Islam is a religion often entwined in intellectual debate. Changing social pressures both external and internal demand responses. Scholars and leaders must rise to the occasion and guide the believers to the best answer. Recent events publicized in the media seem to be accelerating this natural process.
The term “Progressive Muslim” has been used by both supporters and detractors to forward individual agendas. The progressive Muslim movement is an umbrella term for believers trying to navigate an ever-changing socio-political landscape in North America along with the pressures of globalization. The progressive movement strips away cultural and emotional aspects of 21st century Islam to redefine it in a more sociologically relevant image. To some it is a humanization of the apparent unpleasant side of Islamic dogma and rhetoric including gender separation, anti-homosexual doctrines, intolerance of other faiths and the role of warfare and violence in Islamic history.
Detractors of the movement see a subversion of Allah’s message as well as the example of His last Prophet (PBUH) to achieve political correctness and to spin a more palatable religion; easier to sell as sound bites and polite dinner party conversation. They see 1400 years of tradition and knowledge ignored and denied.
Neither side can win this debate without the Muslim Ummah paying a heavy price. If the progressive movement wins its attempt to re-write the religion for Muslims in the West a split will invariably develop and we the believers will be forced to choose which type of Muslim we are, which masjid to attend and to whom we can say salaam. If the traditionalists are victorious many good Muslims will be disenfranchised and lost permanently.
I believe both sides have the same goal; to serve Allah while living as good citizens of the world. Any change is painful and potentially confrontational. What needs to be determined is where change is warranted and if that change is legitimate. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) should be our guide in such matters. Most scholars agree that for the Prophet (PBUH), given reasonable options, he preferred the easier, less burdensome path.
Does the progressive Muslim movement represent this? Are the essential message and spirit of Islam preserved despite the concerns of traditional Muslims? At this point it is difficult to say exactly what falls under the rubric of progressive. The movement has yet to clearly define what if anything is too progressive. Once this boundary is identified, hopefully the debate can being in earnest. Without presenting believers with a clear understanding of what they represent, the movement is at risk of making itself unrecognizable to mainstream believers both here and especially abroad.
With the ground rules established, the next question is where this dialogue should take place. The progressive movement ideologies are most visible on the internet, in various academic institutions in North America and the popular press. Mainstream Islam in the US still takes its cues from the local masjid level and, arguably, to a large degree from overseas influences. A recent study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and the work of others including Jeffery Lang suggest that organized Islam (i.e. masjids) in this country are failing to serve many American-born and second generation Muslims. Many good Muslims are unable to connect with the masjid hierarchy and culture. It is in the interest of these masjids to become more relevant to the Ummah in the US and to engage them on both an intellectual and spiritual level.
The Progressive movement needs to take the discourse to the grassroots level. The movement must extend its sphere of influences beyond its present comfortable boundaries and allow the believers to hear and understand why change is necessary. It is in the interest of both sides to engage the believers in North America. Only good can come of a clear, deliberate and impassioned discourse. After all, the search for knowledge and truth is a basic tenet of Islam. But if this debate results in the disharmony within or schism of the Ummah one must pause to reflect on the merits of the conflict. If the argument cannot be won at this level, possibly the progressive movement is wrong in its attempts to modify the practices and ideologies of Muslims. Maybe what is being proposed is not even Islamic.
The “meetups” organized by the Progressive Muslim Union are a good start, though a pitfall to avoid is losing focus of the true issues at hand. The discourse can drift off course due to participants desires to upstage or distract for political gain. The abortion debate is a classic example – since there is no anti-choice or anti-life movement the two side never have to clash head on. Both sides can retain the moral superiority of being pro-choice and pro-life without the risk of saying something which may lose them favor in the arena of public opinion. There can never be a resolution to the abortion issue until both sides decide to proceed in earnest with the realization that one group will lose. A female Imam for jummah salat in New York City does not answer the question of gender segregation that exists in every masjid (worldwide). It merely serves as a distraction. The issues we Muslims face here today are too important to allow them to deteriorate into such a quandary.
The role of religion should be to guide us through the murky path towards goodness and salvation. If progressive Islam is the natural evolution of our religion in the United States then, Inshallah, nothing can stop it. However, if it turns out to be a reactionary phase that distracts true believers, much infighting and bitterness will have been for nothing. For all of us the imperative should be that Islam survive and thrive in the US for the next generation and beyond. Our goal should be a religion that first and foremost provides for the believers at least as well, and possibly better than traditional Islam has done for those before us. Our Islam must exist in a form recognizable by Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and give believers the least difficult path to follow. Political correctness and polite dinner conversation come in a very distant second.
Aamir Siddiqui, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Chicago, is a physician living in Detroit, Michigan with his wife and 2 inquisitive children. He studied English at Johns Hopkins University and medicine at Northwestern University.