March 09, 2006
Irshad, Ijtihad and Irony
Don’t ask me why, but every once in a while I like to irritate myself by reading about Irshad Manji. Watching the surprised reactions to the recent Hamas electoral victory made me realize that in many Western circles, there is a naive belief that democracy & freedom = liberalism and that encouraging democracy in the Middle East will automatically result in secular, liberal (and by extension pro-Western) utopias. Visiting Irshad Manji's website the other day, it occured to me that the same sort of muddled thinking is behind her Project Ijtihad initiative to “support the liberal reformation of Islam”.
According to Manji, recovering the "lost" tradition of ijtihad will somehow free Muslims from their intellectual slumber and result in the widespread acceptance of so-called liberal values. Naturally, she doesn't define the term "liberal", but based on her highly biased and monolithic description of Islam (obviously derived from personal experience more than actual research on regional/cultural variations, historical context, etc), one expects that she would use some sort of handwaving “politics I agree with” definition. Manji also doesn’t bother to elaborate on the concept of ijtihad (which is a rather complex topic in Islamic legal theory) beyond the vague exhortation that Muslims start “thinking independently”.
Before the Irshad cheerleaders get up in arms, let me remind you that many Muslims, conservative or otherwise, did not appreciate The Trouble with Islam Today, her "open letter to Muslims". In fact, I have it on good authority that even Muslim apostates find her irritating because her arguments reflect a poor grasp of the problems faced by Muslims in MENA and the West, further exacerbated by her obvious lack of empathy or respect for the religion and its adherents. The truly cynical types (i.e. myself) view her work as a self-serving vehicle to advance her media image as both an apologist for the West and a courageous yet victimized Muslim reformer. Her book struck me as a rather unsubtle attempt to get some fundie whackjob to issue a death-warrant fatwa against her, in the style of Salman Rushdie. Certainly the endless blathering about death threats and installing bulletproof windows in her home reinforced this theme, but the whackjobs did not respond with a fatwa. Still, the portrayal of an embattled but steadfast lesbian feminist reformer fighting gamely against an ultraconservative religious establishment made her a media darling in North America, even as the progressive Muslim associations in Canada, her home, withdrew their support.
Now, we here at 'Aqoul have already explored the notion of a "pious middle" in the Islamic world: a broad segment of Muslims that are horrified by bloody acts of Islamist terrorism, but at the same time distrustful of the West and its intentions. To quote Lounsbury:
...as my colleagues have said or suggested, a crisis of confidence infects the Islamic world, and the simple-minded expectation that the fairly moderate middle should stand up on the side of Western free speech, when they suspect it doesn't apply to them, when they suspect that behind it lurks fundamental disrespect for them and their values - well that is either mendacious self-deception or frankly utter ignorance of the cultural dynamic - and worse - the current political dynamic.
The ultra-liberal, pretentious rhetoric delivered by self-proclaimed moderate Muslims hardly resonates with the NASCAR dads and soccer moms of the Islamic world. Urging Muslims to start questioning Islam will achieve nothing if the implicit recommendation is to abandon anything that seems uncomfortably foreign to Western sensibilities. The irony here is that "independent thinking" is being practiced all the time, but the conclusions reached are likely not the sort that Manji envisioned as part of her liberal reformation.
Given the choice between secular and religious governance, Muslims in the Middle East are voting for Islamic parties (Hamas, Ikhwan, Iraqi Shia coalitions) because they are widely viewed as less corrupt and self-serving than their secular counterparts. In Western countries, Muslims often feel isolated (or isolate themselves) due to perceived conflicts between Western and Eastern values. Add to that the growing Islamophobia in both Europe and North America and it becomes obvious why the average Muslim might not follow Irshad’s line of thinking. Pandering to naïve Western audiences does not a reform movement make. Actually bothering to understand the Muslim experience in MENA and the West (as opposed to chattering on about reform with other arty sophisticates over dinner) would go a long way in terms of encouraging meaningful reflection on the faith and its practice in pluralistic societies.
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Tracked on March 10, 2006 06:31 AM
And here I thought you were on vacation. Addict.
But dead-on. The new Irshad Manji in the making appears to be . . . .
MEMRI pin-up Wafa Sultan.
Posted by: matthew hogan at March 9, 2006 08:31 PM
Two days is plenty of vacation for a workaholic.
Had to flog Irshad a bit, the issue has been banging around in my head since raf* posted the manifesto.
BTW that link just gave me a headache.
Posted by: eerie at March 9, 2006 08:39 PM
Granting readily that Irshad and her ilk have zero credibility in the Muslim world at large, I do wonder if they might not serve a useful purpose anyway. I'm sure we're all familiar with the political phenomenon of triangulation, whereby a bunch of nutters on one side and a bunch of fringies on the other can collectively allow for a third party to look moderate by comparison, whereas without the fringies said party would look like the extreme one.
