Friday, April 22, 2005

Some Crazy Thoughts On Progressive Islam

These days, every Muslim with any public profile is tripping over him/herself to jump off any band wagon labelled ‘extremist’ islam or ‘islamism’ or other undesirable nametag.

This has led to the growth of a whole raft of groups struggling to monopolise on terms such as ‘moderate’ and ‘progressive’.

The events of September 11, 2001 may have caused 4 domestic airplanes and a few buildings to collapse in the US. But in the Muslim world and in Muslim communities across the western world, that one terrorist attack caused a huge ideological earthquake whose aftershocks are still being felt.

And after all the allegedly sophisticated rhetoric and clumsy linguistic gymnastics that have gone into writing the first 3 paragraphs of this article, I would like to ask a simple question. What on earth is a ‘progressive’ Muslim?

Is a progressive Muslim someone who reads and/or writes for a particular online rag (e.g. MuslimWakeUp.com)? Or is it an unreconstructed Marxist ? Or is it a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party or the Pahlavi Shah’s entourage who fled to the West in their private jet when marshal law and/or the revolution finally arrived?

Is a progressive Muslim someone who believes that sharia should recognise matrimony between same-sex couples? Or someone who wants to make wholesale changes to 14 centuries of liturgical consensus?

Many of the so-called progressive Muslims I see resemble little more than the infantile ranters of campus socialism. Which is scary, since campus socialist groups have an uncanny ability to splinter. And I would hate for people 2,000 years from now to be making a film about Muslims similar to the Life of Brian.

Brian: “The People’s Progressive Front of Islam? Who are they?”
Ahmed: “There he is over there!”
Everyone: “Splinter!!”

Unless progressive Muslims define exactly what it is that makes them progressive, they might soon end up hacking into each other. And their opponents may just sit back and watch the circus get progressively more entertaining.

A tragic outcome would be if all those progressive activists wasted their limited energies on factional war, leaving them with no energy to re-join the bigger struggle.

I personally find the adjective “progressive” quite offensive. Then again, what do you expect? I am, after all, an old-style social conservative. But beyond that, I seriously have problems with this label. It suggests that anyone who is not in the group is reactionary or entrenched in old thinking or old-fashioned.

Some progressives love having a go at people like the Zaytuna Institute crowd. An article appearing in MWU! entitled “Zaytuna’s Smelly Kebabs” comes to mind. But how regressive are the Zaytuna people? And why is it that many “conservative” Muslims in Australia think people like Hamza Yusuf are too “modern”?

Many progressives accuse ‘traditionalists’ of being locked in Islamic tradition, never reaching out to non-Muslim traditions. Yet I have rarely heard a lecture of Hamza Yusuf which does not refer to some linguist or philosopher or poet or writer from a non-Muslim tradition. And when Shaykh Nuh Keller is not comparing a sufi principle to some Tao or Buddhist concept, he loves talking about life as a commercial fisherman.

My own shaykh, the late Professor Mahmud Esad Cosan (pronounced ‘Joshan’) used to spend much of his time telling his students to go out and make some serious cash. He used to frequently tell us about his first property deal. We needed an interpreter to understand what he said. Though when he was in Germany, the youngsters used to relish his speeches given in fluent German.

If progress is about being prepared to borrow from other traditions, then traditional Islamic scholarship is perhaps the most progressive force in the Muslim world today. And this is not a recent phenomenon.

OK, that’s my thoughts for the day. Time to go and eat a doner kebab. Why? Because of all things, weight loss must be progressive.

7 comment(s):

  • I don't know... I'd have a problem if someone said I was unmarriageable because of my school of thought.

    By Blogger Leila M., at 4/22/2005 10:39:00 AM  

  • Salaam 'Alaikum

    Thank you, Irfan.

    And Leila, my dear sister, it does go both ways (besides the fact that the person who wrote the article never bothered to follow up by questioning the person she mentioned, or clarify with him, or anything else). I've read a lot of (cough) "interesting" material about Sunnis from "the other side." For example, that we are all deficient in intelligence (I suppose that would make us unmarriageable as well). -- UZ

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/22/2005 01:42:00 PM  

  • Salaam UZ - i agree that this is a two way street, and there is plenty of stuff out there that we could use to make our respective points. I am, by the way, taking a hadith class with Imam Zaid Shakir (at Zaytuna) - and i've found him to be very balanced in his approach regarding SuShi.

