Reinterpreting Islam

“Nothing needs to stay the same forever, and that must include Islam as well,” best-selling author Irshad Manji says of her reaction to the democratic uprisings in the Middle East now known as the Arab Spring. Protesters throughout North Africa and the Middle East are fighting for economic and political reforms as well as a basic sense of dignity.

Best-selling author and self-described Muslim reformer, Irshad Manji, hopes that the same level of dedication and energy which fuels these rebellions will also be applied to reinterpreting Islam.

Speaking on VOA’s Press Conference USA, Irshad Manji, laments the fact that Ijtihad, the Muslim tradition of independent thinking and questioning, is missing in contemporary Islam. The need to regain that tradition is one of the themes in her most recent book Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom.

A devout Muslim, born in Africa and raised in Canada, Irshad Manji says that several practices attributed to Islam, such as wearing the hijab (headscarf) are not in fact Muslim customs but are actually pre-Islamic tribal traditions. “I think it is very unfair that a pluralistic civilization like Indonesia should have to conform to Arab tribal standards in order to be considered authentically Muslim,” said Manji, as she reveals that only 20 percent of Muslims are, in fact, Arab.

Due to a rise in tourists from the Gulf region flocking to coastal provinces such as those in Indonesia, she finds that “the leaders of these provinces are capitulating to the cultural standards that come from tribal Arabia, and now these standards are being imposed on the most vulnerable in Indonesia, chief among them women.” Manji urges Muslims to gain integrity and wholeness through challenging what she describes as the “cultural imperialism of the Arab world towards the 80 percent of the Muslim around the world that are not Arab.” In her most recent book, Allah, Liberty and Love, Manji advocates that Muslims must reconcile their faith in Islam with the freedom to meet these challenges.

Allah, Liberty and Love
, is meant to be a primer for like-minded Muslims who wish to find the language to reinterpret their faith and reform the current state of Islam. “The Muslim mind has stagnated. For purely political reasons, not spiritual reasons, the gates of ijtihad, the doors of independent thinking have deliberately been narrowed. Not completely shut, but narrowed,” says Manji. She urges Muslims around the world to reopen these doors and begin a much needed dialogue about the problems within Islam.

Manji asserts that the stagnation has dragged on for centuries and therefore rejects the notion that Islam was “hijacked” by terrorists on September 11, 2001. “That suggests that Islam is like a plane that was cruising along to some human rights haven, and were it not for those nasty terrorists on 9/11, this plane called Islam would have reached its wondrous destination without a bump. Well that is simply not true,” Manji says. Moreover, she says that unless moderate Muslims do more to denounce and not just to distance themselves from extremists who misuse Islam to justify violent ends, non-Muslims will not detect any difference between the two.

Irshad Manji remains adamant that reformist Muslims, those willing to look inwards at the trouble with Islam today and take on Islamic extremists through reinterpretation of faith, are the true key to progress.

Irshad Manji is the author of the best-selling novel The Trouble with Islam Today and her most recent work Allah, Liberty and Love. Manji is also director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University.

For more listen to Press Conference USA.