ISLAM AT THE CROSSROADS (ABSTRACT)
Islam faces several challenges today. Many of these relate to ambiguities within the Qur’an, to diverse constructions of the ‘Sixth Pillar’ of Islam, namely Jihad, and also to Islam’s claim that it is an advance upon and supersedes its two predecessor Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity. Careful reading of the Qur’an points out that any doubt or impasse over such matters could be resolved by going back to the prior scriptures (those of the Jews and Christians) whose truth the Qur’an vouches for. This leads one to the conclusion that Islam is yet in a state of growth and could find fulfilment as a God-given religion by discovering Christ in a manner not presented in the Qur’an, a journey yet to be undertaken.
People the world over pay serious attention to Islam today, whereas only a few decades ago it seemed to evoke little interest among non-Muslims. Many are unsure of what to make of this third Abrahamic, monotheistic, world religion, and endeavour to find out more about it. Several, who deplore our secular and permissive age of de facto atheism, where heightened individualism, avarice, materialism, consumerism and moral licence are rampant; where personal feeling, opportunity, expediency and the market are allowed to determine what is right and wrong, respect and esteem Islam. They see in it a religion which holds God in awe and reverence and seek to obey His Will; a faith which calls its adherents to prayer five times a day, for rigorous fasting and interior conversion for one month each year, and which requires justice, compassion, charity and a sense of solidarity and brotherhood among Muslims towards one another. Many regard Islam negatively, focusing on what they see as its contribution to international terrorism, and violent jihad. These look upon Islam with suspicion and distrust; as a source of fanaticism, threat and terror, where the name of God is and may be invoked to justify acts of indiscriminate violence against any who may be labeled enemies of Islam or oppressors of Muslims or frustrate their aspirations. Others see it as highly restrictive, a religion that would control all aspects of life, public and private, stifle debate and disallow dissent; and resort to injunctions that demand conformity and which justify coercion, especially in matters of religious belief and practice. They see it as a religion preoccupied with itself and its perceived mission of converting the world to Islam, and which while favouring religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and human rights in lands where Muslims are in a minority, often does just the opposite in some countries where Muslims are in the majority. This slanted perspective has given rise to Islamaphobia and the souring of attitudes of many towards Muslims.
Diverse tensions rack and challenge the Islamic world, as it faces problems arising from the cultural, socio-economic and historical backgrounds and experiences of Muslims in their present day milieux. The quiet majority take their religion and its teachings for granted, and endeavour to comply with its fundamental requirements in the course of their everyday duties. In this most are sincere, guided by their traditions, their consciences and their hopes. They seek obedience to and a closer union with the one true God, through prayer and meditation. For them God is supreme, while the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed are powerful God-given beacons beacons lighting their way. Many strive to bring their religious beliefs to bear upon their relationships with the modern world, without taking on its values, where these conflict with their understanding, fidelity and submission to the will of God. They prefer to dwell upon the uplifting passages and insights which abound in the Qur’an, and to be guided by them, and to leave its more ambiguous teachings and injunctions aside, or treat them as metaphors and allegories. However, as with members of all religions, there also are those who are distracted by the difficulties, attractions and promises of the world, and who duly succumb to its snares. They compromise their faith and end up paying little more than lip-service to it. Many Muslims now live in western nations where thought, values and practices are liberal, and often atheistic and amoral. In response to the challenges to the faith of their fathers and to their identity, many young Muslims born in countries their parents had emigrated to, go back to the lands of their fathers to regain a sense of identity through a clearer understanding of their religion. Several enter madrassas (Islamic religious schools) where they are tutored by imams, many with inflexible views of Islam and politically and culturally coloured. As a result, there has been a marked growth in the number of literalists, who strive to be faithful to the Qur’an and to live by its letter and be guided by the example and the sayings (hadith) of and attributed to the Prophet Muhammed, and to let these rule their lives and their relationships. The more radical among them insist that there can be no easing of the more difficult demands of the Qur’an. They would also have Islam established as the only true religion for the world, with Sharia law as its rule of governance. All means are considered licit in achieving this goal, including violence. However, not all Muslims believe that this should be the way to go.
