Backward and extremist ideologies and orientations have always been held on to by a minority in Muslim societies. But that is enough to cause problems. As a result, the question as to what constitutes a progressive interpretation of Islam arises. When we refer to progressive Islam, we are really referring to the progressive thinking among Muslims on various issues.
The idea of progressive Islam or its variant, progressive Muslims, is generally held to be a notion that developed in the West during the early years of this century, and more so after Sept 11, 2001. Various Islamic organisations and movements have emerged that qualify themselves as progressive. Examples are the Progressive Muslim Union of North America (New York) and Muslims for Progressive Values (Los Angeles).
The idea of progressive Islam was discussed systematically by Omid Safi, an American-based Iranian scholar, about 15 years ago. Progressive Muslim thought is associated with the UK-based journal, Critical Muslim. Also relevant is the idea of progressive Islamic hermeneutics, advanced by the Australian-based scholar, Adis Duderija.
However, it has hardly been recognised that the idea of progressive Islam actually emerged in the Malay world. It was the name of a journal founded by Syed Hussein Alatas while he was a student at the University of Amsterdam. Progressive Islam was published for two years in 1954 and 1955, in Amsterdam.
The editorial of the first issue of the first volume states the following: “This monthly, which we have called Progressive Islam, is the realisation of an attempt to formulate a serious view concerning the nature of Islam and its relation with modern thought. The condition of the Muslim people, the nature of the Islamic religion and the impact of Western thought upon the societies of the East shall be the primary concern of this monthly…”
Apart from dealing with prejudices and misunderstandings about Islam in the West, the objective of Progressive Islam was to publish articles on various aspects of Islam, “laying a great emphasis on its rational and philosophical foundation”. This was with a view towards dealing with some of the fundamental problems of Muslim society. The editorial of the second issue, entitled “The Regeneration of Islamic Societies”, lists five fundamental problems faced by the Muslim world. They are the nature of the group in power, the lack of sound planning, unconsciousness of the vital problems of society, desultory influences from the West, and materialism and positivism.
The problem of leadership was a concern that was to occupy the thought of Alatas for the rest of his life. In 1977, he published a book entitled Intellectuals in Developing Societies. His numerous books and papers on corruption also highlighted the problems of vicious and irresponsible leadership.
A symptom of the predominance of bad leadership was the lack of sound planning. With reference to Ibn Khaldun, Alatas noted that the sphere of thinking and action was influenced by the social situation, which formed the background of such thought and behaviour. Sound planning was necessary in order to create adequate conditions in society such that people could live to their potential in the spheres of thought and behaviour. Of primary importance was planning for economic reforms. This is because social vices were the outcome of economic maladjustment and exploitation.
Such planning, however, was not forthcoming because of the lack of awareness of the vital problems of society. This, in turn, was due to the absence of a group of thinkers large enough to constitute a force in the regeneration of Muslim societies. The result is that few Muslims were aware of the vital problems confronting their societies. Alatas considered it to be “a task of great magnitude to disseminate ideas and instil attitude into the minds of millions of men”. His interest in the role of intellectuals in Malaysia and other developing societies continued till the end of his life.
The backwardness of Muslim society, however, was not only a result of deficiencies to be found within the Muslim world. There were also the desultory influences of the West. Of particular concern to Alatas was the uncritical imitation and adoption of nationalism. His objection to nationalism was the glorification of past imperial greatness and national glory in a way that subordinates ethical and moral principles to national interests.
Definition and objectives of progressive Islam
It was not till about 50 years later that the term and idea of progressive Islam re-emerged. In 2003, Safi, a prominent proponent of progressive Islam, described it in the following manner:
“Progressive Islam encompasses a number of themes: striving to realise a just and pluralistic society through a critical engagement with Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, and a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism.” (“What is Progressive Islam”, ISIM Newsletter 13: 48-49, December 2003)
Progressive Muslims have a universal approach in that they see themselves as advocates of all human beings, not just Muslims. The concern is with subalternity in all its forms, that is, poverty, oppression and other forms of marginalisation. As Safi said, the task of progressive Muslims is “to give voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and confront the ‘powers that be’ who disregard the God-given human dignity of the mustad’afun all over this Earth”.
Furthermore, progressive Muslims derive their concern with social justice both from within the classical Islamic tradition as well as modern orientations, drawing from sources as diverse as the Quran and Sunnah as well as scholars and activists such as Ali Shari‘ati. In addition to that, they enthusiastically draw from non-Muslim traditions to the extent that such traditions are instrumental to the pursuit of their aims. Such external sources include the liberation theology of Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez and Rebecca S Chopp, and the secular humanism of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky.
Progressive Islam is, therefore, Islamic humanism, premised on the idea that, as Safi said, “all members of the human race have this same intrinsic worth because each of us has the breath of God breathed into our being”.
The leading proponents of progressive Islam are Muslim scholars such as Abdulaziz Sachedina, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Hassan Hanafi, Nurcholish Majid, Ulil Abshar Abdalla, Abdullahi An’Naim, Ahmad Moussalli, M Hashim Kamali, Muqtader Khan, Adis Duderija and Nader Hashemi. While there are differences among them, what makes them proponents of progressive Islam is their effort to seriously and critically engage Islamic tradition (turath) and their position that Islam is not merely a matter of private belief but has relevance for politics.
Apart from being rooted in tradition, however, progressive Muslims, as noted by Duderija in his book, The Imperatives of Progressive Islam, are also nourished by “movements and schools of thought that are not necessarily part of the historical experience of Islam’s concrete historical trajectory but which are considered as being in accordance with its overall ideals, values, objectives, and, therefore, imperatives”.
In terms of their methods, progressive Muslims seek to develop “systematic and sophisticated non-patriarchal Quran-Sunna/hadith hermeneutical models which affirm gender-just interpretations of Islam … characterised by rationalist, contextualist-driven, and holistic hermeneutics which privilege the purposive and values-based approach to the Islamic tradition, as embodied in certain values considered to form the very core and spirit of Islam such as justice, fairness, and mercy”.
As Syed Hussein Alatas had said in the first issue of Progressive Islam in 1954, “[t]he name Progressive Islam does not imply any dissection whatsoever as to the nature of the Islamic faith … By calling this paper Progressive Islam, we do not mean that we have extracted one part of Islam which is progressive and left the other part of Islam which is not progressive. Rather, the name Progressive Islam should be regarded as another way of saying that Islam in progressive”.
Syed Farid Alatas is professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore