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This blog used to be called EDL Extra. I was a supporter of the EDL until 2012. This blog has retained the old web address.


Saturday, 21 May 2011

Irshad Manji: a Brave and ‘Progressive’ Muslim

[Above: Irshad Manji: is Manji attempting to square a circle with Islam? Left: Manji's informative and entertaining best-seller, The Trouble With Islam Today.]


An enquiry from English Defence League Extra

Dear Irshad Manji,

You may think it a little odd to receive a message from a member of the English Defence League - whose primary fight is against militant Islam and Islamism. The EDL have been classed as ‘racist’, ‘fascist’ and, of course, ‘Islamophobic’ by the Left, Muslims, etc. I suspect that you, even as a Canadian, have heard of our movement.

Despite all that, I have read your book, The Trouble With Islam Today, and I found it extremely entertaining and informative. Most of all, I respect and admire your attempt to liberalise Islam and make it more ‘progressive’. However, I don’t think you will be very successful in this endeavour - though I’m not a futurologist! I am pretty sure that lots of Muslims like you - educated and middle-class Western Muslims - may well be inspired by what you write. But beyond that catchment area, I sincerely doubt that you will make any serious inroads. (Perhaps we can discuss this at a later time.)

Basically, I wonder if you would like to debate with EDL Extra and have the results posted on the blog? Perhaps it could be based around the quotes I have commented on or on a question-and-answer format. It’s up to you.

[Irshad Manji didn't respond to my email or my post via her FaceBook page.]


Islam’s Contributions to Western Culture?

‘Let me highlight a handful of Islam’s contributions to Western culture. The guitar. Cough syrup. The university. Algebra. Mocha coffee...’ (page 65)

This is one of the most common and annoying mistakes you can find in defence of Islam.

How can Islam itself have contributed the guitar, cough syrup, algebra, etc. to ‘Western culture’? How can a religion, or the Koran, the hadiths, etc. have contributed these things? How can even the affects of Islam, the Koran, etc. have done so?

It is absolutely ridiculous to claim that Islam, a religion primarily based on the Koran, could have had an hand in the invention of the guitar, algebra, cough syrup syrup, etc. Which passages in the Koran, or the hadiths, etc. helped contribute to the creation of algebra? Which passages even helped inspire the invention of cough syrup? Again, this is plain silly!

What Manji must really mean is that people who happened to have been Muslim made these contributions to Western culture. Islam itself had absolutely nothing to do with it. I suppose we could say that Islam obliquely inspired these Muslims to invent these things. But those causal affects must have been very oblique indeed.

We can even say that these scientists, poets, inventors, mathematicians, etc. invented or created these things in spite of Islam, not because of it. Perhaps Islam, on the whole, got in the way of their inventions or creations - it didn’t help or inspire them. In fact, it often did.

We can also say that these inventions and creations happened in spite of Islam, not because of it, because algebra, the guitar, cough syrup, etc. wouldn’t have been created or invented if it weren’t for the vitally important precedents which came from infidel or non-Muslim cultures. Even if Muslims were the inventors or creators of all these things, they wouldn’t have been the inventors or creators of any of them if it weren’t for the groundwork done by the infidels of ancient Greece, Rome, India, etc.

Above and beyond all that, some of the examples of ‘Islam’s contributions to Western culture’ are a bit suspect anyway. Apart from the fact that every one of these examples would have required infidel or non-Muslim antecedents to set the groundwork, it is unquestionably the case that algebra is not a Muslim invention anyway. Algebra goes back to the ancient Greeks. And it is also said that Diophantus (3rd century AD) was ‘the father of algebra’. He lived around 300 years before Islam even existed.

So perhaps all Manji meant is that Muslims, not Islam itself, added to the tradition and extent of algebra. Muslims, let alone Islam, certainly didn’t invent or discover it!

As for both the guitar and the university, it depends on how these words or concepts are defined. Guitar-like instruments date back to various ancient cultures - all of them pre-dating Islam by hundreds if not thousands of years (especially in ancient India and Asia). Perhaps, in the end, Manji is only taking about the word ‘guitar’ itself. Yes, that word comes from an Andalusian Arabic source, but that doesn’t mean that Muslims, let alone Islam, invented the guitar.

