Irshad Manji, 35, has been called the "nonfiction Salman Rushdie" and "Osama Bin Laden's worst nightmare"-and she takes both as compliments. Her book, The Trouble With Islam, was released in the United States a few weeks ago after making waves for months in her native Canada, and also in Germany. For her views, Manji says she is facing threats on her life: her apartment in Toronto is outfitted with bullet-proof glass.

Manji says her faith has become infested with hatred -- of Jews, of women, of gays, of the West. And instead of confronting these issues directly and openly, most Western Muslims -- the only Muslims with the freedom to debate -- have instead retreated.

Manji's questioning started when she was a little girl. It reached a critical point, when, at the age of 14, she had it out with her madressa teacher after she demanded he provide evidence of the "so-called Jewish conspiracy" against Islam. He ordered her to shut up or get out. So Manji fled.

She recently talked with Beliefnet senior producer Deborah Caldwell.

Let's talk about this issue of literalism in reading the Qur'an. Why do you think that is the way most Muslims read their holy book? And why is that a problem?

Let me start this way: I completely acknowledge that every faith has its share of literalists. I don't deny that for a second. What I am pointing out is that only within Islam today is literalism the mainstream. The reason it is mainstream is that we Muslims, even in the West, are routinely raised to believe that because the Qur'an comes after the Torah and the Bible, it is the final and therefore perfect manifesto of God's will, not given to being interpreted or analyzed, never mind questioned. And this is dangerous because when--not if--abuse happens under the banner of our faith, most of us, including those of us who are "well-educated professionals" have no clue how to debate, dissent, revise, or reform because we have not been introduced to the virtues of critical thinking.

But I thought Islam had a long history of critical thinking.

Ah, now this is where I might respectfully dispute this premise. We absolutely have a history of critical thinking and obviously I go into it in the book-it's the tradition of itjihad. But it's not very long lived. In fact, it's quite short lived. It existed roughly between the 9th and the 11th centuries. And most Muslims don't even know about it.

Ijtehad is Islam's lost tradition of independent thinking. I know it sounds a lot like jihad to non-Arab ears, and indeed it comes from the same root, "to struggle"--but unlike violent struggle, ijtehad is all about independent thinking. In fact, in the first few decades of Islam, 135 schools of thought flourished, thanks to the spirit of ijtehad. In Muslim Spain, scholars would teach their students to abandon "expert opinion" if their own conversations with the Qur'an came up with better evidence for their ideas. And as I quip in the book, Cordoba, probably the most sophisticated city in Muslim Spain, housed 70 libraries. Now when you think about it, that's one for every virgin promised to today's Muslim martyrs. Right? And obviously I am being cheeky when I say that, but it's a reminder of just how far Islam has fallen from its height of tolerance and critical thinking.

So, the question becomes "What happened to the spirit of ijtehad?" Toward the end of the 11th century, something catastrophic happened in the world of Islam and it is this: gates of ijtehad closed in an effort to protect the fragile Islamic empire, from Iraq to Spain, from further division. At this time, the Islamic empire was experiencing a series of internal convulsions, not external ones, not the crusades or anything like that. Dissident denominations were popping up and declaring their own runaway governments, so the main Muslim leader known as the Caliph based in Baghdad closed rank. But, the problem is that unity came to be confused with uniformity as a result. Studies seized. Interpretations stalled. And this led, not just to a pretty rigid reading of the Qur'an, but also to a collection of legal opinions what we now call fatwas that scholars could no longer question or overturn, but could now on pain of execution, only imitate. And for the next 1,000 years to this very day, with very few exceptions, Islamic scholars have been imitating each other's medieval prejudices without much self-reflection or self-criticism.

Would you consider, for instance, the mystical tradition, Sufism, as among the movements that have kept bubbling up under the surface?

Yes, and I also point out in the book that this is not to say that there are no liberal denominations within Islam anymore. Of course there are, and Sufism would be one. Ismailis are another. The problem is that these denominations are absurdly peripheral within the world of Islam. All of them deserve to have more theological influence than they actually do.

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