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Progressive Islam: Is It Really Islam?

Progressive Islam, according to Omid Safi, means a couple of fundamental things. First, it “is above all an attempt to start swimming through the rising waters of Islam and modernity, to strive for justice in the midst of society.” (1) While Safi acknowledges that he cannot speak for all Progressive Muslims, he lays out a number of core concerns for most members of the movement. He states that the Progressive Muslim movement is concerned with “engaging tradition,” “social justice,” “gender justice,” and “pluralism” (2). In particular, Safi states that “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 and poor, “Northern” or “Southern,” has exactly the same intrinsic worth” (3). Based in the Qur’anic story of God’s creation of human beings, Safi argues that all humans have been animated through the breath of God. Therefore, all humans have an inherent dignity that must be acknowledged. Safi’s progressivism is, at its heart, an activist movement, inherently political and critical of any behavior which negates the “justice” it promotes.

While Safi explains his movement with excitement and sparkle, a cautious reader will see some of the interpretive problems clearly. This seems to be a classic case of getting what you look for. Safi makes it clear that the political goals of “social justice,” “gender justice” and “pluralism” come before engaging tradition (4). His goals are already set in stone. Yet, he cautions his readers not to just dispense of tradition but to critically examine it in a way that supports the movement’s goals. Any sincere examination of tradition is merely given lip service. Why is this so problematic? The movement claims to be based on Islam and, further, to be a middle ground between abandoning the tradition and accepting it uncritically. But this is an illusion. Safi’s progressivism has clear political goals which come before any engagement with tradition. This is a preemptive rejection of tradition. It seems clear that tradition here is something to be gotten through, shaped into what progressives wish it to be. It is certainly their right to propose such a stance. However, their engagement with tradition is a political tactic rather than a true search for the will of God and should be acknowledged as such.

Khaled Abou El Fadl offers a different interpretation of Muslim Progressivism. Tracing the rise of the Wahabis, Salafis and Salafibs, Abou El Fadl states that the progressive movement stands against such acts of exclusivistic violence. Thus, progressives do promote pluralism. However, the heart of the progressive movement, in Abou El Fadl’s mind, is the antithesis of the exclusivist movements. Wahabism, Salafism, and Salafibism are first political movements and only secondarily religious groups. Abou El Fadl says that these groups use religion for political purposes, choosing which doctrines to emphasize and which to ignore depending on their political utility. In short, he states that these groups have taken an anti-imperialist agenda and fitted Islam over it rather than the other way around (5). It is my suspicion that Abou El Fadl would find the same fault in Omid Safi’s explanation of progressivism. For, while movements in Islam can (and should) have political impact, this political activity should only come after a knowledge of Islam as a faith. Abou El Fadl claims that Muslims today need to focus on religion first and strive to become less politically “hyperactive” (6). This, he states, is the problem with the exclusivist groups. Rather than focusing on religion first and politics second, religion has become a cover for political goals and anger at the West. Safi’s critique of the West as well as Muslim nations in terms of “justice” is his political agenda. His engagement with tradition seems to be merely a cover for these political activities.

  1. Omid Safi. “Introduction” The Times They Are a-Changin’-a Muslim Quest for Justice, Gender Equality, and Pluralism.” In Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, ed. Omid Safi. (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003), 2. [Online]
  2. Ibid, 7-15.
  3. Ibid, 3.
  4. Ibid, 7.
  5. Khaled Abou El Fadl. “The Ugly Modern and the Modern Ugly: Reclaiming the Beautiful in Islam.” In Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, ed. Omid Safi. (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003). 47.
  6. Ibid, 62.


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