Exactly the same kinds of thing can be said about Manji’s other examples of ‘contributions to Western culture’. Again, the idea that Islam itself, rather than people who happened to be Muslims (whom themselves were hugely indebted to non-Muslim culture and knowledge), invented or created any of these things is plainly ridiculous. Indeed to say that Islam contributed, or invented, or created, algebra or anything else is almost a grammatical or logical mistake.

Because of all that, the same criticism can be levelled at what Manji writes in the very next paragraph. She writes:

‘Innovation and the spirit of ijtihad went hand in glove. In the southern Spanish city of Cordoba, for example, a sexually spunky woman named Wallada organised literary salons where people analysed dreams, poetry and the Quran.’ (page 65)

We can even rewrite that passage thus:

A woman who just happened to be a Muslim organised literary salons where people analysed dreams, poetry and the Quran.

A more germane point would be:

Did the Koran, etc. inspire or influence this ‘sexually spunky woman’ to ‘analyse’ itself? I very much doubt it!

All these things were done in spite of Islam, not because of Islam. Would we say that a serial killer, who believed in sleeping with everyone he met and in eating worms, was inspired or influenced by Islam simply because he did all these things as a Muslim? More to the point. Was Islam to blame or responsible for his serial killing and his eating worms? Of course not. So why can’t we say the same about Muslims who invented the guitar, or cough syrup or who contributed to algebra. And in Manji’s other example, was Islam itself, or the Koran itself, response for this Cordoban woman’s spunkiness or her penchant for salon discussions about poetry, dreams, etc?
Allah Created Homosexuals?

‘... how can the Quran at once denounce homosexuality and declare that Allah “makes excellent everything He creates”?... God has deliberately designed the world’s breathtaking multiplicity?’ (pg. 36)

Doesn’t Allah make snake venom, earthquakes, cancer, etc. too? Surely Manji doesn’t want to compare homosexuality with these negatives. Yes; everything on the list is still natural, and even Allah’s creation, but homosexuality cannot be in the same league as famine, etc. At least you wound’t expect a homosexual to think so!

The other point a Muslim may make is that Allah does not actually ‘create’ or ‘make’ homosexuality at all. The majority of Muslims believe that what Allah does make is male and female human beings and it is up to them whether they become homosexuals. That is a view of homosexuality which many Muslims, and Christians, have.

Having said all that. This stress on the free will of persons and their ‘choice’ to become or not become homosexuals may be tricky because free will seems not to have been stressed as much in Islam as it has been in Christianity. In fact, Islamic fatalism and even determinism seem to have been popular positions within Islam and amongst millions of Muslims throughout the ages.

To repeat. Something may be ‘excellent’, and ‘created by Allah’, yet still be malevolent or bad. In Christianity, for example, these malevolences or bad things are often said to exist to ‘test’ the goodness of God’s subjects, etc. All this may well be applied to homosexuality, as well as to pestilence and disease.
Adam and Eve

‘In the beginning, there was the woman question. Whom did God create first - Adam or Eve? The Quran is dead silent on this distinction. God breathed life into a “single soul”, and from that soul he “created its spouse”. Who’s the soul and who’s the spouse? It’s irrelevant. Moreover, there’s no mention of Adam’s rib, from which, according to the Bible, Eve was made. Nor does the Quran suggest that Eve tempted Adam to taste forbidden fruit.’ (pg. 45)

I have often heard is said, by scholars (though not usually Islamic ones), that Mohammed got much of his information about the Bible, as well as Christianity, Judaism, and God knows what else, second hand. That is. He rarely - or never- went to the original sources. How could he? He was illiterate and uneducated. As a result of that, some of the stories and messages of the Bible, etc. may have been abridged for him; or things may even have been deliberately or accidentally left out; or simply mistranslated.

