The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 to the Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi has brought the spotlight on a group of thinkers all around the world who are engaging in a profound reevaluation of Islam in light of global concerns about democracy, human rights, and nonviolence. A great example of such thinking, and one completely consistent with Ebadi's own reading, is the project that today goes by the name of Progressive Islam. In editing my volume called Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003), I sought to bring together 15 of the leading progressive Muslim intellectuals and activists from around the world.
Walk into any Islamic center, and there is likely to be a table
featuring pamphlets bearing titles like "The Status of Women in Islam," "Concept
of God in Islam," "Concept of Worship in Islam." Printed in pale yellow, pink,
and green shades, they promise truth in black and white. I hate these pamphlets.
Walk into any Islamic center, and there is likely to be a table featuring pamphlets bearing titles like "The Status of Women in Islam," "Concept of God in Islam," "Concept of Worship in Islam." Printed in pale yellow, pink, and green shades, they promise truth in black and white. I hate these pamphlets.
I think Muslims are in imminent danger--if we are not there already--of succumbing to "pamphlet Islam," the fallacy of thinking that complex issues can be handled in four or six glossy pages.
A few years ago, when I started teaching at an undergraduate college in New York, I was the only Muslim faculty member. I was advisor to the small group of Muslim students, about six of them at that time. As we went around introducing ourselves, one student gushed: "What I love about Islam is that it is so simple!"
"Islam is simple" is a slogan used as an excuse to avoid discussion, and even disagreement. Islam is not simple because Muslims are not simple. We argue, we disagree, we joke, we walk away mad, we come back, we compromise. But we do not, and will not ever all agree on one interpretation of Islam.
And that is why there is progressive Islam.
Our movement is an attempt to help Islam swim through the rising waters of our world. We intend to work through our traditions of thought and practice--even though some interpretations of Islam are part of the problem. On the other hand, we want to come up with solutions to new problems.
For progressive Muslims, an essential part of our struggle is to challenge the great impoverishment of thought and spirit brought forth by Muslim literalist-exclusivists (popularly known as fundamentalists). Groups such as the Wahhabis have bulldozed over not just Sufi shrines and graveyards of the family of the Prophet in Arabia, but also whole structures of Islamic thought. Wahhabism started as a movement in what is today Saudi Arabia in the late 18th century, and over its existence has deemed illegitimate all other interpretations of Islam except its own. There is an urgent need for progressive Muslims to resist and replace the lifeless, narrow, and oppressive ideology that Wahhabism poses to Islam.
view Wahhabism--amplified by hundreds of billion dollars in petrodollars and
supported by the same U.S. government that claims to support democracy and
freedom in the Muslim world--as the single greatest source of the impoverishment
of contemporary Islamic thought.
Yet ours is not simply an "anti-Wahhabi" Islam. It is equally important to avoid the trap of dehumanizing Wahhabi-oriented people. We have to engage them as well, and offer them an opportunity to join us on a higher ground.
By contrast, our aim is to envision a socially and politically active Muslim identity committed to social justice, pluralism, and gender justice. The aim here is not to advocate our position as uniquely "Islamic" to the exclusion of the last 1,400 years of Islamic thought and practice. This is not an attempt to insist that we finally "got it right"! No, warts and all, from its glorious nobility to sexism, there has always been a spectrum of interpretations in Islam.
At the heart of a progressive Muslim interpretation is a simple yet radical idea: every human life, female and male, Muslim and non-Muslim, rich or poor, has the same worth. The essential value of human life is God-given, and isn't connected to culture, geography, or privilege. Central to our idea of a progressive Muslim identity are a few fundamental values that we believe are essential to a vital, fresh, and urgently needed interpretation of Islam for the 21st century.
An important part of being a progressive Muslim is the determination to hold Muslim societies accountable for being fair and open. It means resisting and overthrowing injustice. It means contesting gender apartheid (practiced by groups such as the Taliban) as well as the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities (undertaken by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, for instance). It means exposing violations of the rights to speech, press, religion, and dissent in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt, and others. More specifically, it means embracing and implementing a different vision of Islam--a vision we are still working out, particularly here in the United States-from that offered by Wahhabi and neo-Wahhabi groups.
A vital corollary of our critique entails standing up to practices in Western societies that we also deem to be unjust from a global perspective. And yes, as much as it makes some Muslims-especially first-generation immigrants to the United States--uneasy to hear this, it means challenging certain policies of our country and other countries that put profit before human rights, and "strategic interest" before people's dignity.
Our steps must be undertaken patiently--we strive to be social critics, not outright revolutionaries.
Yet being a progressive Muslim also means being critical of the idea that we must all march toward the end game of modern Western civilization. Indeed, this is one important way in which progressive Muslims differ from "modernist" Muslim thinkers in the late 19th and much of the 20th century. We no longer look to the prevalent notion of Western modernity as something to be imitated and duplicated. In fact, we direct our critique just as much to the West as to Muslim societies.
A recent policy paper released by the White House titled The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, for example, is riddled with disturbing instances of hubris. According to the first sentence of this document, there is now "a single sustainable model for national success," based on the essential components of freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. Not many people would argue against freedom and democracy, but many progressive Muslims would point out that the foreign policy record of the United States is less than stellar in its support of democracy around the world. Time and again, the United States has supported and armed tyrannical rulers who have oppressed their own pro-democracy citizens. One could point to the U.S. support of the Mujahidin fighters (including Osama bin Laden) in Afghanistan during the 1980s, or the $1.5 billion given to Saddam Hussein's regime during the Iran-Iraq War. Democracy would indeed be a worthy goal if we in the United States actually pursued it globally, and if we truly believed that other people should have the choice to decide for themselves whether or not they should embrace it.
described what we're against. But what are we for?
Women's Equality. Far too often, Muslims forget that gender injustice is not just something that oppresses women--it also debases and dehumanizes the Muslim males who participate in the system. We don't mean to focus exclusively on the hijab (head covering worn by some Muslim women). The hijab is one important marker of identity for many Muslim women who choose either to wear or not to wear it. It is also an important marker of social regulation when many Muslim women are forced to wear it. But it is futile to engage in conversations about gender that reduce all of women's religiosity and existence to the hijab. The human and religious rights of Muslim women cannot be "granted," "given back," or "restored" because they were never ours to give - or take - in the first place. Muslim women own their God-given rights by virtue of being human.
We strive for what should be legitimately recognized as Islamic feminism. If that strikes some people as an oxymoron, we suggest it is their definition of Islam that needs rethinking, not ours.
I want to point out that gender justice is crucial, because gender equality is a measuring stick of the broader concerns for social justice and pluralism. No doubt this heavy emphasis on issues of gender--issues far too many Muslims would rather shove under the rug--will strike some as unbalanced. But it is way past the time to be squeamish.
Social Justice. There have long been Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists, and others involved in social justice. Increasingly, they are joined by Muslims. The term "social justice" may be new to some Muslims, but justice lies at the heart of Islamic social ethics. Time and again, the Qur'an talks about providing for the poor, the orphans, the downtrodden, the wayfarer, the hungry. It is time to translate those social ideals in a way that Muslims and non-Muslims can understand.
This is crucial because, as Muslims, we must be responsible for the well-being of all humans. To borrow a metaphor from our Christian friends, we are all our brothers' and our sisters' keepers. And so, we stand up to those who perpetuate hate in the name of Islam. We stand up to those whose God is a vengeful monster issuing death decrees. We stand up to those whose God is too small, too mean, too tribal, and too male. We stand up to those who apologetically claim that the beautiful notions of universal brotherhood and sisterhood in the Qur'an have somehow made Muslim societies immune to classism, sexism, and racism.
The time has come to stand up to those who look down at others through an imperialist lens, those who favor "globalization" that benefits multinational corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens.
