Is Religion Fighting For Its Life?

Neil Postman posits in his book, Technopoly:

“It is still both possible and useful to distinguish a tool-using culture from a technocracy. In a technocracy, tools play a central role in the thought-world of the culture. Everything must give way, in some degree, to their development. The social and symbolic worlds become increasingly subject to the requirements of that development. Tools are not integrated into the culture; they attack the culture. They bid to become the culture. As a consequence, tradition, social mores, myth, politics, ritual, and religion have to fight for their lives.”

Along with this I talk about the role of theology in society, do women obey Islam and men follow the Sunnah?, tradition, hermeneutics and hijab amongst other things in this podcast.

Extra Reads

Hijab and Havaianas from altmuslimah. This is what I refer to in the podcast.

Tackling Religious Literacy: Lexical Empiricism – a deeper look at the ritual of wudu’ and hermeneutics.

Prophetic Love: A Look At Obedience to Prophet Muhammad

Love.  There are so many synonyms, so many names and inflections in this one little word.  We are encouraged to extol the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم.  And yet despite this, I see an increasing disconnect between Muslims and what and who the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم represents.  As a Muslim educator for over a decade (approaching two!), it would seem that the most neglected “science” amongst Muslims is the biography of the Prophet (referred to as the sirah) صلى الله عليه وسلم in particular and history in general.  The result has been a notion, not of a man who lived a real life with real pain (and love), real wins and real losses, but that of an abstract figure whose emulation remains elusive, like the remembrance of a dream upon waking: the harder you struggle to concretize that memory the more it fades away.

In observation it is clear that we as a community need to re-establish the humanness of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم: to re-assert that he lived and died, that he ate and drank, laughed and cried, married and buried spouses and children.  In order to do so, I will share some observations from the opening of Surah al-Hujarat, the Forty Ninth chapter of the Qur’an:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا تقدموا بين يدى الله ورسوله واتقوا الله إن الله سميع عليم

“O’ you who are secure in belief!, do not put yourselves forward in front of God and of His Messenger; and have taqwa of God. God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” – Qur’an, 49: 1.

Here, I have noticed a tendency that when we as Muslims discuss the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and his legacy, we have lost a sense of reverence for his station. How quick are we to battle one another (let alone those outside our faith) about this or that point from his Sunnah.  Far too often we “raise our voices” as means of browbeating or intimidating others into accepting our provincial points of view regarding this or that argument.  But development of love for the Prophet عليه الصلوات والسلام starts with recognizing the space, rank, and station that his voice still retains to this day, one thousand four hundred and thirty two years after his demise صلى الله عليه وسلم.

God continues in the Qur’an with:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا ترفعوا أصوتكم فوق صوت النبي ولا تجهروا له بالقول كجهر بعضكم لبعض أن تحبط أعملكم وأنتم لا تشعرون

“O’ you who are secure in belief!, do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet and do not be as loud when speaking to him as you are when speaking to one another, lest your actions should come to nothing without your realizing it.” – Qur’an, 49: 2.

Developing a love and appreciation for who God’s Final Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم is starts with humbling yourself to his legacy.  This should not be confused with taqlid*, or “uncritical imitation” in matters that demand us to think.  It may be a great struggle to accept the primacy of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم I one’s life; we all have different struggles.  But if one accepts that God sent Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم as the only infallible source of guidance, then perhaps from here we can lower our voices, not simply out of disrespect (hence the “do not be as loud when speaking to him as you are when speaking to one another”) but also so we can hear what it is his Sunnah is saying to us.

Though obvious to some, I believe it bears repeating: the Prophet’s legacy/Sunnah صلى الله عليه وسلم is for our benefit, meaning that its adherence or rejection in no way reflects on the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, nor his status as God’s Beloved and Noble Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم.  We can see this in the next verse, where God says:

إن الذين يغضون أصوتهم عند رسول الله أولئك الذين امتحن الله قلوبهم للتقوى لهم مغفرة وأجر عظيم

“Those who lower their voices when they are with the Messenger of God are people whose hearts God has tested for taqwa. They will have forgiveness and an immense reward.” – Qur’an, 49: 3.

