The Trouble With Manji

Linked with Irshad Manji – Canada & Uganda.

Published on, from Tehelka Magazine Vol 5, Feb 11, 2008.

Irshad Manji walks a dangerous path, claiming her right as a believer to criticise and interpret Islam.

SALIL TRIPATHI talks to her after the release of her new film

Irshad Manji moved to Canada when she was four, a refugee from the tyranny of Idi Amin’s Uganda, when Asians were given sixty days to pack up and leave the country. The daughter of an Indian father and an Egyptian mother, Manji settled into her new home, her family seeking the migrant’s comfort from the familiar certainties of the community and the faith.

But Manji was a spunky child (and now she is a spunky adult), and she was quick to notice the contrast between her secular, public school, and the religious madrasa which she attended on weekends. Early in her controversial best-seller, “The Trouble With Islam Today,” she notices a contrast. A senior teacher disapproves of her locker displaying stickers supporting the Ayatollah’s revolution in Iran. He bristles at her insubordination, but does not stop her, or discipline her, grudgingly respecting her right to defy. And then there is the religious teacher, who sternly admonishes her each time she questions particular religious passages that bother her. Hers was not to reason why; hers but to obey and cry. Or else.

When Manji persisted, wanting to know more about a class in which the teacher cites particularly venomous passages criticising the Jews, and insisted on seeing the original text, she was admonished. The mosque had a library but it was accessible only in one part of the mosque (which was of course segregated between men and women) and as she had passed the age of puberty � she had just entered her teens � she could go to the library only at particular hours, after the menpresent there had vacated the area. And there, she found books in an alien tongue, and an undecipherable script.

She continued to question, and her teacher gave her an ultimatum � accept his command or leave. And she left, seeking refuge yet again in her life, this time in a public library. There, she found an English translation of the Koran, and as she read more into the book, she also came across a concept that her teacher never mentioned. And as she was to discover later in life, it was not only that teacher who denied the existence of that term; so did, it seems, most maulvis and imams and scholars who spoke in the name of Islam …

… I ask Manji whether clinging to the faith has been worth it, after all the trouble. For the fundamentalist, there is no difference between the one who questions from within, the one who leaves the faith, and the one who has never been part of the faith. In other words, for the fundamentalist, Manji, Hirsi Ali, and Falaci are the same; the punishment he’d like to visit upon them is identical. The subtle point she tries to make � of reform from within � is too nuanced. Is it?

She reflects upon the question, pauses, and responds: “I understand the choices Ayaan made. Those are not my choices. This is my faith, I belong to this faith. I want to claim it back, I want it to be true to its meaning. They are distorting the faith. They have a case to answer, not me.”

Manji’s glorious age of Islam ended a thousand years ago in what is now Andalusia, and what Islam knows as Al-Andalus, the time of the Moorish conquest of Southern Europe, when religions intermingled, scholars of all faiths explored science and reason, libraries were stacked high, and in the intricate and masterly designs of Alhambra we see glimpses of that culturally-rich and diverse period. In “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” Rushdie captures that mood evocatively.

Many within Islam would like to recapture that spirit. The Spanish imam who declared a fatwa upon Osama bin Laden for the bomb attacks on the trains in Madrid in 2004, is clear on this point. In Manji’s film, he says: “We have a sense of responsibility; this was an attack on us. We want to recover the spirit of Andalus; we cannot blindly follow the faith of our ancestors. It is a command to ijtihad, a command to reason.”

It is the path she has chosen. She is inspired by Gandhi, she says. Then she must live the Tagore song, and walk alone. (full long text).

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