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Progressive Islam

By:
Omid Safi
Source:
Oxford Islamic Studies Online What is This? Online-only content developed by noted scholars is continuously added to the site, part of our ongoing efforts to expand our coverage of the Islamic world.

Progressive Islam

The term “progressive Islam” generally refers to a movement that emerged during the 1990s that is associated with intellectuals and activists, such as Amina Wadud, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Farid Esack, Asma Barlas, Ebrahim Moosa, Abd al-Karim Soroush, Omid Safi, Kecia Ali, and Ziba Mir Hosseini, among others. Progressive Islam both continues and radically departs from the 150-year-old tradition of reformist Islam, that of figures such as Muhammad ʿAbduh, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Iqbal, and Fazlur Rahman. Progressive Muslim scholars and activists have sought to develop a multiple critique with respect to both Islam and modernity. They are almost uniformly critical of the notion of a teleological modernity that posits the West as the destination of progress, and practice a simultaneous critique of both Muslim extremist groups with that of colonialism and neocolonialism. One of the distinguishing features of the progressive Muslim movement has been the high level of female participation/leadership as well as the move to highlight women’s rights as part of a broader engagement with human rights.

Progressive Islam encompasses a number of themes: the pursuit of a just and pluralistic society through a critical engagement with Islam, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, and a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism. Progressives measure their success not merely in new theological developments but rather by the amount of grassroots change they can produce in Muslim and non-Muslim societies. Many progressive Muslims emphasize justice (ʿadl) and love-based spirituality (ihsan) as the twin foundations of Islam, seeking to realize the Qurʾanic commandment that “God commands you to social justice and love.” In this sense, they see their practice as being in accordance with the teachings of civil rights movements that recognize justice as the public face of love when it moves into the public space.

Islamic Humanism

At the heart of a progressive Muslim interpretation is an indigenous Islamic humanism that incorporates the idea that every human individual has the same intrinsic worth. In the progressive imaginary, this essential value of human life is God-given and is independent of culture, gender, nationality, geography, or privilege. This radical egalitarianism espoused by almost all progressive Muslims leads them to cultivate a suspicion of hermeneutics toward the privilege implicit in sexism, racism, classism, and many forms of nationalism. An increasing number of those who advocate such a humanistic framework within the context of Islam have self-labeled themselves “progressive Muslims.” “Progressive” refers to the quest to achieve a universal notion of justice in which the prosperity, righteousness, and dignity of one community does not come at the expense of another’s. Adherents of progressive Islam conceive of a way of being Muslim that engages and affirms the humanity of all human beings, that actively seeks a fair and just distribution of God-given natural resources, and that endeavors to live in harmony with the natural world.

Engaging Tradition

Progressives generally maintain that it is imperative to work through the inherited traditions of Islamic thought and practice. The progressive Muslim movement seriously engages with the textual and material sources of the Islamic tradition, although there is some debate over what sources should be engaged with and how they ought to be interpreted. In particular cases, progressive Muslims might conclude that certain preexisting interpretations fail to offer sufficient guidance in specific contemporary contexts—but contend that such a conclusion can only be reached after a serious, critical, and experiential engagement with the Islamic tradition.

In this sense, the progressive Muslim engagement with Islam has to be distinguished from the “reformation” language claimed by certain critics of Islam. As Edward Said notes, the task of real critique has to be: “life-enhancing and constitutively opposed to every form of tyranny, domination, and abuse; its social goals are noncoercive knowledge produced in the interests of human freedom.” This quote encapsulates the progressive understanding of Islam: bringing together love and justice, opposition to tyranny and domination, and commitment to liberation.

Suffering

Farid Esack argues that, unlike liberal Muslims, progressive Muslims concern themselves with the non-subjects of history—those who are marginalized, disempowered, and oppressed. Indeed, progressives have an abiding concern with the reality of human suffering with the moral health of the community measured by the quality of its collective response to injustice and spiritual health measured by the way that the most vulnerable people in that community fare at any given moment. The progressives’ response to suffering is not one of pity, or charity, but a form of solidarity with the poor, suffering, and marginalized that is not merely economic or political but also spiritual and theological. Citing national and global wealth inequalities, progressive Muslims have positioned themselves as social critics of American institutions of power and the entire edifice of the neo-liberal capitalist order, while remaining engaged with domestic and social issues. Progressive Muslims tend to experience themselves as the advocates of human beings all over the world who live in situations of poverty, pollution, oppression, and marginalization.

Muslim progressives draw on the strong tradition of social justice from within Islam, from sources as diverse as the Qurʾan and hadith to more recent spokespersons as Amina Wadud and Ali Shariʾati. Their methodological fluidity is apparent in their pluralistic epistemology, which draws from sources outside of Islamic tradition including the liberation theology of Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Rebecca S. Chopp, as well as the secular humanism of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, among others. Progressive Muslims are likely to combine a Qurʾanic call for serving as “witnesses for God in justice” (Qurʾan 42:15), with an Edward Said-ian call to “speak truth to the powers.” As is the case with many feminists and liberationists, progressive Muslims tend to reject the dichotomy between activism and intellectual pursuit. Instead, they emphasize that meaningful renewal of Islamic thought has to be connected to actual alleviation of the suffering of humanity.

