Who Speaks for Islam?: A Debate

Disclaimer: Below is an analysis of a debate between Irshad Manji and Dalia Mogahed. This analysis will be about the way in which the women were represented, how they spoke, how they interacted with one another, as well as with the moderator and audience (and vice versa), and some of the comments they made, etc. However, this analysis will NOT be about their interpretations of Islam or they ways in which they state to view Islam. This will NOT be a theological critique as MMW is not a theological site. Therefore, all comments MUST remain within those parameters as well. Please refrain from personal attacks on Manji or Mogahed and focus on the debate.

Recently, a debate entitled “Who Speaks for Islam?” took place with debaters Irshad Manji (feminist, journalist, author, activist, and director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University) and Dalia Mogahed (Senior Analyst with Gallup and Executive Director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies). She is also a co-author, with John Esposito, of the book Who Speaks for Islam? The debate was moderated by Jeffery Goldberg.

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(The video can also be viewed via Suhaib Webb’s blog here.)

Points to note:

From watching the debate, there is no doubt that both Manji and Mogahed are excellent speakers. Both women come across as confident in their words, and speak with much conviction. Although very often saying different things, it was not unusual still for the women to agree on many points, though sometimes in a round-about fashion. Manji inserted some humour into the debate while Mogahed (picture below left) maintained a serious tone. Nonetheless, both women are obviously very intelligent and came across as articulate.

Considering this forum was a debate, the women did disagree with each other often but were nonetheless respectful to each other. Even in their disagreements they maintained respect for each other, though at times the viewer could definitely sense their frustration with each other. At times it was a lively debate indeed, but never disrespectful.

Both women received what seemed to be equal time to speak and equal opportunities. Goldberg provided opportunities for each to answer his questions, as well as respond to each other, at certain times. He did not appear to favour one over the other.

At the end of the debate, the audience was given opportunities to ask questions. In their interaction with the debaters, the audience members showed sincere interest.

Who are the debaters and why are they debating?:

The selection of Mogahed and Manji is worth considering. Mogahed, as mentioned before, is the co-author of the book Who Speaks for Islam?, which best-selling author Dinesh D’Souza considers “one of the most important books on the War on Terror.” A book which seems very important to understanding the opinions and attitudes of Muslims around the world. Her work is instrumental in building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims, and as far as the opinions of Muslims go, she would be THE one to ask. She is someone who can convey what many Muslims say when they speak, though perhaps she could not say who speaks for Islam, as I don’t think anyone can conclude this. Her inclusion in the debate seemed quite important and extremely relevant.

Manji (pictured right), an outspoken critic of traditional Islam, calls for ijtihad (which can be seen on her website) and a reform of the interpretations of Islam. She provided a very different angle to the debate than did Mogahed. Her questioning of the status quo and traditions gave the debate breadth as far as representing Muslim views. Her stories of encounters with like-minded Muslims presented another spectrum of views among Muslims, though they were personal anecdotes as opposed to research data. Although often seen as antagonistic by many Muslims, sometimes a voice that questions ‘the way things have always been’ forces others to find the reasons for ‘the way things have always been.’ Manji represents a side of Muslims which many non-Muslims embrace, but which many Muslims have not appreciated, sometimes to the point of excluding her and other Muslims whose views match Manji’s. However, as she so very often is viewed as speaking for or about Muslims, whether some Muslims like it or not, her inclusion in the debate also seemed appropriate.

So what about what they said?:

Much of what the women discussed regarded Islamic scholarship and theology. As already stated, I will not critique those comments. However, to sum up the mentionable topics I would have to say it seemed that although Manji made some excellent points and spoke well, overall Mogahed did just a little better. Both women came across as knowledgeable, though at the end I must admit, Mogahed had the upper hand. Her grasp of the statistics and her own research backing up her words, made her come across as a little more knowledgeable than her counterpart. Manji mainly relied on personal experiences, which are valid and credible in and of themselves.

Often when one hears Muslim behaviour explained in logical ways, such as how Mogahed did, it is seen as apologetic. Although almost anything can be said to be apologetic of Muslims by those determined to paint Muslims in one way, I would argue that Mogahed’s words did not accomplish this. She in fact, did point out the problems in the Muslim world, but then also, logically explained them. Not to excuse them, just to contextualize. Contextualizing does not excuse, but it helps understand and thus deal with the problem. Manji was not able to do this, and though seeming at times to make an attempt to contextualize, was not as successful as Mogahed.


