Sunday, December 20, 2009

Salient Features of Progressive Muslim Thought –Social Justice, Gender Justice and Irreducible Religious pluralism

    Sunday, December 20, 2009   No comments

by Adis Duderija

(Paper presented at the World Parliament of Religions Conference, Melbourne,3-9 December 2009)



In my presentation I use the term Progressive Muslims (PM) as that developed and employed by the contributors to the book titled “Progressive Muslims” edited by O.Safi. The book “Progressive Muslims” was:

a result of almost an entire year of conversation, dialogue, and debate among the fifteen contributors. It had its real genesis in the aftermath of September 11,2001 in what we [the contributors] saw as the urgent need to raise the level of conversation, and to get away from the standard apologetic presentations of Islam.

The progressive Muslims’ cosmovision’, to use the words of F. Esack one of its leading proponents, is best characterised by its commitments and fidelity to certain ideals, values, practices and objectives that are expressed and take form in a number of different themes.
One of the most prominent of these ideals and practices is the commitment and the engagement of its adherents to what Esack terms ‘principled or prophetic solidarity’ with the marginalized and the oppressed communities of the world which are confronted with the actual context of injustice . This principled solidarity ought not be confused with and must be distinguished from what Esack labels the ‘expedient or situational ethics’ that ‘dominate current Muslim public discourses’ which are strategic, utilitarian, and accommodationist in character. In the words of Esack the primary concerns of Progressive Muslims

[r]elate [far more directly] to global structures of oppression whether economic, gender ,sexual etc., and ensuring that the oppressed are once again active agents of history. This fight for us[ Progressive Muslims] involves the centrality of God , the imagining of mankind as al-nas – a carrier of the spirit of God and an appreciation of Islam as a liberatory discourse.

In this context the hegemony of the modern free market–based economics and political and social structures, institutions and powers (“The Empire”)that either support, maintain or are not critical of the (unjust) status quo are strongly resisted and are seen by PM as antithetical to their overall Weltanschauung including their understanding of Islam. This is so because “The Empire” is considered to have brought about the transformation and the reduction of a human (al-insan) ,a carrier of God’s spirit, into a primarily economic consumer ( homo aeconomicus) producing great economic disparities between the majority world of the poor South and the minority world of the rich North. According to Safi this “Empire’ consists of a multitude of forces “among them the oppressive and environmentally destructive forces of multi-national corporations whose interests are now linked to those of neo-imperial, unilateral governments…..that put profit before human rights and ‘strategic interest’ before the dignity of every human being.”
Furthermore, PM wish to bring about the centrality, the uniqueness and inherent worthiness of each and every human being as the recipient and carrier of God’s spirit. This view is perhaps best illustrated with the following statements of Safi

[A]t the heart of a progressive Muslim interpretation is a simple yet radical idea: every human life, female or male, Muslim and non-Muslim, rich or poor, “Northern” or “Southern” has exactly the same intrinsic worth.

A progressive Muslim agenda is concerned with the ramifications of the premise that all members of humanity have this same intrinsic worth because, as the Qur’an reminds us, each of us has the breath of God breathed into our being.

The discourse on democracy and human rights stemming from the geographical regions of the Empire’s centre is viewed with great deal of suspicion bacause it is considered often functioning as a “Trojan Horse of Recolonisation”. It is viewed with suspicion also because it is considered not to be living up to its own ethico-moral standards, especially (but not only) in relation to issues directly affecting Muslims.
In this connection one important aspect and objective of being a PM ,argues Esack, is the “speaking truth to power” by engaging : i.) “in relentless self-critique that enables the adherent of PM thought to be true to the ideals of a just society in a way that also prevents his or her co-optation by those who have their own agendas or the expansion of the Empire as their primary reason for wanting to engage Islam”; ii.) engaging the Empire in the light of i.) without jeopardizing the inherent humanity of those comprising it; and iii.) engaging the ummah by confronting those within it who in the guise of protecting Muslim societies from the Empire violate Muslims’ basic human rights.
This means that PM are engaged in a ‘multiple critique’ that “entails a multi-headed approach based on a simultaneous critique of the many communities and discourses Progressive Muslims are positioned in”. It means to challenge, resist and seek to overthrow the structures of injustice regardless of the ideational origins and phylogeny.

In conjunction with the emphasis on the inherent dignity of every human being the values of social and gender justice , and irreducible religious pluralism are the main driving forces behind the PM ethico-religious outlook. As such PM are characterized by their

striv[ing] 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.

