candid thoughts on the issues of the day.
Progressive Muslims in Contemporary Islam
Published on December 26, 2003 By Robert Guinness In Current Events
I'm relatively new to web publishing, but thus far have been pleased with my meager but promising results. I was talking with a friend today, however, who just broke into the periodical publishing industry, and he offered a negative criticism of web publishing, saying that it fails to weed out the trash. I agree with him to some extent. I believe, however, that readers can choose for themselves who is trash and who isn't.

What I do hope though is that web publishing does not become a replacement for people's time spent reading more traditional reading of journals, magazines, newspapers, and most importantly BOOKS. To guard against that, I will publish book reviews of things I've read or am reading and try to entice other people to either read them, or to not waste their time. Below is my first book review about a book whose subject I think is very important to many of the issues about which I write.

Review of Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism

Edited by Omid Safi



Introduction


From the perspective of a 21st Century (C.E.) educated person living in the United States , it is of great interest to “hear what Islam has to say” about some of the major issues our “global village” has to answer in this millennium. This book, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism attempts to answer some of the most pressing of these issues from a perspective the editor calls “the progressive Muslim movement.” The authors quickly make clear, however, that it is not so simple to frame “what Islam has to say” about any subject, or even to define Islam itself.
Regardless of the effort required, it is important for any university student interested in major global issues to listen to multiple perspectives from Muslim scholars, and this book certainly provides some worthwhile perspective from an impressive group of authors. This essay will first briefly summarize the main points in each of the five essays in Part I: Progressive Muslims and Contemporary Islam and then discuss the common threads found to run throughout this section of the book. Since the book is made up of more or less independent essays, it is difficult to access its effect as a whole, but in an attempt to do so I will offer my critical assessment of the most important points made on the subject of Muslim Progressivism.

Summaries


The Ugly Modern and the Modern Ugly: Reclaiming the Beautiful in Islam
By Khaled Abou El Fadl


This essay tackles head-on some the incidents and sects within Islam that many in the world react to as vulgar and inappropriate. In particular, the author is critical of a mentality he calls “supremacist puritanism,” an idea that only one set of Muslim practices and traditions are “pure” and that all others must be rooted out. He goes on to explain how two groups the Wahhabis and Salafis typify this mentality and discusses their relationship, as a collective group he calls Salafabis.

In Search of Progressive Islam Beyond 9/11
By Farid Esack


The second essay in this part sets out to define progressive Islam and in particular differentiate between progressive and liberal. The author surveys the history of progressive Islam, featuring the Progressive Muslim Network (PMN) which began on the internet in 1998. He goes on to critique liberal islam, and in particular the acceptance of peace with an unjust status quo. He also criticizes fundamentalism, especially in the context of the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001, but emphasizes the fundamentalism of President George W. Bush and a purported “religion” of Market Capitalism as the driving factors of much of the world’s injustice.

Islam: A Civilizational Project in Progress
By Ahmet Karamustafa


This essay sets out to define Islam by four different methods: first, as a religion; secondly, as a culture; thirdly, using a formulaic approach based on the five pillars of Islam; and lastly, as a civilization. The author points out the difficulties, limitations, and outright failure of some of these methods, and settles with a civilizational definition of Islam as the most robust and meaningful. He emphasizes the dynamism, globality, and inclusive interactive nature of Islam, characteristics that can only be attributed to a handful of civilizations in human history. Lastly, he argues that when viewed as such a civilization, one must appreciate Islam’s world-class richness.

The Debts and Burdens of Critical Islam
By Ebrahim Moosa


This essay tackles the inherent conflict between innovation and tradition. In a survey of modernist Muslim intellectuals, the author demonstrates that, in fact, Islam has a long tradition of Islam innovators, but he also highlights many of the difficulties they encountered with traditional jurists. The author also makes a strong criticism of authoritarianism and suggests that no one can speak of the “true Islam”, for in reality, every commentator speaks about only a particular human-based experience of Islam, seasoned by human choices and imperfections. Lastly, the author urges a reconsideration of Muslim modernists, such as ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq, Asaf Fyzee, and Muhammad Iqbal, and charges that Muslim intellectuals have a responsibility to their faith to ask difficult questions about Islam in modernity.

On Being a Scholar of Islam: Risks and Responsibilities
By Tazim R. Kassam


This author offers a candid and clear reflection on the role of being a scholar of Islamic studies, especially in the so-called “post-9/11 world.” She describes the challenges facing such scholars, especially those living in the United States, to fulfill requests for discourse on Islamic issues in a responsible, reasonable, and safe manner, considering the politically and emotionally charged climate following the terrorist attacks in the U. S.. She also provides a telling glimpse into the Muslim perspective of double standards perpetrated by the U. S. in its foreign policy record. Lastly, she makes a strong argument that Islamic scholars are in a unique position to clear up misconceptions plaguing many relationships between “the Western world” and Islamic civilization and that they have a responsibility to do so.