The point I’m getting at is that I think it’s wrong, and misguided, to read too much into the fact that the Quran’s version of Adam and Eve does not square exactly with that in the Bible. And neither, more specifically, should one read too much into the seemingly ‘feminist’ facts that the Quran leaves out who Allah created first - Adam or Eve. (Or which one is the ‘soul’ and which one is the ‘spouse’.) Similarly, there may not have been any deep reason why in the Koran’s version of the Adam and Eve story there is no mention of Adam’s rib and therefore also no mention that Eve was made out of it. All this equally applies to the well-known Biblical ‘fact’ that it was Eve who tempted Adam and not the other way around.

Of course there is room for interpretation when it comes to any religious text. Nothing is set in stone (as Manji herself often says in her book). However, does that give an interpreter the automatic right to claim, or hint, that the Koran’s version of the Adam and Eve story is somehow proto-feminist or at least not dismissive of women (or Eve)? Sure, no one can stop it being read that way, or in the opposite way. But to suggest that this was the game plan of Mohammed, or even Allah, I find obviously unacceptable. (As Manji herself does when it comes to interpretations of Koranic passages which she is not in favour of.) ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

‘Ijtihad, he told me, was the Islamic tradition of independent reasoning, which he claimed allowed every Muslim, female or male, straight or gay, old or young, to update his or her religious practice in light of contemporary circumstances.’ (pg. 63)

Even though Ijtihad is about independent reasoning, Manji has still put a very contemporary slant on it. I suppose it could be that Manji applied Ijtihad to Ijtihad (as when Islamic taqiyya is applied to taqiyya by Muslims). What I mean is that regardless of the ‘independence from Islamic authorities’, talk of ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ and the rest could be seen as taking a liberty. I don’t know.

Wasn’t it only educated men, perhaps philosophers, who were allowed the liberty of practising Ijtihad? Was this ever applied to every Muslim even when it was practised and endorsed? Surely everything doesn’t go if someone comes up with a version of Islam, or passages from the Koran, which says that it is a favour of worshipping extraterrestrials or worshipping rocks. There have to be limits. And perhaps those limits can only be supplied by those who are qualified to 'independently reason'. Not every Muslim is, surely?

Of course, no doubt ‘contemporary circumstances’ were indeed always made relevant and germane when it came to Ijtihad. But all or any contemporary circumstances - even head-hunting or cultures of mass suicide? And if you then say,

But Islam wouldn’t allow mass suicide or head-hunting.

Then that supposes that there is, after all, a solid and unshakable basis of Islam which cannot change and which Ijtihad cannot touch. And that is to fall back, if only partly or slightly, on ‘reactionary’ attitudes to Ijtihad and indeed Islam itself.


Are Democracy and Rights Exclusively Western?

‘Voting with her head and just just her feet, the [Muslim] lawyer [in a hijab] proved that even among young, learned Muslims, freedom to express faith openly remains a key expectation of democracy. Suppressing Islam for the sake of “progress” resembles tyranny.’ (pg. 191)

But that’s precisely and only the kind of ‘democracy’ that very many Muslims want, from hard-core Militants to Islamists to reactionaries. They all want the freedom, within the West, to practice their Islamic faith. Problem is - that’s the only democracy they want. Thus we shouldn’t mistake a Muslim who wants ‘rights for Muslims’ to be automatically committed to any other right or any other forms of democracy.

Most Islamists and Islamic radicals despise democracy in all its other forms. And Manji’s middle-class ‘learned’ Muslim may also not have much respect for democracy - except for her democratic right to practice her religion. She may well want all other freedoms to go to hell.

Exactly the same is true with many of the participants in the Arab ‘spring revolutions’ in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. Many of them, and all the Islamists, are not fighting for democracy in any Western sense of the term - or even any sense of the term. They are fighting exclusively for their version of Islam to become embedded in the state and also for their ‘right’ to practice and express their strict or Islamist version of Islam. They are not fighting ‘autocratic’ regimes per se. They are fighting against what they see as the wrong kinds of autocratic regime - the non-Islamist or non-Islamic ones. They are not against autocracies/theocracies at all.

