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2 August 2004

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 5, No. 32

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Islam's Ninety-Five Theses?

by Jerome F. Winzig

Perhaps it is presumptuous for a non-Muslim to suggest a comparison between Irshad Manji's 2003 book, The Trouble with Islam, and Martin Luther's 1517 "Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences," more commonly known as the "Ninety-Five Theses." After all, some Muslims are upset with Manji's ideas, and even want to kill her. But then, the reactions to Luther's ideas in 1517 were similar. However, Manji's book, subtitled "A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith," is clearly a thought-provoking book, and one well worth reading by all believers, not just Muslims.

Manji cannot be easily pigeon-holed. She has been Canadian since age four, but her family is from Uganda and she is ethnically Pakistani. Some conservative American Christians may welcome some of her criticisms of Islam, but her book's acknowledgments start with these words: "I wear two rings, one to symbolize my love for God and the other to convey my commitment to Michelle Douglas, my partner. So I start by thanking God and what I most thank Him for is Michelle."

She examines the Koran in much the same way that good Jewish and Christian Biblical scholars examine the Old and New Testaments, although she doesn't pretend to be a theologian and her language is blunter and more plain-spoken than most Biblical scholars. She tries to look at the Koran in its entirety, and acknowledges that there are passages she finds disturbing.

She says there are three recurring messages in the Koran, and this Christian writer wonders how much of this applies to the Bible as well: "First, only God knows fully the truth of anything. Second, God alone can punish unbelievers, which makes sense given that only God knows what true belief is. (And considering the Koran's mountain range of moods, it really would take the Almighty to know how it all hangs together.) Human beings must warn against corrupt practices, but that's all we can do to encourage piety. Third, our resulting humility sets us free to ponder God's will--without any obligation to toe a dictated line."

Some of Manji's criticisms of Islam reminds us of the Protestant Reformation's effort to translate the Bible into native languages at a time when Latin was the language of Christendom. She quotes these words of Taslima Nasrin, a feminist Muslim writer and doctor from Bangadesh: "[A]s a child, I was told that Allah knows everything. Everything means everything. So Allah should know Bengali, shouldn't He? ... How come I have to pray in Arabic. When I want to talk to Allah, why do I have to use somebody else's language?"

Manji is direct in what she feels is wrong with Islam. She says, "What must be stripped from Islam is its desert strain of tribalism, which takes the act of closing ranks to a crushing level." Later, she adds, "Seems to me that in Islam, Arab cultural imperialists compete with God for the mantle of the Almighty. The Koran insists that 'to God belongs the east and the west. Whichever way you turn there is the face of God.' Why, then, must Muslims bow to Mecca five times a day?"

We learn from Manji that Islam hasn't always been fundamentalist. Under the Ottoman Empire, Islam advanced three "seminal issues of religious reform" until Islamic fundamentalists forced the abandonment of these reforms in the mid-nineteenth century: "ending the Muslim role in the African slave trade, freeing women from the yoke of the veil, and letting unbelievers live in the land of the Prophet."

She reminds us that societies and cultures that repress women also repress men. She quotes these words from a 2002 speech by Richard Haass, the U.S. State Department's policy director: "Patriarchal societies in which women play a subservient role to men are also societies in which men play subservient roles to men."

Manji celebrates diversity, which she sees as originating with God. In support, she quotes Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief Orthodox Rabbi: "God creates difference; therefore it is in one-who-is-different that we meet God." And she quotes the Koran (5:49): "If God had pleased, He would have made you all one people. But He has done otherwise..."

Manji also criticizes the West. She says, "Equating the evils of desert Islam with the sins of globalization is a mistake committed by the overprivileged, those who've never known anything worse than the horrors of being marketed to." But she also says, "I owe the West my willingness to help reform Islam." And she suggests that one way to change Islamic fundamentalism is to encourage massive Muslim immigration to the West.

Speaking of the Muslim saying: "Inshallah" or "If God wills," Manji says Muslims (and perhaps all people) need to be careful about an excessive, passive reliance on God. She says, "We must will. We've got to be God's partners in the journey to justice. 'But who are we?' some of you might ask. After all, it's drilled into us that God is great!--'Allahu Akbar!' Only when I educated myself did I learn the actual meaning of this phrase--God is greater. Greater than His creatures, yes, but that's not a statement of our inconsequence. At bottom, the cry of 'Allahu Akbar!' is a reminder to balance our agency with humility."

Editor's Note: If you are interested in learning more about Irshad Manji, you can go to her web site at

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