    Something he said in his last class was that we Muslims are a faith community - and within that faith we can have our disagreements - but we do not insult, make fun of, or satirize because of our disagreements - because even if we disagree - we're disagreeing as Muslims.

    You know, the Quran specifically calls upon Muslims to put our various differences aside when engaging in conversation with people of other faiths, and to just agree on Tawhid- and then we can talk about other things...

    Zaid Shakir also said that Sunnis and Shias should put our respective contentions away - and stated that we are not enemies of one another. (The enemies are those who attack Islam - and they can be either Sunni or Shia).

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/22/2005 02:04:00 PM  

  • Salaams

    I still use the term 'progressive' to refer to my Muslim identity - I call myself a 'progressive-Hanafi' - primarily because I align myself (broadly) with the Progressive Muslim Declaration. I'm no Marxist, but my understanding of global justice issues is informed by postcolonial theory, which has imbued a lot of Marxism-Leninism (because so many anti-colonial activists did), although I am now exploring contemporary writers like Anouar Majid to bring a Muslim perspective to concerns about globalization and the pauperization of the global South.

    I also look to writers who might be described as progressive: Farid Esack, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, Fatima Mernissi, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im. But I am open to any Muslim writing in English who is prepared to write with integrity and beauty about the Islamic tradition, including Shaykh Abu Yusuf Riyadh ul-Haq and Martin Lings.

    But in celebrating the beauty and profundity of Islamic learning, I am equally keen to challenge traditional teachings which seem to be at odds with fundamental principles of justice and kindness.

    Gender justice is perhaps one of the key issues: for example, where there are a plethory of ayat and ahadith intepreted (by men) from a patriarchal perspective. In a similar vien, I utterly oppose clerical (although not Sufic) authoritarianism - Zaytuna is not for me coz I'd have millions of questions and that isn't allowed!

    So you see, I'm a complicated person. But one thing I don't do is align myself with one person, groups, ideology or website. Identity politics is, in my view, a sure fire way to intellectual and spiritual suicide!



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4/22/2005 02:07:00 PM  

  • Salaam UmmZ (Thats you isnt it?)

    I've not read anything like that, although I don't doubt there being some doodoo like that out there. My statement-- I don't believe it, and "show me" where it's a doctrine, whatever the origin. That's what I find myself asking over and over again to people... and if the answer is to fall back upon that argument of "don't question it" or "it is because this person said so"... then I've hit a brick wall in my Islam-- and I must subsequently.. do something about it (by ignoring it most of the time).

    I wasn't too fond of the kabob article's tone either-- however-- some of the points did remain to be explored. I've heard similar statements made by shi'i folks over the years-- and I'm equally not into it (although I've yet to find someone with a fatwa that we cannot marry Sunnis. It may be there somewhere, but I've yet to ever read it)

    By Blogger Leila M., at 4/22/2005 10:05:00 PM  

  • Salaam - if there is something doctrinal about not marrying Shi'as (or Sunnis) i agree - that is absurd - there are however, some who i've come accross who say that Shi'as should marry Shi'as based on the compatablity argument. There are no such fatwas amongst the Shi'a marja (ulema) about not marrying Sunnis.

    Yakoub, my experience with Zaytuna is somewhat limited, however when I've attended talks - i 've found lots of very interesting questions raised regarding the Muslim community, difficulties, and issues that need to be addressed: including but not limited to racism, gender relations, marriage etc - infact far more questions were brought up by women than by men (whose questions were more theoritical).

    Seems to me that they are doing some good work in 1) creating a community, and 2) addressing issues that are brought up within the community. That kind of real live on the ground community based work is far more "progressive" than all of the hoopla that is being created by some self-declared "progressive muslims."

    Click here to read the Progressive Muslim Declaration>
    that Yakoub mentioned - for those interested --- i don't particularly identify myself as a "progressive muslim" anymore...but note the clear emphasis on "praxis."

    Irfan, i heard farid esack did an Aussie tour - on the invitation of Aussie Zaytunis?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/23/2005 12:56:00 AM  

  • It's the doctrinal thing I have a problem with, period. I actually like a lot of what they have to say-- but my admiration has a limit- what I originally posted right there.

    The compatibility item I can understand, and possibly even agree with (but not completely, sorry). Other than that, to forbid a marriage... well sorry, I cannot go there. I will not.

    By Blogger Leila M., at 4/23/2005 07:51:00 AM  

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