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Islam Speaks for Itself

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    Islam Speaks for Itself Jennie Rothenberg Gritz 02 Jul 2008 http://aspenideas.theatlantic.com/archives/2008/07/islam-speaks-for- itself.php I went into the
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 4, 2008
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      Islam Speaks for Itself
      Jennie Rothenberg Gritz
      02 Jul 2008

      I went into the discussion "Who Speaks for Islam?" assuming that it
      would be an informative but relatively tame chat between two like-
      minded people. The speakers listed on the program--Irshad Manji and
      Dalia Mogahed--were both women intellectuals raised and educated in
      the West; based on their bios, it was hard to imagine either one of
      them advocating anything but a modern, democratic approach to the
      Muslim faith.

      But as soon as I glanced at the stage, it was obvious that the
      discussion was going to be edgier than I'd expected. Manji was
      dressed in a funky orange top with butterfly sleeves, and she had
      uncovered hair in the spiky shape of a sea anemone. Mogahed, on the
      other hand, wore a beige blazer and long skirt, and her neck and
      head were hidden beneath a champagne-colored hijab. What followed
      was not a debate between an extremist and a liberal but a nuanced
      discussion between a moderate and a reformer. And that's what made
      it riveting.

      After greeting the Muslims in the room with "Salam aleykum" and the
      atheists with "How the hell are ya?", Manji launched into a spirited
      defense of religious reform. The problem, she insisted, was that
      ordinary Muslims were afraid to forge a personal relationship with
      the texts. Instead of countering extremist interpretations with more
      tolerant readings of the same verses, Muslims were quietly looking
      to elite scholars and clerics to show them the way.

      Mogahed responded, speaking more gently but no less articulately
      than Mogahed. She described the Muslim approach to analyzing the
      texts, a process known as ishtihad. Any man or woman has the
      authority to offer legitimate interpretations, she explained, as
      long as that person first puts in the requisite hours of work and
      scholarship. "But when we open it to simply anyone," she
      argued, "what we risk is the ishdihad of ignorance." In other words,
      giving unlimited authority to the masses will allow more Osama Bin
      Ladens to be born.

      I found this argument oddly compelling, probably because I have a
      passing acquaintance with Orthodox Judaism. Unlike evangelical
      Christians who take the Bible at its word, Orthodox rabbis read
      scripture through the long lens of scholarly tradition. I'm not an
      observant Jew myself, and I'm baffled whenever I look at a page of
      the Talmud, where a single Hebrew verse gives rise to a maze of
      Aramaic interpretation. In a strange way, though, the Talmudic
      method encourages rigorous questioning even more than liberal
      Judaism does. It's hard to argue with an independent thinker who
      announces, "Here's what I think this verse means." But when you're
      poring over endless opinions on the semantics of a single word or
      the legal implications of a one-line commandment, it's easy to get
      into lively debates about what the Torah is actually trying to say.

      While I empathized with Mogahed's position, it was hard to deny any
      of Manji's arguments for Islamic reform. When Mogahed insisted that
      Bin Laden's speeches were mere political rhetoric sandwiched between
      praisings of God and the Prophet, Manji pointed out Muslim
      extremists do justify their violence with actual verses from the
      Koran. Her argument reminded me of Christopher Hitchens' point that
      a spark of religion can ignite ordinary human intolerance--say,
      bitter rivalries between football fans--into widespread catastrophe.

      Unlike Hitchens, Manji feels that Muslims should continue to revere
      the Koran. But because imams and mullahs aren't stepping forward to
      loudly counter extremist interpretations, she believes that ordinary
      Muslims need to take responsibility for their own scriptures.

      Here are a couple of video segments that capture the essence of the
      debate. (Thanks to David Gibson and Colorado Audio Visual for
      filming this session.) In the first clip, Jeffrey Goldberg, who
      expertly moderated the session, asks the panelists to explain the
      power dynamic in Islam, and Manji presents her philosophy in a

      In the second clip, Mogahed offers an analogy to explain why Islam
      itself is not the root cause of extremist violence. I should add
      here that Mogahed's assertions are based largely on her professional
      experience: she's the executive director of the Gallup Center for
      Muslim Studies, and the book she wrote with John Esposito--also
      called Who Speaks for Islam?--is based on poll data from 50,000
      Muslims in 35 nations.



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