Thursday, May 19, 2005


By William Fisher

In the US, many Roman Catholics support a women’s right to choose – but remain Catholics.

In Latin America, many priests practice ‘liberation theology’ – but remain Catholics.

American Episcopalians elect a gay Bishop – but remain Episcopalians.

Adherents of many American Protestant denominations want to impeach judges for their ‘activism’ – but remain Protestants.

And an increasing number of conservative and some Orthodox Jews are exploring possibilities of reconciling their faith with feminism -- and still remain Jewish.

Why then should we find it so surprising that Muslims are engaged in similar kinds of internal struggles with their more conservative brothers and sisters?

For Americans, and many others in the West, the principal reason is their monolithic, homogenous view of Islam. They think all Muslims love death more than life. They think all Muslims routinely abuse and exclude women from virtually everything save childbearing. They think all Muslims mete out barbaric forms of punishment. And, post 9/11, they think all Muslims are terrorists.

The truth is that internal debate about how to interpret the Qur'an has been going on for centuries. But what is also true is that today the debate has risen to a new level, fuelled by the emergence of a small but rapidly growing branch of the faith known as Progressive Islam.

What is Progressive Islam, where is it, what does it believe?

Long before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, many Muslim spokesmen realized there was a growing, worldwide network of Muslim terrorists killing in the name of Allah. They also knew that the rights of women and non-Muslims were being routinely denied by Islamic regimes such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

"We have our fanatics just like everyone else", says Prof. Omid Safi, co-chair of the Study of Islam section at the American Academy of Religion, and a professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University. Safi was one of the co-founders of the Progressive Muslim Union (, which launched in 2004.

"We have to take a stand against Saudi-infected extremism,” says Safi. Many American Muslim communities, he adds, “are far too uncritical of Salafi and Wahhabi tendencies.”

He and other progressives believe that unless these radical tendencies are defeated, “The humanity of Muslims will be reduced to the caricature of violent zealots painted by fanatics from both inside and outside the Muslim community. It is time to start a-changin’,“ he says, borrowing from the lyrics of a famous Bob Dylan song.

In North America, Progessive Islam a small but growing movement of Islamic scholars and activists whose believers include gays, peace and justice advocates, feminists advocating gender equality and Muslims working to improve Islamic relations with Jews and people of other faiths. Numbers are hard to come by, but they are surely in the millions, particularly if we include the many Muslims who are progressive, but who have never heard of the term “Progressive Islam.”

Progressive Islam is a kind of Islamic humanism. Concrete social action and transformation is the movement’s defining characteristic.

Progressive Muslims oppose racism, Islamophobia, classism, sexism, and homophobia. They see their task as giving voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and confronting the ‘powers that be’ who disregard God-given human dignity.

“Justice lies at the heart of Islamic social ethics. Time and again the Qur'an talks about providing for the marginalized members of society: the poor, the orphaned, the downtrodden, the wayfaring, the hungry.” Progressive Muslims believe that it is time to ‘translate’ the social ideals in the Qur'an and Islamic teachings into “a way of action that those committed to social justice today can relate to and understand,” Prof. Safi says.

Progressive Muslims begin with a simple yet radical stance: The Muslim community as a whole cannot achieve justice unless justice is guaranteed for Muslim women. Gender equality is a measuring stick for the broader concerns of social justice and pluralism.

“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 equality it is able to produce in small and large communities,” Prof. Safi says.

Progressive Muslims also stand squarely on the shoulders of many ‘liberation theologians’ who viewed a purely conceptual criticism of theology, devoid of any real commitment to the oppressed, as ‘radically irrelevant’.

At the same time, progressives are equally comfortable with Edward Said’s challenge to Muslims to “speak truth to the powers”. Like Said, they believe that many (though not all) previous generations of ‘liberal’ Muslims were often defined by a purely academic approach that reflected their elite status.

Says Prof. Safi, “Vision and activism are both necessary. Activism without vision is doomed from the start. Vision without activism quickly becomes irrelevant. “

But progressives face a delicate balancing act. They need to defend Islam against virulent stereotypes but also to acknowledge oppressive practices and ideas within Islam.

The movement is profoundly skeptical of nationalism, whether American, Arab, Iranian, or otherwise. They also reject the notion of an ‘American Islam’ to be exported to the world. Their opposition to neo-colonialism is a way to avoid their appropriation by the United States’ administration, which has used the language of reforming Islam to justify its invasion of Muslim countries such as Iraq.

North America is probably the most fertile soil for progressives at the moment. One indication of growing popularity is found at a website called Meetup, which publishes a new list 143 different progressive Muslim meetup groups. The largest are in New York City, Toronto, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. But the movement says it is following, not leading, like-minded adherents worldwide. The socially active communities in Iran, Malaysia, and South Africa, are examples.

In keeping with its views on modernity, the movement is using 21st century technology to cross-pollinate ideas -- for example, using email to seek one another out, read each other’s work, and collaborate with one another’s organizations.

The movement is still embryonic and faces huge challenges from conservative Islam, and conservatives of other religions as well. But for Islam, it holds out the promise of a consequential paradigm shift in the relationship of Muslims to Islam and to modernity.