Author’s ‘Allah’ implores Muslims to think freely

By Rayyan Al-Shawaf
June 25, 2011

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The irrepressible Irshad Manji, Islam’s enfant terrible, is at it again. Her latest book, “Allah, Liberty, and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom,’’ will undoubtedly infuriate orthodox Muslims everywhere, including many a self-professed moderate. Manji, a devout but free-thinking Canadian Muslim, continues the intellectual counter-jihad she launched against Islamic obscurantism in “The Trouble With Islam Today.’’ “Allah, Liberty, and Love’’ emerges as less cerebral than its predecessor, but more pragmatic, offering a blueprint for opening debate by the faithful and others.

Manji wants Muslims to empower themselves as individuals so that they might “blaze the wide path of Islam.’’ Moral courage is the most important tool she recommends for forging an avenue broad enough to allow the simultaneous passage of differing interpretations of her religion. Speaking out against rampant injustices done in the name of Islam — including acts of violence, misogyny, discrimination against non-Muslims, the stifling of questions and vocally expressed doubt — requires moral courage on the part of Muslims, many of whom will face ostracism or worse from their communities.

Manji also presses fellow believers to engage in ijtihad, or “independent thinking,’’ as a means to determine how a Muslim should deal with issues not covered in the Koran. (Conservative Sunni Muslim clerics declare the gates of ijtihad to have closed, while conservative Shiite clerics arrogate to themselves the right to engage in ijtihad and deny it to laypersons.) Of course, ijtihad is a sword that cuts both ways — something Manji inexplicably overlooks. Indeed, how did Saudi clerics (who ostensibly believe that the era of ijtihad has ended) decide that Muslim women should not be allowed to drive cars?

Claiming ijtihad as every Muslim’s right may not lead to a liberal consensus, but it will certainly loosen clerics’ stranglehold over interpretation. Manji considers this imperative if Muslims are to cultivate personal relationships with God, something she strongly advocates. She points out that ijtihad will also help Muslims “circumvent the bogus business of who ‘represents’ [Islam] and who doesn’t.’’

Manji is a liberal, but she cannot abide liberals who kowtow to political correctness.

The author rightly complains that Western liberals, afraid of being castigated as racists for criticizing Islam or its cultures, often hold Muslims to a lower standard when it comes to personal freedoms and women’s rights. Manji makes the cogent point that pluralism should never justify moral relativism: “As a pluralist, I happily live with many perspectives and truths, but I won’t devolve into a relativist — someone who falls for anything because she stands for nothing.’’ And she maintains that liberal Muslims should not simply serve as apologists for Islam, but work to change bitter realities.

Unfortunately, the author focuses unduly on how liberal Muslims could reinterpret the Koran, as opposed to how they might set legal limits on its socio-politico-economic influence. Yet she acknowledges that the text may not be endlessly malleable: “Frankly, I’m not certain that all the pugnacious verses of the Qur’an can be reinterpreted for our century.’’

Indeed, though eager to soften Islam, Manji generally avoids engaging in sophistry that blames Muslim violence exclusively on willful or ignorant misinterpretation. Without denying that parts of the Quran are “pugnacious,’’ Manji hopes that most Muslims come to focus on its “pluralistic verses,’’ and refrain from imprisoning God within his belligerent pronouncements. In this respect, “Allah, Liberty, and Love’’ is a revolutionary attempt to persuade Muslims to treat Islam more as a faith than a religion, and to venerate an omniscient and compassionate God more than his oftentimes confusing and sometimes compassionless word.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at calaboose@gmail .com.

ALLAH, LIBERTY, AND LOVE: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom By Irshad Manji

Free Press, 288 pp., $26