Friday, 23 March 2007

Holy War of Words

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.

Struggle for Words
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.

Faith Without Fear
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.

In fact, more so, for she dares to write and speak publicly, honestly and most-dissidently about issues of faith near and dear to the Muslim heart; bold words, incidentally, that earn her as many accolades (ie. the Oprah Chutzpah Award) as death threats.

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 Central Asia, as empires came, conquered, collapsed. Add to that diasporas, and dysfunction and bickering within the Islamic family itself, and you begin to get a sense that struggle is as much a defining element of Islam as the five pillars themselves.

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 Rome circa the Reformation era.

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.

Justification by faith. Salvation by grace. These were holy heretical notions when Luther first nailed his 95 theses to that Wittenberg church door back in 1517 and yet they would prove to be the impetus to one of the greatest turning points in Christian history.

Nearly 500 years later, Islam is at a similar stalemate and reformative crossroad. It too has strong reformers willing to stand up and be counted; warriors women like Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hersi Ali, who are trying desperately to drag their faith kicking and screaming into the new millennium, fears be damned.

Faith Without Faith
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.

A religion stops speaking when groups like al Quaeda purport to speak for it and the masses can do little more than let the Mosque do its talking for them.

A religion stops growing when independent inquiry is discouraged and resignation and doubt pervade. And by growth I mean relevancy, not population statistics, because the continued spread of Islam worldwide is self-evident and directly proportionate to this rising index. The question then remains: is Islam as authentic and relevant to its adherents now as it was 500 years ago?

Some, like Manji, say no. She says part of the problem is the current blame game and inshallah, shoulder-shirking attitude that has the populace crying, “culture is the problem but Islam? Islam is perfect!”

Islam is far from perfect claims Manji, and is as much of the problem as the cultures who have shape-shifted it. So much so that rather than being the so-called religion of peace it is purported to be (a notion Manji likens to a slogan rather than a reality), she believes it has manifested itself, instead, as a religion of justice.

Down with Dogma
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.

And it not altogether shocking that she tends to be critical and unsympathetic when incidences like the Danish cartoon controversy, or the Pope’s harsh words about Islam, or any negative media depictions of Islam are made public.

Rise up and be accountable, she cries. Muslims need to stop playing victim to the self-censorship ties that bind and gag them powerless and instead, start claiming the religion as their own in modernity, using the empowering spirit of ijtihad to guide them.

To watch this formidable, articulate and brave woman with her multi-tonal, spiked locks, match and surpass wits with the Muslim brotherhood in the back of the room the other night, says as much about her tenacity as it does about the rising fear-based polemic in the Muslim community.

While Imams may well be circling the wagons in an attempt to keep infidels like her from getting through to the flock (as evidenced by the “Status of Women in Islam” brochure I was handed on my way out), the reality is there are cracks in the wall and she has found a medium as an award-winning journalist, to poke larger holes in them.

Manji’s book, banned in most Muslim countries, is readily (and freely) available for download on her website in Urdu, Persian and Arabic. And her Project Ijtihad movement is a grassroots endeavor that is quickly catching fire with young and old alike worldwide. Already she has had former jihadists and suicide bombers read her book and have a change of worldview, as a result of the question she raises. Wow - you go, girl.

I wish her Godspeed and luck ~ peace be upon her ~ because her task will not be an easy one.

Look for Manji’s special to air on PBS April 19th and an interview excerpt to be broadcast on 60 Minutes sometime soon, as well.


c said...

As always, I enjoyed yet another well thought out post from you. It sounds like Manji is a refreshing voice from within Islam at a certainly pivotal point for it in history.

Hatrock said...

I watched an interview with her on Glenn Beck. Very impressed with her fortitude. Another well written and fun post to read. You gals have similar eyes too (I guess that would mean me as well).

Becca said...

I like that she is not afraid to speak. I thank you for this entry today. May there be many more open minds coming out of that part of the world. I am looking forward to meeting you in July. If you are anything like you write, I am bound to be impressed. Have a great weekend!

Jeri said...

Wow, that is an amazing view into a world and worldview I didn't know existed. The concept of ijtihad should be applied to ALL our spiritual searching.

