Book Review by Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Lauding a Canadian Muslim's reformist zeal

Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta
UK Edition

London, January 7, 2006

Being a reformer in Islam is to flirt with ridicule, danger, vituperation and anger. It is not an easy job. It becomes doubly difficult when one goes public. It becomes even more problematic when one tries to overturn
centuries old traditions.

It could even become dangerous when it is a woman who is trying to enter a male dominated patriarchal arena. It is frankly amazing when all this is happening in the "hot-house" atmosphere of immigrant societies.

This is a story of a Canadian lady Raheel Raza and her journey over the past five years as expressed in her recently published book.

I came across her mention few months back when it was announced that she had led a mixed congregation of Muslims in prayers in Canada. I have been keeping a beady eye on Muslim activists/reformers. While nowhere near anything like an expert, I am an interested observer for obvious reasons. In the past, we have explored two American ladies, Dr. Amina Wadud and Asra Nomani

women-priests-much-ado-about-nothing.html and

This is the third in that rather interrupted series and will be followed by another reformer, Tariq Ramadan.

Raza is an immigrant from Pakistan, settled in Canada since 1989. Married with two grown up sons, she is a polyglot, an award winning writer, public speaker, media consultant and interfaith advocate. In her book, entitled "Their Jihad... Not My Jihad", she has put together a collection of her newspaper columns in the Toronto Star over the past five years arranged in themes.

The first theme is "Political Jihad - A Struggle for the soul of Islam". The second theme is "Gender Jihad - A Struggle for Women's Rights", while the last one is "Spiritual Jihad - A Struggle to Know Each Other".

A collection of newspaper op-ed columns is a tricky piece to pull off. I know by personal experience that a newspaper op-ed column does not allow one to do full and in-depth justice to a topic. Hence one can only express one's opinion and hope the editor will allow the extra words to slip past.

The format and medium of a newspaper

column is a big tight straight-jacketed.

But once one has put together a themed collection, what one gets is a relatively consistent view of what the author thinks on a high level on those themes and topics. The five-year time horizon also shows how the author's opinions have evolved. It is a fascinating exercise to cross-correlate external events with how a Muslim activist dealt with them and thought about some of the most earth shattering events in recent times.

9/11 and after
Before 9/11, Islam and the West had a rather subdued relationship with each other. Muslim populations in the West were not seen that much on the radar.

There have been some issues, such as the Bradford riots in the UK, some incidents such as the first World Trade Centre bombing in the US, some rather poignant immigrant problems and incidents in France, the Turkish problem in Germany, but nothing earth shattering. They were usually subdued in the generalized cacophony of immigrants (all nationalities) trying to fit into a secular Westernized society.

9/11 changed that equation. It caused the world to look seriously not only at the Muslim world across the wide swathe from Algeria to Indonesia, but also inside into the Muslim minority populations.

The racial profiling, the sideways glances, terrorist incidents in Madrid, London, New York, Stockholm, the Afghan and Iraq war, the shrill propaganda and media war etc. all raised the visibility hugely. What it also did was to shine light on some of the rather medieval practices such as honour killing, patriarchal societal, illiteracy, arranged marriages, mis-representation of religious dictates, etc. This is where liberal Muslims stepped up to fight back on three fronts.

The first front was against the "fundos" of their homelands, as well as other Muslim countries, against their strange interpretations of Islam, their religious justification of terrorist actions and the misogynistic approaches in their homelands.

The second front was against the Western governments who started to tamper with their civil liberties as a reaction against terrorism.

The third front was what I would call as the fight against the immigrant thought processes - the gender/women's right fight, the fight for secularism, the fight against patriarchy and the fight against immigrant antiquated traditions brought over.

Raza seems to have fought this war on these three fronts on a consistent basis over the last five years. This is what jumped out clearly at me once I finished the book.

On a broad basis, the overwhelming feeling I had was of a lady who possesses a very strange quality. That is of innocence and belief in the essential goodness of humankind. I have never met her, but I would not hesitate to treat her as my favourite aunt and talk openly and honestly with her. It is that sort of innocence that shines forth, a sort of earnestness that is clear from every column. They are the plaintive cry mixed with righteous indignation of a Muslim who is revolting against the injustices done by the protagonists of the
three fronts.

She is "one of us" crying out against the blood, gore and terror, which have suddenly infested the world. Her words are not dense prose, not dry academic writing, not polemics, but ordinary day-to-day language, something that the common man/woman can read and think, hey, she thinks like me.

I wouldn't dream of discussing the individual columns, that will take away the pleasure of you gentle readers from actually reading the book, but simply discuss briefly the overall themes.

The many jihads
The first theme on political jihad is a strong reaction against what Osama bin Laden and associated (or not as the case might be) company have done to the age-old concept of jihad.

The search for truth, the battle against the inner self is the greater jihad. This is what she has been writing about for a long time and the first section explores this idea in greater detail.

Whether it is a letter to Osama after 9/11 or to try to explain why Osama had the wrong idea about jihad to an American respondent, she explains the whole concept in her point of view, the divergences from what has been noted in the holy books.

She also delves into her homeland, Pakistan, and weeps for what has been done by the fundamentalists to the Land of the Pure.