DILEMMA & CHALLENGE
Among moderate Muslims, there is mounting concern over much that radical literalists advocate in the name of Islam. There is real fear that a vociferous and militantly inclined minority are bent on hijacking the religion, skewing its values and imposing them on Muslims and non-Muslims everywhere. On account of this, in recent years there has been an urgent rethinking of contentious Qur’anic teachings on a range of subjects, particularly on religious discrimination, human relationships and violent jihad. Moderate Muslims strive to assure themselves and the world at large that all followers of Islam are called to be not potential terrorists and subversives, but people of peace, open to all God’s children, in a peace which derives from submission to God’s will. The challenge for all Muslims is to discern what the Divine Will really is, and to distinguish it from the clamour of self and the cultural preferences that tend to colour or even eclipse it, and also to go beyond a simplistic interpretation of God’s purpose for those who would be his faithful. This is more easily said than done.
Here, people of most religious persuasions turn to their sacred scriptures, and to their religious memory and traditions. In so doing, there is the natural tendency to take the scriptural word as immutable, divine revelation. It is usually forgotten or overlooked that what have come to be regarded as their scriptures have been recorded in the words of human beings, edited, interpreted and moderated, and are subject in many places to the shortcomings of language with its nuances of meaning. As a result, those who interpret their scriptures may arrive at conclusions which cloud or alter the divine kernel of truth in these writings and traditions, but fail, or hesitate or refuse to acknowledge this possibility.
THE HOLY QUR’AN
For the Muslim, the redoubt of belief is the Holy Qur’an. Muslims believe that that what is in the Qur’an has been revealed by God, the Divine Utterance transmitted through the Angelic (Holy) Spirit, regarded as the Angel Gabriel (Jibreel), and to His messenger the Prophet Muhammed (Surah/Chapter 53:14; S81:22-25). They believe firmly that Muhammed is the seal, closure and last of the prophets (the Khatam), the final word of God to humankind (S33:40). They are certain that “This is the Book: in it is guidance sure, without doubt” (S2:1); and that “They are (true guidance) from the Lord” (S2:5). “This is indeed a Qur’an most honourable. In a Book well-guarded, which none shall touch but those who are clean: a Revelation from the Lord of the Worlds..”(S56:77-81). Thus the Qur’an claims and demands its acceptance as truth from God (S32:3, 35:31), which contains no falsehood (S18:1-2; 41:42), and which make things clear (S5:1; 25:33). Indeed, that it is a book which carries its own evidence (S29:47-49, 51), and is to be received with humility (S59:21), for it is beyond all questioning.
Nonetheless, there is an ambiguity and ambivalence which resides in the Qur’an itself, and which cannot be resolved by turning to it as clear guide and arbiter. While this is a problem that besets most religious scriptures, the Qur’an warns against any questioning of its messages and their validity: “O ye who believe! Ask not questions about things which, if made plain to you, may cause you trouble” (S5:101). “But if ye ask about things when the Qur’an is being revealed, they will be made plain to you….. Some people before you did ask such questions and on account of that lost their faith” (S5:102).
