January 19, 2006
The Changing Faces of Islam
— Malika Zeghal
Since September 11, 2001, the issue of the connection between Islam and violence has been raised repeatedly. An adequate response lies not in positing some allegedly "violent" nature of Islam, nor is it even about Islam as such, but rather about how Muslim individuals interpret Islam and relate these interpretations to their political perspectives. These representations of Islam are diverse, and in constant evolution and interaction with other religious, cultural, and political influences.
While the traditional Orientalist paradigm, in convergence with the "clash of civilizations" thesis as well as some contemporary political Islamist doctrines, views Islam as a phenomenon with fixed features that produces a homogeneous, anti-democratic, and anti-pluralistic political culture, it is obvious that today, in the Muslim world and in the West, many public interpretations and manifestations of Islam contradict this notion. Islamist political parties in Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan have participated in relatively open electoral competitive processes that remain fragile, but show these groups' abilities to coexist in peaceful political competition.
These instances are elements in a vast and diverse array of practices
and interpretations of Islam that must be considered — along with the
question of violence — to understand Islam today. Violence emerged in
tight relation to Islam in the 1970s, giving rise to a pervasive dichotomy
opposing "violent" to "non-violent" Islam. This dichotomy
is partly the result of a colonial enterprise in which those in power
in Muslim nations and in the West have co-opted, disciplined, and praised
the "good" Muslims and vilified the "bad" ones. But
beyond politics, violence has also recently provoked important intellectual
In the very country where the September 11 disaster occurred, some Muslim intellectuals resist the categories of "good" and "bad" Muslims, while at the same time radically redefining, through their practices or their theologies, the meanings of Islam. A new generation of American Muslims, born and educated in the United States, is questioning Islamic apologetics and literalism in order to grant more complexity, context, and historicity to their religious experiences and theologies. They contest the "West vs. Islam" divide, and thus the clash of civilizations thesis. They argue that violence used by Muslims is the result of mistaken interpretations of Islam. Muslims, they believe, must work from their own rich heritage to condemn and dissolve violence, while avoiding apologetics. They must also rewrite the gender logic, starting from the Qur'an: In their practices, women should be the equals of men, standing in the same room in prayer, and even leading men in prayer.
Very different figures characterize this trend. Asma Gull Hassan — a pro-Bush, media-savvy graduate of New York University's law school, and "self-proclaimed Muslim feminist cowgirl" — writes, "I do not think the Qur'an and God are asking me to wear hijab. I could be wrong, but I believe modesty comes from the inside-out, not the outside-in."
Also in the U.S., Islamic studies scholar Omid Safi, political scientist Muktedar Khan, poet Mohja Kahf, and novelist Asra Nomani are among a diverse, intellectual, and often caustic group of new voices that have reverberated on a global scale since September 11. Amina Wadud, a female African American Muslim professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, publicly implemented her theological reform by leading, as an imam, a gender-mixed prayer in New York this past March.
Beyond North America, both self-proclaimed and institutionalized Muslim authorities have sought to discuss, accept, or confront these new practices, making new national and transnational spaces for debate on race, ethnicity, and gender. Religious freedom, doubt, transgression, and even sexual satire are some of the themes with which "progressive Muslims" deal, as one sees from the website Muslim Wakeup! Islam is defined as an individually and freely (re)discovered "repertoire," where certainty and righteousness are often mocked. The Muslim repertoire is thus expanded along the lines and languages of Western liberalism, but not without internal and external conflicts and differences.
Progressive local and national U.S. organizations have tentatively emerged, trying — with difficulty — to institutionalize these diverse trends into an organized movement. But the very nature of a trend that claims religious freedom, complexity, and diversity contradicts the possibility of a unified institutionalization, as made clear by the recent defections from the Progressive Muslim Union.
In some sense, such difficulties do not matter; what is new, unique, and consequential here is that these interpretations of Islam are publicly exposed, and not defined from outside Islam but from within it. Before September 11, these voices remained implicit, silent, or isolated. They felt that conservative immigrant mosques and organizations were too hegemonic to let them offer their own definitions of Islam and mobilize a new audience. The violence of September 11 propelled these voices into the public arena. It remains to be seen if they can truly find their place in America and beyond.
Malika Zeghal is Associate Professor of the Anthropology and Sociology of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.