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National Observer Home > No. 63 - Summer 2005 > Book Reviews

Book Review: The Trouble With Islam

by Irshad Manji
Sydney, Random House, 2004, 239 pages, $32.95

A subheading for this book tells us that it is "A Muslim's call for reform in her faith". While one might well doubt that Ms. Manji will ever qualify for a literary award (and this book is written in the form of an open letter to her fellow Muslims, albeit with some references to academic research), for anyone who is searching for a way ahead towards world peace, and for those who seek even a glimmer of hope in these troubled times of worldwide terrorism, this book may indicate a signpost to that way ahead. It does not by any means represent the single most profound solution to all of the complex problems that exist but is perhaps a significant indicator of what may be achievable if people of goodwill are prepared to try.

As the young teenage daughter of a Ugandan Muslim family, of South Asian ethnicity, a family forced to migrate to Canada subsequently to the rise to power of General Idi Amin Dada, the author became increasingly frustrated with the inability of her "madressa" teacher to answer her ever-growing curiosity about what she perceived as the iniquities and contradictions contained in a "primer" given to her to study, one entitled Know Your Islam. It seemed that her every line of enquiry, particularly those questions she asked in relation to discrimination against females within Islam, finished with no satisfactory answer and with the stock reply — "Read the Koran".

This she did. Although she could not read Arabic, she bought an English version of the Koran and proceeded to study it in depth over a number of years, as well as reading an ever-growing list of works on Islam and other religions. Some of the early chapters of her book examine the contradictions she discovered in different parts of the Koran.

Of particular significance, and the point which gives so much hope for a better future, is the author's description of one of the most enlightening aspects of Islam, from a time often referred to as Islam's "golden age", between about A.D. 750 and 1250, which involves what is known as "Ijtihad" — an Islamic tradition of "independent reasoning" which allowed "every Muslim, female or male, old or young, to update his or her religious practice in light of contemporary circumstances". This was an era when the Muslim empire was at its zenith, when Muslims worked with Christians "to translate and revive Greek philosophy" and when Muslims developed "a culture of tolerance" with Jews.

However, Ms. Manji then goes on to say that "as the gates of Ijtihad closed, the right of independent thinking became the privilege of the ‘mufti’, the lawyer-priest, in each city or state". She is able then to draw a direct line between the "closing" of "the gates of Ijtihad" to the eventual closing off of an outward looking Islam, the rise of "desert" or "Arab" Islam, and especially the rise of "Wahhabism" — that extreme form of Islam which has given birth to the Muslim terrorist groups of today.

The book closes with challenges to Muslims and non-Muslims alike not to be afraid to investigate and to question some of the dictates of the human interpretation of Koranic principles. In these regards it may well be as significant a challenge to the flexibility and tolerance of people of strong non-Islamic faiths as it is meant to be to the adherents of fundamental Islam.

Brian Hurlock

National Observer No. 63 - Summer 2005