A fundamental problem confronting Islam is what to make of all that is in the Qur’an, and whether the words and the personal example of the Prophet Muhammed afford a valid, viable and divinely inspired guide for all generations. This is a subject that will perplex Muslims for years to come, while refusal to deal with it will not resolve matters. Many will continue to insist that the Qur’an, with all its doctrinal, legal and social teachings and pronouncements, constitutes an indivisible God-given whole, which is time-independent, and which is and will continue to be valid for all of history; and that nought in it may be put aside or modified. Others will regard the legal and the social aspects of Islam and their political implications, as conditioned by history and culture, and thus as time-dependent and not above alteration and change: once useful perhaps, but not necessarily applicable or desirable in their original form today, or tomorrow, and a stumbling block to thinking Muslims, who want no more than to be open to God and His Holy Will, in the world of the 21st century. Some may dare to ask whether there needs to be a distinction drawn between what in the Qur’an is attributable to Muhammed the prophet and what is attributable to Muhammed the man. Some may go even further and ask whether Islam as is widely taught and practised does not set greater store by Muhammed, the Qur’an and the furtherance of the religion than by God and His Will. While the Qur’an categorically disallows any questioning of its contents, insisting upon its purity and unimpeachable authenticity on account of their Divine source and angelic transmission, there remain its sometimes obscure and contradictory messages and teachings, which cannot be resolved by claiming, however earnestly and insistently and repeatedly, that the Holy Book of Islam is the only clear guide for which no human interpreter or arbiter suffice. Moreover, stating that the Qur’an has to be God’s word to man because it is presented in the purest of classical Arabic, which was beyond the capability of the probably one-time illiterate Prophet Muhammed himself, and who over a period of many years wrote only that which was dictated to him, and that Qur’anic meaning can only be transmitted accurately in Arabic, does not resolve the problem. For, it is not so much the quality of language that guarantees authenticity but what is said in that language. Those who know Arabic readily admit that the script, the language and vocabulary and the tonal rendition of words make several Qur’anic passages open to many possible interpetations. As such, their true meaning is by no means self-evident or clear. Furthermore, there also exist historical and factual discrepancies in the Qur’anic account. It is to be remembered that what became the Qur’an, was written on diverse and often fragmentary materials over several years, and later put together by Muhammed and some of his followers in his advancing years, and then edited and copied. Moreover, there are more than one version of it. Compounding these difficulties is the absence of any prescribed and accepted authority, other than the Qur’an itself, that is empowered to identify and adjudicate over what is correct and authentic and what is not; what is licit and what is not; although many claim the capacity and the authority to determine this.
To the radical literalist, to go beyond the letter of the Holy Book of Islam, even in the secret of one’s heart, is tantamount to saying that the Qur’an may not be the sure guide it claims to be. For this would be to raise questions about the authorship and complete reliability of the Qur’an as God’s word, and would suggest the need for new and transcendent vision. So, the essential need to discern more clearly the word and the Will of God remains, a quest that is insurmountable without disavowing parts of the Qur’an and what the Prophet Muhammed bequeathed to all Muslims. And this is anathema to most Muslims. Furthermore, any tampering with its literal meaning will always be open to Qur’anic rebuff and condemnation by the literalists, and even to coercive and punitive responses. THE WAY FORWARD However, in the Qur’an itself, it is explicitly stated that it includes verses that are basic and fundamental, and also ones that are not entirely clear, although all of it comes from the Lord, and which none will grasp excepting men of understanding (S3:7). This suggests a gateway through which Islam might move to fresh and rich God-given pastures. Many Muslims have already done this, even centuries ago, as they sought deeper insights into the words of the Qur’an, and gradually distanced themselves from a purely literal understanding and interpretation of parts of it. For this was the only way in which good sense could be made of many of its passages. This made of them Muslims who adopted more flexible and transcendent views of its substance and messages.
In the face of all this, and the strident cries of radical jihadists, one might well ask, “Whither Islam?” If an answer is sincerely wanted there needs to be humble prostration before God, earnest prayer, and openness and surrender to the Lord. For this, honesty and courage are essential prerequisites. Would not the sincere Muslim do wisely to look at the Qur’an itself, which offers several invaluable pointers and clues to the solution, and follow them? A few of these are outlined below.
