Friday, August 17, 2007

Saving Islam Through Critical Thinking

Irshad Manji, writing on the Washington Post web site, calls on her fellow Muslims to return to the Islamic tradition of ijtihad to save their religion from the totalitarian fanaticism of the Islamists:

Ijtihad has a history of achievement. In the early centuries of Islam, 135 schools of interpretation flourished. In Muslim Spain, scholars would teach their students to abandon "expert" opinions about the Qur’an if their conversations with the living, breathing Qur’an produced better evidence for their peaceful ideas. And Cordoba, one of the most sophisticated cities in Muslim Spain, housed 70 libraries. That rivals the number of public libraries in most cosmopolitan cities today!

From the 8th to the 12th centuries, the "gates of ijtihad" — of discussion, debate and dissent — remained wide open. This is also when Islamic civilization led the world in ingenuity. If ever we Muslims needed to renew our commitment to ijtihad, it is now. From the emerging generation, I continually hear this question: “Is there a way to reconcile our faith with freedom of thought?”

Yes, there is. The Qur’an contains three times as many verses calling on us to think than verses that tell us what is forbidden or acceptable. In that sense, re-interpretation – which means re-thinking Qur’anic passages, not re-writing them – is an Islamic responsibility. The Illinois-based Nawawi Foundation even describes it as a “religious duty of the first magnitude”.

That is why I and other young Muslims have launched Project Ijtihad, an effort to revive critical thinking in Islam by sparking honest debates both online and in person. As my story about the American imam shows, Muslims in the West are perfectly positioned to rediscover ijtihad. After all, it is in countries like the United States, Canada and Britain that we already enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged on matters of interpretation. What a precious gift.

But even if Project Ijtihad is launched from the West, it cannot stop in the West. People throughout the Islamic world need to know of their God-given right to think for themselves.


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