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The Power of Courage

 By Shelina Merani


April 12, 2009


The Power of Courage was one of the topics of discussion at a two-day intensive workshop in Paris recently where the European Muslim Presence network met to study the latest book by Tariq Ramadan, Radical Reform, Islamic Ethics and Liberation.


Fortunate to have the author himself there, Tariq Ramadan started the discussions by explaining that the process of reform starts by engaging with the world. In doing so, we are finding meaning and ultimately  answering the call of our creator. The concept of “reform” therefore should not be a foreign concept to Muslims.


Radical Reform highlights two major problems in the Muslim world which are hindering reform.


The first problem is that of leadership. Muslim scholars rarely come together to debate and drive reforms. Instead, they are more satisfied in talking among themselves in isolated circles.  Not serving the community, but instead being served by it.



The second challenge is that the Muslim community have forfeited their responsibilities. Instead of reforming themselves and their societies with a clear, forward looking vision, they are adapting and reacting to circumstances as they unfold.  As passive receptors of information, they admire scholars often exclusively because of their charisma or the emotions they invoke in the masses.


In addressing these problems, a bold call has been put forth to Muslim communities: hold the scholars to account and challenge them to act on the power of courage. That is, let them understand that they need to be better equipped to evolve their thinking, to respond to contemporary issues, to listen to their communities, to be creative in finding solutions.


“Are we ready for this?” is often heard from some quarters of the Muslim community. It is a potentially dangerous question because it attempts to erase the process of critical thinking urgently required for reform. The environment in some of our communities has become so bizarre that even the notion of questioning is akin to heresy.


Radical Reform goes further by stating that this “lack of calm critical debate is one of the evils undermining contemporary Islamic thought.” For example when Tariq Ramadan put out a Call for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty in the Islamic world, many scholars were in agreement privately but only one had the courage to affirm his position publicly – the majority were afraid that the community was not ready.


Since participating in this weekend seminar, I have understood that critical thinking is crucial for self reform and reflecting on one’s own  values and decisions. Critical thinkers ask questions; pose new answers that challenge the status quo, question traditional beliefs and challenge received doctrines.


According to Joel Westheimer, the Canada research chair in democracy and education at the University of Ottawa, critical thinking is about “finding the source of a problem in society and thinking of ways to solve it.” Research is showing however that that this faculty of critical thinking is not only deficient in Muslim communities; it is a societal problem.


Most universities are ineffective in fostering critical thinking. For example, in a three year study of 68 public and private colleges in California, though the overwhelming majority (89%) claimed critical thinking to be a primary objective of their instruction, only a small minority (19%) could give a clear explanation of what critical thinking is.


If we go back to the origins of critical thinking, our creator and educator is advising towards this path. The Qur’an infinitely extols humans to think, observe, ponder, reflect and question the signs of the universe and the wonders within ourselves.


“ …and in this way, God makes clear unto you his messages to that you might [learn] to use your reason.” (2:242).


 ” Verily, in all this there are messages indeed for people who think!” (13:3),


I have recently seen one example of Muslims using their critical thinking skills to solve a problem and offering the power of courage to those in positions of power.


When the process of finding a new Imam for the main Ottawa mosque was put in place, some youth wanted to ensure that chosen candidate would be homegrown and able to understand not only the texts, but also the context.


Frustrated, the youth said, “we have tried numerous times to engage in dialogue with the mosque administration.”


Having not been able to engage with the leadership, they launched an online petition and received hundreds of signatories.


Despite this, the mosque ignored the youth’s suggestion and, instead, invited a 37 year old Imam from Egypt to fill the position.


The youths were so frustrated by the choice that they eventually sent an email to the Ottawa Citizen with the subject heading, “A Call of Distress from an Unheard Voice: The Muslim Youth of Ottawa.”


It is unfortunate that that this struggle had to play out in the media in order for mosque officials to pay some attention; it has put the current imam in a very difficult position.


This is just one example among many demonstrating that the path towards reform is going to be a long, arduous process requiring personal commitment and the power of courage from both the scholars and communities that they serve.

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