I am not a moderate Muslim, I am a reformist. Rooting out corrupt practices can never be an act of mere moderation. Restoring integrity, or wholeness, is always a radical act. It transcends notions of left and right, emphasising the need to think independently. In Islam, independent thought has a strong history, not that you’d know it from the news about bombings, beheadings and bloodshed. ‘Jihad’ has become part of the West’s vocabulary and with good reason. But there is a lesser-known term in Islam — one that has the capacity to change the world for good.
The idea is ‘ijtihad’, Islam’s tradition of questioning and reinterpreting. And it is absolutely fundamental to the spirit of the Qur’an. Islam’s scripture contains three times as many passages urging Muslims to think and rethink than verses promoting blind worship.
That’s nice in theory, but what about in fact? In the Islam of a millennium ago, ijtihad flourished. It was no coincidence that Islamic civilisation led the world in curiosity, creativity and ingenuity. But then the sun set on Islam’s golden age. Invaders from North Africa pillaged the pluralism of Muslim Spain. From Cordoba to Baghdad, much of the Islamic empire lapsed into defensiveness. Out of 135 schools of Sunni thought, just four survived. The gates of ijtihadnarrowed and in some places closed, legitimising rigid readings of the Qur’an. To this day, Muslims still struggle with the idea of independent thought.
But a new generation of Muslims are pushing the boundaries. In growing numbers, we are speaking our truths to self-appointed authorities, be they our parents or their imams. I can attest to this because young Muslims have been sharing their stories with me since I wrote my book, The Trouble with Islam Today. It was published ten years ago, with the predictable noise from offended Muslims drowning out the support from many others.
Those others, often the children of conservatives, wrote to me about their desperation for a Muslim community that accepts their interfaith relationships. In 2007, I used my blog to publish a blessing of Muslim-Christian love, written in English by a scholarly imam who reinterpreted the Qur’an. It was downloaded so often that I had it translated into 20 more languages.
Last year, Al Jazeera aired an intense debate about Muslim reform between me and the British commentator Mehdi Hasan. Hate mail followed. So did love bombs. But I did not receive any death threats. To be sure, the reality remains that those who shatter age-old taboos within Islam do have to fear for their lives. While it is true that every religion has its extremists, in no other religion do mainstream believers routinely shrug off the murder of dissenters. This is a life-and-death difference. All the more reason for ijtihad to be revived in the 21st century.
Nowhere does the necessity of ijtihad seem more urgent than in the wars over freedom of expression. One might say that the UK led the way. More than 25 years ago, a puny hive of British Muslims demanded the death of novelist Salman Rushdie even before Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued his infamous fatwa.
Earlier this year, I watched the British brouhaha over my friend Maajid Nawaz, the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for Kilburn and co-founder of the counter-extremism outfit Quilliam. Nawaz had tweeted a cartoon called Jesus and Mo. Jesus to Mo: ‘Hey!’ Mo: ‘How ya doing?’ The end. That was it. Two top-tier prophets swapping props.
The problem for some Muslims is that, according to tradition, Muhammad cannot be depicted in image lest he become an object of worship. But by insisting that he cannot be drawn under any circumstances, these Muslims make the prophet off-limits to anyone who does not believe as they do. They thus turn Mo into, well, an object of worship. It leaves a lot of us wondering what, if anything, has been learned since the Danish cartoons fiasco eight years ago.
Then, you will recall, a handful of journalists, politicians, diplomats and mullahs in Denmark engineered an epic cultural crisis. Months earlier, the newspaper Jyllands-Posten had published images that supposedly mocked the Prophet Muhammad. Even after the paper apologised, the controversy grew. In different parts of the world, Muslims who rioted against Danish insensitivity silenced the more reasonable voices within their faith.
At the time, I received a lot of emails, mostly from young Muslims. ‘I am even more offended by the riots than by the cartoons!’ exclaimed Mahmood, a student whose reaction typified many others’. Fed up with one upheaval after another, the Muslims who contacted me channelled their frustration into an urgent sense that Muslims need to reform ourselves.
The question is simple: can Islam be reconciled with free expression? The answer is yes. The Qur’an points out that there will always be nonbelievers and that it is for God, not for Muslims, to deal with them: ‘The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills — let him believe; and whoever wills — let him disbelieve.’ (18:29). Moreover, the Qur’an states that there should ‘no compulsion in religion’. (2:256). Nobody should be forced to treat tradition as untouchable, including traditions that result in the messed-up Muslim habit of equating our very human prophet with an inviolable idol. Monotheists are to revere one God, not one of God’s emissaries. That is why humility requires people of faith to lampoon themselves, and each other, once in a while.
