NORTH ADAMS -- Irshad Manji said she was 14 when she was expelled from her madrasa, an Islamic school, for asking one too many questions. She explained her faith to her mortified mother.
"Just because I left the madrasa does not mean I have left Allah," she told her.
Manji, a Canadian author and advocate for Islamic reform, spoke at the Public Policy Lecture at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Thursday night. In her lecture "The Future of Islam," Manji outlined how positive change in Islam can be brought about through critical thinking, analyzing and asking questions.
Following the lecture, Manji participated in a question-and-answer session with Associate Professor of Political Science Petra Hejnova.
Manji is the director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University. Her best-selling book, "The Trouble with Islam Today," has been published in 31 countries.
Manji and her family fled Uganda in 1972 and settled in British Columbia, Canada. After being expelled from the madrasa, Manji attended public school, and on Saturday mornings studied Islam and other religions by herself at public libraries.
It was during those study sessions that Manji was introduced to the Islamic concept of Ijtihad, a term meaning "struggling with the mind." The concept stresses critical thinking, analyzing and asking questions when interpreting the Quran.
"What this meant was that I could have my questions, and
Manji said in much of the world, this concept isn't practiced. In France, she said, the cultural norm is to not discuss religion in public at all. As a result, many of the country's Muslim immigrants can't express themselves through honest conversations.
"Because you can't have those conversations, grievances about discrimination generally don't get heard," she said. "Everybody knows that there is one layer of a problem on another, but because you can't talk about it you have to pretend it doesn't exist."
The question of whether Islam and homosexuality can be reconciled is an emerging debate among a new generation of Muslims, she said.
"More and more I'm meeting gay and lesbian Muslims," she said. "And more and more I'm happy to say that they are not just increasingly optimistic about living fully as who they are, but also about not having to leave their faith simply because they are gay or lesbian. That's pretty revolutionary. "
Still, consequences of being openly gay range from people being told to hide their sexuality or, in some cases, be subject to violence, she said.
Asking questions and moral courage are two things necessary to work toward a better world, she said.
"Moral courage means speaking your truth, even in the face of disapproval," she said. "Not because your truth is the only truth but because if you don't have the right to tell me I'm wrong, then neither one of us can win."
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