I Am Malala

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Islam and Its Interpretations Theme Analysis

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Women’s Rights Theme Icon
The Power of Education Theme Icon
Islam and Its Interpretations Theme Icon
Goodness Theme Icon
Fame, Power, and the Importance of Role Models Theme Icon
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Islam and Its Interpretations Theme Icon

Malala makes it clear that she is a devout Muslim—a follower of the faith of Islam. Islam is one of the three Abrahamic religions (the other two are Judaism and Christianity): monotheistic religions that believe that God revealed himself to the prophet Abraham. Islam was founded by Mohammed, a man who lived in the Middle East during the 6th century. Mohammed claimed to have been visited by the angel Gabriel, who dictated to him the entire Quran—the holy book of the Islamic faith. Today, Islam claims more than 1 billion members, and includes many different sects, each of which interprets the faith in different ways. It’s important to understand some of the nuances of Islam to grasp the stakes of the conflict between Malala and her opponents.

While Malala is steadfast in her Islamic faith and her love for Allah—the Muslim name for God—her moral beliefs lead her to clash with the Taliban, a powerful, violent Muslim group based in Afghanistan as well as Malala’s native Pakistan. The Taliban believe (among other things) that the Quran dictates that women should live their lives by retreating from the “public sphere”—in other words, they should wear a burqa (see symbols) in public, and refrain from attending school and seeking education. Malala disagrees with the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam, however. She believes that one can be a woman, be educated, walk in public without a veil, and still be a loyal Muslim. In a sense, I Am Malala is about the long, dangerous, and sometimes violent clash between Malala’s religious beliefs and those of the Taliban. By both sides’ own admission, this is basically a clash between two interpretations of Islam.

Although I Am Malala isn’t a treatise on theology—Malala doesn’t stop to refute the Taliban’s arguments point-by-point—Malala makes clear the nature of her disagreement with the Taliban. The Taliban, she notes, have only risen to prominence in the last thirty years. It’s no coincidence that this era was arguably the most violent in Pakistani history: in the 80s and early 90s, the dictator General Zia ruled Pakistan with an iron fist, murdering his political opponents. Zia, Malala explains, proved to an entire generation that violence and force can be highly effective ways to get what one wants. Worse, Zia popularized his own radical and highly ahistorical interpretation of Islam. In the Quran, Mohammed argues that all Muslims participate in the jihad—a nebulous concept that has been variously translated as “war,” “conflict,” “deliberation,” “Holy War,” and “struggle.” While part of the jihad, as it’s usually been understood, is the internal, psychological struggle of the loyal Muslim with his own temptations, Zia stressed the external, violent, warlike interpretations of jihad. The result, Malala strongly implies, is that the generation that succeeded Zia’s (the generation that birthed the Taliban) uses force instead of reason.

The Taliban treat Malala as an enemy not only because of her particular interpretation of the faith—the group is furious that a woman would dare to interpret the Quran in the first place. The Taliban proudly celebrate their own interpretation of Islam, arrogantly dismissing all others. When Malala tries to publicly argue that Allah wants women to study the faith by learning to read and write, the Taliban try to murder Malala, rather than have faith in their own interpretation of Islam. For Malala, this is proof of the flaws in their arguments: instead of trusting that their interpretation of Allah’s law will “win out” in the end, they childishly turn to violence, in a vain effort to bully others into following their beliefs. Malala, by contrast, doesn’t try to back up her arguments with guns or force. Her only weapon, she maintains, is her Muslim faith.

While I Am Malala doesn’t address interpretations of the Islamic faith in great detail, it’s very important to understand the role that Islam plays in the lives of the people described in its pages—particularly in light of the recent debates about Islam taking place in the political sphere. Ultimately, Malala uses her book to establish herself as someone who believes in the Islamic faith and believes in universal education and equal rights for women—a combination that, in the political rhetoric of both the United States and Pakistan, sometimes seems not to exist.

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Islam and Its Interpretations ThemeTracker

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Islam and Its Interpretations Quotes in I Am Malala

Below you will find the important quotes in I Am Malala related to the theme of Islam and Its Interpretations.
Prologue Quotes

The man was wearing a peaked cap and had a handkerchief over his nose and mouth as if he had the flu. He looked like a college student. Then he swung himself onto the tailboard at the back and leaned in right over us.
“Who is Malala?” he demanded.
No one said anything, but several of the girls looked at me. I was the only girl with my face not covered.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker), Ataullah Khan
Related Symbols: Burqa
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In the prologue to her memoir, Malala paints a startling picture of the day she was shot by a Taliban assassin. The man stops Malala's school bus and marches inside, asking for Malala. Although Malala says nothing at all, it's obvious enough who she is: she's literally the only girl on the bus not wearing the traditional burqa (or veil).