I can hear the reaction already: as a reformist, I am cherry-picking verses from the Qur’an. Given that the call for reflection suffuses the Qur’an, I am on terra firma in highlighting such little-known verses. It is my detractors who select on the shaky grounds of their own politics. After all, they ignore progressive Qur’anic passages, another one being about the liberty to choose one’s faith: ‘Unto you your religion, unto me my religion’ (109:6). While serving as grand mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa quoted it to conclude that if a Muslim leaves Islam, no power in this earthly realm has the right to punish him or her. The verdict shocked Muslims in Egypt and beyond. Cultural conditioning dies hard.
That raises a new question. When Islam’s beloved messenger is satirised, should Muslims sit there and take it? Our scripture recommends that we cordially walk away from those who ridicule the faith. It also advises that we remain open towards the offenders. Pack up in peace, then pick up the conversation once the dust settles. Granted, this is not Socrates’ approach to dialogue — relentless, remorseless cross-examination — but neither does there have to be the unctuous exchange of platitudes that so often passes for interfaith dialogue.
During the Danish firestorm, the Muslims who contacted me demonstrated that we do not think uniformly. Some even challenged me to plaster the cartoons on my own website. After much consideration (as encouraged by the Qur’an), I posted links to all the caricatures. Among them were sketches depicting Muhammad as a paedophile and as a pig — images which had been fabricated by ultra-conservative Danish imams who falsely attributed them to Jyllands-Posten.
Hours after I uploaded the links, several readers emailed me in trepidation. Lise, a woman from Quebec, captured the sense of fear. ‘I am very happy that Canada does not publish these caricatures,’ she said. ‘We do not need the Islamic reaction.’ I agree. We do not need the Islamic reaction. We need diverse Islamic reactions: applause, revulsion, dismissal, embarrassment, nonviolent protest and peals of laughter.
The time has come for more of us, Muslim and non-Muslim, to hold the would-be censors to account by demonstrating moral courage. During my book tours, a pattern has emerged: on the campuses of western universities, good-hearted people whisper that they support my mission to reconcile Islam and freedom. Muslims fear community disapproval. Non-Muslims are terrified of being labelled bigots. Meanwhile, the Islam-supremacists who attend my lectures feel they have every right to champion their authoritarian interpretations of the Qur’an. The loathers of freedom appreciate their own freedom enough to deploy it to stifle the freedom of everyone else.
My call for moral courage is not about confrontation, but conversation. Ed Husain, the former jihadist who co-founded Quilliam, says he became radicalised in part by British society’s low expectations of him as a young Muslim. ‘Nobody ever said: you’re equal to us, you’re one of us, we’ll hold you to the same standards,’ he explains. ‘Nobody had the courage to stand up for liberal democracy without qualms. When people like us were holding events against women and gay people, where were our college principals and teachers?’
Those educators would only have needed to cite chapter 3, verse 7 of the Qur’an. It states that God and God alone knows the full truth of how the Qur’an ought to be interpreted. (The genius of this verse soon dawns on those who try refuting it with their seemingly superior knowledge.) Suppose the defenders of liberal democracy took five seconds to scrawl ‘Qur’an 3:7’ on pieces of paper and calmly handed them to the Islamists in their midst? No doubt, any such gesture will be greeted with the cry of ‘Islamophobe!’ You can set your clock to it. The obvious response to that is: ‘Why does encouraging dialogue make me an Islamophobe? Would I not be keeping my distance — out of fear — if I were phobic?’ Conversations start with searching questions.
This brings me to sound one cautionary note. Islamophobia does exist, and it infuriates me that some who wish to wipe Islam off the map actually believe that their agenda helps reformist Muslims. It does not. By defining Islam in the same dogmatic terms as Muslim extremists do, Islamophobes gift those extremists with the authority to decide what Islam must be. In which case, Islam-haters are the allies of Islam-supremacists — not of reformists.
For me, embracing freedom is an act of faith. Recognising the Almighty’s infinite wisdom means acknowledging my limited human wisdom. As a monotheist, I am not God. Nor am I entitled to behave as God. Hence my duty to let a thousand nonviolent flowers bloom. In short, to devote myself to Allah is to love liberty.