So, Irshad et al, quite accidentally I'm sure, might possibly be laying useful groundwork for scholars representing the pious middle to safely stand up and support some classical liberal values (dressed in Islamic garb, of course), if only by being a useful prop to publically reject in order to build cred.
It's a thought, anyway. I don't have much time for her myself, and that's about the most spirited defense I can muster.
Posted by: Matt McIntosh at March 9, 2006 09:42 PM
democracy & freedom = liberalism
so does this mean the current state of america is "theocratic totalitarian dicatorship?"
also, absolutely love NASCAR dads and soccer moms of the Islamic world
Matt: I've only recently started reading Tariq Ramadan, he may represent that middle-ground moderate you're describing. Western-educated scholar with equally strong Islamic credentials (his grandfather founded the Ikhwan, which means he is fundamentalist royalty to people like Pipes).
It is hard to credibly walk the line between East and West, I think.
Posted by: eerie at March 9, 2006 10:59 PM
I've attended a few conferences and even spoken personally to Tariq Ramadan. He's got a very bad reputation in France, unjustifiebly so imho, most of it being based on prejudices and him being Banna's grandson. Besides, as is often the case unfortunately, Muslims won't be considered "moderates" by many Westerners unless their only discourse is a total rejection of everything Muslim and related.
But Tariq Ramadan is definitely a reformer and a modernizer, he shakes many Muslim taboos. My personal critique of him is mainly on the amount of reform: I happen to be a proponent of "individual ijtihad" and I don't see a problem with departing from the basic Sunni tenets (even though I dislike Manji for the same reasons articulated by Tareq Fatah). Ramadan OTOH sticks to all Sunni basic tenets and say that a Muslim must do so. I acknowledge though that this is probably what makes more mainstream Muslims receptive to Ramadan's reformist argument than they are to other self-proclaimed liberal reformists who seem more to be there to speak to non-Muslims than to Muslims themselves.
Posted by: Shaheen at March 10, 2006 02:22 AM
I don’t think that there is anything necessarily wrong with the proposition of a new reformed Islam. Change is inevitable and people should pursue whatever makes them more content with the faith or practice they choose. However, the problem with Irshad Manji is her lack of knowledge about Islamic history, law and culture. Her book uses flimsy language and barely touches any surfaces or proposes any foreseeable solutions.
Posted by: Aya at March 10, 2006 02:42 AM
shi'ites never closed their "gates of ijtihad". but i highly doubt that irshad manji & her ilk would approve of great mujtahids like khomeini or khamenei. (YES - it IS a conspiracy to have chosen a successor to khomeini who has almost the same name. that way it seems to non-iranian ears as if the grand old man is still around.)
thankfully, east of the atlantic ocean (or west of the pacific, if you prefer) irshad manji is entirely unknown.
Posted by: raf* at March 10, 2006 03:21 AM
Odd that some Westerners think that Islam should be the first of the big three monotheistic faiths to reform itself according to the recommendations of a lesbian feminist semi-intellectual.
Posted by: Tequila at March 10, 2006 04:29 AM
"Odd that some Westerners think that Islam should be the first of the big three monotheistic faiths to reform itself according to the recommendations of a lesbian feminist semi-intellectual."
That may be the aphorism of the day.
And no additional wisecracks regarding 17th century Queen Christina of Sweden.
Posted by: matthew hogan at March 10, 2006 08:13 AM
Interesting that you mention Tariq Ramadan. I saw him speak a few years ago at a Uni. here in the Metro DC area, the pre-ban era.
I like him, but we must realise that even someone seen by Muslims as a reformer is considered so much of a hardliner, a conservative, that he is banned from the USA.
It makes their calls for "moderate Muslims" into a joke. For these people Nomani and Manjani are the only types that count, a Lesbian with no understanding of her own religion, and a mother of a child out of wedlock whose stated goal is sexual liberation (free sex without guilt) for all Muslim women. Neither are going to make the smallest difference, which I think is exactly the point.
Posted by: Abu Sinan at March 10, 2006 10:28 AM
Abu Sinan: Yes, exactly. It's interesting that the only "acceptable" reformers are ones that downplay the key tenets of Islam and advocate what is generally viewed as Western secularism without any visible spirituality.
Now, I am certainly an advocate of female Muslims playing a greater role in defining what Islam means to them, but that doesn't mean the answer to gender issues in Islam is to discard the religion's teachings altogether. Western-style feminism is not necessarily the only solution for the protection and preservation of women's rights, especially in non-Western societies.
Raf: Agreed, Manji's use of ijtihad is just clever sloganeering. She doesn't seem to have any understanding of legal theory beyond that.
