Move over jihad, there's a new ihad in town.
It's being whispered behind ladies’ hijabs, murmured at mosques, and debated heatedly by fundamentalist Muslims the world over.
It's called ijtihad and it is an audacious word, to be sure.
To say it's a new concept is misleading, however. It shares etymological roots with the word, jihad, which loosely defined, as we have all come to learn, also means struggle. Ijtihad is a striving, as well, yet not towards God so much as inwards. In both respects though, the struggle is both a process and a journey.
Where the struggle deviates is that while jihad can be understood to be a psychological process, ijtihad is much more a philosophical one. Roughly defined then, ijtihad is the painstaking, soul-searching form of critical inquiry necessary to form a theological or legal judgment and arrive at a new interpretation of the source text(s).
If this sounds suspiciously like the work of scholars and philosophers, it's because it is. Or rather, was.
Every religion has its scholars ~ Aquinas, Maimonides, Nagarjuna and Shankara are all names that come to mind for the various other major traditions ~ but what's interesting, and I think pivotal to both the intellectual rise and fall of Islam, is how influential Islam's medieval scholars were.
Ibn Rushd and Al-Ghazali are the two most celebrated in historical Islam. Both were savvy to the ways of reason and law, and yes, the fine art of ijtihad. I won’t bore you with their details, but read even a smattering of their works and you’ll be amazed at how brilliant and instrumental these great thinkers were both within and to the development of the medieval world.
What bearing should such arcane exegetics as ijtihad have for modern Muslims? According to one of Islam's most vocal reformers, Irshad Manji, a self-proclaimed 'Muslim Refusenik,' a significant amount.
As best-selling author of the book, The Trouble With Islam Today and mistress of a rebel movement called Project Ijtihad, Manji is as disturbed as most Muslims today at the religious turn of events for Islam, particularly the changing worldview post 9/11.
She spoke here in town the last couple of evenings at PBS-sponsored talks to launch her new documentary, Faith Without Fear, set to air mid-April, and to plug her new paperback, which I had the distinct pleasure of reading in hardcover format a couple of years back when it was first published in Canada.
How and why Islam went from being a religion of such theological, philosophical and scientific renown, such that it was the flavour of the week for a medieval time (even fostering some 135 schools of thought), to becoming such a strict, neo-conservative religion that allows virtually no room for deviation from the literal words of the Prophet Mohammed in the Qu'ran ~ these are the questions she raises. She pulls no punches. What the hell happened? she dares ask.
Well, let’s see. There were these little matters of holy wars with Christendom and the Jews, not to mention great political and imperial strife throughout the Middle East and
But instead of struggling against the grain and the tides of this new millennium, Manji suggests it is high time Islam, and more to the point, Muslims who are the living faith, reform their thinking and begin the process of personally re-claiming their religion as their own. This process of accountability and responsibility, Manji insists, starts with ijtihad.
But wait a minute. Making a personal judgment to interpret the Shari’ah (Islamic law)? Blasphemous, devout Muslims would claim. The words of the Prophet were not meant to be written on subway walls or debated in tenement halls.
Nonetheless, they do echo in the sounds of silence and uneasy acquiescence. And shifty-eyed silence speaks volumes.
That said, there comes a time in each religion when reform becomes necessary, or so says history.
Luther believed in small c catholicism and in an ecumenical approach to religion, which is not to be confused with the economical approach of
Faith to him was not bound up solely in repenting sins, performing sacraments or purchasing indulgences, all in mediated Papal fashion, but rather, was salvific in so far as he believed that God grants grace to those who receive Christ as their savior and place their faith in Him.
A religion stops breathing when a culture, or religio-political leaders, (ie. to borrow from Islam, certain Imams, rogue madressas, the Taliban, etc.), claim all rights to interpret, preach and bastardize the sacred to suit geo-politics and cultural constructs, at the expense of modernity, progression and a little thing called the free and responsible search for Truth.
It is hardly surprising then that Manji advocates faith versus dogma, education not indoctrination, and a fusion of faith and reason not readily found in modern Islam. Her thinking is not altogether revolutionary, and yet it is liberating insofar as she is uttering a call to religious arms that promotes a return to reverence and intellect, and an abandonment of fear.