FIRST THINGS FIRST: ALLAH BEFORE ALL ELSE
For a start, the opening verses of the Holy Qur’an may be turned to and reflected upon deeply, prayerfully and sincerely. “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds; Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgement; Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek. Show us the straight way, the way of those on whom Thou has bestowed Thy Grace…” (S1:1). Thus does the Qur’an declare that awe, worship and precedence are to Allah. For Allah is God, above all others, above all created things, above all the angels, spirits and prophets. These are not to be worshipped, only Allah, for “There is no God but He, Most Gracious Most Merciful” (S2:163). To this, all those who believe in One God, could well respond, ‘Allah Akhbar!’ Indeed, God is Great! It is Allah Whom the devout Muslim worships with all his/her being. It is to Allah that the devout Muslim prays, to find and to follow the straight way, and to do so by His grace and aid, His sure guidance, and in complete accordance with His Will.
At this juncture, it may be helpful for the sincere Muslim to face up to and to respond to some questions. (Many of these questions, posed in the appropriate way, are ones which can and need to be asked continually of members of all religions.) * Should it be stated that all is really clear in the Qur’an, which itself admits that it is not? * Should all that the Qur’an portrays be treated as being above questioning, if the purpose of the search is to ascertain more deeply and fully in the Name of God the Most High, the Divine Will? * Are the Name and the Will of God to be treated as inseparably bound to the Prophet Muhammed and to the Qur’an? For does not the Qur’an declare: “It is He Who sent His Messenger with Guidance and the Religion of Truth, to make it prevail over all religion…” (S48:28). “Muhammed is the Messenger of Allah…” (S48:29). “If any believe not in Allah and His Messenger, We have prepared for those who reject Allah, a blazing fire!” (S48:13). * If the Name and the Will of God are regarded as inseparably bound to the Prophet Muhammed, his example and words, and to all that is given in the Qur’an, is there not the real danger that many Muslims, instead of striving after the greater glory of God and placing His Will above all else, could find themselves diverted, and seek instead, by their endeavours and emphases and some practices, the greater glory of a particular religion (Islam), that of the prophet Muhammed and of the Qur’an, and of a particular culture, or the satisfaction of political objectives, however warranted these may seem to be? * Is the claim justified, that Islam is meant to be a universal religion: non-sectarian, non-racial, non-doctrinal, emphasising faith, doing right, and eschewing wrong? (See footnote 434, S 3A, p.173, Holy Qur’an, King Fahd edition.) * And does not the Qur’an clearly state: ” Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error…”(S2:256)? * Should it be asked whether or not what in the Qur’an reflects what has been written by Muhammed the Prophet, and Muhammed the man whose thought was influenced by his times and his milieu? * Should not Muslims ask: ‘Is our religion is something that we accept inasmuch and insofar as it satisfies our demands, keeps us within our comfort zone, or provides us with solace when we need it?’ * ‘Are our attitudes to God and to religion utilitarian, acceptable to us in so far as it works for our collective or personal self?’ * In short, do we take God seriously and accord Him and His Will our highest priority, and for His sake are we willing to move beyond our present framework? So, in the present context we repeat, Do we really mean it when we say “Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds; Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgement; Thee do we worship, Show us the straight way, the way of those on whom Thou has bestowed Thy Grace”? And are we prepared to be led deeper into His Truth?
“The Religion before Allah is Islam (submission to His Will)” (S3:19). The Qur’an also states very clearly: “If thou wert in doubt as to what we have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the Book* from before thee. The truth hath indeed come to thee from thy Lord, so be in no wise of those in doubt. Nor be of those who reject the signs of Allah or thou shalt be of those who perish” (S10 : 94-95). (Or as N.J. Dawood’s translation has it, “If you doubt what We have revealed to you, ask those who have read the Scriptures before you. The truth has come to you from the Lord: therefore do not doubt it. Nor shall you deny the revelations of God, for then you will surely be among the lost (S10: 94-95). This takes us to the teaching and assurance that “It is He Who sent down to thee (step by step) in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it: He sent down the Torah (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) (S3:2).
