Freedom of thought, it’s your God-given right


Irshad Manji

A few years ago, during a trip toGaza, I conducted an on-camera interview with the political leader of Islamic Jihad, Dr. Mohammed al-Hindi. With his finely trimmed beard and gracious manners, he symbolized the modern — and moderate — Muslim man.

But his interpretation of the Qur’an suggested something else. “Where,” I asked, “does it say that you can kill yourself for a higher cause? As far as I know, the Qur’an tells us that suicide is wrong.”

Through his translator, the physician assured me that the verses endorsing suicide operations could be found “everywhere” in Islam’s holy book. I challenged Dr. al-Hindi to show me just one passage.

After several minutes of reviewing the Qur’an, then calling for help on his mobile phone, then looking through companion booklets, he told me he was too busy and must go.

“Are you sure you’re not pulling a fast one on me?” I asked. He smiled, clearly understanding popular American phrases. (“Pulling a fast one” means lying.)  “I want to know that you’re telling me the truth,” I repeated.

Dr. al-Hindi summoned two assistants to the office and made another phone call. His translator shifted uncomfortably, hanging his head as my camera swung past him to film the assistants. With their backs to me, they flipped feverishly through the Qur’an. Minutes later, they presented a verse glorifying war.

But it had nothing to do with suicide. So I asked Dr. al-Hindi yet again. He responded that Islam permits defensive aggression. “If a thief comes to your door and steals your money, isn’t it legitimate to protect yourself?” he said through the translator.

Still unable to draw the link between self-protection and suicide, I proposed this comparison: “If my boss steals my job and I kill myself because something that is mine has been taken away, am I a martyr?”

Horrified, the translator shook his head. “No, no, you can’t ask this.”

“Why not?” I wondered. “It’s important, theologically, to ask these questions.”

At that moment, my camera batteries died.  This, the translator whispered, was a better outcome than me dying – which is what Dr. al-Hindi would have arranged if I stayed in his office much longer. Both the translator and I hurried out of there.

Our encounter reminded me of why it is so important for Muslims to ask questions out loud. We have relied far too long on self-appointed “higher-ups” to do the interpreting for us. We have given them the ability to abuse passages and power. We Muslims have forgotten Islam’s own tradition of independent thinking: ijtihad.

This concept of creative reasoning has a history of achievement. In the early centuries of Islam, thanks to the spirit of ijtihad, 135 schools of interpretation flourished. In Muslim Spain, scholars would teach their students to abandon “expert” opinions about the Qur’an if their own conversations with the ambiguous Qur’an produced better evidence for their peaceful ideas. AndCordoba, among the most sophisticated cities in Muslim Spain, housed 70 libraries – more than the number of libraries in most cosmopolitan cities today!

From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, the “gates of ijtihad” — of discussion, debate and dissent — remained wide open. That is also when Islamic civilization led the world in ingenuity. So much of what is assumed to be Judeo-Christian culture has, in fact, been shaped by Muslims: mocha coffee, cough syrup, the guitar, even that ultra-Spanish expression, “Olé,” which has its root in the Arabic word, “Allah.”

At the twilight of the twelfth century, the gates of ijtihad narrowed. Scholars argue about how narrow they became, but there is consensus that the artistic and scientific activity that animated the Golden Age of Islam died as stubbornly as my camera batteries did at the end of the al-Hindi interview.

Allow me to be more precise. The fragile Islamic empire, stretching from theIndusRiverin the east to theAtlantic Oceanin the west, began to experience a series of internal convulsions. Dissident denominations were cropping up and declaring their own breakaway governments. The Baghdad-based caliph — a combination of statesman and spiritual leader — cracked down and closed ranks to secure the political unity of the empire.

To reinforce unity, within a few generationsBaghdadsupervised the closing of something more: the gates of independent reasoning. Islam’s 135 schools of thought were deliberately reduced to five schools, all of them quite conservative. This move produced rigid readings of the Qur’an as well as a series of fatwas that scholars could no longer overturn or question, but could now merely imitate or risk being executed.

For hundreds of years since then, three equations have driven mainstream Islamic practice. The rituals vary in Islam’s major sects, but these three equations apply across the board:

  • First, unity equals uniformity. In order to be strong, members of the worldwide ummah must think alike.
  • Second, debate equals division. Diversity of interpretation is no longer a tribute to God’s majesty; it is threat to the unity that Muslims must exhibit in the face of those intent on dividing us.
  • Third, division equals heresy. Soon after the gates of ijtihad narrowed, innovation came to be defined as a religious crime.  It was fitna — that which divides. Because division is the opposite of uniformity, whatever divides must be prevented.  Which means that innovation must be stopped. Which, in turn, means that the spirit of ijtihad must be suppressed.

These three equations are not merely theoretical. They have left their mark on modern Islamic history.  For example, in the late nineteenth century, a gallant attempt by Egyptian feminists and intellectuals to revive ijtihad failed because of louder calls for Muslim solidarity (read: unity).

This pattern persists a century later and far from Egypt: My mother’s imam in Vancouver, Canada, recently preached that I am a bigger “criminal” than Usama bin Laden because my book, The Trouble with Islam Today, has caused more “division” among Muslims than al-Qaeda’s terrorism has. Apparently, he didn’t see the irony in proclaiming that debate is worse than terrorism. Nor did he see how he damned Muslims by acknowledging that literary expression divides us more than the use of violence does.

If ever we have needed to spread the spirit of ijtihad, it is now. The good news is that the gates of ijtihad were narrowed not for spiritual or theological reasons, but for entirely political ones. This means there is no blasphemy in trying to renew Islam’s tradition of independent thinking.

