If it’s debate she wanted to spark, Irshad Manji has been successful. Her first book, The Trouble With Islam, was called “Bin Laden’s worst nightmare” by one reviewer.
In a controversial 2007 documentary, Faith Without Fear, the unabashed lesbian — who remains a devout Muslim — “seems driven by a sense of duty.”
“She manages a Facebook community of 10,000 members, dispensing advice via a council of experts whom she has painstakingly selected,” observes an Newsweek/Daily Beast article. “And she has published a new book, Allah, Liberty and Love, a rallying cry to Muslims — especially young ones — around the world to think and talk more freely, one that’s bound to incite great anger among authoritarian Islamists.”
As a result, she does not talk much about where she lives — and doesn’t spend much time there.
“Many of the death threats she’s received claim to monitor her movements,” notes Newsweek/Daily Beast. “Yet Manji refuses to mute her arguments or slow her pace in her fight to convince Muslims to ‘drop the groupthink’ and follow their consciences as individuals.”
“Irshad Manji thrives on controversy,” writes Montreal book reviewer Eric Hamovitch. “Her early career included hosting a Toronto-based TV show exploring gay and lesbian issues. She later turned her attention to the Muslim faith in which she was raised.” He continues:
Both books challenge the stifling conformity in which she says Islam is trapped, and both question what she sees as errant and perversely violent interpretations of verses from the Qur’an (her preferred spelling). The first book paints a bleak picture of contemporary Islam, a faith she nonetheless refuses to abandon, while the second book seeks a more hopeful way forward.
The central concept she espouses is ijtihad, derived from the same verbal root as jihad, or struggle. Manji defines ijtihad as the Muslim tradition of dissenting, reasoning and reinterpreting. “Ijtihad is about struggling to understand our world by using our minds,” she writes, and this “implies exercising the freedom to ask questions – sometimes uncomfortable ones.” This tradition, she argues, has a glorious past. Its revival would help Muslims enhance their faith and throw off oppressive strictures.
Newsweek/Daily Beast notes:
She lectures frequently and is featured regularly on television with the likes of Christiane Amanpour, Salman Rushdie, and David Frost. She responds to innumerable disputatious emails from her highly interactive website — one that offers, among other things, a downloadable guide for Muslims contemplating interfaith marriage.
As director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University, Manji teaches from a score of hefty historical texts about free speech and diversity. Determined to “provoke a spirit of discussion wherever I went,” Manji spent almost a decade trying to show Muslims “that open debate was possible in their community and for others to see that Muslims could exchange ideas in a civilized atmosphere.”
“Do you think that the ideas in this book serve constructively for the right kind of dialogue?” she asks. “I hope, and I pray to God that at its best, it could contribute to a new civil-rights movement between Muslims and non-Muslims.”