Love and religion do not always mix. No wonder the most common question sent to my website these days comes from young Muslims in America and Europe. They desperately want to know if they can marry non-Muslims.
Their parents and imams tell them that Islam forbids marriage outside the faith. But that is not necessarily true. Dr. Khaleel Mohammed, a progressive American imam educated at traditional universities in the Middle East, has written a clear defense of inter-faith marriage from an Islamic perspective. I have posted his “blessing” on my website.
Now, this interfaith blessing is such a popular download that I have had to get it translated into several languages to keep up with demand. Welcome to a hot 21st-Century issue, as more Muslims are born in the West or migrate to it, then meet people of other religions.
What this imam did goes beyond matters of the heart. It reflects the power of using the mind to reinterpret the Qur’an for contemporary times. He has captured the spirit of ijtihad (pronounced ij-tee-had), Islam’s own tradition of creative reasoning. As globalization persists and pluralism spreads, both Muslims and non-Muslims need to know that Islam offers a positive alternative to the tribal mentality.
Ijtihad has a history of achievement. In the early centuries of Islam, 135 schools of interpretation flourished. In Muslim Spain, scholars would teach their students to abandon “expert” opinions about the Qur’an if their conversations with the living, breathing Qur’an produced better evidence for their peaceful ideas. And Cordoba, one of the most sophisticated cities in Muslim Spain, housed 70 libraries. That rivals the number of public libraries in most cosmopolitan cities today!
From the 8th to the 12th centuries, the “gates of ijtihad” — of discussion, debate and dissent — remained wide open. This is also when Islamic civilization led the world in ingenuity. If ever we Muslims needed to renew our commitment to ijtihad, it is now. From the emerging generation, I continually hear this question: “Is there a way to reconcile our faith with freedom of thought?”
Yes, there is. The Qur’an contains three times as many verses calling on us to think than verses that tell us what is forbidden or acceptable. In that sense, re-interpretation – which means re-thinking Qur’anic passages, not re-writing them – is an Islamic responsibility. The Illinois-based Nawawi Foundation even describes it as a “religious duty of the first magnitude”.
That is why I and other young Muslims have launched Project Ijtihad, an effort to revive critical thinking in Islam by sparking honest debates both online and in person. As my story about the American imam shows, Muslims in the West are perfectly positioned to rediscover ijtihad. After all, it is in countries like the United States, Canada and Britain that we already enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge and be challenged on matters of interpretation. What a precious gift.
But even if Project Ijtihad is launched from the West, it cannot stop in the West. People throughout the Islamic world need to know of their God-given right to think for themselves.
In the Islamic world, renewing 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, as did the Prophet Muhammad’s beloved first wife, Khadija, she can make decisions for herself.
Sound like a fantasy? Then consider this example. A journalist told me about meeting a woman in Kabul who 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 ever, this woman read the Qur’an for herself rather than relying on local imams 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 rediscovering ijtihad? The possibility begs for our attention.
Project Ijtihad is strengthened by the voices of others who are encouraging Muslims to change. Consider the words of Dr. Taj Hargey, chairman of the Muslim Educational Centre at Oxford in the UK. During the recent controversy over whether Muslim women in Britain should veil, he wrote: “In contrast to a blind acceptance of specific 7th-Century tribal Arabian dress and cultural norms, which have no eternal scriptural endorsement (as believers are required only to be modest), modern Muslims should revive the Islamic principle of ijtihad to interpret the faith for themselves.”
Young Muslims in America and Europe are doing exactly that by distributing the interfaith marriage blessing through their formal organizations and informal networks. May they have lovely weddings.
A senior fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy, Irshad Manji is author of the New York Times bestseller “The Trouble with Islam Today,” creator of the PBS documentary, “Faith Without Fear” and founder of Project Ijtihad, an international network of reform-minded Muslims.