James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Catalyst In Chief: A Voice Worth Listening To

by James G. Beldock on November 26, 2006

I’ve been mean­ing to blog about my friend, Irshad Manji, for a long time now. I first met Irshad at the Aspen Institute, where she and I took a sem­i­nar in lead­er­ship taught by long-time White House ad­vis­er, David Gergen, now Professor of Public Service at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and Editor-at-Large at US News & World Report.

Irshad is per­haps best known for writ­ing the con­tro­ver­sial
The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith, a work which has brought her ac­co­lades, crit­i­cism, and a fat­wa. Irshad is no shrink­ing vi­o­let: de­spite her faith and pro­found Muslim iden­ti­ty, she has been the tar­get of more crit­i­cism than I care to re­count, and the fat­wa cer­tain­ly doesn’t make her life any eas­ier. But no amount of crit­i­cism and no num­ber of threats will cause her to soft­en her mes­sage: that Islam has for­got­ten its egal­i­tar­i­an and tol­er­ant roots, and that Modern Islam has a lot to learn from the more open and in­clu­sive so­ci­eties.

Just un­der a year ago, Irshad taught a sem­i­nar as part of the Socrates Society of the Aspen Institute en­ti­tled “Reforming Islam?” and I found my­self both re­freshed by her will­ing­ness to con­front those who dis­agree with her and trou­bled by the re­sis­tance so much of the Muslim world ap­pears to har­bor to­wards her and those who, like Irshad, are will­ing to ques­tion both their own as­sump­tions and those of their fel­low Muslims. [Note to the or­tho­graph­i­cal­ly scruti­nous: there is a QUESTION MARK–an in­ter­ro­ga­tion point, an erote­me–in the ti­tle of this sem­i­nar! Irshad is ask­ing a ques­tion (should we re­form? who is we? what is re­form?), not stat­ing a po­si­tion.]

The sem­i­nar cen­tered on Irshad’s core the­sis: that the con­cept of ijti­had must re­turn to Islamic dis­course. Ijtihad, orig­i­nal­ly a nar­row Islamic legal term for mak­ing legal de­ci­sions based on in­ter­pre­ta­tion of in­de­pen­dent legal texts, has a broad­er mean­ing re­lat­ing to in­de­pen­dent and in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Irshad has adopt­ed the term and cre­at­ed Project Ijtihad of which she is the Chief Catalyst. Fortunately, she’s not the on­ly one call­ing for in­de­pen­dent thought and in­ter­pre­ta­tion: Muqtedar Kahn’s ex­cel­lent web­site has su­perb ma­te­ri­al.

This af­ter­noon, as I drove about run­ning er­rands try­ing to re­cov­er from the weekend’s on­slaught of tryp­to­phan, I heard Irshad’s voice on the ra­dio. BBC World Service’s ex­cel­lent Heart and Soul ran a pro­gram called “The Future Of Islam – Or Just ‘Islam Lite’?” As usu­al, Irshad did her cause proud. More in­ter­est­ing were the oth­er Muslim thought lead­ers, who agreed with Irshad to one de­gree or an­oth­er: Prof. Tariq Ramadan is a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University and was the sub­ject of a num­ber of news sto­ries when his US Visa was re­voked in 2004 when he was teach­ing at Notre Dame. And even Saira Khan, run­ner-up in the UK’s ver­sion of The Apprentice.

Irshad has her crit­ics, and many of them could be heard through­out this thought­ful and well-bal­anced BBC pro­gram. One of them makes the ex­cel­lent point that, even if Irshad is too far “out there” for main­stream Muslims to ac­cept, the very na­ture of her “ex­trem­ism” will cause oth­ers with more mod­er­ate but nev­er­the­less re­formist voic­es to ap­pear less stri­dent and less ex­treme in com­par­ison. That’s some­thing of a back-hand­ed com­ple­ment if ever I’ve heard one, but they all miss the point: what Irshad wants, what she strives for, is the very di­a­logue in which all of her crit­ics are en­gag­ing.

So Irshad is Catalyzing pre­cise­ly the ijti­had and the dis­course she so cor­rect­ly pro­claims Islam needs. And, de­spite their dis­sent, even her crit­ics have suc­cumbed: they are en­gag­ing in in­tel­li­gent de­bate and con­sid­er­a­tion of her ideas. And the ideas of oth­ers. And that’s pre­cise­ly what ijti­had is all about. Mission ac­com­plished.

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