ISLAM AND THE PRIOR SCRIPTURES
In the Qur’an, both the Torah (Taurat) and the Gospel (Injeel) are extolled and affirmed as truth from God. However, they seem to be accepted in Islam, only in so far as they appear to legitimise the Qur’anic teachings about God, about the inheritance of the children of Ishmael and the credentials and authority of Muhammed as the Messenger, the Prophet and the final Seal, the Khatam, of God. Much is taken from Genesis, Leviticus and Deuteronomy: aspects of the creation story, the call of Abraham, with especial attention to Ishmael as Abraham’s firstborn and the progenitor of the Arab peoples to whom God’s promise of greatness and primacy as their spiritual ancestor was made. From the accounts about Moses come the Commandments and the law, with the injunctions, prohibitions and codes of conduct given to the people of Israel to obey. Very importantly, Moses (Deuteronomy18:17-19) is regarded as having foretold the coming of Muhammed as Messenger, although the same passage had already been taken by Christians, centuries earlier, as one of the many prophecies heralding the coming of Christ: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him. If any man will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name, I Myself will make him answer for it.” In the Qur’an, the Jews are castigated for their obstinacy and failure to live by God’s word. The Qur’an goes on to declare that God in His mercy sent other prophets, and then Jesus, Son of Mary, ‘a Word from God’ to call them to order and to reiterate and spell out once again, the Divine Will for them. But they remained deaf or indifferent to the Messiah and Christ’s Gospel. Christians, it is stated, were at sixes and sevens among themselves about Christ, including his life, his identity and his role in the Divine Plan and his teaching. Several versions of the Christian gospel, including apocryphal and gnostic gospels, had appeared centuries before Muhammed’s day. He realised that orthodox teaching was necessary for the sake of true knowledge about the things of God and His message for people. Muhammed saw himself as the prophet of God, chosen to present the truth about the One Only God to the peoples of Arabia and then to the world through its evangelisation, using all possible means. The promise of Jesus to his apostles to send the ‘Advocate’ or the ‘Paraclete’, namely, the Holy Spirit, was appropriated by Islamic theologians, who argued that Christ had foretold the advent of Ahmed (the Prophet Muhammed) who would reveal all truth (John 14:16-17), truth that Christ himself did not amplify or clarify.
SOME NEGLECTED TEACHINGS AND PROPHECIES
Although the Qur’an devotes considerable attention to both Jesus and Mary, the Holy Book of Islam pays little attention to the contents of the Gospel (Injeel), nor to the teaching of Christ, claiming that what was given to the Prophet Muhammed corrected the Injeel and superseded it. As a result much is overlooked, indeed too much, as though somewhere along the line the written gospel had been corrupted, and was unreliable, and thus even dangerous, excepting for that which was filtered and re-presented in the Qur’an. Thus, many biblical prophecies and some of its richest teachings, which tell of the Incarnation, the irruption of God as man into human history, and its purpose in the divine economy of salvation, remain unconsidered or have been rejected in the Qur’an. Take, for example, the prophecy of Isaiah about Jesus, which many centuries before Christ foretold his coming and his purpose. Isaiah identified him as both human and divine, the one who would reign on David’s throne, and establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness; one who would have God’s authority; who would not only be a wonderful counsellor, but himself divine, one with the everlasting eternal Father, the prince of peace who would be the light of life for the world: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:2,6-7). This was clear prophecy that the Eternal God, the Everlasting Father, would enter into history with a definite purpose, and become incarnate: the promise fulfilled in Christ Jesus, Son of God and son of Mary; a prophecy made for all peoples, especially for those rooted in the Old and the New Testaments. Reflection upon this mystery tells of God’s love for His children (who we are), a mystery made known by God in His mercy and wisdom. By the Incarnation, the gulf between the visible and invisible and the temporal and the eternal disappears, through the Creator and Creation coming together as a result of the Word becoming flesh. This synthesis is not only unrecognised, but is indeed anathematised in Islam, and something far less embraced instead.
