Toronto-based journalist, filmmaker, and TV personality Irshad Manji is the author of a best-selling book, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. She is also the creator of an acclaimed documentary, Faith Without Fear, which chronicles her own journey to reconcile Islam with freedom.
Born in Africa and raised in Canada, Irshad Manji calls herself a devout Muslim but one who believes her faith has not sufficiently come to terms with modernity. Speaking with host Carol Castiel of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA and with Uzbek TV and radio broadcaster Navbahor Imamova, Ms. Manji says that Islam once had a “glorious tradition of independent thinking, creative reasoning, dissent and debate” called ijtihad. At that time Islamic civilization led the world in “curiosity, creativity, and ingenuity.” She says that some of the “rigidity” often associated with Islam is more a “modern phenomenon than it is inherent in the faith.” Ms. Manji describes herself as a person who is “emotionally, culturally, and spiritually” very much connected to Islam. She says the problem is not with Islam, which already contains the “elements” that allow believers to be “very enlightened and very modern,” but rather with those individual Muslims today who “lack the courage to change” and adapt to the 21st century.
Irshad Manji notes that the Qur’an contains three times as many verses calling on Muslims to “think and reflect and analyze” as those that tell believers “what is absolutely right or wrong.” Thus, she says, Islam gives permission “not just to interpret but to continually reinterpret to update [one’s] practices for a brand new time.” Ms. Manji says that in Islam all individuals are equal in the eyes of the Creator, “whether you are a man or woman, young or old,” and have both a “conscience and free will.”
What she regards as the “trouble” with Muslims today is literalism. And by that Ms. Manji means an “uncritical and unquestioning approach to the faith.” She emphasizes that every major religion in the world has its “share of literalists.” But, she argues, it is “only in Islam today that literalism is mainstream worldwide.”
Ms. Manji says that even “moderate” Muslims take the Qur’an as the “final – and therefore supreme – word of God.” But, she suggests, that concept “disproportionately empowers the radical fringe in [her] religion” – for example, the jihadis. Furthermore, it stops those who call themselves “moderates” from asking hard questions “about what happens when faith becomes dogma.” What Ms. Manji’s book argues is that Muslims have lost an important element of their Islamic heritage – their “glorious tradition of questioning.” And she suggests that Muslims today need to “start taking responsibility for traditions such as ijtihad,” and by reviving those traditions it will become apparent “how much more glorious [their] religion is for the 21st century.” Ms. Manji says the revival of ijtihad has the “best chance of success when it is pursued by middle-class, reform-minded Muslims from open societies” where there is no fear of government retaliation. However, she says she believes that even those who are illiterate, including women, “deserve the opportunity to be able to interpret the Qur’an for themselves.”
Ms. Manji suggests that Wahabi Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia has exacerbated the problem. Furthermore, she argues that “Arab tribal culture” has been imposed on the practice of Islam in other parts of the world outside the Arabian Peninsula. It is, for example, becoming a trend in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. It is an irony, Ms. Manji suggests, because only about 20 % of Muslims worldwide are Arabs.
For full audio of the program Press Conference USA click here.