Mosab Hassan Yousef is the eldest son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas. He spent his early years as a Hamas activist. He then became a spy for Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and helped prevent dozens of terrorist attacks during the second intifada, saving hundreds of Israeli lives.
Now, Yousef is planning a movie depicting the life of Muhammad, Islam’s holiest prophet. He insists that the film will be faithful to Muslim texts, an historical depiction of Muhammad’s life as told through Ibn Ishaq, an Arab historian from the eighth century who is believed to be one of the most reliable biographers of the prophet. He notes that scholars and others examine the lives of many figures of history, but Muhammad is somehow off limits to discuss or even depict in a simple cartoon.
Yousef is engaging in ijtihad, the exercise of critical thinking and independent judgment. Such behavior was once the norm in Islam, but became impermissible as the ideology became more authoritarian, until Muslim scholars decided that, as all questions had been addressed, there was no longer any need to debate new issues that arose or to accept differing views, differing conclusions and differing sorts of influences that arose as part of the cultures of its large empire.
Harold Rhode has explained the evolution in his latest essay, Can Muslims Reopen the Gates of Ijtihad? He puts the matter in context:
The Chinese peasants who went to work as laborers for the British in Singapore in the 19th century managed to produce the economic marvel that Singapore is today. Similarly, South Korea went from a semi-medieval kingdom 50 years ago to the tenth largest economy in the world. The Muslims of Aden in southern Arabia, however, lived under British rule, like the Singaporeans, yet they remain as underdeveloped as their neighbors who never lived under foreign domination. Singapore's Lee Kuan Yu, for example, once asked a well-known scholar of Islam, "Why is it that whatever we do to help our Muslims advance fails? We provide them with educational opportunities, give them financial incentives, and so on, but nothing works. They still remain at the bottom. Why?"In any event, I commend the "Son of Hamas" and wish him well in his venture to engage in ijtihad, not to mention all the other brave folks that seek to to express themselves freely -- without fear of reprisal, rather than merely follow the forces which now control Islam
I further commend Rhode's essay, especially to those who care to better understand the state of modern Islam and how it may become as it used to be, a center of science, creativity and tolerance.