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From books to virgins

November 06, 2005|Irshad Manji | IRSHAD MANJI is the author of "The Trouble With Islam Today" (St. Martin's Press) and is making a film about what there is to love within Islam. A version of this essay appeared in the Times of London.

One year ago, a young Muslim man raised in the Netherlands murdered the filmmaker (and, some would say, troublemaker) Theo van Gogh. A fierce critic of religion, Van Gogh issued piercing screeds against Islam. So Mohammed Bouyeri killed him, proudly explaining in court that he stabbed Van Gogh to death out of love of the faith.

But it wasn't faith that Bouyeri was defending. It was dogma. And dogma is hobbling our faith, because we Muslims have forgotten Islam's own tradition of independent thinking: ijtihad.

This concept of creative reasoning, pronounced ij-tee-had, has a track record. In the early decades of Islam, thanks to the spirit of ijtihad, 135 schools of thought flourished. In Muslim Spain, scholars would teach their students to abandon "expert" opinions about the Koran if their own conversations with the ambiguous book produced more compelling evidence for their peaceful ideas. And Cordoba, among the most sophisticated cities in Islamic Spain, had 70 libraries. That is one for every virgin that today's Muslim martyrs believe Allah pledges them. Books then, women now: an unlikely indicator of how far Muslims have plunged intellectually.

From the 8th to the 12th centuries, the "gates of ijtihad" -- of discussion, debate and dissent -- remained open. Not coincidentally, that is when Islamic civilization led the world in ingenuity.

At the twilight of the 12th century, however, the gates of ijtihad closed. Scholars argue about whether they shut completely or partially, but there is consensus that the artistic and scientific ferment animating the Golden Age of Islam died stubbornly. Why? The fragile Islamic empire, stretching from Iraq in the east to Spain in the west, began to experience internal convulsions. Dissident denominations cropped up and declared their own governments. The Baghdad-based caliph -- a combination statesman and spiritual leader -- cracked down on the new sects to secure the political unity of the empire.

For hundreds of years since, three equations have informed mainstream Islamic practice. First, unity equals uniformity. In order to be strong, members of the worldwide Muslim ummah, or nation, must think alike.

Second, debate equals division. Diversity of interpretation is no longer a tribute to God's majesty. It is a hammer blow to the unity that Muslims must exhibit to those intent on dividing us.

Third, division equals heresy. Soon after the gates of ijtihad closed, innovation came to be defined as a crime by dint of being fitna -- that which divides. In the late 19th century, a gallant attempt by Egyptian feminists and intellectuals to revive ijtihad failed because of louder calls for Muslim solidarity. Lest anyone protest that that was then and this is now, my mother's imam in Vancouver, Canada, recently preached that I am a bigger "criminal" than Osama bin Laden because my book, "The Trouble With Islam Today," has caused more "division" (read: "debate") among Muslims than Al Qaeda's terrorism has.

The good news is that the gates of ijtihad were shut not for spiritual or theological reasons but for entirely political ones. This means there is no blasphemy in seeking to resuscitate Islam's tradition of independent thinking. I can report that more and more young Muslims are seeking to do exactly that. For example, one of the most common questions e-mailed to me comes from Muslim women in the West who have fallen in love with Christian men. Too often, their parents and clerics warn them that Islam forbids women from marrying outside of the faith. Does it?

That is up for interpretation. The Koran tells us that Christians and Jews are fellow people of the Book who have "nothing to fear or regret" as long as they stay true to their Scriptures. After all, the Koran affirms that the "earlier Scriptures" -- the Torah and the Bible -- are as divinely inspired as Islam's holy book.

I am hardly a theologian, though, so I asked an imam to weigh in. He pointed out that thanks to its time and place -- 7th century Arabia -- the Koran assumes that women are owned by their tribes and consequently must take the religion of tribal leaders: men. Thus, marrying a non-Muslim man would oblige a Muslim woman to abandon Islam. However, he emphasized, that is not the case for Muslim women exposed to the pluralism of the West. Put simply, "you live in an different time and place."

It is of no minor significance that this imam officiates interfaith marriages, a necessary service for the emerging generation. The broader point is that Muslims in the West are perfectly poised to rediscover ijtihad because it is in the West that we already enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged on matters of interpretation -- all without fear of state reprisal for doing so.

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