The same, again, with all those thousands of middle-class educated Muslims in Western and American universities. They are not fighting for rights in any general sense. And they are not fighting for democracy in any general sense. They are fighting for their right - for the rights of Muslims or Islamists - to practice and express their faith. The same is true about democracy. They are fighting for democracy for Muslims qua Muslims. To practice and express their faith. Literally nothing more than that.

Manji then speaks about ‘Westernisation’ rather than honest ‘openness’. But I’m pretty sure that she knows that democracy and rights are indeed Western phenomena. Very many Muslims, from the Arab states to Pakistan, hate and despise these Western phenomena and see them as being exclusively Western phenomena. Manji can’t get round this by making them non-Western or finding non-Western versions of rights and democracy - they aren’t really any.

So when Muslims complain about ‘Westernisation’ masquerading as ‘openness’, they are probably right and Manji and ‘progressive’ Muslims simply have to bite the bullet. The West is the best. Or, at the least, the West is the best when it comes to democracy, rights and freedoms. Who knows, perhaps Islamic states surpass us when it comes to discouraging thieves from stealing or perhaps they treat the poor better (actually - mostly they don’t).


  1. Thanks, this is thought provoking. I'll have to read it again to take it all in fully.

    I also have a couple of tid bits which may be useful.

    On Islam and algebra: I'd recommend Dirk J Struik 'A Concise History of Mathematics' (the fourth edition published in 1948 - no pc bull here!)

    You don't have to understand the mathematics to understand...

    Algebra is dated back to around 1750 B.C. via Cuniform texts from the first Babylonian Dynasty. (p.27)

    Islamic activities in the exact sciences, which began with Al-Fazari's translation of the Siddhántás, reached its first height with a native from Khiva, Muhammad ibn Músá al-Khwárizmi, who flourished about 825. Muhammad [al-Khwárizmi] wrote several books on mathematics and astronomy. His arithmetic explained the Hindu system of numeration. Although this book is lost in the original Arabic, a Latin translation of the twelfth century is extant. It was one of the means by which Western Europe became acquainted with the decimal position. (p.68)

    His [al-Khwárizmi] geometry is a simple catalogue of mensuration rules; it is of some importance because it can be directly traced to a Jewish text of the year A.D. 150. (p.69)


    It seems to me that the question of 'ijtihad' (always wondered what that meant, seeing it on the side of Lewis Hamilton's car), is more about Islamic thinkers like Mawulani Mawdudi (he inspired Sayyed Kutb, of the Muslim Brotherhood), Mawdudi's writings adapted jihad to the Western political and economic system (since the West was too powerful to defeat militarily).

    The Origins of Islamic Economics (or Shariah finance)

    Mawdudi's writings led to the campaign to have India cede a piece of its territory for an Islamic state, thus Pakistan was born.

    If you read Gilles Keppel's 'The Trail of Political Islam' this provides a fascinating background on people like Mawdudi (although doesn't mention itchy-jihad or whatever), although Keppel is a leftist and makes some howlers...

    Regards, CC

  2. I'll have to get back on your informative post.

    But, for now, your point that Sayyid Mawdudi, the extreme Islamist, himself used IJTIHAD, just shows that it can go in any direction! In this case, in the direction of Islamism and, if anything, a WORSE kind of Islam, not a more 'progressive' kind. This is an aspect of IJTIHAD that Manji is completely silent about.

  3. Great Post! It is a pity I detect a touch of the old "taqqiya" and "kitman" in Manji's lack of reply to you. Plus ca change and all that!!
    Thanks a lot to Caped Crusader too, for that very informative comment!

  4. or she might have just been busy

    where's the optimism J? ;)

  5. I'm from the same part of the country as Ms. Manji, and have friends who know her, she has a racket. A tiny following among muslims and a huge one among non-muslims, particularly white ones, desperate for anything that seems to demonstrate a glimmer of capacity for reform of baseline islamic doctrine. That's why she won't respond to you,because there's no dosh in it.