The absence of a burqa on Malala's face, you could say, is her undoing: because she wears no burqa, the Taliban soldier shoots her and sends her to the hospital. But in a broader sense, Malala's choice to discard the burqa (under her country's Taliban rule) demonstrates her bravery and determination. The burqa is a traditional symbol of Islamic faith and feminine domesticity: to wear a burqa is to be an obedient, faithful woman. (Of course, this isn't always the case, and for many women the burqa can represent strength, religious faith, and individuality.) Even in her appearance, Malala is saying that she doesn't accept that women must be second-class citizens--they should be equal to men, and have the same freedom of speech and expression.

In all, Malala takes on the qualities of a martyr in this scene. She stands quietly in opposition to misogyny in Pakistan, and she's punished by Taliban soldiers for her bravery and commitment to equality.


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Chapter 2 Quotes

Under Zia’s regime life for women in Pakistan became much more restricted. Jinnah said, “No struggle can succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world; one is the sword and the other is the pen. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women.”

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker), Mohammed Ali Jinnah (speaker), General Zia ul-Haq
Page Number: 30-31
Explanation and Analysis:

Malala gives a brief account of Pakistani history since World War Two. In the middle of the 20th century, Pakistan was controlled by Muhammed Ali Jinnah, an educated, popular leader who was notable in that he supported equal rights for women. As Malala explains, Jinnah wanted women to enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men--he wanted them to be able to vote, work the same jobs as men, enjoy the same rights in court, etc.

Following Jinnah's death, however, Pakistan fell under the control of a military dictator, General Zia. Zia reversed many of Pakistan's feminist leanings--where Jinnah wanted equality, Zia wanted to restore the traditional Pakistani arrangement, whereby women largely stayed in the home and didn't hold jobs or appear in court.

In giving such an account of Pakistan's history, Malala aims to show that her country, in spite of some sexist aspects of its history and culture, isn't unprecedentedly sexist. Malala shows that Jinnah--a hugely popular, charismatic leader--was a feminist, too. By paralleling her beliefs with Jinnah, she makes her platform seem more acceptable to a Pakistani audience, while also dispelling some Western prejudices about Pakistan (i.e., that it's "barbaric" to women).

Chapter 3 Quotes

[My father] believes strongly in freedom of speech. “First, let’s read the book and then why not respond with our own book,” he suggested. He ended by asking in a thundering voice my grandfather would have been proud of, “Is Islam such a weak religion that it cannot tolerate a book written against it? Not my Islam!”

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker), Ziauddin Yousafzai (speaker), Rohul Amin
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Malala describes her father's actions during the 1980s, with regard to one of the most infamous events of the decade: the fatwah placed on the life of Salman Rushdie. Rushdie, a celebrated English-language Indian author, wrote a book called The Satanic Verses, in which he wrote about the prophet Muhammed and satirized elements of Islam. Since "depicting" Muhammed in any way was strictly taboo in Islam, there were some fundamentalist Muslims who wanted Rushdie to be punished or even killed for his book.

Yet here, Malala clarifies that while there were many Muslims who wanted to hurt Rushdie, not all did. Some, like Malala's father, Ziauddin, argued that Muslims shouldn't attack Rushdie simply because they disagreed with him. Ziauddin made it clear that he was a proper, righteous Muslim--and yet he also argued for the freedom of speech: Rushdie must be allowed to say whatever he wanted, even if many people found it offensive or heretical. The Salman Rushdie affair is still an acid test for intellectuals throughout the world: some treat the incident as proof that Islam is a fundamentally violent religion, one that can't handle any criticism of its principles. There are even some who've used the Rushdie affair to suggest that Mulsims themselves are dangerous. Yet Malala makes it clear that such assumptions are just offensive stereotypes. There were many more Muslims, such as Zaiuddin, who respected Rushdie's right to write whatever he wanted.

Chapter 6 Quotes

Some of our religious people saw Osama bin Laden as a hero. In the bazaar you could buy posters of him on a white horse and boxes of sweets with his picture on them. These clerics said 9/11 was revenge on the Americans for what they had been doing to other people round the world, but they ignored the fact that the people in the World Trade Center were innocent and had nothing to do with American policy and that the Holy Quran clearly says it is wrong to kill. Our people see conspiracies behind everything, and many argued that the attack was actually carried out by Jews as an excuse for America to launch a war on the Muslim world. Some of our newspapers printed stories that no Jews went to work at the World Trade Center that day. My father said this was rubbish.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker), Ziauddin Yousafzai
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

Malala discusses the aftermath of September 11, 2011, when Osama Bin Laden engineered the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City. While bin Laden's actions were regarded as war crimes throughout much of the world, Malala explains that bin Laden was regarded as a hero by some in her own country. Bin Laden was praised for getting "revenge" on the United States, a country that, it was widely agreed, caused violence and death throughout the Middle East.

Malala makes it crystal-clear that she doesn't agree with this opinion. She takes pains to show that the people in her country who supported 9/11 weren't thinking clearly at all--they just used 9/11 to air their grievances against Jews, American imperialists, etc. Malala shows that the Pakistani response to 9/11 was rooted in ignorance more than anything else. She also stresses that there is absolutely no Islamic justification for Bin Laden's terrorism: the Quran is explicitly against murder. In short, the people who use Islam as a justification for terrorism are simply bad Muslims.

Chapter 7 Quotes

I am proud that our country was created as the world’s first Muslim homeland, but we still don’t agree on what this means. The Quran teaches us sabar—patience—but often it feels that we have forgotten the word and think Islam means women sitting at home in purdah or wearing burqas while men do jihad.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Related Symbols: Burqa
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the memoir, Malala offers her own interpretation of Islam. Malala admits that her interpretation is hardly the only one: there are some Muslims who believe that their religion gives them justification to attack American soldiers and kill American families. But Malala grounds her arguments in specific passages from the Quran, the holy book of the Islamic faith. Here, Malala cites a passage from the Quran in which Muslims are encouraged to practice patience. As Malala interprets the word "patience," Muslims shouldn't resort to violence simply because they want "results" now. There are terrorists who believe that the fact that Pakistan is a largely Muslim country means that they should protect their country from Western influence at all costs--Malala insists that such acts of terrorism violate the Quran's emphasis on patience.

In general, Malala admits that there's some disagreement on what Islam means and what it asks Muslims to do. Her goal in the passage is to show that there's a legitimate, consistent interpretation of Islam that forbids terrorism and violence against others--an argument that, unfortunately, many Islamophobes in the U.S. refuse to believe.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Mullah from the TNSM preached that the earthquake was a warning from God. If we did not mend our ways and introduce shariat or Islamic law, they shouted in their thundering voices, more severe punishment would come.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

Shortly after September 11, 2001, there is an earthquake in Pakistan. Many Pakistani people--supported by their mullahs, or religious leaders--believed that the earthquake was a sign from Allah, telling Muslims to fight America by any means necessary. The earthquake was also used to justify the imposition of strict "Muslim" law: women were forbidden to go to school, for example.

As Malala makes clear, the earthquake is a classic confusion of causation and correlation. Certain leaders can use earthquakes and other natural disasters to justify their radical interpretations of Islam--but things could just as easily go the opposite way (i.e., the earthquake is punishment for those who use Islam to oppress and kill others, etc.). Malala implies that education could dispel confusion about the causes of earthquakes and encourage the people of Pakistan to think more rationally about the world and about their religion.

Chapter 9 Quotes

In the beginning Fazlullah was very wise. He introduced himself as an Islamic reformer and an interpreter of the Quran. My mother is very devout, and to start with she liked Fazlullah. He used his station to encourage people to adopt good habits and abandon practices he said were bad.

Related Characters: Malauna Fazlullah
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Malala describes an important Taliban leader, Malauna Fazlullah. Fazlullah first became prominent in the early 2000s. He painted himself as a moderate: instead of advocating for women wearing burqas and jihadists killing American soldiers, he talked about smaller, more reasonable-sounding reforms. Only later did Fazlullah begin saying what was really on his mind.

As Malala suggests, Fazlullah was a cynical manipulator. He knew that what he believed would come across as barbaric to many, so he tried to slowly "adjust" people to his point of view little by little. Like the proverbial frog in a pot of water, Fazlullah's Muslim listeners slowly became more and more used to radical points of view. Malala implies that the interpretation of Islam advocated by the Taliban (as Fazlullah) is irrational and counterintuitive--people have to be "tricked" into believing it. By contrast, Malala argues that her own pacifist interpretation of Islam is reasonable and based on education and knowledge.

