Who Are Progressive Muslims, And What Do They Believe?

Who Are Progressive Muslims, And What Do They Believe? November 15, 2014

After I published “15 Progressive Islamic Pages You Should Really Check Out” a couple of weeks ago, I came to observe that there is a somewhat skewed understanding of what “Progressive Islam” really is. People who had come across this particular flavor of Islam for the first time deemed it to be a movement to “Westernize” or “Modernize” Classical Islam, and that Classical Islam and Progressive Islam are completely at odds with each other. This hasty conclusion, if I may call it that, lead to some negative feedback – so I thought it pertinent to address this topic to break some stereotypes & generalizations.

So, what is Progressive Islam?

Well, quite honestly, there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” definition of the term that encompasses the beliefs of every Progressive Muslim , and a term which every one of them would completely agree with. And, this is because Progressive Islam is a very diverse system of thought, without any central authority to dictate terms as such. Thus, I can only attempt to convey some of the most fundamental beliefs held by the Progressive Muslims I’ve connected with, and will not be getting into specifics (for that, you may want to explore the rest of the blog).

To begin with, and certainly for most Progressive Muslims I know, Progressive Islam is not about reforming or altering the Quran itself, but rather reforming our interpretations of it, and getting rid of the extra baggage of organized religion. Progressive Muslims believe that the current Muslim community, by and large, has adopted bad theology due to a lack of self-study and introspection, replacing it with blindly following the opinions of scholars and the cultural norms prevalent in “Islamic societies” by automatically equating them with Islam. We find much substantiation for this from the Quran, which constantly urges Muslims to think independently, and reminds them that the truth is only sought by, and possessed by a minority (Quran, 6:116).  Thus, the argument that the views of mainstream Muslims must all be correct since they represent the majority holds no water for us.

Hence, Progressive Muslims advocate the use of Ijtihad (Independent reasoning) and oppose Taqlid (Blind following/imitation), especially in matters of faith due to the power dynamics involved. At first, the idea that Muslims can interpret Islam for themselves may seem very chaotic due to varying & competing interpretations. But, after considerable thought, I find it to be more of a blessing (much like freewill) – but a blessing that comes with a huge responsibility of learning to agree to disagree, peacefully. It is a blessing because people are allowed, and even encouraged to express their ideas and interpretations; and this not only promotes critical thinking and diversity of thought, but urges Muslims to engage more with their scripture/s. And once they’re well educated about the texts themselves, and acknowledge the diversity in thought on Islamic issues, bigotry and absolutism is bound to reduce.

However, by handing over complete authority to scholars, Muslims run the risk of blindly following these figures, even when their opinions are at odds with the primary source of Islam: Quran. This, certainly, does not mean that Progressive Muslims completely ignore or dismiss 1400 years of scholarship, but rather, they choose to adopt scholarly opinions which are consistent with the message of the Quran itself. So, it is blind allegiance to authority that Progressive Muslims are against, and not authority itself, I would say.

You see, Progressive Islam is not so much about ideals as much as it is about ideas. And since wisdom is to be found everywhere, we embrace it from varying schools of thoughts within Islam and elsewhere. I, for example, am completely against much of the ideology of Wahabism, yet I do acknowledge that ibn Abd al-Wahhab did make some fair points, and for that I give credit to him. So, again, this is not about Progressive Islam vs. every other Islamic school of thought as some deem it to be, rather this is about critically examining all philosophies from the lens of the Quran and challenging the dogmas that are contradictory to the letter and spirit of the Quran.

Additionally, a central focus of Progressive Muslim’s theology is based on safeguarding human rights. By and large, most P.M’s don’t believe that Islam advocates anti-blasphemy law, anti-apostasy law, stoning to death, genital mutilation, etc. Support for such laws is to be found nowhere in the Quran, and are thus deemed un-Islamic.

Lastly, Progressive Muslims believe that Islam is primarily concerned with developing ethics and values, and thus rituals should not be seen as an end in themselves. Thus, a “good Muslim” should be known for his or her ethical values, instead of how active they are in performing Islamic rituals. Such skewed judgments, we believe, make Muslims oblivious to the “bigger picture.”

In conclusion, I would say that Progressive Islam is not a denomination in and of itself; rather it is a movement that serves as a meeting place for progressives from every Islamic school of thought to come and work for reform in the contemporary Islamic world, and to play a part in the reconstruction of contemporary mainstream Muslim thought.

Reform is what we crave for, and reform we will.

Insha Allah, God willing.

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