CONCLUDING QUESTIONS AND CHALLENGES
Should apocryphal accounts about the life and words of Jesus, and books and accounts and texts that were rejected as erroneous by the early Church using the authority and discretional power conferred upon it by its founder, Jesus Christ, be preferred to the orthodox ones ratified by the Church. Should those teachings and doctrines rooted in the Gospels and in other books of the New Testament, and foreshadowed in the Old Testament, continue to be dismissed by Muslims, because they do not conform to the ideas of gnostics and Arians and other dissenting philosophies which were prevalent in the Arab world at the time the Qur’an was first compiled? Should not Muslim teachers re-read the orthodox gospels which demonstrate that the early Church was illumined and defended from false doctrine by the Christic guarantee (Matthew 16:18-19) and the light of the Holy Spirit, and learn much more from Christ? But for such aversion would not Muslims have discovered, as they as yet have to discover, that the Trinitarian nature of the One Only God, is God-given revelation which in no way contravenes the unique Oneness of God; revelation that only enriches the believer? Similarly, would not Muslims have come to recognise that Isaiah’s prophecy that the Servant of God would suffer rejection and cruelty and die at the hands of men points to Jesus Christ? Moreover, would not fuller understanding of the orthodox Christian Bible have enabled them to realise that contrary to Qur’anic assertions, the historical man Jesus did lay claim to his divine state: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I Am” (John 8:58); and that when in response to Christ’s question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter replied, “You are the Son of the Living God”, Christ said to him, “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven” (Matthew 16:15-17) . Then again, in the Gospel of John, he declared: “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30). Likewise, would they not have come to accept that the unknowable God could and would only be revealed by Christ, His Son and eternal Logos, because “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son…” (Matthew 11:27). Would they not come to realise that when Christ promised, in anticipation of his return to the Father, to send a Helper for his people, he was referring to the Holy Spirit of God, “I shall ask the Father, and He will give you another Paraclete (Helper) to be with you forever, the Spirit of truth whom the world can never accept since it neither sees nor knows him…” (John 14:16-17). [However, Muslims claim that this Helper is Periclytos, Ahmed (Muhammed), the Praised One, to confirm the truth from God: ‘And remember, Jesus, the son of Mary, said: “O Children of Israel! I am the messenger of Allah (sent) to you, confirming the Taurat (which came) before me, and giving glad tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name shall be Ahmed….” ‘ (S61:6). Ahmed or Muhammed, is regarded by Islamic scholars as almost a translation of the Greek word ‘Periclytos’, and that Paracletos is a corrupt rendition of Periclytos. They also maintain that the Prophet Ahmed was mentioned by Jesus by name in the original gospel (which Muslims did not see.) Hence, they claim that Muhammed was the final prophet, the Khatam, the Seal of God’s Word.] It remains for the Muslim who seeks a deeper understanding of God and fidelity to His Will to ask whether or not there is much of the Old and the New Testaments that Islam neglects or disavows, which Islam should go on to discover? For did not Jesus Christ come both to fulfil and transcend the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament, and to call all to a new and fuller Covenant with God; and that that Covenant, as Christ declared with his God-given authority, authority vouched for by the Qur’an, is essential for life, growth, maturity in faith and salvation? Would Muslims realise at last, that to by-pass Christ as the Divine Logos is to grievously diminish Divine Revelation, and obscure the unique light that God has given to humankind, about His Inner Nature and about His Will and about the ways of Divine Love? So, is Islam fully rooted in its predecessor religions, and is it an advance, that carries the word of God beyond that which Christ has given those who seek the truth? Or is it not? Should not the Muslim who would be as true as possible to God ask whether or not there should be a humble, courageous and worshipful (re)discovery of Christ and his truths, and a re-orientation of direction, and thus go on to realise its ancestral birthright? Should not the advice given in the Holy Qur’an itself be taken seriously: “If you doubt what We have revealed to you, ask those who have read the Scriptures before you. The truth has come to you from the Lord: therefore do not doubt it. Nor shall you deny the revelations of God, for then you will surely be among the lost (S10:94-95). And, “It is He Who sent down to thee (step by step) in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it: He sent down the Torah (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus)” (S3:2)?
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