities and inconsistencies in our holy book. I cannot begin to express how many times I have heard liberal Christians and liberal Jews accept, acknowledge, and even celebrate that there are such ambiguities and inconsistencies in their holy books. That’s what allows interpretation to evolve to fit the new circumstances of new eras.

You point out that this is even true within fairly free-thinking cultures–Canada, Europe, the U.S. You’ve wrestled with this yourself. How do your peers reckon with that? They’re freethinking. They’re questioning their government, their culture, their diet, and so on, and then something happens in Islam, and they become rigid. How do they hold that?

It actually blows my mind. I was at the University of Washington in Seattle, speaking under the banner of the University Women Center. And we had a huge crowd of feminists, including Muslim feminists, and young Muslims who very much position themselves on the left. They have no problem thinking critically about Western colonialism, about America, about Israel. But the first question that I was asked during the Q & A was the following, and I’m giving it to you almost verbatim: “How can you offend Muslims like me by pointing out that the Koran may have contradictions in it? Don’t you realize, Irshad, that you would get much further by not offending us by saying things like that?”

I said to this person, “You’re asking me to be a politician rather than a truth teller. You’re asking me to pander to your myths and to your illusions. Well, there is no shortage of people out there who will do that. I don’t need to replicate that. What I need to do is be a Muslim refusenik, a Muslim dissident. By dissenting with smug, mainstream consensus that the Koran is perfect and immutable, that it is virgin, that it is untouched, and thus it will always be … by dissenting with that, what I am doing is breaking deadly silences. And in the course of breaking deadly silences, I will incur your wrath. I will incur lots of ruffled feathers. That’s OK, because dissidents or refuseniks eventually create a space for people who would otherwise be seen by the mainstream as too radical to now be seen as legitimate.”

I’m not interested in being the leader of any particular movement, not at all. I have made peace, so happily, with the small contribution I can make to creating that space for other more legitimate people, i.e. non-lesbians, non-feminists, to lead the liberal reformation of Islam. It has to start somewhere, and I am simply not going to dilute or compromise the major point that needs to be made to Muslims — that there is no shame in acknowledging that the Koran, like every holy book, contains verses that contradict one another. The beauty of that: Particular interpretations, let’s say misogynist interpretations, are not inevitable.

In order to be vocal about that, we first have to be humble enough to acknowledge that perhaps in God’s wisdom, he, she or it, deliberately included these kind of ambiguities so that we would have an incentive to keep thinking and keep growing …

You don’t even have to all agree on the new uniform interpretation.

Exactly. You mentioned at the top of this conversation that the real divide in the world today may be between those who embrace pluralism of ideas and those who are fundamentalists of any stripe. I don’t want to see fundamentalists gone from my world, believe it or not, I actually don’t. What I want is more room for the pluralists. What I want is a healthy competition of ideas. That’s where the non-violent tension comes in, and that tension, as long as it’s non-violent, will always keep us on our toes and compel us to grow.

We’ve looked at the umbrella of questioning, but we haven’t gone into the details. So if the people are interested in specifics, the book is full of them. Last question — Robin Wright, now with The Washington Post, formerly with the L.A. Times, said, “When we expect democracy to flourish in the Mid-East suddenly or on our command, we ignore the fact that we had a reformation and an enlightenment first, and then democracy.” She also says there are the bubblings of reformation within Islam. She cites some clerics in Iran. You’re not alone.

She’s absolutely right. Though, in fact, it’s fewer clerics than it is ordinary people. Quick story: When my book came out in Canada and Germany, I began receiving a flood of e-mails from young Muslims in the Middle East, who asked me to get the book translated into Arabic because their friends are desperate for these ideas. My standard unimaginative response was to challenge them to name one Arab publisher who would touch this book with a barge pole.

You know what these kids came back to say? “Why are you letting this vision of Islam be hide-bound to the publishing powers that be? No, you get the book translated, you post it on your site, and when we can download it, free of charge, that means we can read it in privacy, which means safety, and that in turn means we can share these ideas with our friends.”

And Terry, true to their word, two days after the book went up in Arabic, I received an e-mail from a young man in Jordan who said that now that these ideas are available in a language that he can understand, he’s going to be starting an underground discussion group. He ended his email by saying, “I want to work with you for the day when my underground discussion group will be a visible group.”

Fear is still very much a factor in the lives of many Muslims who want a liberal reformation of Islam, but Robin Wright is right, the worm has turned, and I look forward to doing another interview with you five or ten years from now to talk about all that has changed in the world. Not just of Islam, but in our world collectively because we are inter-dependent.

I like those young Middle Easterners’ response, saying to you “You wrote Risking Utopia, about young people using new technologies … Now do it, use it, live up to what you said.” You did and they did. Thank you, Irshad. I’m going to take you up on that interview five years from now.

Thank you, Terry, it’s a deal.

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