Gender justice and equality in particular, play a very important part in the overall PM thought because they are seen as “ a measuring stick for the broader concerns of social justice and pluralism.” Gender justice and equality are ,therefore, regarded as an essential and fundamental feature of progressive Muslim thought. In the words of Safi
…the Muslim community as a whole cannot achieve justice unless justice is guaranteed for Muslim women. In short there can be no progressive interpretation of Islam without gender justice. Gender justice is crucial, indispensable and essential. In the long run any progressive Muslim interpretation will be judged based on the amount of change in gender justice it is able to produce in small and large communities.

As such PM strive for a legitimately recognized Islamic feminism.

At the core of this CPM ‘cosmovision’ is also a very strong emphasis on spirituality and interpersonal relationships based on the teachings of some of the “romantic or idealistic” Sufi ethics of dealing with fellow human beings in a way that “always recall[s] and remember[s] the reflection of Divine Presence and qualities in one another. PM thought can indeed be seen as an intellectualized form of Sufism.
Another important facet of PM thought is its emphasis on grass-roots activism that reflect its ideals and values. In the words of Safi,
A progressive commitment implies by necessity the willingness to remain engaged with the issues of social justice as they unfold at the ground level in the realities of Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Vision and activism are both necessary. Action without vision is doomed from the start/vision without activism quickly becomes irrelevant.

The proponents of PM thought are to be found spread throughout the Muslim and non –Muslim world. Many of the leading PM intellectuals live in the West and teach at western universities. Some of them obtained their graduate and post-graduate qualifications from these institutions and, in some cases, have also received traditional training in the Islamic sciences. In the words of Safi:
unlike their liberal Muslim forefathers, progressive Muslims represent a broad coalition of female and male Muslim activists and intellectuals. One of the distinguishing features of the progressive Muslim movement as the vanguard of Islamic (post)modernism has been the high level of female participation as well as the move to highlight women’s rights as part of a broader engagement with human rights.

Another prominent aspect of PM thought is that besides awarding a vital role to the concept of the socio-cultural embeddedness of certain aspects of the Islamic tradition and its primary sources, ethico-religious considerations are the highest hermeneutical tool in the PM approach to interpretation of the fountainheads of the Islamic teachings, the Qur’an and Sunnah.. As such PM thought is characterized by a “search for moral and humane aspects of Islamic intellectual heritage and is a force against moral lethargy that has crept into it.” Indeed one of its central guiding principles argues El Fadl, another one of the most important proponents of PM thought is “ to reclaim the beautiful in the vast and rich moral tradition of Islam and to discover its moral imperatives.” As part of this approach PM call for a “careful analysis of some of the more complex and foundational presumptions in Muslim legal and ethical philosophy” and the necessary epistemological and paradigm shift in, what Moosa terms, the post-Empire Islam context. In this respect PM thought strongly opposes , accounts for and challenges the “great impoverishment of thought and spirit brought forward by all Muslim literalist-exclusivist groups such as (but not only) Wahhabism.”
Lastly, PM thought places a strong emphasis on irreducible religious and ethnic pluralism where plurality of interpretations of religious texts and religious experiences is considered a norm and the Will of the Creator of all humanity. Each religion is therefore considered to be sui generis and a self-sufficient complete whole operating within its own broader weltanschauung.

O.Safi, Progressive Muslims, op.cit.
Safi, Progressive Muslims, p.18.
See F. Esack, ‘Contemporary Democracy and Human Rights Project for Muslim Societies’, in ed. Abdul Aziz Said, M. Abu Nimer and M. Sharify-Fumk, Contemporary Islam-Dynamic not Static, Routledge, London and New York, 2006, pp. 117-129.
Esack, ‘Contemporary Democracy’, op.cit, pp. 125-126
Ibid, p. 127
O.Safi, Progressive Muslims, op.cit., p. 3.
Esack, ‘Contemporary Democracy’, op.cit, pp. 120-121.
S.Mahmood, ‘Secularism, Hermeneutics, Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation’, Public Culture,Vol.18, No.2, pp.323-347.
F.Esack, ‘Contemporary Democracy’,op.cit., pp.125-126.
O.Safi, Progressive Muslims, op.cit., p.2.
O.Safi,’Challenges and Opportunities for the Progressive Muslim in North America’,op.cit.
O.Safi, ‘What is Progressive Islam?, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, December 2003, pp. 48-49, p.49.
Safi, Progressive Muslims,op.cit.p.7
Safi,’Challenges and Opportunities for the Progressive Muslim in North America’.
See A.Duderija, The Interpretational Implications of Progressive Muslims’ Qur’an and Sunnah Manhaj in relation to Construction of a Normative Muslimah Representation, Journal of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 19,4,2008,409-427.
El-Fadl,’The Ugly’, pp.33-78.
Moosa, ‘The Poetics’, p.3.
Safi, Progressive Muslims,p.8.


About Adis

Editors of MAJALLA.

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