We should never think that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم has truly departed from us: as he said, “I have left you two things … God’s Book and my Sunnah.”  It’s this point I want to drive home: Islam is a living religion with a living practice with a living legacy.  While God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم did depart from this life as we know it, nonetheless, we are commanded by none other than God to send salutations on him in every two units of prayer:

السلام عليك أيها النبي ورحمة الله وبركاته

“Peace be upon you!, O’ Prophet, and God’s mercy and blessings.” – Muslim prayer, al-Tashahhud.

So not only is it for our benefit, but with everything in Islam, obedience brings about reward: “They will have forgiveness and an immense reward.

So before we are so sure, so confident about whether this or that thing is simply culture (wearing hijab or growing one’s beard for instance) we need to investigate the Messenger’s relationship صلى الله عليه وسلم to that thing. Nor should we dismiss a thing lightly simply because it is only mustahibb or “loved” by the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. This type of assumption can also be a “raising one’s voice above the Prophet” صلى الله عليه وسلم. It will prove extremely difficult for us as Muslims to grow our love the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم if we continue to dismiss what was endeared by him so easily صلى الله عليه وسلم.  It is this assumption, in my opinion, that illustrates the lack of primacy that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم has in our lives; our fall from grace if you will.

In closing, consider the follow account by ‘Ubayy Ibn Ka’b رضي الله عنه. To me, it beautifully sums up the station and primacy of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in the life of a Muslim.  It elucidates a type of emotional relationship with God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم that left me personally feeling a bit selfish and self-centered (I’m always asking God about me).  And yet, through putting the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم before myself—may God’s promise be true—I will have all of my needs, all of my wants, all of my anxieties attended to by the One Who Responds as well as forgiven by the One Who Forgives. For me, this is the syllabus for Islam 201.

كان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم إذا ذهب ثلثا الليل قام فقال يا أيها الناس اذكروا الله اذكروا الله جاءت الراجفة تتبعها الرادفة جاء الموت بما فيه جاء الموت بما فيه قال أبي قلت يا رسول الله إني أكثر الصلاة عليك فكم أجعل لك من صلاتي فقال ما شئت قال قلت الربع قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قلت النصف قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قال قلت فالثلثين قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قلت أجعل لك صلاتي كلها قال : إذا تكفى همك ويغفر لك ذنبك

“The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to stand after two thirds of the night had passed and would go out to the people and say: ‘O’ people!, remember God, remember God! The First Blast has already come; the Second Blast is to follow it. Death has come, death has come.’ ‘Ubayy said, ‘I said: O’ Messenger of God, I pray for you often but how many prayers should I make?’ He [the Prophet] said, ‘as many as you wish.’ He [‘Ubayy] said: ‘I said, “a quarter?”.’  He said: ‘as you wish, but if you were to increase it, it would be better for you.’ He said: ‘I said, “two thirds?”.’ He said: ‘as you wish, but if you were to increase it, it would be better for you.’ He [‘Ubayy] said: ‘If I dedicate all of my prayer to you?’ He said: ‘Then your needs will be satisfied, and your sins forgiven.’ — recorded by al-Tirmidhi in his Sunan.

*Taqlid is a term used to describe many things though usually it refers to imitating or following a practice in Islam. In modern times, taqlid has become something of a pejorative though it is good to remind oursevles that for somethings, we can only follow what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us and not simply make up our own way to pleasing or worshiping God (for this, see Dr. Jackson’s article, Towards Empowering the Common Muslim). An example of taqlid in which we have no choice but to follow exactly what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us are the three units of prayer for Maghrib: as to why they are three and not four, no one can say. But if one wishes to prayer Maghrib (and one must prayer Maghrib in order to complete the five canonical prayers) then one must follow what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us and any deviation from it would be considered unsanctioned innovation (bid’ah).

