It’s summer vacation time in the Eerdmans Internet marketing department — and to celebrate, we’re reposting a few “greatest hits” from our first year and a half in the blogosphere.

Today’s selection originally appeared October 4, 2011. Enjoy!

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Theodore Friend is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a former president of Swarthmore College, and a Bancroft Prize-winning historian. To research his latest book, Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam, he criss-crossed the Muslim world twice over, making friends and gathering stories to help him understand the experience of women in five very different Muslim cultures. In this post, he recounts how he first began to think of his quest as a kind of holy struggle — a jihad.

Theodore Friend

Theodore Friend

When I met him in Islamabad, Professor Anis Ahmad asked me, pleasantly, what I was doing there. I said that Pakistan was one of five countries I was trying to comprehend in order to convey the variety of Islams that Westerners need to understand. Ahmad, a mystic and philosopher, heard me out. When we concluded our friendly conversation, I asked him to give me a koan, a puzzle to reflect on. After a moment he said, “No. . . . But I wish you the very best in your jihad.”

This blessing, for so I received it, has helped me to understand better a basic point made by the Prophet Muhammad: the lesser jihad is “holy war” (a concept which, as “just war,” the West also attempts to define); but thegreater jihad is the moral struggle to overcome forces of ignorance and evil in oneself and one’s society. I took Professor Ahmad’s remark to heart.

My own effort, however, went beyond a struggle to attain an intellectual understanding of Islam. I felt that some Muslim cultures, in the centuries after the Prophet, had coerced themselves into renewed subjugation of women, which was the very opposite of Muhammad’s intention. He aimed to liberate women from tribal repressions.

In my book, Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam, I not only honor this intention of the Prophet but also summon the conviction which settled in me across five nations and over two hundred interviews – that all souls are equal in the eye of God and that they should also be equal in the laws of the lands.

(Of course it was clear to me that my own Presbyterian Church only allowed women to be ordained as ministers of Word and Sacrament half a century ago. This was done, not by a lightning bolt from theological tradition, but with the slowly grinding teeth of social change.)

Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam

Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam

I asked Muslim women and men to tell me their tales, and I listened to them. The plunder of my book, so to speak, is the personal testimony given by women in Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey about their education and their struggles. I dedicate my work to those women, who shared with me their histories and their hopes. On the frontiers of life in their national cultures, they seek to expand the opportunities and deepen the experiences of women – that all women living in Muslim nations might achieve identity, be enabled with choice, and flourish in individuality; that they might pass on to their daughters lives enriched in equality and variety.

The road for me was not always smooth. I travelled in each of those nations twice, excepting Iran. Invited to return there to a conference on psychology, culture and religion, I prepared a paper on Jung, feminism, and fundamentalism. But the government of Iran rejected my application for a visa. They determined that I was a “security threat,” perhaps because among my interview subjects on the previous visit were a few dissidents. I was disappointed, but now I consider that rejection as an honor.

My jihad is totally non-violent. It is for equality and against hierarchy; it is for gender justice and against patriarchy. It is critical of obscurantist mullahs and religious police. I trust, just the same, that the book rises above and proceeds beyond my own convictions. It aims to illuminate five different modes of Muslim thinking. It seeks to illustrate these ways with details from the lives and careers of women and men who are trying to be modern, trying to be heritors of great religious and cultural legacies, and trying to be true to the best they discover in themselves.

Click to order Theodore Friend’s Woman, Man, and God in Modern Islam.