You know - keeping up with your reading list as well as my own could become a full time occupation.

And where do I apply for college credit for this site? ;)


Jungle Mama said...

I am letting out a huge sigh of relief to know that someone is thinking in their right mind in that religion. Thank God she has you to help put out a plug for her! You continually amaze me with your informative posts. No wonder I keep coming back.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Holy. Real food for thought. Religion of most sorts is supposed to bring people together and *help* them. When it becomes old and stale, when someone starts using it to control others, when people start going through the motions, it is time for a change.

The Ijit Lynn said...

What does it say about me that I read ijtihad as "ijit-ihad"...the struggle of idiots (ijit is Southern for idiots) so I had trouble following this post the first time around...again?
I'm going to download her info and read this thoroughly though; your interpretation of her thoughts and words is fascinating and more than compelling for me, as I am deeply interested in the 'true' Muslim religion and find myself endlessly frustrated by the contortions so many have put upon a once beautiful practice of faith.

Natalie said...

You know, I read through this with interest because, 1.) she's woman and she's speaking in this manner, and 2.) I've wondered many of these same things. I've read throught the bible and the Koran and have read research and thoughts on the differences and comparisons between the two. I've actually thought, 'Hmmm... these are the true words of God and the bible's words are the words of God after man got ahold of them so, although they are somewhat true, they are not the true words... just the interpretations.
Okay, got it.
So, I decided to read the Koran and got stopped when I read that homosexuals should be beheaded.
I have no idea where or what to read anymore.
I'd like to expand and keep my head, you know what I mean?
However, I think I will check the library for this book...
Thanks for the recommendation.

Anonymous said...

I was looking for a new book to read and today I will go to the library to see if they have it. I just checked the online library and it is not there but i will find it or buy it. This was a great post....Thanks Cheryl

newkillerstar said...

This was a really interesting post!

I've been looking into learning more about Irshad Manji ever since I heard about her "Faith Without Fear" documentary - I'm really excited about the America at a Crossroads series on the whole, and this film particularly. I find Manji to be a fascinating lady - and I really respect her for being so courageous about standing up for her views and risking death threats, etc.

Are you going to tune in to the PBS doc? I am! I'm also goign to check out her book the next time I'm at the library - seems like it'd be a good read.

HOLY said...

Hi all:

I caught a brief clip of her on 60 Minutes Sunday - you can check out this link:

And look for the video clip under "Promoting Muslim Discussion" in the blue sidebar on the right (under Related Video). Also she's also got her own left hand sidebar too.

She labels herself the dissident and the former Jihadist the reformer.

It's a very provocative dialogue.

Watching this clip again reminded me of something she said last week. She noted that most of her death threats come not from far flung places like Pakistan and Iran but from IP addresses in cities like Toronto and Washington, DC.

Anyways, if you can find Manji's book at the library, give it a browse. She has a compelling voice and I don't think we've heard the last of her.

Thotman said...

This is one of the most enlightened blogs I have read in months. I cant tell you how starved I am for discussions like these. Unfortunately there are so few forums where such discussions can take place. I was so interested in the concept of Ijtihad and the reference to the strugge within the mind...a thing which of course "thotmen" relish

alison said...

Really? My comment didn't publish? I stick my head out of the cave and my comment didn't publish?

*sigh* All I wanted to say was that anytime a religion gets bogged down in the too-wordly concepts of holy wars, conquering and collapsing empires and inner squabbles it will lose sight of it's truth. almost verbatim what I had typed 3 minutes ago. Ijtihad...looking within is sure to restore the beauty and purity of a faith.

I also understand what Natalie is saying. I prefer to look at religions as fluid, believing, as I do, that all of them have truth. My mother-in-law insists it is dabbling and wrong to take a bit from here and a bit from there to form your own personal belief system. I maintain that following an ideal to the letter without question and exploration is a dangerous thing. Thank goodness we have people like Manji in the world.

I believe I closed by saying that I found my beach read.

Holy Thought of the Week

"To live fully is to let go and die with each passing moment, and to be reborn in each new one."

~ Jack Kornfield ~