June 21, 2007
Challenges for Progressive Muslims
— Omid Safi
It is a commonplace today to begin a discourse on Islam with the theme
of "crisis." It is not my intention here to add to that unrelenting
discursive assault. Instead, I would like to describe the salient features
of Muslims who self-identify as progressive, and comment upon the challenges
they face in struggling to realize the full potential of the progressive
Who are progressive Muslims? Progressive Islam both continues and radically departs from the 150-year-old tradition of liberal Islam, embodied by 'Abduh, Afghani, Shari'ati, and others. Unlike most earlier modernists, progressive Muslims are consistently critical of colonialism, both in its nineteenth-century and in its current manifestations. Progressive Muslims develop a critical and nonapologetic "multiple critique" vis-à-vis both Islam and modernity.
And again distinct from their liberal forefathers, another feature of the progressive Muslim movement has been the equal level of female participation and leadership, as well as the move to highlight women's rights as part of a broader engagement with human rights.
Progressives measure their success not in developing new and beatific theologies but rather by the on-the-ground transformation that they can produce in Muslim and non-Muslim societies. This movement is characterized by emphasis on a number of themes: striving to realize a just and pluralistic society through critically engaging Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism, and a methodology of nonviolent resistance.
The majority of those who have engaged in the Muslim struggles of social justice, liberation, and gender equality have hitherto lived outside North America, in such places as South Africa, Iran, Malaysia, Turkey, and Egypt. An exciting trend in this nascent global Muslim progressive movement is that progressives everywhere are seeking out each other and cross-pollinating. We in North America — both Muslims and non-Muslims — must once and for all give up the notion that the axis mundi uniquely passes through this continent. Progressive Islam seeks to stand in opposition to all forms of economic exploitation as well as imperialism, including today's most dominant variety: American.
That's a sketch of what progressive Islam looks like now. There are, I believe, other features progressives in North America will need to exhibit more fully, and which thus stand before them as challenges. First, progressive Muslims must seek to transcend antagonistic attitudes toward mainstream Muslim communities. There is a substantial difference between being an alternative to the conventional Muslim discourse on some issues and being antagonistic to the mainstream Muslim community. Second, progressives can become every bit as rigid, authoritarian, and indeed dogmatic as the conservative and dogmatic movements they so readily criticize, so they must struggle against these tendencies within the movement. Third, one hopes to see engagement with the multiple intellectual and spiritual traditions of Islam. A progressive Muslim agenda should be both progressive and Islamic, deriving its inspiration from the heart of the Islamic tradition. It cannot survive as a graft of secular humanism onto the tree of Islam; ultimately, it must be rooted in the fertile soil of Islam.
Further, progressive Muslims will need to invigorate the spiritual core of the reform movement; there is no way to transform society without simultaneously transforming the hearts of those within it. A meaningful progressive movement must therefore combine the transformation of the world into a just world with the transformation of the human self into a compassionate and selfless being. Finally, recovering courtesy and spiritual manners will be important for progressives. It is imperative for the lofty social ideals of progressive Muslims to be reflected in the ethics and spiritual manners (akhlaq and adab) of their interpersonal relations. Some of the Sufi ethics of dealing with fellow human beings should characterize progressives' relationships among themselves and with others, seeking to reflect the Divine Presence and qualities.
Some might call this vision of progressive Islam romantic and idealistic. Yet without some measure of idealism, as well as a passionate love for the Divine and humanity, I believe we have no hope of becoming ever more fully human. On this point, as on so many others, Gandhi offers a keen and apt observation: "As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion overriding morality."
As a parent, I tend to think of movements in terms of growth stages. There is something of a toddler in the present stage of the progressive movement (with its frequent protests, temper tantrums, and falling), and something of an adolescent (with its awkwardness and identity crises). But I, for one, hope that with time, patience, love, and true intellectual jihad (struggle), this movement can mature into a force that embodies the teachings of compassion and justice that stand at the very heart of the Islamic tradition.
For a full articulation of progressive movements in Islam, see the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (2003), edited by Omid Safi.
Omid Safi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and co-chair for the Study of Islam Section at the American Academy of Religion.
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