THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith

ISLAM THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith By Irshad Manji St. Martins Press. Inc. 2004 230 pages. 0312326998 Hb


Irshad Manji asserts that The Trouble with Islam, her controversial call for reform in Muslim culture and faith, intends to “rediscover Islam’s lost tradition of independent thinking.” By the book’s conclusion, this reader was only upset that the tradition had been so poorly hidden. Manji’s regrettable lack of familiarity with scholastic and spiritual Islam does not suspend her self-propelling contradiction, her arguments that sustain the very illogic and extremism she claims to be in resistance to. The real trouble with the world of Islam is here, in the incoherent audacity of its self-appointed saviors.

Manji represents the furthest extreme of the latest intellectual faddishness to strike at the islamic project – “progressi vism .” It is as all fads an ultimately ephemeral inclination, born of intellectual tepidity, if not inferiority. Here’s why. Progressivism is rooted in the belief that humanity is steadily and irrevocably marching towards a perfect future, a belief that peaked in the late 19th century and then declined, undermined as it was by World Wars I and II and other such evidence that advances in science and technology do not correspond to growth in morality and decency. Progressivism has enjoyed a recent upsurge, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the likes of Francis Fukuyama, who confuse localized, shortterm trends with the overall direction of history. The attempt to fuse progressivism, a myopic materialist philosophy with roots in modern Europe (from Hegel to Marx to Comte and downwards), with the legacy and reality of Islam is both absurd and impossible.

Islam proposes submission to the will of God, as this life is a trial, wherein humanity is promised no definite progress except the reward for good actions rooted in appropriate faith. Islam demands that the human being learn to discipline herself to humbly accept God’s will, with the cognizance that His decree cannot be entirely compassed by intellect. Given that Islam means submission, why tack an adjective onto that noun when the two cannot complement one another? Rather, the two worldviews are so fundamentally incompatible that their incongruity will lead either to an amicable divorce or an ideological cold war, one side trying to trump the other. In Irshad Manji’s case, the battle was long ago decided. Her project consists of the rediscovery of Islam with only those tools provided by progressivism; what progressivism does not allow us to find, such as transcendent spirituality, Manji will therefore not (be able to) discuss. Never mind that progressivism is a perspective on history, nota coherent model for finding belonging and establishing behavior.

Manji initiates her ijtihad by reminding the reader that, according to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), religion is substantively – and primarily – how people deal with and treat one another. In the concluding chapter of the same book, Manji gleefully recounts her passion for upsetting and otherwise irking Imams, as if there is in this immaturity so much to be proud of. She counsels her mother upset by her daughter’s rebelliousness – to tolerate such unripe enthusiasm; and reminds mom that angering Imams is not the same as angering God and is therefore excusable! Other than the amateur generalizations at work, we are forced to accept one of two conclusions: Either that Manji does believe that Imams are really people, and therefore exempt from her idiot’s guide to Islam, or that she has just concluded her entire book with a contradiction. As we Subcontinentalists are so fond of remarking, Masha’ Allah.

Throughout The Trouble With islam, Manji leaves the reader similarly exasperated. When it is so convenient, ayat and hadithsare decisive. When the ayat and hadiths are inconvenient, they are sidelined, ignored or ostensibly undermined. Manji is not alone in this attitude; many of our hottest heads and most frightening fanatics thrive off of the same obtuse illogic. How can we on the one hand argue against the immorality of extremism and fanaticism, and then uphold a system of thought that opens the door to such extremism and fanaticism? Manji, like many other progressives, burbles on and on about the need for rule of law, fairness and democracy, of the construction of an Islam supposedly conducive to these things, yet her own system lacks the rigor that would allow for the realization of a system so dependent on predictability and reason. This is symptomatic of the true nature of her project, which is not the reform of Muslim practices, but the metamorphosis of Islam itself, a hijacking of religion for other and nonsensical ends.

While Manji derides the “spiritual infantilism” of the modern Muslim world, not once in her book did 1 come across any spiritually or scholastically formidable examinations of prayer, piety or purpose. The trouble with 7?»’ Trouble is its focus on the temporal to the exclusion of the extra-temporal, such that any proposed reform of Islam demands the complete immanentization and secularization of “faith”. Considering as much, why doesn’t Manji simply come out and state what appears to be on her mind? Namely, “I think Islam is stupid, outdated, beastly and ghastly and frankly unnecessary. Let’s renounce our reliance on this hoary hogwash.”

Assume one has gone so far from faith that one trembles at the thought of even turning around. Rather than begin the admittedly difficult project of repentance and renewal, why not legitimate one’s illegitimacy by reconstructing Islam? Manji has chosen Islam for her project for reasons pragmatic and personal. Pragmatic, because Muslim societies are defined by their Muslim ness – any appeal that fails to make obeisance to this reality is doomed to deserved failure. Personal, because Manji cannot for whatever reason, let go of Islam. She is unable to irrevocably cut the cord. This is good; its realization is incorrect

Because Islam cannot or will not leave her be, Manji proposes a jihad to end all jihads, a way by which she can use Islam to end Islam, so that she can produce an Islam that no longer makes any uncomfortable demands, a happy, neutered, anesthetic Islam. As such, she will not have to feel guilty about her attack on Islam, because she will be using Islam to put Islam to sleep. The purpose is to attain her telos, and her telos is the establishment of a thoroughly and extremely liberal society, one that resembles her idealizations of the West in every way, shape and form, with Islam no more than the packaging the gift arrives in, outwardly important though soon discarded to reveal a bottomless hollowness that her progressi vism cannot fill.

For what meaning can the Muslim ultimately take from her reduction of Islam to childishness? Pleasing God is pleasing other people, but you can displease other people if they displease other people, and in that case, God will be pleased with you, because you are displeased with those who displease you, and of course God is pleased and displeased based on what makes you pleased and displeased, and so God has become the kind of fawning friend who tells you, unnecessarily and repeatedly, what a great job you’re doing. Thank me, because now you don’t have to buy the book. You can learn its lesson instead. God has not been sidelined by the individual. The individual is God. Such is the vacuous bravado that knocks at the walls of Islamic scholarship. Pardon me while I decline to reach for a rebutting reference.

So infirm is the presentation that one might step back and let it collapse in on itself, as it is in the nature of paradox to perish. Nevertheless, there remains good cause for concern. Religion is the most potent and compelling aspect of human experience, inspiration and imagination. When one opens the doors of faith to absurd impulse and short-term caprice, without any overarching system that sustains and renders this religion realizable and comprehensible, then one perverts the most significant element of our humanity. Like Nietzsche’s last men, following on the age of those who put futile faith in progress, only to see themselves consumed in chaos and thereafter replaced by mediocrity. It is telling that Manji is so manifestly closed that she does not substantively fathom where her ijtihad, if widely realized, would take the Muslim world, and the wider world of which it is an integral part. But we know what those who do not discipline themselves but blindly pursue their ends are capable of. And as such we reject them, and all those whose efforts would only detain and diminish us at a similar impasse. Islam is the path for the human to rise towards God; if it is only the road backwards into our timid and baser selves, then it is not Islam. It is stagnation. Which is, of course, the opposite of progress.

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    Haroon Moghul

    Haroon Moghul is a co-producer at Avenue M, a widely published writer and a popular public speaker.

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