Tuesday, March 27, 2007

irshad manji discussion.

assalamu alaikum :o)


a couple years back i attended the RIS convention in toronto. imran khan (yes the famous pakistani cricketeer) discussed how "progressive muslims" were actually "regressive muslims." he deemed them as group that wasnt actually advancing the religion.

initially when i was speaking to pbs about the event, we werent on the same page. this was due to a number of reasons, one being pbs' refusal to allow us to choose our own speaker. but after a few days of thinking and politicking, i decided to get on board. not to "refute" irshad, but to point out that her "reform" wasnt a solution to the current state of islam, or at least how she portrays it. more importantly though, i didnt feel as if i had to convert her over to mainstream islam, but just to represent the muslim youth of america and state our position on the religion. i knew that this wouldnt neccessarily be an easy task. not because she had mastered the sciences of the religion, but because she was a seasoned veteran in speaking out vehemently against traditional islam. many times she'd been given a podium and mic to vocalize her agenda and blast her disenchantment with the religion, but i had yet to see her engage in a public debate with a person well versed in the deen. in my eyes, irshad manji was nothing more than a pretentious sophist that tried to offer a panacea without any tangible remedies.

i got to the program a little early for sound check. after meeting ms. manji and her people she and i had a short little talk. basically, just getting to know one another. to her credit, she was very cordial and warmly polite when we spoke both and after the event. anyway, at that point i asked the organizers if they had made proper arrangements for maghrib prayers. when they replied in the negative i requested that they remedy this. i was lead to think 2 things: 1. they didnt think many muslims would show up or 2. it was an innocent mistake and they had simply forgotten about this.

the event started by a special screening of irshad manji's "faith without fear," a documentary made for pbs' series "america at the crossroads." the panel discussion was set to begin following the screening. i joined the discussion a couple of minutes late so i wasnt able to witness the opening remarks, but right as i made my way to the stage the moderator asked "mr. khan, does islam need reform?"

i stated that first, we needed to define what was meant by reform. as we know, islam as a religion is perfect, and its theological foundation cannot be touched. if by reform, we meant rejecting hadith and questioning the divine authenticity of the quran, then reform, in that sense, was not needed. we need to distinguish between what islam actually advocates, and how some muslims may manipulate the religion in order to further their own agenda (including irshad). also, we tend to overlook many factors, such as the legacy of colonialism and discord caused by its aftermath in muslim lands. the baby shouldnt be thrown out with the bathwater. what muslims need is to undergo a massive reeducation campaign focusing on early classical islam and then applying that to modern times.

the discussion moved on and irshad questioned the perfection of the prophet and launched an attack against hadith. hadith, she said, contradict one another and by revering the prophet and his words we are committing idolatry. before i could address this though, an audience member asked another question, thus changing the topic. but again, the topic of hadith and quran was revisited. irshad stated that islam grants us the freedom to explore. i then asked what she meant by the freedom to explore. did she mean that its central beliefs, the dictums upon which it stands were open to debate? i asked for her stance on the prophet, and she answered "the prophet does not define islam.... belief does." a little later she questioned the perfection of the quran. immediately this stirred many whispers among the audience members.
it was a setup question intended for irshad to once and for all state her position on the prophet saw and the quran because many in the audience, if not most, were unaware of her stance on these.

a few more excerpts from the discussion:
upon being questioned about her aims and credentials to reform islam, manji bluntly stated "i am not a reformer...i have never claimed to be a reformer." as she finished speaking i held up her book and read the subtitle to the audience: " a muslim's call for reform in her faith." here the purpose was to show that she wasnt exactly being candid with the audience. in fact, she was backpedaling when put on the spot.

as irshad continued to question the practices of islamic beliefs and rituals, dr. dina asked if we were to stop praying and quit fasting, basically if we abandon the prescribed orders of god and practiced by the prophet saw, then what islam wouldnt be islam. manji's reply started with "i struggle..."

a sister from the audience asked about irshad's stance on prayer. ms. manji replied that her prayer consisted of spontaneous conversations with god, and often times she did it much more than just 5 times a day. she questioned the practice of facing and prostrating towards the kaabah in mecca and cited the ayah "no matter where you turn, whether it be the east or west, you find gods face." ironically, she used the very literalism that she accuses everyone else of using. she deems prayer an insignificant ritual, and writes in her book "...reciting specific verses, and prostrating at a nonnegiotable angle, all at assigned times of the day can degenerate into mindless submission - and habitual submissiveness."

anyway i replied by first bringing up a passage in her book that pertained to the night oh the prophet's ascension.
the issue i had with this passage was that first shes using a hadith and according to her, hadith cannot be relied upon. the other issue was that the latter portion of the hadith consisted of the injuction that muslims had to pray at least 5 times a day, and many scholars say that the purpose of allah calling muhammad up to the highest heavens was to not only give the command of prayer, but also to signify the importance of this noble act.

