Ijtihad (pronounced “ij-tee-had”) is Islam’s own tradition of independent thinking. In the early centuries of Islam, thanks to the spirit of ijtihad, 135 schools of thought thrived. Inspired by ijtihad, Muslims gave the world inventions from the astrolabe to the university. So much of what we consider “western” pop culture came from Muslims: the guitar, mocha coffee, even the ultra-Spanish expression “Ole!” (which has its root in the Arabic word for God, “Allah”).
What happened to ijtihad?
Toward the end of the 11th century, the “gates of ijtihad” were closed for entirely political reasons. During this time, the Muslim empire from Iraq in the east to Spain in the west was going through a series of internal upheavals. Dissident denominations were popping up and declaring their own runaway governments, which posed a threat to the main Muslim leader — the caliph.
Based in Baghdad, the caliph cracked down and closed ranks. Remember those 135 schools of thought mentioned above? They were deliberately reduced to five pretty conservative schools of thought. This led to a rigid reading of the Quran as well as to a series of legal opinions — fatwas — that scholars could no longer overturn or even question, but could now only imitate.
To this very day, imitation of medieval norms has trumped innovation in Islam. It’s time to renew ijtihad to update Islam for the 21st century. That’s why I and other reform-minded Muslims have created Project Ijtihad.
What’s the mission of Project Ijtihad?
Project Ijtihad is a charitable initiative to promote the spirit of Ijtihad, Islam’s own tradition of critical thinking, debate and dissent. We support a positive vision of Islam that embraces diversity of choices, expression and spirituality. To achieve this, Project Ijtihad will help build the world’s most inclusive network of reform-minded Muslims and non-Muslim allies.
Reform-minded Muslims already exist in spades. Our goal is to bring them out of the shadows. They need to know that Islam gives them the permission to be thoughtful and faithful at the same time. Because they’re not alone, they can have such faith without fear.
Why are you involving non-Muslims?
Progressive non-Muslims are crucial partners in our mission. When non-Muslims work with reform-minded Muslims, they’re sending notice that moderates and fundamentalists are no longer the only voices that count in Islam. When non-Muslims recognize reform-minded Muslims, they’re spurring a healthy competition of ideas and interpretations. Above all, they’re affirming that reform-minded Muslims are as authentic as the mainstream, and quite possibly more constructive.
Some worry that involving non-Muslims is a recipe for “illegitimacy.” We respectfully disagree. If reform is to mean anything, it must involve transcending the petty tribalism that has calcified all religions in God’s expansive name.
What’s Project Ijtihad doing to achieve its mission so far?
We’re sparking taboo-busting debates both online and in person. For example, can a Muslim woman marry a non-Muslim man? It’s a hot 21st century issue, as more Muslims are born in the West or migrate there, then encounter people of other religions and fall in love. Muslim parents and imams routinely tell their children that Islam forbids marriage to non-Muslims. But that’s not necessarily true.
One progressive imam has written a clear, concise defense of inter-faith marriage from an Islamic perspective. It’s become such a popular download — and source of discussion — that I’ve had to get the blessing translated into several languages to keep up with demand. Young Muslim women in Western Europe feel especially empowered by the blessing, as their emails tell me.
Isn’t ijtihad restricted to theologians and academics?
According to the Nawawi Foundation, in Islamic history “even the common people were required to perform their own type of ijtihad by striving to discern the competence of individual scholars and selecting the best to follow, a principle emphatically asserted by the majority of Sunni and Shi’i scholars and their schools.” Read the entire paper here.
Let me be clear: ours is not a call for the legal practise of ijtihad to be popularized. It’s a call for the spirit of ijtihad to be broadened. We believe that anything less is a form of elitism that cements a pattern of submissiveness among today’s Muslims — a submissiveness not to God but to God’s self-appointed ambassadors. This stops peace-loving Muslims from speaking up even as extremists take over.
How can I get involved?
If you’d like to join our confidential mailing list, or if you have translation, technology, and other concrete skills to volunteer, please contact Project Ijtihad’s coordinator, Raquel Evita Saraswati, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, if you can contribute any amount of money, we’re grateful. In the U.S. and Canada, your donation is tax deductible.
Please use the secure online donation form above or send your check to our mailing address: PO Box 990624, Boston, MA, USA 02199.
Salaam and thank you,
Irshad Manji, founder, Project Ijtihad