Chapter 10 Quotes

We don’t have any option. We are dependent on these mullahs to learn the Quran,” he said. “But you just use him to learn the literal meanings of the words; don’t follow his explanations and interpretations. Only learn what God says. His words are divine messages, which you are free to interpret.”

Related Characters: Ziauddin Yousafzai (speaker), Malala Yousafzai
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Malala's father gives her instructions about how to relate to Islam. The Pakistani people rely on mullahs, holy men, to interpret Islam: mullahs are trained to read the Quran accurately and carefully and offer a logical reading of the text. But Zaiuddin (Malala's father) has come to see that many of the mullahs in Pakistan can't be trusted any more: they're too political, and too willing to throw in their lot with the Taliban, encouraging ordinary people to subjugate women and hurt the innocent.

Because the mullahs of Pakistan can't be trusted, Zaiuddin encourages Malala to adopt an unusual approach to Islam: instead of believing in the teachings of an appointed religious leader, she should use them to learn the Quran herself and develop her own interpretations of the text. While there are many Muslims who would find Ziauddin's approach simply incorrect (or even heretical), it has some notable advantages. For instance, by reading the Quran herself, Malala moves past the sexism of her society. Mullahs in Pakistan give sexist, biased interpretations of the Quran, in no small part because they're men themselves. Malala, as a woman, is more likely to read the Quran in terms of equality between the sexes. In short, Ziauddin doesn't want Malala to "rebel" against Islam: he wants his daughter to be less biased, and therefore more truly Islamic, then the mullahs themselves.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“They are abusing our religion,” I said in interviews. “How will you accept Islam if I put a gun to your head and say Islam is the true religion? If they want every person in the world to be Muslim why don’t they show themselves to be good Muslims first?”

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

As Malala becomes more well-known throughout her country, her message of peace and hope becomes more passionate. In this passage, Malala conducts a series of interviews in which she makes the argument that a true Muslim would never use violence or intimidation to convert other people to the faith. As she puts it, nobody can be tortured or frightened into becoming a Muslim: the choice must be freely made. In other words, the Taliban's terrorist actions are counterproductive: they won't create any new Muslims; only send the false message that Islam is a religion based on threats.

Malala firmly believes that Islam is a religion of peace. Furthermore, people should be exposed to Islam, along with other ideas, through education--only then can people truly choose to embrace Islam in their own lives. Malala's interpretation of Islam isn't the most popular one in Pakistan, but she uses her interviews and speeches to popularize her point of view.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Islamabad was totally different from Swat. It was as different for us as Islamabad is to New York. Shiza introduced us to women who were lawyers and doctors and also activists, which showed us that women could do important jobs yet still keep their culture and traditions. We saw women in the streets without purdah, their heads completely uncovered. I stopped wearing my shawl over my head in some of the meetings, thinking I had become a modern girl.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section of the memoir, Malala travels to the city of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. Islamabad is by far the largest city Malala has ever seen—it’s also one of the most thoroughly “Westernized.” Women in Islamabad seem confident and proud—a far cry from the submissive, docile ideal Malala sees in her own community. The sight of an entire city of empowered, educated women confirms beyond any reasonable doubt that educating both sexes is not—as the Taliban continue to claim—a death-knell for society; on the contrary, it’s one of the best ways for society to grow.

Malala’s experiences in Islamabad also demonstrate the importance of role models. Malala is inspired by the women she meets in the city, and aspires to be more like them in her own life—hence her decision to shed her veil. By the same token, Malala tries to be a role model for women around the world, acting brave in order to inspire other people to follow her distinguished example.

Chapter 19 Quotes

“Go and ask the manager of the White Palace Hotel and he will tell you what these girls did…”
He put down the paper. “It has no signature. Anonymous.”

Related Characters: Ziauddin Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 229
Explanation and Analysis:

Malala begins to become a more public figure—she writes editorials in her own name instead of using a pseudonym, and appears across the Middle East to speak out in favor of women’s rights and the right to education. At the same time, Malala begins to attract widespread criticism for her supposed heresy—the more public she becomes, the more hated she becomes, too. In this quotation, an anonymous critic implies that Malala and the women who follow her are somehow sinful, and therefore their views are discredited. Without ever explaining what, exactly, Malala “did,” he creates the impression that she had sex or betrayed her Islamic faith. As Malala makes clear, the anonymous critic is just grasping at straws—he makes suggestions because he knows perfectly well that Malala has done nothing wrong. (And yet it's these vague suspicions that are most effective in attempting to discredit Malala, rather than direct accusations that could be easily refuted.)

