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.