Getting Serious About Our Islam – More Thoughts on Tradition

Over this winter break I had a chance to engage in a number of good dialogs with my wife and friends about what’s going on right now with Muslims, American Muslims in particular (though, as it was recently pointed out, some of this is equally pertinent to Muslims living in Europe). From those talks sprang a reference to the article in which Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, from the Nawawi Foundation, was interviewed regarding Muslims, tradition, and dress. I read over the article again and thought I’d just point out a few brief points, as I felt they were relevant to the last post.

To be specific, Dr. Abd-Allah’s article highlights the dichotomy that exists between Muslims of so-called “Tradition” and its ever-increasing counterproductive results. Dr. Abd-Allah highlights a key issue facing Muslims, namely that of the burden that Muslim women are currently carrying: Identity. Abd-Allah points out this burden is “way too heavy”, and that it in effect reverses the very objective (Maqāsid al-Shari’ah/مقاسد الشريعة) that the Divine Law is trying to aim us towards:

When a Muslim woman in a scarf is coming out into public and she is totally exposed, the man is now in hijāb. He is in hijāb. She’s not in hijāb. She’s wearing a scarf yes, but if we know what hijāb really is, the man is in hijāb because he’s hidden. You can’t see him, you don’t know if he’s a Muslim or Hindu, you don’t know if he’s an Arab Muslim, an Arab Jew, an Arab Christian or just white. The man is in hijāb. That is what hijāb means – he is hidden from the public eye. She is not. She is the one who is absolutely out there, everybody knows it, so that’s hard for her to bear. Continue reading “Getting Serious About Our Islam – More Thoughts on Tradition”

Islam: Questions and Answers

I am re-posting this from a letter my wife wrote about the 20/20 incident.

After lengthy discussion about ABC’s recent 20/20 program on an email listserv for Middle East and Islamic Studies, Maytha Alhassan invited members to compose a letter to the producers. We have workshopped the letter with someone in the media and incorporated suggestions from readers. If you are interested in signing, please send your name, title, and affiliation.

ABC’s 20/20

Islam: Questions and Answers

We applaud ABC’s 20/20 for producing the show “Islam: Questions and Answers” program, which attempted to address the American public’s curiosity about Islam and show the true face of Islam in America. However, as scholars, activists, educators, and community leaders, we are concerned about the ways in which this program misrepresented Muslim Americans.  We would like to address three major areas where your program inaccurately depicted Islam in America: first, by continually asserting that moderate Muslims do not speak up; second, by overlooking the contributions of African American Muslims;  and finally, allowing women who have complete antipathy towards Islam (Pamela Gellar and Ayaan Hirsi) to speak for Muslim women. The producers and researchers may have been well meaning, however the program’s insensitivity and lack of nuance  alienated many American Muslims and perpetuated many misconceptions about American Muslims. Our aim is to address these three areas and provide some recommendations for more accurate coverage of American Muslims in the future.