I can report that more and more Muslims are seeking to do exactly that. During the Danish cartoon affair, young Muslims flooded my email inbox with questions like, “Is there a way to reconcile religious belief with free expression?”  Yes; the Qur’an tells us that there is “no compulsion in religion.” This suggests nobody should be forced to treat Islamic norms as sacred.

Fine, many Muslims will retort, but we are talking about the Prophet Muhammad – Allah’s final and therefore perfect messenger.  However, Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet was a human being who made mistakes.  It is precisely because he was not perfect that we know about the so-called Satanic Verses; a collection of passages that the Prophet reportedly included in the Qur’an.  Only later did he realize that those verses glorified heathen idols rather than God. According to Islamic legend, he retracted the idolatrous passages, blaming them on a trick played by Satan.

When Muslims put the Prophet on a pedestal, we are engaging in idolatry of our own.  The point of monotheism is to worship one God, not God’s emissaries.  The need for humility demands that people of faith to mock themselves — and each other — every once in a while.  We will not hear this from the Muslim establishment anywhere.  But the fact that a new generation of Muslims is asking such questions tells me that ijtihad has a fighting chance.

Ijtihad can be invoked to restore not only reason, but also humanity, to Islam. Today, a common question comes from Muslim women in the West who have fallen in love with Christian men. Too often, their parents and imams warn them that Islam forbids women from marrying outside of the faith. “Does it?” these young women ask.  Not necessarily. As I have explained on my website, the Qur’an tells us that Christians and Jews are fellow people of the book who have “nothing to fear or regret” as long as they stay true to their scriptures. The Qur’an also says that “earlier scriptures” — the Torah and the Bible — are as divinely inspired as Islam’s book.

Still, I am not a theologian. Although I have been given many labels, Mullah Manji is not one of them. Therefore, I have asked a progressive American imam and professor of Islam, Khaleel Mohammad, to express his view. He points out that because of its time and place — seventh century Arabia— the Qur’an assumes that women are owned by their tribes and consequently must take the religion of tribal leaders: men. Thus, marrying a non-Muslim man would oblige a Muslim woman to abandon Islam. However, Prof. Mohammad emphasizes, this is not the case for 21st century Muslim women who are exposed to the pluralism of the West. Put simply, “you live in a different time and place.”

Wait.  What do we say to those who argue that the Qur’an is true for all times and all places? Having exercised ijtihad, Prof. Mohammad replies to that argument, too.  You can read his response by visiting my website,, and using the search engine to find his scholarship.

By using these examples, my broader point is that Muslims in the West are perfectly positioned to rediscover the spirit of ijtihad.  After all, it is in the West that we already enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged on matters of interpretation.  What a precious gift.

But even if ijtihad is rejuvenated in the West, it cannot stop there. People throughout the Islamic world need to know of their God-given right to think for themselves. Outside of the West, reviving ijtihad might start with liberating the entrepreneurial talents of Muslim women through micro-business loans. The Qur’an states that women are subject to men’s authority only if men spend money to “maintain” women. So if a woman earns her own assets, like the Prophet Muhammad’s beloved first wife, Khadija, she can make decisions for herself.

Impossible? Then consider this story.  An American photo-journalist told me about meeting a woman inKabulwho took a tiny loan from a non-governmental organization. She started a candle-making business and, with her earnings, became literate. For the first time in her life, this woman read the Qur’an for herself rather than relying on local clerics to select the passages she would see. She learned that the Qur’an gives all women the right to reject marriage.  And if women choose marriage, the Qur’an advises them to draft contracts protecting their rights as equal creatures of God.

She recited these passages to her husband, who had been abusing her for years. Since then, he has not laid an unwanted finger on her.  Could it be that what the United Nations has identified as key deficits in the Arab Muslim world — the deficits of knowledge, freedom and women’s empowerment — might all benefit from reviving ijtihad? The possibility commands our attention.

I believe that the spirit of ijtihad should not simply be brought back.  It should be democratized and popularized beyond the academics and imams.  Some scholars will object, insisting that to exercise ijtihad one must have skills developed by years of training.  Otherwise, they say, we wind up with anybody quoting the Qur’an to justify radical behavior, as is already happening with the rise of the internet and the decline of traditional authority.

Yet other scholars say that such elitism only reinforces a pattern of submissiveness that plagues the contemporary Muslim mind — a plague that stops reformist Muslims from speaking up as conservatives take over. According to Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islam at Hartford Seminary in theUnited States, “because of our very narrow vision, our legalistic vision, and our authoritarian models of decision-making, we are excluding those people who can offer us a different vision of the future”. Mattson, the first female president of the Islamic Society of North America, goes as far as to encourage ijtihad among comics, poets and musicians. If she is sincere, then hers is a refreshing message: Before we can know who is worth listening to, we must let a wide spectrum of Muslims find their voices.

Of course, most people — not just Muslims — could use more independent thinking. I was reminded of this point while leaving theGazaoffice of Dr. Mohammed al-Hindi.  I asked his translator why Dr. al-Hindi would give me an on-camera interview, knowing that he could not find a single verse to prove his claim that the Qur’an justifies suicide operations. The translator replied, “He assumed you were just another dumb Western journalist.”  He explained that reporters from the West had never asked this veteran terrorist the most basic of questions: Where is the evidence for what you do in God’s name?

Maybe it is time that media joined Muslims in embracing ijtihad. I would be happy to supply both groups with security tips.


Submitted as paper at the first conference of Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform, Atlanta, 2008. The article published, together with about other fourty articles at the ontology with the same name.