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Friday, February 04, 2005

The Trouble with Irshad

I recently read a piece by Madavi Sunder entitled “Piercing the Veil”. Sunder argues that the law must accommodate internal reform movements within Islam and allow women the right to “define and interpret” their religion in light of modernity.

Sunder makes some interesting points. She writes that religious communities are not as homogenous as human rights law continues to define them. She also bemoans the fact that human rights advocates continue to believe human rights can only flourish once religion becomes obsolete. Yet religion remains an important part of people’s lives. Sunder argues that women should be able to reclaim two important human rights principles: religious freedom and equality.

It is disappointing that Sunder’s analysis fails to move beyond feminists. There are many religious leaders who are re-evaluating the religious texts and providing new readings that challenge the status quo. Scholars and laypeople have also raised their disparate voices in the name of revival, reason, human rights and democracy.

For too long, these individuals have been ignored in favour of the Bin Ladens of our time. That these individuals have not garnered the attention they deserve has fuelled resentment in the Muslim community. The saga of Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim professor and philosopher who was hired by Notre Dame University but ultimately unable to come to the United States because his visa was revoked, was a huge blow to the Muslim community. Finally, a forward-thinking individual would be given a place in American society, but alas, before he was even given a chance, his entry was thwarted.

On the other hand, Irshad Manji is a self-styled Muslim reformer who claims to be engaged in a “non-military campaign” to revise Islam that she hopes the West will support. And she has garnered that support. She has gained the attention of the United Nations Press Corps, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, the Swedish Defence Research Agency, the Pentagon and the Amsterdam-based Archives of the International Women’s Movement. Her website states that she is a frequent guest on media as varied as NPR, FOX and the BBC. And yet, unlike Tariq Ramadan, Irshad Manji is reviled by much of the mainsteam Muslim community. Her story offers us one simple lesson: Choose your reformer carefully. Her rise to fame raises several troubling questions:

1. To what extent should analysis be married to the text? At what point does interpretation become fanciful musing rather than analysis grounded in the Qur’an? While there are many gray areas in the religious texts, at a certain point, black is black, and one cannot call it pink. Manji calls for an imaginative, non-literal and ungrounded interpretation of Islam that is foreign to most Muslims.

2. Whose claims will be accepted? How do legislators act when there are conflicting ideas in the community? If they support ideas that best fit with their own, are they doing a service to the Muslim community, or are they undermining the autonomy of religion? Irshad Manji’s popularity has encouraged the belief among Muslims that while Islam is being reinterpreted in ways that fit the whims of legislators, these interpretations are not faithful to the true nature of the religion.

3. Sunder claimed that we must ensure that reformers are coming from the community. This would involve judging individuals and interpreting religion and the religious community, requiring knowledge that is difficult to ask of legislators. Irshad Manji is not part of the mainstream community. It is not clear that she is affiliated with any Islamic congregation or organization. Thus she is perceived as an individual who is criticizing Islam from without, and this has enraged the very people she claims to represent.


  • At 2/04/2005 05:22:00 p.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…

    asSalaam 'aleykum:

    marhaban ala 'blogistan', sister Safiyyah: as someone who thought of it only when first feeling frustrated in my english teaching position last year, i sympathise. as someone who is looking at a few more months in the 'mamlukat arabiyyah saudiyah' *Saudi Kingdom?!?* before heading off to Qur'an and arabiyyah fusha studies (for real, insha Allah), I turn to blogging and the internet to voice thoughts and concerns that it's difficult or impossible to express orally...

    As you know, I can't say everything directly (or loudly ;) - as an alim (Hanafi fiqh) scholar in Madinah told me 'Hayaa is from iman, but not in affairs of din' - shyness is not good when dealing with matters essential to one's livelihood or religion. Several thoughts on the above post:

    i) please see Izzy Mo (Risama's) posts on - there's much excellent writing from Muslims (and especially Muslim women) critiquing Irshad's take on 'ijtihad' that I often don't feel like re-inventing the wheel, though as James said, it's difficult to meet a non-muslim who doesn't pull out her book and say 'there's this muslim woman who wrote a great book about "The Problem with Islam"...'

    ii) a friend (muslim brother) who was at her York appearance said that the muslims who argued with her often did so ineffectively, being both emotional and passionate about Palestine and her lesbian/ munafiq/ Zionist status - 'sound and fury, signifying nothing' - all of which she, as an accomplished media rep, shot down easily and breezily. He said that the simplest and most effective challenge came from a Jewish (alhamduliLlah) person who stood up and said: "There are those who criticize their communities out of love and concern for those communities, out of a desire to see the best for and from their people. I don't feel that from you. You seem to come from a position of anger and hatred." (She didn't say anything of note to that)

    On the more general topic of conspiracy theories (and the West/Muslim relationship) - if I didn't feel complicated about arab/western relations before, i feel worse now about the hopes for rational dialogue between people who hold such vehement and wildly opposed (though mirroring) ideologies and 'worldvisions', and have supporting media and religious 'clerics'... on the other hand, I feel there is a core of good in all believers and humans, and Imam Nawawi (radhi Allahu anh) said in his tafsir on the hadith 'None of you believe until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself' that one first loves for his brother in humanity the good that he (she ;) has found in Islam; and secondly that one loves for his brother/sister in Islam the best of the dunya and akhira... People with such good hearts shouldn't be abused. And look at what was done last year in the dialogue, even if only for one day and a few brilliant hours... mash Allah.

    a saying (I don't know it as a hadith, but transmittable if one doesn't insist on it's soundness or make it a point of faith): 'It is better to take the Kaaba apart, stone by stone, than to destroy the heart of a believer'

  • At 2/04/2005 08:07:00 p.m., Blogger DrMaxtor said…

    Excellent points. That being said, I think Manji's 15 minutes are almost up.

  • At 2/12/2005 01:07:00 p.m., Blogger Safiyyah said…

    dawud: It’s great to hear from you, Hajji;) I appreciate the insight. I think the eloquent comments of the Jewish man encapsulate my feelings about her, and it’s fascinating that someone outside of our community is able to recognize that. It demonstrates the similarities in the Muslim and Jewish religious traditions.
    As for conspiracy theories, you’re right, our dialogue initiative was fascinating. There was some recent controversy at UofT last week, with the ASC organizing an Israeli Apartheid Week at the same time as Hillel’s IsraelFest. It is very discouraging, especially because there is little dialogue happening. I am looking into the possibilities right now of organizing something in a different spirit and will let the “crew” know if anything comes up. I know there are many people on campus who are disturbed by the recent happenings, because some have already contacted me to see if anything can be done

    drmaxtor: I don’t know if her “15 minutes are almost up.” I’d say she’s become a fixture in North American discourse on reforming Islam. Yes, the initial craze of popularity may have slowed, but now she’s entered a stage of stability that is no less frightening. From conversations with non-Muslims, I get the impression people really don’t realize she’s not part of the mainstream Muslim community. They seem baffled by the fact that we’re concerned about her presentation of Islam.


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