Our Islamic Fine-Tuning Project

A major public conversation among American Muslims has emerged since September 11: Is there room for progressive Islam?

BY: Omid Safi

 
Progressive Islam has emerged since September 11 as a major public conversation about the faith of nearly a billion people worldwide, and Muslims in the United States especially. The conversation is a result of what some American Muslims see as the urgent need to raise the level of conversation, and to get away from the standard apologetic presentations of Islam. Progressive Muslims represent intellectuals and activists who want a just and pluralist society, and whose understanding of Islam has been shaped by the study of Islam in the West.

This essay is adapted from the introduction of a new book, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003).


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.

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