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Irshad Manji doesn’t come across as your typical religious reformer. With stylish glasses and punkish hair, this pint-sized woman is better known as a TVO journalist and gay rights activist than a Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses on Wittenburg’s church door.
But Manji’s new book, The Trouble with Islam: A Wakeup Call for Honesty and Change, is a cannonball about to splash into the Muslim world’s pool. Released in Canada and Germany, and awaiting publication in the U.S., Britain and France, this book tries to revive “ijtihad,” Islam’s long-lost tradition of independent thinking.
Manji suggests — at peril to her safety — that Muslims should question their faith if they’re going to bridge the gap between Islam’s idealistic theories and its oftenquestionable practices.
She suggests Muslims stop blaming others, especially Jews, for their troubles and get on with making their faith relevant to modern sensibilities.
First, Manji, who spoke at the University of Western Ontario in 1999 about things such as God and homosexuality, does not represent mainstream Islam. Nonetheless, she articulates the feelings of at least some straight-laced Muslims who wonder, if Islam is the greatest of the monotheistic religions — Christianity and Judaism being the others — why do so many Muslims around the world struggle with things such as basic human freedoms?
It seems this type of critical thinking has not been mastered by some religious so-called scholars. As a result, many of the world’s one billion Muslims are left unable to speak their minds for fear of reprisal from state-sponsored mullahs who have closed the door to re-interpreting the Koran in a modern context.
So Manji and her allies likely won’t find many friends in places such as fundamentalist Saudi Arabia. But they may find interest in places such as Iran, where six million university students and recent grads are full of questions.
“They are not anti-religious, but they are anti-fundamentalist,” says Iranian sociology professor Hamidreaz Jalaeipour. “They refuse to be blind followers.”
That’s not a bad thing, really, for anyone, in any discipline. Give differing views a forum and let people make choices based on their honest investigations. Truth has a way of rising to the surface.
Second thought. Reform is not easy. When Luther and company led the Christian reformation 500 years ago, they put the faith’s entire theology on the operating table.
Let me illustrate. If a young criminal broke into a home and killed the owner’s wife and children, the owner, naturally, would want revenge. To kill the criminal, or at least lock him away forever, would be justice. To forgive him would be an act of unusual grace.
But if the homeowner had the criminal released, adopted him, cared for him as kin, and gave him a future, that would be a super-natural, even outrageous grace. Luther brought the church back to that foundational truth, and thousands were martyred defending it: that salvation is based on this type of divine grace, and nothing more.
No surprise, then, that western culture, with its Christian heritage, tends to show more mercy and tolerance than virtually any other society in history.
Conversely, it’s no surprise that Islamic society, which has historically focused on divine justice rather than grace, is being hijacked by the likes of Osama bin Laden.
That’s not to say God can’t meet humans, in their place of need, through cultural and historic contexts of their religions. God is big enough to get around to a mosque on Friday, a synagogue on Saturday and a church on Sunday.
But if Muslims are really going to experience reform, they’re going to have to accept the trauma of some major surgery.
Some cherished beliefs may have to go. But it could also be life-saving. And we should encourage open dialogue, as threatening as it may seem, to continue.