Pluralism. Years ago in graduate school, I had the pleasure of driving a famous speaker to the airport after his talk. An expert on religious fundamentalism, Gilles Kepel had given a lecture comparing Jewish, Christian, and Islamic fundamentalisms. We had some time before his plane took off, so we talked. He reminisced about his interactions with various Abrahamic fundamentalists. At one point he leaned over and said, "You know what all three groups have in common?" I feverishly raced through my mind to find the most up-to-date theoretical articulation, but decided to remain silent. He leaned over and said (in a wonderfully thick French accent), "They all have such bad adab!"
Adab is the compassionate, humane, selfless, generous, and kind etiquette that has been a hallmark of refined manners in Muslim cultures. Almost anyone who has ever traveled to the Muslim world has no doubt seen great examples of this way of being welcomed and put at ease.
It is precisely this humaneness that is missing from so much of contemporary Islam. Muslims brand each other as infidels, oppress each other, cut each other off in speech, and are quick to anger. Words like kufr (infidelity), shirk (associating partners with God, i.e. polytheism), and bid'a (heretical innovation) flow far too easily from our tongues. The finger that used to point up at the end of prayers towards the heavens now points most frequently at another Muslim. That same index finger that used to be a reminder of Divine Unity (tawhid) is now a symbol of accusation.
And of course, this is the great challenge for all humanity: can we find a way to celebrate our humanity not in spite of our differences but because of them? Can we grow to the point where ultimately "we" refers to what the Qur'an calls the Bani Adam, the totality of humanity?
Some have asked us if we envision this as a sort of "Islamic reformation." The answer is both yes and no.
Some progressive Muslims argue for the term. It is true that there are serious economic, social, and political issues in the Muslim world that need urgent remedying. Much of the Muslim world is bound to an economic structure in which it provides natural resources (in the Middle East, oil) to the global market, while remaining dependent on Western labor and technology. This situation is exacerbated by atrocious human rights records, crumbling educational systems, and worn out economies. If you are talking about a reformation that would address these problems, then I suspect most progressive Muslims would support the term.
However, for some people the term "reformation" carries more baggage. Many people have in mind the Protestant Reformation, an understanding that makes us uneasy. We are not trying to develop "Protestant" Islam distinct from a "Catholic" Islam. We are not looking to create a further split within the Muslim community so much as to heal it. Furthermore, embedded in the very language of "Reformation" is the notion of a break with the past. We see the progressive Muslim project as a fine-tuning, a polishing, and a correction.
Part of our challenge is to recognize that there are many ways of talking about all religions, including Islam, in the public sphere. The majority of Muslim scholars have formed a clear enough consensus about many theological and logistical questions to allow us to speak with unanimity. But on other issues--precisely those that many contemporary Muslims and non-Muslims would be interested in hearing about and debating--there is a wide range of interpretation.
After September 11, almost every Muslim I know found himself or herself repeating this phrase: "Islam is a religion of peace. The actions of these terrorists do not represent real Islam." And yet I am less and less satisfied with this mantra. Let me be clear here: at a fundamental level, I believe that the Islamic tradition offers a path to peace, when the Islamic imperatives for social justice are followed.
Yet there is something pathetically apologetic about turning the phrase "Islam is a religion of peace" into a mantra. It is bad enough to hear Muslim spokespersons repeat it so often while lacking the courage to face the forces of extremism in our own midst. Hiding behind the simple assertion that "Islam is a religion of peace" does not solve our problems.
Qur'an talks about a prophet, Noah, who found his community surrounded by
rapidly rising waters. Like Noah and recalling Bob Dylan, we must accept that we
will soon be drenched to the bone. Let us remember that
Noah's task did not end when he got on the ark, but continued after he landed on
the ground. We ask God to lead us to a blessed landing, one from which our work
will continue. The road there starts here, at this very moment, with every one
About the author:
Omid Safi is an Iranian professor of Islamic thought and Middle Eastern History at Colgate University in upstate New York. He is the co-chair of the Study of Islam Section of the American Academy of Religion, the largest international organization devoted to the academic study of religion. The above is an excerpt from the introduction to Omid Safi, ed. Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003). The volume can be purchased from amazon.com.
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