  1. First, the show continually asked, “Why don’t we hear or see more mainstream, peaceful Muslims speaking up?” or “Where are the moderate voices?”
    • It is problematic to divide Muslims into binary categories of “moderate” and “radical.” Would the same categorical statement be made about the socio-political orientation of followers of different religious faiths and other ethnic groups? How would the mainstream reaction to your program be had you produced a segment titled “Where are all the moderate Christians?,” “Where are all the moderate Latino Americans?” The framing of these questions and methodology of answering these questions highlights an acceptability of a bigoted stance on Muslims that is rarely acknowledged.
    • Muslim Americans are constantly blamed for not speaking up, however the media bears some responsibility. Moderate Muslims continually speak out and do positive things for American society, but this does not make it in the news. And there American Muslim scholars and leaders who hold conferences, talks, lectures devoted to the topic of “Forging an American Muslim identity.” Zaytuna Institute scholars Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid Shakir, Islamic Center of New York University Imam Khalid Latif and professor Dr. Sherman Jackson are but a few of the many American born intellectuals and community leaders who do speak out.
    • Where is the media when peaceful Muslims gather, participate in the American political process, protest terrorism, violence, and hatred?
    • At one point, an expert posits a recommendation “They need to have a million man march on Washington,” while conveniently ignoring that the Million Man March was actually led by a Muslim man, Louis Farakhan.
    • On September 25, 2009, Islam on Capitol Hill gathered an estimated 8,000 to prayer Friday prayers. And on October 15, 2010 thousands of Muslims once again convened on Capitol Hill to demonstrate their belief in American democracy and promote religious freedom, however, there were few media outlets at the DC event.
    • Muslim Congressmen Keith Ellison wrote an Op-ed “Should We Fear Islam?” in the Washington Post speaking to the first point made in this section. Ellison and Muslim Congressman Andre Carson were also completely absent from the program, which brings us to an important issue of accurate portrayal of American Muslims.
  2. The program reinscribes Islam as a foreign religion by focusing on Arab and South Asian immigrant communities in the US, at the expense of African American Muslim communities.
    • Your program excluded African American Muslims in the narrative of Islam in America and conflated of Arab with Muslim. African Americans make up the largest percentage of Muslims in America, and yet your program visited Dearborn, Patterson, NJ, and even Egypt to speak with Arabs who compose the third largest group of Muslims in the US.
    • The Nation’s first capitol, Philadelphia, has a rich and long history of Muslims. There was a community of orthodox Black American and Caribbean American Muslims from the 1920s. It has high concentration of Muslims, a Muslim chief of police, Muslims who work in city government, etc.
    • With the over-exposure of Arab Muslims, your program even failed to mention that Arab American Muslims are in the minority in Arab American communities. Most Arab Americans are Christian.
    • The program did a poor job discussing, engaging with and highlighting the diverse community of Muslims.
    • Low figure for Muslims (2-3 million?), and no breakdown of the demographics.
    • No discussion of converts.
    • The program even failed to show celebrated athletes (NFL, NBA, boxing, Soccer players), politicians and historical figures who are Muslim and African American.
  3. Finally, the segment, “Does Islam oppress women?” did a great disservice to Muslim women.
    • While we appreciate the inclusion of one Muslim voice, Irshad Manji, she herself is not a scholar on Islam.
    • Instead two polemics who are vehement in their anti-Islam stance, Ayaan Hirsi and Pamela Gellar received undo attention.
    • Your program failed to include any Muslim scholars such as Amina Wadud, Ingrid Mattson (a Canadian scholar who recently ended her term as ISNA president), or Dr. Aminah Beverly McCloud to speak in this segment? Their and other scholars’ absence is an indication of an asymmetric representation of opposition views.
    • Perhaps these scholars would have shed light on Muslim women’s contributions through history such as Islam’s first convert, Khadija al-Kubra, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, who was also his employer before marrying. One of the first Sufi saints was a woman, Rabia al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (Rabia al-Basri) or Nana Asma’u, a West African educator and reformer.

In order to explore our rich diversity, we have provided some recommendations to improve your coverage of American Muslims below:

  1. Explore the long history of Muslims in the US, a history of residency and settlement that predates the formation of America as a country. American born Nawawi scholar Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah has written extensively on this subject.
  2. Include broader segments of the American Muslim community to ensure that each major ethnic group, South Asian American, African American, and Arab American, is represented in your programs.
  3. Attend Muslim American events, banquets and conferences like the prayer on Capitol Hill, MPAC, CAIR’s functions, etc. Do not just focus on sensationalism, but cover American Muslims during Ramadan or Eid al-Adha (the end of Hajj).
  4. We ask your researchers and staff to be more careful in their selection of “experts.” Make distinctions between socio-politics and Islamic scholarship. None of the women you interviewed in the question on the oppression of women in Islam had training in Islamic scholarship on covering or the hijab. We can help provide a list of scholars and experts who would be happy to lend their expertise.
  5. Consider diversifying your staff, researchers and interns with knowledge, expertise, and experience in various communities may yield better results.