The passage draws a clear contrast between Malala’s brave, lucid speeches on behalf of her cause and the anonymous critic’s vague, cowardly attacks on her character. Malala’s enemies are cowards, not even brave enough to admit their own names—their anonymity is a sign that Malala is beginning to gain the upper hand, while her opponents are beginning to cower and hide from public view.

Chapter 23 Quotes

“Too many people in the Muslim world can’t believe a Muslim can do such a thing,” she said. “My mother, for example, would say they can’t be Muslims. Some people call themselves Muslims but their actions are not Islamic.” We talked about how things happen for different reasons, this happened to me, and how education for females not just males is one of our Islamic rights. I was speaking up for my rights as a Muslim woman to be able to go to school.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker), Dr. Fiona Reynolds (speaker)
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

In the hospital in England, Malala forms a fast friendship with her doctor, Fiona Reynolds. The two of them discuss Malala’s crusade for human rights and women’s rights, and Fiona is greatly impressed. Here, Fiona and Malala talk about the way Muslims are perceived. Many in the Muslim world, Malala explains, believe that no true Muslim can be in favor of equal rights for men and women, as Malala is. But Malala insists that the truest Muslims are those who celebrate peace, tolerance, and equality.

Malala’s conversation with Fiona reflects her growing presence on the international stage. For most of the novel, Malala was arguing for women’s rights within her own country. Here, she continues to stand up for what she believes in, but her audience is much greater. Since many of her greatest supporters live in the Western world, Malala changes the focus of her project somewhat--she’s not just fighting for education anymore. By talking about Islam with Western people like Fiona, she’s also acting as an ambassador for Islam itself—a religion that too many people in the Western world regard as violent and intolerant.

Chapter 24 Quotes

We humans don’t realize how great God is. He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes which see a world of colors and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, a nose which smells the beauty of fragrance, and two ears to hear the words of love.

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 300-301
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout her memoir, Malala makes it clear that she’s not just an advocate for women’s rights: she’s a pious, practicing Muslim, albeit one who worships Allah in her own way. In this quotation, Malala offers one of her most eloquent expressions of her faith. In spite of practices which might seem anti-Muslim to many (believing in education for women, not wearing the veil, distrusting mullahs, etc.), Malala is absolutely a follower of Islam. However, her belief in certain aspects of the faith, such as its pacifism and emphasis on patience, lead her to oppose practices advocated by some fundamentalist Muslims, such as jihad and the repression of women.

It’s interesting to note that Malala refers to God as "God" (the more typical name for the Jewish/Christian/Muslim deity among Western religious people), not Allah (the more typical Muslim term for the same deity). In this book, Malala is trying to appeal to a Western audience more than an Islamic audience: she lives in a Western country, won the Nobel Peace Prize (given out by a Swedish panel), and speaks in countries throughout the Western world. In other words, Malala refers to “God,” not “Allah” because, as an ambassador for her country, she wants Western audiences to find commonalities between faiths—and in the simple, beautiful wisdom of this passage, she urges readers to find commonalities between all humans.

I was a good girl. In my heart I had only the desire to help people. It wasn’t about the awards or the money. I always prayed to God, “I want to help people and please help me do that.”

Related Characters: Malala Yousafzai (speaker)
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

Malala concludes her memoir with a simple, straightforward evocation of her faith and passion. As a worldwide celebrity, Malala is invited onto talk shows, gets a book deal, etc. There are many who accuse Malala of "selling out"--appearing on television because of her own vanity, nothing more. But Malala insists that the opposite is true: she appears on the global stage because she wants to attract attention to women's rights and other political causes.

Malala's quotation illustrates some of the challenges of celebrity. Malala first agrees to become a public figure because she believes her appearance will aid the causes she believes in. Malala's challenge is to never allow herself to become "bigger" than her cause: i.e., to argue for what she believes in, not talk about her personal life for its own sake.

Of course, there's a fine line between being a political advocate and being a celebrity, and Malala faces an enormous amount of pressure as a global figure: if she makes any mistake in her private life, she'll attract attention away from the issues. Her only course of action is to be perfect: honest, virtuous, etc. By writing a memoir, Malala's goal is to build awareness of human rights abuses in her native country, using her own life as a "teaching tool."