Shaheen: Ramadan OTOH sticks to all Sunni basic tenets and say that a Muslim must do so. I acknowledge though that this is probably what makes more mainstream Muslims receptive to Ramadan's reformist argument than they are to other self-proclaimed liberal reformists
Have not read him enough, but I can see why he'd need to appear rather conservative to maintain credibility. As for defining one's own practice, I think that sort of reflection is very important provided that it's not simply for convenience (not that religion should be obstructive, but spiritual development should require some effort).
Not that apostates like me are in any position to comment on such things.
Posted by: eerie at March 10, 2006 10:59 AM
but we must realise that even someone seen by Muslims as a reformer is considered so much of a hardliner, a conservative, that he is banned from the USA.
More accurately, he was subject to a smear campaign by Pipes et al. re his work authorisation to work at a US Uni. He's not banned from the US per se.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at March 10, 2006 11:16 AM
This might be a bit offtopic, but since we're at it...
As for defining one's own practice, I think that sort of reflection is very important provided that it's not simply for convenience (...) spiritual development should require some effort. Not that apostates like me are in any position to comment on such things.
- convenience is important (unless you're a masochist:))
- I don't think religion is so much about spiritual development, that's a quite Christian(ized) perception of religion imho - you can be an agnostic or even an atheist, and yet be a better Muslim than your two digits percent Muslims who are illiterate and who, by being so, violate the *first* commandment in the Quran (n'en deplaise aux Sunnis and their five pillars)
- Funnily enough, it is very often liberal Muslims (and "apostates") whom I've heard saying that religion is about ascetic practices (ok I'm exagerating here:)), that they need effort to become "good Muslims". Liberal Muslims have yet to reconcile their understanding of the world and that of their religion...
Posted by: Shaheen at March 10, 2006 06:03 PM
Shaheen: We probably agree, but I'm likely not being clear enough.
I don't think religion is so much about spiritual development, that's a quite Christian(ized) perception of religion imho
Well, broadly speaking, I view religion as a system of thought for contemplating things that can't be measured (where science would be a system for contemplating things that can be measured). For me, the point is to achieve an understanding of the universe (spiritual development is admittedly a blunt way to put this). This idea is not unique to Christianity or even Abrahamic religions in general.
you can be an agnostic or even an atheist, and yet be a better Muslim...
I'm not sure one can be a "Muslim" if they can't sincerely recite the shahada (i.e. because they are atheist). One can be a good person, certainly.
it is very often liberal Muslims (and "apostates") whom I've heard saying that religion is about ascetic practices
Well, as I see it, one applies the practices that achieve the correct ends (better understanding of the universe and one's place in it). OTOH, one should not follow rules mindlessly and expect to benefit. That is where the effort comes in. Personal reflection takes effort.
Bah, I have to run. This is a good discusion though.
Posted by: eerie at March 10, 2006 06:52 PM
Hi Eerie, shortly coz this is offtopic plus I'm short on time:)
I think where we differ is on the spiritual vs utilitarian view of religion. Mine is definitely utilitarian. I could dig a few verses and interpret if I had more time to support my position:) but basically, the idea is that, spirituality really is a non-issue, or maybe at most it could be one at a very personal level which shouldn't be humanity's (or God's) problem. Praying five times a day during your lifetime and passing out like a sheep with no difference made whatsoever isn't exactly my idea of being a good Muslim. Building something for yourself, and perhaps even for other Muslims as a bonus, is much more so than reciting the shahada.
On another subject, I might send you a "candidate entry" mail in the coming days. I've written in a forum before about MEMRI in a case where I had solid proof that they doctored a translation. Since they have been brought in recently here re Wafa Sultan, I thought it could be an opportunity to add some info about them. So I'll edit the thing when I have a few spare minutes and send you that. If you think it's postable, go ahead.
Posted by: Shaheen at March 15, 2006 03:47 AM
Great, looking forward to your entry!
Posted by: eerie at March 15, 2006 10:14 AM
Marhaba Shaheen Bey.
Looking forward to seeing more of you here.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at March 15, 2006 10:33 AM
Though he rather predates Mohammad, Zoroaster expressed a similar sentiment. "He who sows the ground with care and diligence acquires a greater stock of religious merit than he could gain by the repetition of ten thousand prayers."
Posted by: Antiquated Tory at March 21, 2006 09:10 AM
Islam is a very simple religion.Thats the reason some people,like me,convert to Islam.I belive that every man or woman in power today,wether eastern or western countries,should be a muslim and and abide by the fundamental principles set by the prophet Muhhamad,peace and blessings be upon him,and read and study the Qu'ran daily and religiously.
Posted by: matthew at March 28, 2006 02:31 PM