Analysis


First, it would be useful at this point to define a progressive Muslim. The second essay attempts to do so explicitly (p. 80), but I did not find the definition to be terribly helpful or applicable to the book as a whole. Based on the essays of these five authors who (by association) claim to be progressive Muslims, I would define progressive Muslim as: (1) an individual who proclaims the Muslim faith, (2) engages the set of Muslim traditions found in history and the modern global community in systematic critical analysis, and (3) attempts to influence both the worldwide Islamic civilization and Western civilization in ways more conducive to peaceful, just, and mutually respectful coexistence. That may be a mouthful, but I think it best summarizes the common threads found in each of the author’s essays. Certainly some essays elucidate different parts of this definition more than others, but each author seems to subscribe to this definition by participation in the book as a whole. (I am assuming that each author professes the Muslim faith, and from all given information, it appears that this is true.)

Perhaps the most striking common thread in all of the essays is the authors’ willingness to be critical of sects within Islam, certain viewpoints on Islam, and the discourse of Muslim intellectuals. This is somewhat unusual, given that most individuals tend to be reluctant to be critical in matters of their own faith and other personal, sensitive, and even sacred matters. The authors, in general, tend to be relatively free from bias in this respect. It is also refreshing, at least for the non-Muslim reader, to hear from Muslim intellectuals that there is indeed room for improvement within the Muslim community, and that specific problems (e.g. Wahhabism in essay 1) are responsible (in part) to the tensions between Islamic and Western civilizations. Most of the essays address fundamentalism and authoritarianism in Islam, and especially the dangerous tendency to consider only “one Islam” or a “true Islam”. Several authors point out that discussion framed in such terms quickly run into significant inadequacies (as El Fadl calls these universalisms, p. 40-41, Karamustafa warns against particularism, p. 102, Moosa considers using the term “Islams”, p. 114). All authors demonstrate the need and value within and outside of the community of Islamic scholars of critically questioning, “what is Islam really?” and “what relationship should it have with modernity and the Western world?”

Secondly, a common concern in nearly all of the essays is that the small number of extremist Muslims, responsible for, or sympathetic to, the terrorist acts of September 11, 2001 have “damaged the reputation and, practically speaking, the future of Muslims worldwide” (Kassam, p. 131). The authors are unanimous in censuring terrorism and insisting that groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban exist only on the margins of Islam (e.g., p. 61). Nearly all of the authors express frustration with having to deal with the fallout of their heinous acts committed in the name of Islam. Some authors offer explanations as to the socio-political climate in the Islamic world that gives rise to such extremism and fundamentalism. Farid Esack even goes so far as to cast the story in a tone that implies blame on the United States and its foreign policy for the attacks (p. 85-87). Most authors, however, (especially Kassam) offer a fair and useful picture into why the conditions of contemporary Islam give rise to extremists who respond to poverty and powerlessness with violence.

Lastly, a common message taken from this section is that progressive Muslims, and Muslim intellectuals in general, have a powerful and unique ability, and moreover a responsibility, to educate non-Muslims and Muslims alike in the proud intellectual traditions of Islam. In addition, they have a task to challenge more traditional brands of Islam that have gone intellectually unchallenged to the standards of modernity (such as Wahhabism and Salafism). The essays succeed in demonstrating that Islam is a dynamic, multi-faceted, and complex civilization tradition, but they stress that if the tide of public opinion, cast in a negative light as the result of a regressive minority in Islam, is not actively countered, and if the regressive minority is allowed to continue unchallenged, the worldwide Muslim community may be unable to progress and prosper to the level it deserves.

Criticism


The first essay’s most important accomplishment, in my view, is focusing in on what it calls “the primary responsibility for the vast majority of extreme acts of ugliness that are witnessed today in the Islamic world” (p. 43), a supremacist and puritanical orientation. Furthermore, it identifies two groups as the primary progenitors of this orientation and combines them into a compact term, Salafabism. The usefulness of this essay is its ability to capture such a large part of “the problem” commonly associated with Islam into a specific historical set of developments, in an otherwise abysmally-deep 1400 year history of global development. Without such compactness, the interested reader can be lost in the immense history of Islam. The author does make the point that ultimately searching to simply root out the “ugliness” in Islam does not give justice to “the beautiful in the vast and rich tradition of Islam” (p. 62), but he does well to attempt to root out the ugliness in order to more clearly see the beauty.