While the first theme can be seen from a jaundiced political eye, the second theme, about gender jihad, is more personal. The tone changes and the feelings of Raza's personal outrage are evidently deeper. Whether we are talking about spousal abuse or the burqa/niquab/hijab; the second class status of Muslim women to forced arranged marriages; the absolutely foul practice of honour killing to the fight-back by women to reclaim their rights, she has commented with deep feeling from the perspective of a woman, who is in the thick of these injustices and is leading from the front giving a fascinating yet cogent overview of the gender jihad from her perspective.

A must read indeed.

The final theme changes gears and the viewpoint. It is more spiritual; going deep into what is the true meaning of God and all that what it represents. True spirituality as evidenced by an evidently religious lady, true worship of the Lord, how all religious are essentially the same - providing a deeply moral compass for humankind to live in peace and happiness.

She talks about how religions are deeply interconnected and at the same time, how each religion itself has deeply unique and spiritual facets. How education and communications can help in inter-faith initiatives and to remove the misunderstandings that emerge in the religious wars in the world. She talks about fatwa's and how Islam is highly diverse. Furthermore, this diversity is a measure of richness of thought rather than something to be condemned and reduced.

While I found the collection to be full of feelings and offering a personal point of view of the author, I also felt that some topics could have been explored a bit more in depth. I had wanted a deeper understanding, perhaps also some more in-depth information about Islam per se, how Islam views the topics she mentioned.

As an example I mention her column on honour killing.

While she gave an overview about the film and subsequent discussion about it, I would have liked to read a bit more about the Islamic point of view regarding this vile practice, specially that I wrote a column about that very same subject before

Another one would have been the column where she wrote about taking the veil and the resulting change in the people around her, like friends and co-workers. I would have liked to see more on the different Islamic points of view on the veil, how some schools of thought think that it is just to dress modestly while some schools of thought think that modesty means one man (or rather woman) tent like the Afghan niquab.

I also believe there are not just five major Islamic jurisprudence schools as she mentions, but eight, four in Sunni Islam (Hanbali, Shafi, Malki and Hanafi), two in Shia Islam (Jafari and Zaydi) and two others (Ibadi and Thahiri). The last two are not that well known, one has almost died out and both can actually be considered as sub-sets of the four Sunni schools.

But as I said before perhaps the depth I would have liked to see was not possible with the restrictions in word-limits set by the very nature of a column. Be that as it may, her columns still offer food for thought and provide a glance into the psyche and feelings of an activist Muslim feminist.

As a way to understand how Muslim women in the heartland of Western civilization think and react, you cannot go wrong reading this book.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

More Reviews:

Whether in her talks or writings, Raheel Raza has always engaged humanity in a moral discourse where all human beings can connect with each other based on common ethical values. In this work, she has courageously sought to incorporate notions of dignity, freedom of conscience, rights of minorities, and gender equality based on the notion of universal moral values. In the process, she engages and challenges the juridical and exegetical formulations of the classical period of Islam.
-Dr. Liyakatali Takim,
University of Denver

If it were possible to achieve peace and harmony throughout the world through the efforts of one person, that person would be Raheel Raza. There is no one more passionate and more committed to the cause. When she speaks, people listen.
-Carola Vyhnak,
Manager of Community
And Public Relations
Toronto Star

Raheel Raza is one of the most highly respected scholars in the field of Inter-faith studies that I the privilege to know. On several occasions, we have worked together on presentations designed to facilitate relationships between the Muslim and Christian communities. She is a very able communicator, and very dialogical in her educational approach. Her analytical insights are sharp, and extremely valued by the wider community. That is part of the reason her frequent articles in The Toronto Star are so well received. There are few scholars I know who have a greater grasp of the current inter-faith issues that challenge us, and who are able to make the connections between these issues and the political, economic and social contexts of our time. As a feminist scholar, she brings a fresh and often prophetic perspective to the raging religious and political debates in our world, and has the courage of her convictions in the process. She does this with the passion of commitment to her own religious tradition, and with deep respect for other paths of religious search and truth. Raheel Raza is dedicated to the pursuit of truth that frees and builds relationships among peoples of diverse cultures. Her scholarship is a reference point for many of us who seek have a similar goal.
-Dr. Hallett Llewellyn,
Pastoral Staff
Trinity St. Paul's United Church, Toronto

Raheel Raza has been lovingly described as a cross between Mother Teresa and Margaret Thatcher – and that’s what makes her columns so compelling. She has an enormous interest in and compassion for people of all faiths and all walks of life, but she can also, with a few chosen words, deflate the pompous and chastise the narrow-minded.
Raheel’s writing reflects both her pride in being both a Muslim and a feminist, though she rarely cleaves to the “party line” of either – and she is tireless in her efforts to explain that this is not a contradiction.
Since 9/11 she has traveled the country to conferences and houses of worship to share her all-inclusive understanding of Islam and to encourage inter-faith dialogue. This book is for those who have not yet heard – or heeded – her loving message of unity and peace. I recommend reading it, as I have, over tea and samosas.
-Libby Stephens,
Religious Editor
The Toronto Star


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