by Paul Austin Murphy


From a blurb in NYU Wagner College Faculty section, where Irshad Manji teaches Moral Courage: "Irshad Manji is the Founder and Director of the Moral Courage Project, which equips students to make values-based decisions. She has turned her journey as a religious reformer into teachings about professional leadership, informed by cutting-edge research from across the disciplines.

As a reformist Muslim, Irshad puts moral courage into practice. Her latest book, Allah, Liberty & Love, is a guide to reconciling faith and freedom in a world raging with repressive dogmas. Fareed Zakaria of CNN and Time magazine lauds Allah, Liberty & Love as being "at the forefront of some crucially important trends" that are "changing the world of Islam." Irshad's previous book is the international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith. In-between her books, she created the Emmy-nominated PBS documentary, Faith Without Fear."

I once wrote to Irshad Manji on the subject of her very popular book (popular mainly with non-Muslims), The Trouble With Islam Today. I din't receive a reply. Nor did I receive a reply when I messaged her on Facebook. Nonetheless, here is part of that original email:

" ... 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.)"
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 of The Trouble With Islam Today)

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 content 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 a hand in the invention of the guitar, algebra, cough 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 Muslims 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 prior determinants 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, in that 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, Persia, Alexandria, Cairo, Syria, etc.

Above and beyond all that, some of the examples of 'Islam's contributions to Western culture' are deeply 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. 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 means 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). Is Manji only really 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 somehow helped invent or create algebra or anything else is an obvious logical error.

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

'Innovation and the spirit of ijtihad [An Islamic legal scholar is qualified to make legal decision by his own intellectual efforts rather than by what is determined by a particular Islamic school of thought] 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 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?

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 also 'make' snake venom, earthquakes, cancer, etc.? Surely Manji doesn't want to compare homosexuality with these negative phenomena. 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 wouldn't expect a homosexual (Manji is a lesbian) 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 are male and female human beings and it's 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 was never part of Islam as it has been part of 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 are often said to exist to 'test' the goodness of God's subjects. 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've often heard said - by scholars (though not usually Islamic ones) - that Mohammed got much of his information about the Bible, as well as about Christianity, Judaism, and God knows what else, second hand. That is, he rarely - or never- went to the original sources. Indeed 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 the Bible. And neither, more specifically, should one read too much into the seemingly 'feminist' fact 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 passage which says 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 evidently 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 has applied Ijtihad to Ijtihad itself (as when Muslims use taqiyya when talking about taqiyya to non-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 an extreme liberty.

In any case, it was only educated men - theologians, scholars, clerics and philosophers - who were allowed the liberty of practicing Ijtihad. Thus, surely it doesn't go if a Muslim comes up with a version of Islam, or passages from the Koran, which says that it is a favour of worshipping extraterrestrials or 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?

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 a Muslim then says, 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 to 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)

That's precisely and only the kind of 'democracy' that very many Muslims want - from hard-core Militants to Islamists and reactionaries. They all want the freedom, within the West, to practice their Islamic faith. Problem is — but that's the only kind of 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 form of democracy.

Most Islamists and Islamic radicals despise democracy in all its other forms. And Manji's middle-class 'learned' Muslims may also not have much respect for democracy - except for their 'democratic right to practice their religion'. They 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 in 2012. Many of them, and all the Islamists, weren't fighting for democracy in any Western sense of the term - or even in any sense of the term. They were 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 were not fighting against 'autocratic' regimes per se. They were fighting against what they saw as the wrong kinds of autocratic regime - the non- Islamic ones. They were not against autocracies/theocracies at all.

The same, again, with all those thousands of middle-class and 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 creations. Manji can't get round this by making them non-Western or finding non-Western versions of rights and democracy - there aren't really any.

So when Muslims complain about 'Westernisation' masquerading as 'openness', they are probably right and Manji and other 'progressive' Muslims simply have to bite the bullet. The West is the best. Or, at the very 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 (by cutting off their hands) or perhaps they treat the poor better (actually - they don't).

Paul Austin Murphy lives in Birmingham, England. He writes extensively about Islam. Many of his articles have appeared in Think-Israel. Contact him at and visit his website at This article was submitted August 31, 2013.

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