Friday, April 06, 2007

Today's New Word: Ijtihad

I tried to think of a post title that would capture the imagination and that's the best I could come up with. This post points to a debate within Islam, an internal discussion (argument, split, revolt, whatever...) with echoes in non-Muslim discussions (arguments, splits, revolts, whatever) aimed at making sense of an irrational scene.

Is that opening confusing enough?
Get ready.
This is weekend reading. To get the full benefit it will be necessary to set aside a little while to stop surfing the internets and just read and learn. I'm assuming, of course, that the reader, like me, is new to the term ijtihad.

It comes at the end of an insightful essay by Johann Hari about several books, which is more commentary than book review. This post by Pieter Dorsman will serve as a jumping off point. He describes briefly a debate within Islam which puts to lie the popular notion that all Muslims are alike, they are all out to destroy everything we hold sacred and the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim. Or, as he says in a more civil tone, "Perfectly well reasoned criticism of fundamentalism has in many cases mutated into a sort of hateful bile that no longer offers solutions, but only bitter confrontation."

Fortunately because I have lived and worked in a more cosmopolitan world than most of America, my views of Islam and its followers has been quite different from what is being advertised by many non-Muslim voices with political agendas running past their ability to reason or engage in reasoned discussions. Radio talk show hosts come to mind, although print and cyber sources are just as polluted by ignorant, broad-brush rants as their big-mouthed broadcast brethren. 'Scuse me while I cool off a bit...

As I was saying, I have met, worked and interacted with a number of Muslim people over the last ten years or so, and the reality of what I know stands in sharp contrast to the image being portrayed by the popular media. When pressed, of course, we always hear that old "Some of my best friends are..." reply, followed by the inevitable "...but," leading to an ignorant tirade based more on prejudice than knowledge.

The fact is that within the faith -- Islam -- there is an old discussion with deep historic roots about how its laws, faith and traditions are to be practiced and interpreted. Even within the faith there are mean and ignorant denials of that discussion, and no one needs to be reminded how that camp is apt to respond. Nevertheless, a ferment is still taking place, and in the minds of many observers the location is in Europe, not the Middle East.

One of the wedges is coming from women, who have found in European society a space in which they can stretch and breath more deeply. Hari points to a book by a young Muslim woman.

Fadela Amara’s raw, vivid book, Breaking the Silence, is the story of how an ordinary Muslim girl from the banlieues—the concrete blocks of Muslim poverty that ring France’s cities—started a movement to reform Islam.

As she grew up, she realized it was not enough to challenge jihadists in her own home. In 2002 an eighteen-year-old girl from the banlieues named Sohane Benziane was burned to death by fundamentalists for being “loose.” Amara knew she had to act—in the name of Islam. With her friends, she launched a group called Ni Putains, Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Doormats). They began to articulate a feminist Islam compatible with Enlightenment values. Within five months, they had thirty thousand people marching with them in the streets of Paris.
Amara and the tens of thousands of Muslim women who support her loathe the fundamentalist vision of a “fascist-like society that has nothing to do with democracy”—and unlike many “Clash of Civilizations” blowhards, she and her friends fight against it on the ground, every day. Some of their fights are small everyday acts of defiance: “Make-up has become war paint, a sign of resistance.” But many are larger: they reject the head scarf as “nothing more than a means of oppression emanating from a patriarchal society.” Travel on the tube as it leaves the Muslim East End, and you will see girls peeling off their hijabs and applying makeup with heart-pounding pleasure.

Back to the new word, ijthad. And no, I don't know how to pronounce it.

A Google search returns an impressive string of hits. This is not an obscure term representative of some lunatic fringe.

This is a solid and well-developed alternative to the extremist picture of Islam so avidly advanced by loud voices (mainly male, incidentally) within the faith, Sunni and Shiite alike, and matched with glee by angry non-Muslim ideologues (demagogues?) seeking military confrontation rather than reasoned discussions.

That's enough for now. Anyone still reading has found enough to prick the imagination and read further. The rest have left the discussion already, very likely with minds already made up, having determined that this post is an apologetic for Islam (which it is not) not worth pursuing. (The web address is self-explanatory)

Ijtihad: Its Meaning, Sources, Beginnings and the Practice of Ra'y (No, I haven't read it. It seems to be an on-line book by a Muslim scholar. Check the sidebar for chapter headings.)

Pieter Dorsman points out Irshad Manji whose life seems dedicated to the liberation of the Muslim mind. Her writing, speaking and principle activities in life are living testimonies to the power of ijtihad. Those looking for Muslim voices denouncing terrorism and its root causes in a meaningful way need go no further.


I had ended my post and was getting ready to go to work when this wonderful sketch by Greg Djerejian popped up. It illustrates vividly how shrill the sound level has become in the media. He looks at the recent British reaction to Iran's capture/return of British sailors and compares it with what a similar scenario would have looked like had they been US Navy personnel instead.

No snips here. None could do it justice.
It's not long. Go read it.

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