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Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism Paperback – April 21, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Safi, a Colgate University professor, assembles a diverse set of essays by and about "progressive" Muslims. The essays vary in topic and in effectiveness, but generally seek to challenge the images of Islam held by both xenophobic Westerners and extremist Muslims. Safi's introduction, though showing insight into many problems today's Muslims face but rarely discuss publicly, is clunky, citing sources from Gandhi to Bob Dylan. Part I offers hard-hitting essays that are sure to be controversial in their discussion of what scholar Tazim Kassam claims is a "curtailment... of civil liberties such as freedom of inquiry and the expression of dissenting opinions" in the U.S. after September 11. There are also some triumphant essays. Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle superbly analyzes Islam's categorization of homosexuality as a sin in an essay that is long overdue and probably the only scholarly work of its kind. Gwendolyn Simmons's piece demands the establishment of feminism as Islamic in a touching essay-cum-memoir that connects her growth as a Muslim female to her experience as a young African-American during the Civil Rights era. The incomparable Amina Wadud offers an excellent article on racial tensions between immigrant and indigenous Muslims, while Marcia Hermansen pens the volume's bravest and most honest contribution, addressing the increasing conservatism of her American Muslim students-a topic previously not discussed outside the Muslim community. This collection is recommended for those who yearn for realistic information about Muslims, and for Muslims who are disgruntled with current Islamic leadership.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
A significant and welcome effort providing an analytic overview by some contemporary progressive Muslim scholars. The book offers a very incisive critique and highlights the compelling need for a wholesome and rational approach to the issues. -- Islamic Studies Journal
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Some of the essays were easier to read than others. I would recommend this book to people who want to take the time to think seriously about the subject. I found this a very valuable resource.
The opening essay by Khaled Abou El Fadl remarks that excising Islam's "ugliness" ignores the "beautiful in the vast and rich [Islamic] tradition" (p. 62). This I cannot judge. He then focuses on placing "the primary responsibility for the vast majority of extreme acts of ugliness that are witnessed today in the Islamic world" (p. 43), which he identifies as a supremacist and puritanical orientation. This seems correct and true, so far as it goes.
Alas, El Fadl discredits his analysis by restricting his discussion to limited historical periods and blaming the "ugliness" entirely upon the Salafi'i and Wahhabi groups, whose theology he labels "Salafabism." To the untutored, this may sound reform-minded. Unfortunately, neither El Fadl's coined term, nor factors he claims to isolate, reflect the depth or breadth of the "problem" scholars commonly associate with Islam. A more truthful analysis might admit that a supremacist and puritanical streak pervades much of Islam's 1,400-year history, and certainly all schools of Islamic law, and propose some means of amendment.
In Pakistan, for example, both civil and religious judges impose Islamic law (Shari'a, the only kind of justice available), and generally prohibit non-Muslims from testifying against Muslims. In certain cases, the law itself prohibits non-Muslim testimony. Such thinking is traditional to "tolerant" prescriptions outlined by the medieval Islamic jurist Al-Mawardi (d. 1058) in The Laws of Islamic Governance, which remains a standard of Islamic law today, even among some moderate Muslim thinkers. Perhaps El Fadl would not admit this Shafi'i jurist to his definition of "moderate."
Even disqualifying Shafi'i laws completely, however, would leave El Fadl to contend with the Maliki, Hanbali and Hanafi schools of Islamic jurisprudence, which he does not do either. All require Muslims to engage in jihad war to subjugate non-Muslim peoples. For example, Maliki jurist Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani (d. 996) argues, "Jihad is a precept of Divine institution." Sure, he excuses certain Malikis and proscribes wars before Muslims invite their enemies "to embrace the religion of Allah except where the enemy attacks first." But al-Qayrawani requires formal discrimination against infidels. "They have the alternative of either converting to Islam or paying the poll tax (jizya), short of which war will be declared against them."
The Hanafi Hidayah (cited in Hughes' 19th century Dictionary of Islam, pp. 244-248), also demands jihad by divine ordinance: "War is permanently established until the day of judgment," necessitating bloody discrimination against non-Muslims. Hanafis recognize war as "murderous and destructive" by nature, enjoined only for "advancing the true faith or repelling evil." But it is only the impossibility of outfitting all Muslim warriors at once that lets "any single tribe or party of Muslims," by engaging in jihad war, render "the obligation ...no longer binding upon the rest." Wahhabis for their part favor Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). Even a brief review of Islamic law concerning non-Muslims, then, exposes the disingenuously superficial nature of El Fadl's discussion of Islamic "ugliness."
This is worrisome, considering his approval of a U.S. foundation's school curriculum that, in one exercise, asks students to advocate for institution of a blasphemy amendment in the U.S. constitution.
Farid Esack's essay on 9/11 likewise misses the mark. He tries and fails to define and distinguish progressive and liberal Islam from one another. He offers the perfunctory condemnation of the September 11 attacks and criticism of fundamentalism. But strangely, Esack next criticizes acceptance of peace and the status quo. This sounds very like traditional jihad ideology, which is neither liberal nor progressive, however he may define them. A true progressive should rather generate constructive proposals by which Islamic legal foundations could be amended, within accepted Islamic norms, among other things so as to accept non-Muslims as equals. Unfortunately, Esack falls into a blame game, and by refusing to accept any Islamic responsibility whatever again appears decidedly illiberal and unprogressive.
Then there is Safi's assignment of two thirds of this book (its introduction and chapters 1 through 10) to students in his Islam and Modernity course at Colgate (syllabus online). As we see, Safi's book is not progressive, but quite traditional. The course evidently isn't progressive either, for it requires that students write three pages on 24 serious thinkers, scholars and political commentators whom Safi describes as "Islamophobes, or folks whose political views and/or scholarship shape how Islam is presented today." As author Robert Spencer suggests online, it's unclear why a progressive professor would think labeling a group of people conducive to intelligent debate.
But most startling is the suggestion that students scrutinize two men born as Muslims, and a convert known widely to praise Islamic tolerance and democratic traditions, excepting only Wahhabi brand extremism. For anyone familiar with Islam, this appears to be a search for apostasy, a crime for which the Sharia demands death.
It is up to Muslims to determine how they might best reform their faith. But so far as any "ugliness" affects ex- or non-Muslims, the rest of us should certainly not accept a "progressive" label for views that appear decidedly reactionary. From that standpoint, nope, this book is not progressive.
--Alyssa A. Lappen
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