The second essay, in my opinion, loses its credibility when it quotes Naeem Jeenah “a leading figure among progressive Muslims,” saying: “In their arrogance and their cynicism the U.S. has forgotten the most crucial response to September 11. They have forgotten to ask ‘Why?’” (p. 86). Clearly this is not true. Anyone living in the United States in the months and years following September 11, 2001 would attest that many individuals in the United States, both within and outside of the U. S. government, were asking the question “Why?” Many citizens of the United States have been long concerned with the economic and political plight of people in the Third World, and specifically people in the Muslim world. The question as to whether the United States as a country has done enough to combat poverty and injustice is debatable, but that we are not asking the right questions is misconstruing the true climate of the United States. He goes on to quote Arundhati Roy, who casts Osama bin Laden as “the American President’s dark doppelgänger” (p. 87). Certainly the author is entitled to highlight criticism of the United States’ foreign policy and the Bush presidency, but to feature a quote of such equivocal nature assimilating President Bush with Osama bin Laden, a man suspected of orchestrating numerous terrorist attacks, is not respected by this reader as appropriate for a scholarly paper. The point of the essay and the perspective of the author, however, are made clear. It provides a useful glimpse into how others view the United States as blameful for such terrorist acts as those of September 11, 2001, and I can understand such arguments. I found this essay, however, to lack a realistic understanding of life in the United States or in a capital economy. Most of my peers do not view Market Capitalism as anything akin to a religion, nor hold the so-called “American Dream” or even the United States foreign policy record to be perfect, as this essay purports that citizens of the United States often do.

The third essay was very clear and easy to read. It accomplished an important “first step” task of defining Islam, or at least provides a framework in which to understand what Islam is. Perhaps this essay should thus be at the start of the book. Its main point that Islam is a dynamic, complex, and multi-faceted global civilization is difficult to argue against and clears up many misconceptions about Islam commonly heard in the general public.

The fourth essay was a bit confusing at times but provided a helpful understanding of how scholars go about critically analyzing Muslim intellectual discourse. The essay focuses on Islam’s confrontation with modernity, yet never tackles the question of what modernity is exactly and why Islam was so suddenly faced with it in the first place. The reader is left with questions as to why a global, dynamic civilization experienced such a discontinuous development of so-called “modernity.”

The last essay was the clearest and strongest. Its command of the subject of contemporary Islam, and specifically post-9/11 Islam, was balanced and brought together an insightful understanding of many of the issues facing scholars of Islamic studies. It also serves as a powerful “call to action” for other Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals and educators, by demonstrating the need and responsibility to engage Islam intellectually and the public pedagogically on the subject of Islamic civilization.

As a whole, these essays on progressive Muslims conveyed a collectively clear message of what a progressive Muslim is, and what some of the issues they involve themselves in. It also provided an overall reverent image as to what Islam is and a hopeful message as to what Islam will become through the hard-work and dedication of Muslim intellectuals, such as these progressive Muslim authors.
Comments
on Dec 27, 2003
This is quite an undertaking. I will be watching your blog to see if you can keep up such a review for long. It's impressive work for a starter review. I would think that if you can do this, you'll be getting paid by someone soon for such a blog or archive. Good work, and thanks for being so informative. You are a credit to the joeuser blog site.
on Dec 27, 2003
Thanks. I appreciate it. I'm not sure how often I'll be able to post in depth reviews, but I'll try to keep it up! ...of course, if someone will pay for me to write, I'd do it more often!

Best wishes to you.
on Jan 25, 2004
Being that I am the friend who "offered a negative criticism of web-publishing," I am a bit reluctant to post my comment, instead of simply telling Rob in person. But, I was especially prompted to post because of Anathema's comment above. I have always taken Rob for an insightful person, but I never knew he was so adept at composition.

Anywho, my comment pertains to the second paragraph of the Criticism section, specifically to the "Why?" I do not believe that the people of the United States, as a whole, have really asked this question. I think that to people living outside this country it seems that we have posed this question with a whiny "Why?" as in "Why us? We are such good-hearted people who care about the world." It may be true of individuals, but the outcomes of some of the U.S. actions do not portray this image.

I do not believe that we have genuinely asked "Why?" of ourselves and taken a critical look at the way we live. We have not considered that our actions or our lifestyle are quite possibly not the ideal. Before we can move on from this question, we must understand why people on the outside view us as they do. We must consider their criticism and decide if we would be better off modifying some aspects of our lives. We must educate ourselves about our traditions and values and truly EVALUATE them. But, sadly, many do not do this. Perhaps they are too scared of what they might find.

Great weblog, Rob!

--Andy
on Jan 30, 2004
Excellent work. You uncovered modern intellectuals of Islam; the old Middle East philosophers up to around the 12th century were profound in their assessment of Islam until the "high priests" deleted them from history.
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