Whatever happened to the great Muslim tradition of debate, asks Irshad Manji, who urges the reform-minded faithful to pipe up
Three years ago, during a trip to Gaza, I landed an on-camera interview with the political leader of Islamic Jihad, Dr Mohammed al-Hindi.
With his finely trimmed beard, lean build and plaid shirt, he epitomised the modern - and moderate - Muslim man.
But his interpretation of the Koran betrayed something else.
"Where," I asked, "does it say that you can kill yourself for a higher cause? As far as I know, the Koran tells us that suicide is wrong." Through his translator, the physician assured me that the verses endorsing suicide bombings could be found "everywhere" in Islam's holy book. I challenged him to show me only one passage.
After several minutes of scouring the Koran, then calling for help on his mobile phone, then perusing companion booklets, he told me he was too busy and had to go. "Are you sure you're not pulling a fast one on me?" I probed. He smirked, clearly understanding my American English. "I want to know that you're telling me the truth."
Al-Hindi summoned two assistants to the office and made another phone call.
His translator shifted uncomfortably, hanging his head as my camera swung to the aides. With their backs to me, they flipped feverishly through the Koran. Minutes later, a verse glorifying war was presented.
What it had to do with suicide, I could not say. So I asked al-Hindi, who responded that Islam permits defensive aggression. "If a thief comes to your door and steals your money, isn't it legitimate to protect yourself?" he replied through the translator. Still unable to draw the link between self-protection and suicide, I hypothesised: "If my boss steals my job and I kill myself because something that is mine has been taken away, am I a martyr?"
Mortified, the translator shook his head. "No, no, you can't ask this."
"Why not?" I retorted. "It's important, theologically, to ask these questions." At that moment, my camera batteries died and al-Hindi killed the interview, which, as the translator whispered while scurrying to the door, was a better outcome than al-Hindi killing me. On that score, I could not disagree.
This encounter reminded me of why it is so vital that Muslims be willing to pose questions out loud. We have relied far too long on self-appointed "higher-ups" to do the interpreting for us. We 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 Koran produced more compelling evidence for their peaceful ideas. And Cordoba, among the most sophisticated cities in Islamic Spain, housed 70 libraries. That is one for every virgin that today's Muslim martyrs believe they are pledged. 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 civilisation led the world in ingenuity. So much of what is assumed to be Western culture has, in fact, been shaped by Muslims: mocha coffee; cough syrup; the guitar; even that ultra-Spanish expression olé , which is rooted in the Arabic word, "Allah". (Please blame the pelvic thrusts on others.)
At the twilight of the 12th century, 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 as stubbornly as my camera batteries at the end of the al-Hindi interview.
Allow me to be more precise. The fragile Islamic Empire, stretching from Iraq in the east to Spain in the west, began to experience a series of internal convulsions. Dissident denominations were cropping up and declaring their own breakaway governments. The Baghdad-based caliph - a combination of statesman and spiritual leader - cracked down and closed ranks to secure the political unity of the Empire. To reinforce unity, within a few generations Baghdad supervised the closing of something more: the gates of independent reasoning. Islam's 135 schools of legal thought were deliberately whittled down to four, all relatively conservative. This move spawned rigid readings of the Koran as well as a series of fatwas (legal opinions) that scholars could no longer overturn or question, but could now, on pain of execution, merely imitate.
For hundreds of years since, three equations have informed mainstream Islamic practice. The rituals and packaging vary, but the equations do not.
First, unity equals uniformity. In order to be strong, members of the worldwide Muslim ummah (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 in the face of 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, British Columbia, 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. As I explained on my website last Valentine's Day, 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.
Still, I am hardly a theologian. Although I have been given many labels, Mullah Manji is not one of them. For good measure, I had an imam weigh in with an unconventional view. 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 emphasised, that is not the case for Muslim women exposed to the pluralism of the West. Put simply, "you live in a different time and place".
And what of those who argue that the Koran is true for all time and all places? Having exercised ijtihad , he has an answer for them too. (Feel free to visit my website, www.muslim-refusenik.com . Click on the "letters archive" and look for the 2005 Valentine's Day posting.) It is of no minor significance that this imam officiates at inter-faith 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.
But even if Operation Ijtihad is launched from the West, it cannot stop here. People throughout the Islamic world need to know of their God-given right to think for themselves. Outside of the West, then, restoring ijtihad might start with liberating the entrepreneurial talents of Muslim women through micro-business loans. The Koran states that women are subject to men's authority only if men spend money to "maintain" women. If a woman earns her own assets (as the Prophet Muhammad's beloved first wife, Khadija, did), she can make decisions for herself.
What may sound fantastic turns out to have merit. An American photo-journalist told me about meeting a woman in Kabul who took a micro-loan from a non-governmental organisation. She started a candle-making business and, with her earnings, became literate. For the first time in her life, this woman recited the Koran - and learnt of passages that gave her the option of self-respect. She read those passages to her husband, who had been abusing her for years. Since then, he has not laid an unwanted finger on her. Could it be that what the UN has identified as key deficits in the Arab Muslim world - the deficits of knowledge, freedom and women's empowerment - might all benefit from a restoration of ijtihad ? The possibility begs for attention.
It is not so much the legalistic practice as it is the spirit of ijtihad that should be brought back, then democratised and popularised. Some scholars will object, insisting that one must wield skills honed by years of training to engage in independent reasoning. Otherwise, they say, we wind up with any old Ali quoting the Koran to justify radical conduct, as is happening amid the rise of the worldwide web and the decline of traditional authority. But other scholars suggest that such elitism only cements the pattern of submissiveness that afflicts the contemporary Muslim mind - an affliction that stops moderate Muslims from speaking up as extremists take over. According to Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islam at Hartford Seminary, Connecticut, US, "because of our very narrow vision, our legalistic vision, and our authoritarian models of decision-making, we are excluding those people who can offer us a different vision of the future".
Mattson, a devout Muslim, goes as far as to encourage ijtihad among comics, poets and musicians. Hers is a refreshing message: Before we can know who is worth listening to, we must let a wide spectrum of Muslims find their voices. I agree. This is why I have established Project Ijtihad, a foundation to create the world's first network of leadership centres for reform-minded Muslims. You can read more by visiting my website.
To be sure, most of us - whatever our creed - could use an extra dose of independent thinking. I picked up on this point when I left the Gaza office of al-Hindi, who had failed to produce one Koranic verse to support suicide bombings. I asked his translator why al-Hindi would give me an on-camera interview, knowing that he could not corroborate his basic contention.
The translator replied: "He reckoned you were just another dumb Western journalist." A terrorist who has conducted no shortage of conversations with reporters from the West has never faced the most elemental of questions: where is the evidence? Perhaps it is time that the media joined Muslims in embracing ijtihad. I am happy to supply both with security tips.
Irshad Manji is an observant Muslim, journalist and author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change , published by Mainstream, £7.99. She is a former writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto and will be writing her next book as a fellow at Yale University.