Overall, the debate was interesting, and educational, to the Muslim as well as non-Muslim viewer/listener. To the interested listener, the debate would indicate that diversity does exist in the Muslim world. For the listener, the debate should not be about who won or lost. Rather it should provide an overall package of information regarding the experiences of Muslims and how diverse they can be. Therefore, the only logical conclusion I could draw to answer the question “Who speaks for Islam?” appeared to be “We all do.”

  • http://forsoothsayer.blogspot.com forsoothsayer

    this determined avoidance of any meaty topics of discussion that are actually of relevance is really limiting the usefulness of MMW. this particular piece is almost entirely pointless…if you won’t actually tell us any of the things they said, how do we know who in fact had the upper hand? who made more sense and how? you need to introduce just a few examples! not even a general summary of their usual stances?? not too helpful.

  • Philip

    they both argued from different points of view. One speaks for traditionalists and orthodox people while the other speaks for others.
    The way they dressed was also kind of metaphorical as to who they were speaking to.

  • http://abenyusuf.wordpress.com abenyusuf

    Assalâm ‘alaikum

    Thank you for the report, I saw the debate with great interest. At some moments, while I listened her, I accepted that I was deeply “in debt” with Irshad Manji, I felt how much she is important in our times and preoccupations since the last five or seven years. But, as you said, Dalia Mogahed was indeed better, for the reasons you have very well exposed. The only little detail , very personal and subjective, is that I don’t like as much as she appears to do the way Amr Khaled deals with societal questions, even the problems with drugs. But it was overall a wonderful hour, a good gift for the Id. Mâ shâ’ Al·lâh!


  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    forsoothsayer, I gotta disagree. The whole reason we link to and embed the debate is so the reader can see for herself what was said. And Sobia gave her opinion on who had the upper hand (Mogahed).

    Philip’s comment is interesting; why do you believe that the way they dressed is representative of who they’re speaking to?

  • http://abenyusuf.wordpress.com abenyusuf

    May I say that of course there is a division in how they dressed and that division tells: “I look like a Muslimah” vs. “I look like a poet, like an activist but you can’t know what I believe on if I don’t say it to you”.


  • Sobia


    Much of what was said was regarding religion and MMW is not in the business of telling people what is or isn’t Islam. So I could not critique any comments regarding Islam because that would require some form of judgment as to what was or wasn’t Islam. This would inevitably lead to much disagreement, offense, and unnecessary exclusion. That is not my job. People can make up their minds themselves on the topic of religion and religious scholarship.

    “how do we know who in fact had the upper hand?”

    Because Mogahed had research behind her comments about the global Muslim community. That is what I said in the piece.

    “this determined avoidance of any meaty topics of discussion that are actually of relevance is really limiting the usefulness of MMW.”

    I’m not clear what or how you mean here. As you said, examples would help explain this.

  • Sobia


    “I look like a Muslimah” vs. “I look like a poet, like an activist but you can’t know what I believe on if I don’t say it to you”.

    Who is to say who looks like a Muslimah? Sure women who wear the hijab are more obviously Muslim, but that does not mean that those who don’t wear it don’t look like a Muslimah.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    I think Sobia makes a good point; this idea gets into “who” is and isn’t a Muslim woman, and what a Muslim woman does or doesn’t look like, which usually come laden with judgments. There is no one archetype of what a Muslim woman looks like.

  • Krista

    I’m also worried about the “looking like a Muslimah” vs. “looking like a poet” dichotomy because it implies that once a woman wears a headscarf (at least, I’m assuming that that’s what “looking like a Muslimah” means), she then *only* looks like a Muslimah, and doesn’t also get to look like a poet, activist, or whatever else.

  • Sobia

    Thanks…I figure if I am a Muslim woman then I look like a Muslim woman, even if I’m wearing a black leather mini-skirt with knee high boots.* Simple. :)

    * Just for the record I don’t actually wear that – not that there’s anything wrong with that if that’s what you’re into. :)

  • http://abenyusuf.wordpress.com abenyusuf

    As-Salam ‘alaikunna, Sobia, Fatemeh and Krista,
    Well, Sobia, I’m a man talking about how does a woman look like, it’s not really the good way to take the walk, and the debate never pointed the issue (minor in my understanding of Islam) of the hijab (alhamdu lillah!), but it’s obvious that we talk even before we begin to talk just by the way we dress. And yes, there ‘s identity too to be found in how Irshad Manji was dressed, and she was perfectly conscious of that, no more but no less than Dalia Mogahed.
    Krista, alhamdu lillah Dalia Mogahed is much more than a Muslimah wearing hijab, of course, and I agree with you in the fact that we should ever do the effort of not imply from a person more than she or he wants to give us spontaneously. Wa Al·lâhu a’lam.

