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.
Islam and Its Interpretations ThemeTracker
Islam and Its Interpretations Quotes in I Am Malala
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.
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.”
[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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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?”
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.
“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.
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.
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.”