i asked why she used a hadith when hadith were unreliable, and why she coincidentally left off the latter part of one of her favorite hadiths that referred to prayer. to me it was rather paradoxical for her to use hadith in the first place and i also stated that regardless of sectarian affliliation, muslims agreed upon prayer. it was views like this that not only alienated her but lead to many people not even listening to some of her other points. if i recall correctly, her answer was that this sort of hadith speaks volumes about the pluralism and diversity of islam. fair enough. but to the 2nd part of my question, ms. manji stated that the hadith didnt mention anything about prayer. she took the first portion of the hadith literally, but rejected the bit about the prayer and then denied that its even a part of the hadith.

its a rather lenghty hadith found in bukhari and muslim:

i find many inconsistencies in manji's talk and book, and she often comes across as being hostile, accusastory, and condescending. she mentions in her book that there was "muslim complicity in the holocaust," a rather scathing indictment. had she forgotten about muslim contributions in defeating rommel in northern africa or crippling hitler at stalingrad?

and then come the plethora of contradictions. she uses hadith, yet says theyre antiquated and cannot be replied upon. she challenges the quran's perfection and if it is truly in fact the word of god by stating that its "contradictory," "at war with itself," and biased due to humans. yet she doesnt hesitate to use it in order to lend credence to her points. for example, when it came to defend her stance on prayer she cited the following ayaah from surat al baqarah:

"To Allah belong the east and the West: Whithersoever ye turn, there is the presence of Allah. For Allah is all-Pervading, all-Knowing. "

the irony here is not only is she using a "questionable" ayaah to prove her point, but is also hypocrtically taking it literally - something she accuses muslims of doing.

regarding the saying of the prophet saw, in her book she cites the hadith "...'beware of new things, for every new thing is an innovation and every innovation is a mistake.' great way to build a future, dont you think?" again, the irony is that irshad the intellectual takes the hadith literally at face value. she removes the saying from its original context and fails to see that this hadith addresses the advent of new matters in islamic theology. its a bit paradoxical, that she, the champion of critical thinking would accept this verbatim without exploring the actualy reasoning behind it. discrepancies in her talks and books abound. is she using islamic texts as mere fashion accessories?

she does make good points and touch on sensitive issues, such as women's rights to education, domestic abuse, etc. these undeniable rights are endowed and extended to us by allah. no one with a a shred of sanity can possibly dispute this. but the reality is that many people dont even pay any attention to what manji says, simply because of her rhetoric and propensity to be patronizing. to disagree with her is to be labelled a "jihadist." she has alienated so many people with her views on the quran, prophet saw, hadith, and approach in general, that even self-proclaimed "progressives" have distanced themselves from her. perhaps most damaging to irshad is that she paints with an extremely broad brush and belittles many muslims. an audience member asked about her engaging the local muslim community and how she felt. her reply was "why would i want to be part of a community thats intellectually impaired and morally atrophied." to say the audience was aghast would be a great understatement. here in america, the muslim community is comprised of many highly educated professionals that are known to be financially secure. society in muslim nations may not be bastions of righteousness or the pinnacle of civlizations, but the issue of morality in western secular nations is nothing to be lauded either. among the problems facing my country are the rate of violent crime and use of drugs; the rate of incarceration- which is the highest in the world, the issue of domestic violence - each day an average of 4 women are killed due to this heinous practice and every year approximately 570,000 women visit the ER due to this; the rate of poverty, etc. sexual promiscuity is championed while devotion to faith is jeered. how far have we strayed from the protestant moral tradition that this country was founded upon.

in conclusion, i feel as if irshad did more harm than good at the event. she stated herself that she didnt expect such a large muslim turnout and this may have thrown her off kilter a bit, especially when it came to answering questions. muslims and non-muslims respectively took offense with her remarks and were at times surprised by her take on matters. when discussing her views, people didnt even know where to start. instead many adopted a "why even bother" attitude. perhaps it was her approach or ambiguity while addressing questions, but many people stated that they didnt even know what exactly it was that she wanted. even my co-panelist, dr. dina, shared this sentiment. thus, i believe she was detrimental to her own cause.

discussion is good. but its extremely difficult to have fruitful dialogue with this camp because there isnt much common ground that can serve as a starting point for discussion. both sides come to the table with irreducible differences. she denies the validity of hadith and questions the quran and if we cant even agree on the sanctity of the texts that our religion is derived from, then there is no real basis for discussion.

"I debated a scholar and beat him. Then I debated a layman and that layman beat me - he had no knowledge of the principles and texts. I had nothing to say."
- Imam Shaafi
and Allah Almighty knows best.