In summation, your program provided a rare opportunity to provide accurate coverage of Muslims and clear up misconceptions. As acknowledged at the onset of your program, the controversy surrounding the Park 51 community center elicited a renewed curiosity in Islam. We were pleased with the inclusion of Edina Lekovic’s (MPAC) comments, Reza Aslan’s explanation of the definition of “fatwa,” and Faiza Ali’s (CAIR-NY) elucidation of the hijab’s complex historical place in cultural and religious practice, “coerced headcoverings are tribal.” However we note that while your program was a step in the right direction, it still ended up being misleading. By taking into consideration the recommendations we have made, your producers can create more accurate programing on Muslim Americans thereby showing the real face of Islam in America.

The Trouble With Muslim Pundits Today

Today was an odd turn of events that had the building which houses my office on UPenn’s campus, play host to a talk on Islam by one of today’s most darling Muslim pundits, Irshad Manji. A self-proclaimed Muslim reformist, activist, human rights lobbiest and lesbian, Irshad gave a talk to an attentive audience which was comprised of both Muslim and non-Muslim, old and young alike. Dr. Leonard Swidler, from Temple University, was also on hand to add to the discussion. But, unfortunately, like her book, The Trouble With Islam Today, the talk was filled with nothing more than drivel. And that’s just the good part.

So much of the dialog today regarding Islam is in how it can fit into the master narrative of Western discourse. This encompasses everything from morals, ethics, to aesthetics, such as standards and concepts of beauty. When Islam fails to authenticate a narrative that falls within the margins of the dominant culture, it and vis-a-vie, the Muslims, are condemned as being backwards, barbaric, and even morally, ethically, and intellectually bankrupt. And when a people are deemed barbaric or morally bankrupt, the slippery slope to subjugation, whether it be figuratively, psychologically or physically can never trail far behind. This process of brutalization bears striking resemblance to the types of psychological terror that have been visited upon various minority groups in the West, especially in America, when they failed to meet the criterion of a dominant force that often have a pattern of “moving the goal post” when it suited itself opportune.

A major portion of my critique on Manji’s arguments and positions as well as comments that Dr. Swidler gave, were that neither Manji nor Swidler are scholastically equipped to answer any such questions regarding the intellectual tradition of Islam. Manji is a journalist of questionable objectivity and Swidler’s expertise lies outside the fold of Islam. Manji often relies on crude reductionism coupled with a woefully absent basic familiarity with the Islamic Tradition. Buzz words like ijtihad, fatwah and of course, the crowd-pleaser, jihad, are tossed out to lend to her some Islamic academic credibility. In fact, Swidler’s presence is somewhat questionable as Temple University could have certainly offered up someone who would have been far better suited to the task at hand. In light of access to scholars like Khalid Blankinship, it remained a curiosity as to why Manji chose a non-Muslim religious professor to engage in talks about Muslim reform.

But to take things a step further, Manji’s book, The Trouble With Islam Today, is guilty of the same crime that many of its contemporaries are: making the personal experience an ontological narrative. To help further explain my point, let me offer this explanation: because of the trials and tribulations that Manji faced as a child, because of the personal experiences that Manji had and the choices she’s made, she has taken the sum of those experiences and built the foundation of her argument around them such that they take on a scope that is completely inappropriate. That because they were or are issues for Manji they must be equally important issues for all Muslims in all times and in all places. A great deal of Manji’s contemporaries, such as Ayan Hirsi Ali to name one, frame their arguments in the same manner. But to reiterate, these criticisms of Islam do not simply stop at personal narrative, they apex again at how Islam falls short on a laundry list of items such as equality, human rights, tolerance and progression. In where Islam fails to be equal, tolerant or progressive in the “Western” paradigm that Manji offers up, Islam is deemed to have a problem. So this left me asking some simple but pertinent questions: are any of these issues true? And if so, how, and in what way? And again, if so, what would be the best way of looking for resolutions.

Before tackling any of the issues that Manji tries to speak on the, I have a few questions of my own. Namely, is she, or Professor Swidler capable of addressing these issues from both within and without the Muslim intellectual tradition. What are Manji’s credentials that would allow her to speak authoritatively on issues that Muslims today are facing. Indeed, it seems to be Manji’s modus operandi to completely leap frog the whole of Muslim intellectual thought and just, as she put it to me, bypass dogma.

