The 21st Century Call For Islamic Reformation (Part I)
By Preciosa S. Soliven
April 23, 2015
Irshad Manji, a Canadian television journalist and commentator, is a Muslim. She is on the front line of the public’s question about Islam. All made up looking like a model, but actually very tomboyish, she has become the cover girl of Melbourne’s The Age magazine with the caption, “Meet Irshad Manji.” Some say she was the late Osama Bin Laden’s worst nightmare.
Reporter Johann Hari described her in an interview: “Irshad is a key figure in the civil war within 21st century Islam. She is the Saladin of progressive Muslims, an outrider for the notion that you can be both a faithful Muslim and a mouthy, fiercely democratic Canadian. She does not drink alcohol and she does not eat pork.”
Christianity’s Reformation happened in the 16th century
“What I want is an Islamic reformation,” Irshad says. “Christianity did it in the 16thcentury. Now, we are long overdue. If there was ever a moment for our reformation, it’s now, when Muslim countries are in poverty and despair. For the love of God, what are we doing about it?”
The core concept in Manji’s thought – and that of all progressive Muslims – is Ijtihad. Ijtihad is the application of reason and reinterpretation to the message of the Quran. It allows every Muslim to reconsider the message of the Quran for the changed circumstances of the 21st century.“What was true for the 9th century Mecca and Medina may not be the best interpretation of Allah’s message today,” Irshad exclaims.
This seems obvious to post-religious European ears, but it is literally heresy to conservative and even most mainstream Muslims. Irshad explains, “At this stage, reform isn’t about telling ordinary Muslims what not to think. It’s about giving the permission to think. We can’t be afraid to ask: What if the Quran isn’t perfect? What if it’s not a completely God-authored book? What if it’s riddled with human biases?”
Islam’s Golden Age, 750-1250
“We Muslims have to understand our own history,” Irshad states. “Ijtihad isn’t some wacky new idea. When Muslims were at their most prosperous, their most innovative, their most respected, it was when we practiced Ijtihad, in Islam’s Golden Age. The greatest Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd, championed the freedom to reason.”
The spirit of inquiry animated Islam’s Golden Age, between 750 and 1250 CE. In Iraq, the heart of the Islamic empire, Christians worked alongside Muslims to translate and revive Greek philosophy. In Spain, the western rim of Islam’s reach, Muslims developed what one Yale historian calls, “a culture of tolerance” with Jews. Together, all of these communities gave us the precursor to globalization – the interconnectedness of technology, money and people. Muslims traded vigorously with non-Muslims, pioneering a system by which checks could be prepared in Morocco and cashed in Syria. The back-and-forth of commerce cultivated a hopping traffic in ideas, as well. All these have led to some of Islam’s contributions to Western culture that include the guitar, cough syrup, the university, Algebra and the expression Ole, which has its roots in Allah!
Irshad says, “It was the closing of the gates of Ijtihad that led to the disaster for Muslims, not the Crusaders or the West or anything else. Sure, they were all bad, but the decline started with us. It is the refusal to believe in independent reason that has contributed to a totalitarian culture in the Muslim world. Of course, if Muslims can’t reason for themselves, they become dependent on mullahs and outside authorities.”
Operation Ijtihad and Muslim women
Half the resources of Muslim societies – the women – are still squandered. And so, Irshad Manji believes that investing in women makes amazing sense. Educate a Muslim boy and you have educated a boy. Educate a Muslim woman and you have educated a whole family. The multiplier effect of helping Muslim women is amazing.
So Operation Ijtihad would require redeployment of a large chunk of aid and national security budgets to small business loans for Muslim women, in the way that the Grameen Bank has loaned small amounts of money to poor women in Bangladesh.
Empowering women is the way to awaken the Muslim world. If you are serious about undermining the culture that created al-Qaeda, this is the way to do it. When women have money they have earned themselves, they are far more likely to begin the crucial task of questioning their lot. It will transform the culture of hate and stagnation.
This feminism should not be alien to good Muslims. Irshad adds, “Muhammad’s beloved first wife Khadija was a self-made merchant for whom the Prophet worked for many years.” She points out to Muslim men that if they are serious about emulating the Prophet, then they should go work for their wives.
Irshad is constantly aware that she could not even begin to enjoy the freedom she presently has in any Muslim society. Her family, refugees from Idi Amin’s West African tyranny, was washed up in Canada when Irshad was four years old.
“I am aware it wasn’t Islam that fostered my belief in the dignity of every individual. It was the democratic environment to which my family and I migrated. In this part of the world, as a Muslim woman, I have the freedom to express myself without fear of being maimed, tortured, raped or murdered at the hands of the State. As corny as this may sound, as a refugee to the West, I wake up everyday, thanking God that I wounded up here.”
She grew up with a miserable father, who despised joy and exhibited the worst of the mullah mentality. Then, in her local mosque, as an inquisitive open-minded girl, she claims, “I became aware of an attempt to close my mind. It was a ‘shut-up and believe’ mentality.”
Even in a free society where nobody could challenge or hurt them for asking questions, the minds of Muslim women are still slammed shut. A crude, cruel strain within Islam continues to exist in even the most cosmopolitan of cities, showing therefore it isn’t just external evil influences that have done this. “We have, I repeat, done it to ourselves,” Irshad adds.
A wake-up call for honesty and change
For Irshad, it will not ultimately be Western bombs or Western markets that will defeat Islamic fundamentalism. It will be women like her, who are refusing to allow their religion to be dominated by fanatics. But, there are a lot of people who want to stop Irshad.
“I actually don’t live in fear, no, not at all,” she says. “In fact, I’ll tell you right now, I deliberately did not bring my bodyguard to Britain with me against the better judgment of many people who want to see me alive.
“If I am going to convince young Muslims that it is possible to dissent, and live, I can’t be sending the mixed message of having a bodyguard shadowing me wherever I go. Even if something terrible happens, I stand by the decision, because I think at this stage it is far more important to give young people hope, to give them a sense of real optimism that there is room to be unorthodox,” Irshad concludes.
We are all going to have to learn about this battle for an Islamic reformation, because it will be raging and occasionally blasting its way onto our streets for the rest of our lives. Irshad Manji’s bestselling book in 2004, The Trouble with Islam – A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change, is both a crash course in its terminology and a manifesto for the progressive Muslim side.