Last month, the MIT Center for International Studies hosted a talk by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Raised a Muslim, she witnessed abuse of women in Muslim communities. She renounced her religion and became an activist for women’s rights. Her criticisms of Islam led to death threats, and her courage was recognized by several awards. Her latest book, Heretic, calls for a fundamental reformation of Islam.
Ali’s writings suggest that the violence and intolerance in the Muslim world are intrinsic to the religion. Jihadists, she claims, draw their inspiration from their scripture and from the example of the Prophet himself. This message creates concern among Muslims on campus. They don’t interpret the scripture and history of their religion in this way; in their daily lives, they practice a religion of peace. They worry about stereotypes that feed hatred against Muslims in general. In the current atmosphere of rising anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S., Muslim students on college campuses feel marginalized if not besieged.
The stereotypes have very old roots. In the West, Islam has long been obscured by ignorance and prejudice. American elementary school children generally learn very little about the religion. Yet they learn to use Arabic numerals for math and science, a reminder of the profound contributions that Islam made to Western civilization. The early centuries of Islam belie the idea that it was an intolerant and oppressive religion. Islamic civilization revived classical learning and made major contributions to optics, astronomy, mathematics, anatomy, law, and medicine. Contrary to the notion that Muslims converted by the sword, they set an example of religious tolerance and interfaith collaboration. Their scripture gave women rights to own property, choose their marriage partners, and have a voice in community affairs. The comparative religion author Karen Armstrong has said, “The emancipation of women was a project dear to the Prophet’s heart.”
Of course, the radicalism and violence in the Muslim world today are a very real danger. Rather than being intrinsic to the religion, however, I would suggest that they are gross distortions of it. In fact, they are products of the decline of Islamic civilization. The spirit of critical inquiry, known as ijtihad, characterized the golden age of Islam and was later suppressed by its leaders. Narrow orthodoxy obstructed the religion. Hypocrisy and corruption overtook its institutions. As a result, the Islamic world lacked the resilience to adapt to the rise of Western values and modern technology. This has led to the promotion of ideologies that portray the West as an enemy in a holy war, in an attempt to restore Islam to its former greatness.
Today many Muslims want change, but they feel that some of their leaders discourage critical thinking. Scholar Harold Rhode describes the pressure on young Muslims to parrot orthodox beliefs and not to ask questions. He states, “Until Muslim countries and communities in the West allow their people to express themselves freely — without fear of reprisal — it is unlikely that the Muslim world will be able to reopen the gates of ijtihad and again become a center of science and creativity as it used to be in the early centuries of Islam.”
The way forward requires work on the part of everyone. On the one hand, Westerners need to move beyond stereotypes and learn more about Islam. We should understand that the Muslim world is diverse and dynamic, and that many Muslims desire reformation.
On the other hand, it is not enough for Muslims to condemn extremists, to complain that Islam has been hijacked, to scapegoat the West, or to attempt a return to the seventh century. Religious leaders need to reopen the gates of ijtihad and rekindle the spirit of inquiry that was once Islam’s great strength. This does not mean imitating the West, but rather discovering how to apply the ideals of social justice at the core of their faith to the realities of the modern world.
Why are these objectives so important? We are endangered by a vicious cycle. To the extent that Westerners see Islam as an enemy, some Muslims who feel marginalized may become open to the summons of toxic ideologies that feed on discontent and resentment.
The needed expansion of interfaith dialogue can find a home right here on campus. The Addir Fellows program facilitates such dialogue among a small group of MIT students who enroll each year. Yet I propose the creation of a broader interfaith dialogue group to provide the entire MIT community with regular opportunities to converse and learn.
Brian Aull (PhD ’85) represents the Bahá’í Faith on the MIT Board of Chaplains and is a staff scientist at MIT.