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‘Thoughts on being a modern Muslim’

 | June 4, 2012

The author of Allah, Liberty and Love speaks on what it means to be liberal Muslim.


Death threats, bodily harm, living in an apartment with bullet-proof glass, going without a mobile phone because having one would make finding her easy are things that Irshad Manji can deal with.

But pay her a compliment, and you will see her cringe. Push a little harder and compare her to Human Rights greats and you might just see the Canadian author and liberal Muslim activist flinch, a reaction bigger more threatening situations have not managed to incite from Manji who is also the author of The Trouble With Islam Today and the more recent Allah, Liberty and Love which is banned in Malaysia.

Last week, some 20 officers from the Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (Jais) raided ZI Publications and arrested its director Ezra Zaid. The officers seized 180 copies of Manji’s Allah, Liberty and Love which was translated into Malay.

In an exclusive Skype interview with FMT, Manji who appears much younger than her 44 years is open, welcoming of questions and courageously candid with her answers.

When asked to speculate if the authorities banned her book because of its content or her sexuality, the New York University professor who is openly gay, gave a little smile and said, “I don’t have to speculate.”

She shared how it was only last week that the authorities released a paper affirming that Allah, Liberty and Love should be banned. Their first reason given is that the book argues God has deliberately created each of us, Muslim and non-Muslim, and therefore all are loved by the Creator.

Added Manji, “The authorities vehemently disagree. Then, of course, they brought up my sexuality – about which there is nothing in my book. And they also pounce on the fact that Oprah awarded me her ‘Chutzpah’ prize. In the Yiddish language, chutzpah can mean a ‘crazy’ amount of courage. Now tell me: When was the last time Islamic scholars relied on Jews to make their point? Talk about desperation.

“Ultimately, by playing the role of God, these so-called scholars have confirmed the real issue: Love is the biggest threat to those who operate on fear. I sincerely hope that young Malaysians see through the politics of this ban. In our century, when creativity is the engine not just of material comfort but also of spiritual meaning, love is a far healthier message than fear,” she said.

Manji’s motivation to write the books comes from gratitude to God. She said her family and her came to Canada as refugees when in 1972, military dictator Idi Amin expelled thousands of families from Uganda. With nowhere to go, Manji expressed how grateful she is that Canada generously took them in.

“As soon as we arrived in Canada, we received two gifts – our winter coats and our freedom. I learned as a child to thank God for these gifts. Now I live and teach in New York City, but I still do the same two things when I wake up every morning: thank God for my freedom and then ask Him to continue making me worthy of my freedom by helping me use my voice for the freedoms of more people than just myself. Gratitude is the core of my Islamic faith.”

Free thinking

Manji’s fervour for her faith leaves one almost perplexed as to why her books are banned while she has been told by her Twitter followers that there are books by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim which can be found in Malaysia.

These are books about why Ayaan believes Muslims are inherently violent. Ayaan has left Islam and is currently an atheist. Manji says with a little shrug, “Here I am saying that Allah is love and that I’m proud to be a Muslim, but my book is banned.”

Progress, says Manji is needed to fully understand and accept this concept and a progressive Muslim in the author’s opinion, exercises ijtihad – Islam’s own tradition of independent thinking – to update interpretations and practices for the 21st century.

By contrast, she says, moderate Muslims have left Islam in a 7th-century time capsule and Manji adds that they they are slaves in a fear factory that was built by man centuries ago and is propped up by man’s politics.

“By confusing politics with faith, moderate Muslims perpetuate the fear of asking questions out loud. Progressive Muslims are not moderates, we are reformists precisely because we take seriously the Quran’s encouragement to think.

Manji also speaks free thinking and Muslim at the same time. The term ‘free-thinking’ in itself is something that sits disconcertingly with traditional or orthodox practitioners and believers of any faith.

When Manji is asked to elaborate on what she means by being free-thinking and Muslim, she gives the Quran as an example saying it contains three times as many verses calling on Muslims to thank, analyze, reflect and re-think, than verses that tell them only what is right or only what is wrong.

Manji clarifies that this means that there are three times as many passages encouraging ijtihad than blind submission. In that sense, she adds, progressive Muslims are at least as authentic as the mainstream – and quite possibly more constructive.

“After all, in the early centuries of Islam, 135 schools of thought flourished. In Muslim Spain, scholars would teach their students to abandon ‘expert’ opinions about the Quran if their own conversations with the Quran’s ambiguities produced better evidence for their ideas. Some cities in Muslim Spain housed 70 libraries. This rivals the number of libraries in most cosmopolitan cities today! In short, there’s a reason Islamic civilization once lead the world in curiosity and creativity. That reason is ijtihad.”

Creativity takes a backseat

The choke-hold on freedom of thought and thinking being experienced by Muslims is something Manji pegs on Muslims themselves who have allowed Arab tribal culture to colonise the faith of Islam.

She tells us that according to Arab custom, ‘honor’ belongs to the group not the individual – this means that creativity takes a backseat to conformity.

Manji is however optimistic that the Muslim community is already becoming more open to progress in terms of thoughts. She says that the day is already dawning on us because she has spent last 10 years hearing young Muslims around telling her that they are ready to reconcile faith and freedom.

Manji strongly feels that they need to know why ijtihad is their right and responsibility; they now need to know how to exercise ijtihad.

“That is the objective of Allah, Liberty and Love – to show readers how they can have God, freedom and love in their lives every day. But make no mistake: backlash always comes with progress.

“People fear backlash. That is also why I give strategies in the book about how to cope with the disapproval of your family, your teachers, your peers and yes, your government.

As the interview draws to a close, Manji says that most progressive Muslims have only ever heard about the fear-inducing passages of the Quran; her book, she hopes, will teach the passages that offer hope, encouragement, and dignity.

She gives an example of this in, “There is a saying which goes, ‘God does not change the condition of people until they change what is inside themselves’ (13:11) In other words, each one of us is endowed by God with the talent and strength to struggle for change. We can’t simply shrug our shoulders and whisper, “InshAllah.” God helps those who help themselves.”

Note: Irshad Manji invites anyone with dilemmas about spirituality and meaning, to seek confidential advice, through her “Guidance Council.” This is a team of trusted advisors, including Quran experts and social workers. The services are anonymous and free of charge and can be found at http://www.irshadmanji.com/Guidance-Council.

Also read:

Jakim: Buku Irshad Manji anjur pluralisme agama


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