Pluralism

From a progressive Muslim perspective, genuine pluralism eschews lowest common denominator theology and offers a method of engaging the full spectrum of humanity. Most progressives espouse a pluralistic epistemology, one that favors a more inclusive, liberationist, compassionate, humanistic, and non-state-enforced interpretations of Islam, and are generally skeptical of Islamist political discourses. Their pluralist worldview is often connected to that of earlier figures, such as the ninth-century philosopher al-Kindi, who stated,

"We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples. For him who seeks the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself; it never cheapens or abases him who reaches for it, but ennobles and honors him."

This epistemological pluralism is also echoed in the works of contemporary Muslim philosophers such as well-known Iranian thinker Abd al-Karim Soroush, who states:

"I believe that truths everywhere are compatible; no truth clashes with any other truth. They are all but the inhabitants of the same mansions and stars of the same constellation. One truth in one corner of the world has to be harmonious and compatible with all truths elsewhere, or else it is not a truth."

The idea of intellectual and spiritual openness is central to the progressive Muslim imaginary.

A Reformation?

Progressive Muslims are generally ambivalent on the question of whether their project constitutes an Islamic reformation. They recognize that the Muslim world has serious economic, social, and political problems that need urgent remedying. Moreover, they assert that much of the Muslim world is bound to an economic structure in which it provides oil and other natural resources to the global market while remaining dependent on western labor, technological know-how, and staple goods. They will point to the fact that the economic situation is exacerbated in many parts of the modern Muslim world by human rights violations, crumbling educational systems, and stagnant economies. From the crumbling post–Arab Spring context, to the devastation in Syria, the restoration of tyrannical regimes, and the ongoing occupation in Palestine, most progressive Muslims would support the need for reform—or even radical transformation—of these on-the-ground realities.

However, progressive Muslims are uneasy with the idea of an Islamic reformation that is analogous to the Protestant Reformation. Progressives do not seek a “Protestant” Islam distinct from a “Catholic” Islam, nor do they generally adopt a by scripture alone approach that rejects the totality of this historical tradition as well as that of the ʿulama. In fact, most insist that they are not looking to split the Muslim community as much as to transform it. While progressives as a whole do support broadening the hermeneutical circle, their approach is generally not an endorsement of the existing tradition as a whole, nor a rejection in toto, but rather a critical engagement with it in light of contemporary demands of justice.

North American or Global?

There is an intellectual vibrancy to the emerging global Muslim progressivism with significant transnational collaboration between individuals and organizations. Much of this cross-pollination is taking place virtually, through confronting parallel modalities of injustice. It would be a clear mistake to somehow reduce the emergence of progressive Islam to being a new American Islam. Naturally it is a dubious exercise to look for Muslims worldwide to self-identify with an English term like “progressive” that admittedly does not have ready parallels in a number of important Islamic languages. Many Muslims prefer indigenous terms like tajdid (renewal) or islah (reform). The majority of those who might be seen to come under the progressive Muslim umbrella have hitherto lived outside the boundaries of North America, and have in many cases never heard of the (English) terms “progressive Muslim” and/or “progressive Islam.” There are active and significant contemporary progressive movements in South Africa, Iran, Tunisia, Malaysia, Turkey, and elsewhere. Almost all progressive Muslims are profoundly skeptical of nationalism, whether American, Arab, Iranian, or otherwise. As such, progressive Muslims have strenuously objected to attempts to appropriate this fluid global movement by those who seek to frame it as an emergent American Islam to be commodified and exported. Progressives often argue that the association of the progressive critique with American Islam is an insidious attempt to soften progressive Islam’s critique of American foreign policy and domestic social ills.

It is difficult to offer an exact assessment of the appeal of progressive Muslim interpretations and practices today. Caught between Salafist/Wahhabist interpretations that are often enforced by states and perpetuated by petrodollars (on the one hand) and charismatic shaykhs who perform an “authentic” madhhab-based model of Islam (on the other), the intellectually hybrid model of Islam that progressives eschew may well be fated to remain a minority. However, the progressive platform—an insistence on women’s rights, simultaneous opposition to both Muslim extremism and global hegemony of empire, colonialism, and capitalism, and a relationship of solidarity with other social-justice based movements—has undoubtedly resonated to a certain extent. However, it remains to be seen whether the progressive political critique will lead other Muslims to engage more seriously the theological and spiritual insights of progressive Islam.

To date, the success of progressive interpretations and practices of Islam has been less at the level of institutions and more at the level of broadening the base for their egalitarian, social justice, and anti-extremism and anti-colonial platforms. There have been a few organizational attempts in North America, such as the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU) and Muslims for Progressive Values, but these have generally either failed to have a lasting impact or been too far removed from the wider goals of most progressives. More success has been had by groups in Malaysia such as Sisters in Islam, in addition to groups in South Africa. In other words, the current state of the progressive movement seems to be far from institutionalized and centralized, and is characterized by a more diffuse, chaotic, and perhaps democratic movement of interpretation and practice.

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