    (Sorry for my learned yet dubious English).
    Ma’a assalâma.

  • Philip

    “Philip’s comment is interesting; why do you believe that the way they dressed is representative of who they’re speaking to?”

    Manji was speaking to un-traditional(for what ever reason) people. And Dalia was speaking to mostly traditional Orthodox muslims. Thats why i said it was a metaphor for the way they dressed. without breaking the gag order i can’t explain it better.

  • wileysnakeskins

    Who speaks for islam? What kind of idiotic question is that? There is only one person who can and will ever speak for islam and that is mohammed, and each and every word of the quran/kuran and hadith each and every word coming from each of these examples are the direct, clear and concise words coming from the mouth of allah. So, who’s next, anyone have something to say, thought not, and so does allah.

  • Sobia


    Interesting. Just curious. So you would say that the other prophets (Jesus, Moses, Abraham etc.) did not speak for Islam, I’m assuming.

  • Sobia

    @ Philip:

    It’s interesting that you think that Dalia Mogahed was speaking to traditional Muslims mainly. I found much of what she said to resonate with me, even though I am quite an un-traditional Muslim, and I would assume I am not the only one who felt this way.

    Personally, I didn’t see her as speaking to traditional Muslims only (mainly – maybe), though yes, some of her comments about scholarship did fall into that realm. She did seem to “play it safe.”

    Perhaps, it was the traditional/conservative attire that led to the belief that she would cater to traditional audiences, and not the other way around.

    And the same for Manji.

  • Philip

    i watched it again and yeah the attire + the classical understanding of ayats +hadiths that gave me that impression.

  • Sahar

    Response to this post and the discussion between Manji and Mogahed:


  • Pingback: Empty vessels make the loudest noise « Nuseiba

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    It occurs to me, after watching the debate again, that Mogahed is undoubtedly qualified to be in this debate, but it seems like Manji is only here so that there IS a debate. Like, they only chose her because she is such a polarizing figure in Muslim communities and they figured she’d put up a good fight. It’s as if the organizers were attempting a “good Muslim (Mogahed) vs. bad Muslim (Manji)”. Those aren’t my personal constructions, mind you, but what I think (reading from the above comments) many Muslims see when they look at Mogahed and Manji.

    Who else could they have gotten? Dr. Amina Wadud, Dr. Ingrid Mattson, Asra Nomani…but it seems like they went for Manji because they didn’t believe Mogahed and any of these other women would have anything to fight about (which I doubt is true).

    While I think Manji’s views are legitimate (who can say what is legitimate and what isn’t?) no matter my views on them, I think her inclusion in this debate as someone who can speak for Islam isn’t. I would rather have seen any one of the other women I named in this debate.

  • Sobia

    But Fatemeh, the problem is, no one and at the same time everyone can speak for Islam. If they really wanted to have a fair debate then they should have included Mogahed, Nomani, Wadud AND Manji. They all represent differing viewpoints. And even they will inevitable leave people out. But if they wanted two different perspectives, which are very different from each other, then this is what you’re going to get.

    Although a lot of Muslims have a problem with Manji, including myself, I don’t think there is a need to exclude her from the discussion. She makes many valid points and questions the status quo. No doubt Wadud would have been better as she has Islamic scholarship (which btw many Muslims scoff at) as well, but I bet you that those who are opposed to Manji will ALSO be just as opposed to Wadud and/or Nomani. Damn, Nomani followed the prayer that Wadud lead WITHOUT a headscarf! Shock!* So there is no winning in this case. Nomani, Wadud, Manji are all the same to many Muslims.

    * Sarcasm – I have no problem with this at all.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    You make a good point, Sobia. I don’t want to exclude Manji, but I wanted to point out that I think she was thrown in there as a sensational pick rather than on her merits.

  • Nadia

    I found these very powerful videos for Dalia Mogahed. She’s amazing! It seems that she’s extremely respected in many serious professional circles.

    Conference by US Army War College and Women in International Security.

    Mogahed discuss her study on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal.

    Charlie Rose discussion with John Esposito & Dalia Mogahed