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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Tradition of Ijtihad for Non-Radical Islam

One year ago this week, a young Muslim man raised in the Netherlands murdered the filmmaker (and some would say troublemaker) Theo van Gogh. A fierce critic of religion, van Gogh issued piercing screeds against Islam. So Mohammed Bouyeri killed him, proudly explaining in court that he stabbed van Gogh to death out of love for the faith.

But it wasn't faith that Bouyeri was defending. It was dogma. And dogma is hobbling our faith, because we Muslims have forgotten Islam's own tradition of independent thinking: ijtihad.

This concept of creative reasoning (pronounced ij-tee-had) has a track record. In the early decades of Islam, thanks to the spirit of ijtihad, 135 schools of thought flourished. In Muslim Spain, scholars taught their students to abandon "expert" opinions about the Quran if their own conversations with the ambiguous book produced more compelling evidence for their peaceful ideas. And Cordoba, among the most sophisticated cities in Islamic Spain, had 70 libraries. That is one for every virgin that today's Muslim martyrs believe Allah pledges them. Books then, women now: an unlikely indicator of how far Muslims have plunged intellectually.

From the eighth to the 12th centuries, the gates of ijtihad -- of discussion, debate and dissent -- remained open. Not coincidentally, that is when Islamic civilization led the world in ingenuity.

At the twilight of the 12th century, however, the gates of ijtihad closed. Scholars argue about whether they shut completely or partially, but there is consensus that the artistic and scientific ferment animating the Golden Age of Islam died stubbornly. Why? The fragile Islamic empire, stretching from Iraq in the east to Spain in the west, began to experience internal convulsions. Dissident denominations cropped up and declared their own governments.

The Baghdad-based caliph -- a combination statesman and spiritual leader -- cracked down on new sects to secure the political unity of the empire.

For hundreds of years since, three equations have informed mainstream Islamic practice. First, unity equals uniformity. In order to be strong, members of the worldwide Muslim ummah, or nation, must think alike.

Second, debate equals division. Diversity of interpretation is no longer a tribute to God's majesty. It is a hammer blow to the unity that Muslims must exhibit to those intent on dividing us.

Third, division equals heresy. Soon after the gates of ijtihad closed, innovation came to be defined as a crime by dint of being fitna -- that which divides. In the late 19th century, a gallant attempt by Egyptian feminists and intellectuals to revive ijtihad failed because of louder calls for Muslim solidarity. Lest anyone say that was then and this is now, my mother's imam in Vancouver, British Columbia, recently preached that I am a bigger "criminal" than Osama bin Laden because a book I wrote has caused more "division" (read: "debate") among Muslims than al-Qaida's terrorism has.

The good news is that the gates of ijtihad were shut not for spiritual or theological reasons but for entirely political ones. This means there is no blasphemy in seeking to resuscitate Islam's tradition of independent thinking. I can report that more and more young Muslims are seeking to do exactly that.

For example, one of the most common questions e-mailed to me comes from Muslim women in the West who have fallen in love with Christian men. Too often, their parents and clerics warn them that Islam forbids women from marrying outside of the faith. Does it?

That is open to interpretation. The Quran 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. After all, the Quran affirms that the "earlier Scriptures" -- the Torah and the Bible -- are as divinely inspired as Islam's holy book.

I am hardly a theologian, so I asked an imam to weigh in. He pointed out that thanks to its time and place (seventh-century Arabia) the Quran assumes that women are owned by their tribes and must take the religion of tribal leaders: men. Thus, marrying a non-Muslim man would oblige a Muslim woman to abandon Islam. However, he emphasized, that is not the case today for Muslim women exposed to the pluralism prevalent in the West. Put simply, "You live in a different time and place."

The broader point is that Muslims in the West are perfectly poised to rediscover ijtihad because it is in the West that we already enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged on matters of interpretation -- all without fear of state reprisal for doing so.

Even if Operation Ijtihad is launched from the West, it cannot stop here. People throughout the Islamic world need to know of their God-given right to think for themselves.

Outside of the West, restoring ijtihad might start with liberating the entrepreneurial talents of Muslim women through micro-business loans. The Quran states that women are subject to men's authority only if men spend money to "maintain" women. If a woman earns her own assets (as did the Prophet Mohammed's beloved first wife, Khadija), she can make decisions for herself.

What may sound fantastic turns out to have merit. An American photojournalist told me about meeting a woman in Kabul, Afghanistan, who took a micro-loan from a nongovernmental organization. She started a candle-making business and, with her earnings, studied and became literate. For the first time in her life, this woman read the Quran -- and learned of passages that gave her the option of self-respect. She recited those passages to her husband, who had been abusing her for years. Since then, her life has changed dramatically: the man has not laid an unwanted finger on her.

Some scholars will insist that one must wield skills honed by years of training to engage in independent reasoning. Otherwise, they say, we wind up with any old Joe quoting the Quran to justify radical conduct, as is happening amid the rise of the Internet and the decline of traditional authority.

But other scholars suggest that such elitism only cements a submissiveness that afflicts the contemporary Muslim mind -- an affliction that stops moderate Muslims from speaking up and allows extremists to take over.

According to Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islam at Hartford Seminary, "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, a devout Muslim, goes as far as to encourage ijtihad among comics, poets and musicians. Hers is a refreshing message: Before we can know who is worth listening to, we must let a spectrum of Muslims find their voices. Let me use my voice to proclaim: I agree.

Irshad Manji is the author of "The Trouble With Islam Today" and is making a film about things to love within Islam. This essay first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.