Much of the holes in Manji’s arguments, and for pundits like her, is that because they are not conversant with that tradition and thus the judgments and rulings that it produces, they marginalize it under the assumption that because it is from the Tradition it is old, outdated, antiquated and has nothing to offer to modern Muslims in modern times. This could not be further from the truth. And aside from this stiff arming they also neglect why it is important and still speaks to Muslims today. This inadequacy is more than simple ignorance of the intellectual tradition of Muslim thought but also woeful negligence in being versed in simple creedal formulations in Muslim theology such as the rightful place of God as an authority, the rightful place of authority of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad and how these authorities are negotiated.

During the talk, Manji made several quips about God being a “he or she” – the idea that God is neither masculine nor feminine is one of the primary principles in fundamental Islamic creed, yet Manji insists on using a language that is far from the spirit of what Muslim theology is all about. A similar stance is taken towards the sunnah, in that it is something that should be questioned, not in its application (as is how the Tradition does) but yet to question its validity as a whole. The result of which the Sunnah is seen as also a derelict of a by-gone era and thus should be tossed aside in favor of pure, so-called rational thinking.

For many Muslim/anti-Muslim pundits today, authority lies at the crux of their objections. In their arguments, Islam has suffered from an authoritative crisis, namely that the ulama’ — or religious scholars — have put a choke hold on religious interpretation and expression and therefore to avoid the risk of any further entrapment of religious authority, the baby is tossed out with the bath water. But no body or organization can survive much less thrive without an authoritative voice. And the sham to this is that in fact, most of these pundits, and Manji in specific here, seek to simply usurp the currently perceived authority for their own hegemonic voice. It is through this tension that Manji, and pundits like her, have with authority that the agenda of such said pundits becomes clear.

During the talk, the example of the fatwah that was issued against Salman Rushdie was used as a means of demonstrating the backwards, barbaric and even violent tendencies that this authoritative voice could foster. And yet, not once, either of negligence, ignorance or purpose, the fatwah that was issued by the Mufti of Egypt from al-Azhar University denying the validity of any such fatwah was conveniently left out. In light of its absence it would indeed seem that the Muslim world is not only monolithic but monolithic in its barbarity, an image that is often offered up from the hands of Orientalist scholars of Islam. In fact, when Manji’s research is examined a bit more closely, it is laced with Orientalist tendencies of understanding Islam and Muslims. This is far from the “fair and balanced” reporting that Manji would leave us to believe.

Manji’s axe to grind with authority extends even to basic tenants of Islam such as prayer. When asked about prayer she responded that she does not need anyone to tell her how to pray – that she can devise such a way on her own. Such thinking could not be further from the pale of Islamic theology 101. But the main issue with this line of thought is not that Manji wants to “find her own way” but in that she wishes to seek accommodation in the orthodoxy of the religion. Wanting to be homosexual and pray in your own way is completely a matter of personal choice but there is simply no way to justify it with the texts, traditions and methodologies in Islam. Expecting to do so shows not only a lack of intelligence but also immaturity on Manji’s part. This only further demonstrates Manji’s desire to influence and assert her own authority for if her way was sufficient and as she put it to me, “between me and my God”, then gaining an ascendant voice would not be necessary. No, it is indeed this ambition to flip the current and Traditional modules of authority on their respective heads that lies at much of Manji’s argument.

To continue to examine Manji’s theological constructs, one comment she made struck me dead in my tracks. When she spoke to her mother about praying to God in her own way she made a rebuttal that she offered up sincere words of gratitude and that she offered them willingly to God. It is not my focus to deconstruct Manji’s arguments solely on dogmatic grounds but she has completely missed the forest ‘fore the trees. One of the basic underlying principles dictating the relationship between God and Man is that God needs nothing from us. And that anything we offer up in the way of worship, orthodox or heretical, adds nothing to the dominion of God. Manji’s argument is typical of persons who have bones to pick with religion (legitimate or otherwise) and assume a posture of arrogance that is not befitting them. Hence in Islam, only God has the right to Arrogance (al-Mutakabbir) as God needs nothing and only One free from want can be truly arrogant.

