The Trouble with "The Trouble With Islam" – A Commentary

Irshad Manji recently published the book, The Trouble With Islam: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change (Random House Canada, 2003). The book is highly critical of “tribal” or “desert” (her word) Islam, raises blunt and provocative questions and stresses the need for reform to bring tribal Islam at par to modern civilized world.

In the beginning I was quite skeptical of the book because I believe that any research on such a sensitive and critical aspect of billions of Muslims must be academic and scholarly in tone and format. However, the more I read the book, more I started realizing the need for critical analyses of Islam in a language and style that would appeal young and adult Muslims, especially those living in the West and face barrage of questions from their friends and foes in daily lives.

This, however, does not deny the fact that any citation from Holy Qurán should not only be in quotation mark but must always be properly referenced to related suras (chapters) and aaya (verses). The book, not only does not provide any reference to an appropriate sura and aaya, but in a few cases, statements from Qurán come without quotation marks. This creates the danger and doubt that many of her quotations are whether verses from Qurán or Manji’s own interpretation and manipulation of actual statements. This is a very serious issue, because Muslims believe that each word in Holy Qurán is revelation from Allah to His messenger, Prophet Muhammad. There is no room to play with even a single dot or a syllable of Qurán. This condition can only be met when each statement from Qurán is properly referenced. For the sake of textual flow or readers’ convenience, no one can ignore this fact, especially the one who is raising radical questions on Islam and wish to be taken seriously for possible reform.

Then there are two chapters in the book (Gates and Girdles, and Who’s Betraying Whom? ) that admire Jews and Israel, and harshly criticize Palestinians. These two chapters are beyond my comprehension: what they have to do with the main theme of the book (which is an open and harsh critical analyses of Islam). What does Manji want to achieve? To save herself from the punishment of violent reactions from many offended Muslims by distracting/leading them towards Israeli-Palestinian issue? Or to please Jewish lobby who might have provided financial or material support in publishing this book? By including these chapters, she herself sabotaged the stated objective of reforming Islam. In the process, she also casts shadow on her ulterior motive behind this project.

Her coverage about Israel is upbeat and positive to one extreme and deadly negative to Palestinians to the other extreme. It also reflects how shallow her knowledge is about the Palestinian issue. To quote one example, during her conversation with Dr. Jirbawi, a Palestinian political scientist, Manji interjects (p. 97) “Why … did Arafat walk away in the summer of 2000 from the best chance ever for an independent state –” a plan brokered by U.S. President Bill Clinton to grant Palestinians the vast majority of their demands?” Manji should have known that the 2000 plan was just a discussion, not a formal proposal. (Hardly any one has seen the proposal in print). Moreover, that “best chance” or 97% of the land offered to Arafat by Ehud Barak (widely quoted number in the media) was not more than 21% of their actual home land. Further, the 3% of land (if you believe in 97% of land offer), still remaining with Israel, was the most strategic piece that would never enable Palestinians to become a viable state. Barak’s offer appears to provide no control of borders by Palestinians, no contiguity between parts of the West Bank, no Palestinian sovereignty, or even contiguity of neighborhoods, in Jerusalem. It did not resolve the issue of sharing of Jerusalem between two people, return of Palestinian refugees and of illegal Israeli settlements. Acceptance of Barak’s "best chance" offer by Arafat, no wonder, may be tantamount to committing wholesome suicide by Palestinians.

If Manji is so open and unbiased in her thinking, one question that she should have asked to her Jewish host during her visit to Israel: why on earth Jews as a “people,” who have suffered so much in history and faced Holocaust just about a half century back could themselves inflict so much pain and suffering on their fellow cousins, Palestinians? Wholesale subjugation, humiliation, wanton destruction of property and state-sponsored killings? And this is happening daily in front of billions of people in our TV screens. Perhaps, most of the world people can forgive themselves from the atrocity of Holocaust, because there was no internet, instant media and unlimited TV channels. World knew about the Holocaust years after the tragedy. But Manji was so intoxicated with the liberalism and multi-faith democracy of Israel and gracious hospitality of her Jewish host, that these questions were “forbidden” to her mind like a religious dictum.

Perhaps Manji would proudly defend Israeli treatment of Palestinians by citing horror of suicide bombers. The suicide bombing is a recent phenomenon. Why did Israel pushed so hard to young Palestinians that they see their own death as the best reward in this life? What options Palestinians have to defend against the aggression of the fourth most powerful military on earth? If Palestinians would have even a minute fraction of arms and ammunitions what Israel possesses and still they would have launching suicide bombing among civilians, one could never forgive Palestinians. But in the present state of David and Goliath, how can a rational person criticize Palestinians to defend their honour by any means they have.

Manji is very swift in reaching conclusion of issues which entail centuries of controversies and debates. After only two pages of analysis, she jumps to the conclusion: (p. 63) “[M]uslim Spain didn’t crumble because of ravenous Christians … the brutes who brought down Muslim Spain were Muslims.” A good number of students of history have written their Ph.D. dissertations and still struggling how to interpret those findings, but Manji reached to the “final” conclusion with a lightning speed and now this chapter is closed to her.

A major flaw of the book is that Manji has a tendency to jump from one story to the other, without rationalizing the need and the context for doing so. It appears that she wants to impress readers with her wealth of knowledge and observations that she has accumulated over the years. However, this tendency leads to many half-baked, loosely connected stories without much implications for serious thinking. It also leaves readers confused and drained.

Bottom line: I agree with Manji on the dire need of reform in Islam, but not necessarily to follow her approach. I also support, though reluctantly, her writing style which would be very appealing to young Muslim readers. However, I would not accept quotations from Qurán without pointing to right suras and aaya, and also other important stories without proper references. The book has a bibliography of recommended readings and reference to her website for more notes. (Notes on the website are not comprehensive.) There is no excuse for not including important references in the book as end notes. This would not have interrupted the flow of her arguments, as Manji asserts, rather would have strengthened the message she wants to deliver. Finally, her unequivocal praise to Jews and Israel throws serious doubt on Manji’s real motive behind her voyage towards reforming Islam.