A favorite target of these hybrid-Orientalists, as I will call them, is the use of the Middle-East as a criterion for the very possibilities of what Islam can and cannot be and specifically, where it fails to achieve the hurdles set up by the very same judges who also craft the questions, Islam and by proxy, all Muslims, are deemed to be inferior. In her documentary, Manji does extensive filming in Yemen, a country in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, and as Manji put it, the birthplace of Islam (though I’d say her geography is off just a bit but who’s counting). As Manji takes in the sights of Yemen the camera displays for us the manifold women who walk the streets, head scarves covering their heads and veils on many of the faces. The critique is centered around the “sameness” of everything and that there is a stifled individuality. In its essence the whole film is a work of cinematic Orientalism. Two examples are offered to the viewer: an American woman who married a Yemeni man and now wears the hijab and veil and a Yemeni woman who has taken to adopting Western styles of dress. There was no interview done of Yemeni women who do wear hijab and veil and do so out of their own choice and not out of a 7th Century tribal (another argument of Manji’s that I will address in a moment) affiliation. Instead, we are encouraged to see how backwards the society is in how it hasn’t caught up with Modernity – Modernity in how the West has interpreted it. And it’s a steep and slippery slope from being backwards to being brutalized; both physically and psychologically.

Tribalism seems to be one of the central arguing points of Manji. That the entire Muslim world is in reality, a humongous body of worshipers who have been indoctrinated into a 7th Century modality of living. Anything that a Muslim does is not out of his or her understanding but rather in obedience to Arabian tribalism. This myopic vision is again, indicative of Orientalism, which willingly lacked the ability to look at Islam as an idiosyncrasy in the way in which white European Christians were an idiosyncrasy. Muslims were not a body of believers that had tremendous diversity in custom and in interpretation but a monolith – no variation. No individual thought. And more importantly, anything that any Muslim did or thought was inextricably linked and informed by their religion and was therefore part and parcel for Islam itself. This philosophy is still alive and well today and continues to inform a great deal of the scholarship on Islam in the West. Orientalism is not the only misgiving that Manji’s work is guilty of. Reductionist thinking is another characteristic that her work is ripe with. From the way in which she interviews small minorities of Muslims and yet offers what they have to say, think and feel, as capturing the majority spirit. Her critique that Muslim women who wear hijab are simply using fundamentalism as a moral compass is so woefully guilty of reductionist thinking that it is only because Manji offers an articulation of Islam that is appeasing to the dominant culture that it has not been cast out as completely devoid of any substance.

In the end, Manji’s work reveals bare, the bones she has to pick with authority within orthodox Islam. But instead of approaching Islam in a methodical way, she simply side steps the intellectual traditions, branding them as dogmatic, devoid of any life or creativity. And it is here that Manji’s assumptions are the same as the Orientalists: that the endeavor of Muslim history and its Tradition have nothing pertinent to say in the modern context. And it is through this adoption of Western normals and values, without a single shred of scrutiny, reveals Manji’s bias. Indeed, Manji’s critique of Islam is not in how it succeeds or impedes the pleasing of God and attaining a successful life in the Hereafter but in how it does not measure up to Westerness; a goal post that is wholly unachievable and nor should it be proffered as a desired achievement. The opinions and the histories that informed those Muslims and how they reached them are never acknowledged let alone tackled. Simply put, in each and every way that Islam and Muslims do not meet the articulation that Irshad Manji and pundits like her concoct then Islam and the Muslims are open game to be humiliated and brutalized, whether that be psychological or otherwise. And that’s not “tough journalism” – it’s sensationalism and deceit.

Perhaps in the future Manji might be willing to sit and discuss her work with a Muslim scholar or at the very least, a scholar of Islam. I found an intriguing curiosity that with a scholar like Dr. Khalid Blankinship at Temple University was passed over in favor of Dr. Swidler, who, while a professor of religion, is not a scholar of Islam. Until then I think that Manji will continue to loose face in the majority Muslim body, which is precisely where she wants to plant her flag. I for one am available for comment or discussion.

And God knows best.