Monday, April 18, 2005

Islam’s Encounter with American Culture: Making Sense of the Progressive Muslim Agenda

The Progressive Muslim Union (PMU)’s drive to realign Islam to progressive values has stirred a controversy that was felt beyond the American shores. While the immediate questions of the controversy evolved around the right of women to lead a mixed-gender prayer, the discussion revealed deeper and profounder issues and concerns. At the core of the debate lies the old question of understanding divine intent and relating the revealed word to social context and cultural practices. How does one interpret Islamic sources in the contemporary world? How can one differentiate the universal elements of Islam from cultural practices that have particular relevance to specific time and place? And, above all, how does Islam affects, and is affected by, American cultures and traditions.

Arguments from Common Sense

Does Islam allow women to lead men in prayers? The question, for progressive Muslims, evolves around the issues of gender equality, women empowerment, and the egalitarian ethos of modernity. For conservative Muslims, however, the question focuses on preserving Islamic traditions and avoiding the corrupting effects of modernity.

The proponents of women’s rights to lead a mixed-gender congregation stress the fact that the Qur’an is clear on the moral equality of men and women, and rejects the notion of Islamic traditions, which they see as an appeal to historically and geographically bound cultural traditions of an essentially patriarchic society. Husein Ibish, PMU vice chair, epitomizes this stance as he dismisses Hina Azam’s appeal to methodology and tradition as sheer legalism in the service of patriarchy. “For the sake of tradition, and in order to preserve what she claims is a divinely ordained male religious leadership,” Ibish protests, “her own better judgment and indeed the principal of scrutability are tossed aside.” For Ibish, Azam is guilty of abandoning modern spirit for membership in the jurists’ club. “It's not about what you and I want, or what makes sense,” he contends, “or what I can defend in any way without reference to the deeply patriarchal and hermeneutically closed circle of the traditions of legal scholarship…”

Arguments from Tradition

Hina Azam rejects the “common sense” position embraced by the progressives, reminding us that submitting to the divine will is the essence of Islam, and this must be done is a systematic and consistent way. “It is the divine will that I believe we are charged with discerning, not our personal sensibilities.” Since the divine will is communicated through the Qur’an and exemplified in prophetic actions and statements (sunnah), the way to discern it is through a proper reading and sound methodology, i.e. a “sound system of legal reasoning which is consistent with the texts of the Qur'an and the most-likely-authentic Sunna, and which emerges from a spirit of piety and submission to Allah (or khushu').”

The progressives are impatient with the very idea of a systematic and internally consistent reasoning, rooted in Islamic traditions, and are more comfortable with a free floating reasoning that rests comfortably in the “common sense” of post-modern American society. It is not difficult to see that the progressives are promoting a set of values embraced by the global progressive movement. It is not logic and methodology that disturbs Ibish in Azam’s argument, but rather the juristic tradition she invokes, which seems to compromise the puritan and absolute gender equality the progressives wholeheartedly embrace.

Muslim Identity and Competing Traditions

The conflict that plays itself out in the women-imam saga stems out from competing traditions that are informed by both cultures and ideologies. On one extreme stands an ultra-conservative tradition behold to a social mode in which men reign supreme in society. Women may receive education but are either discouraged from or denied the right to participate in social services and decision making. Traditional Muslim societies have pushed, over many centuries, women into the private sphere, and confined them completely to household concerns and services.

On the other extreme stands western feminism, uncritically embraced by progressive Muslims, which rejects all gender differences as irrelevant. The feminist obliteration of gender differences are strongly protested by reformist voices within the Islamic community as an obliteration of all feminine experiences and as a sign of male-worshipping tendencies. “But as western feminism erases God from the scene,” Yasmin Mogahed argues, “there is no standard left—but men. As a result the western feminist is forced to find her value in relation to a man. And in so doing she has accepted a faulty assumption. She has accepted that man is the standard, and thus a woman can never be a full human being until she becomes just like a man—the standard.”

Yamin Zakaria agrees with Yasmin that making man the standard of human behavior is interconnected with the gradual disappearance of the notion of God from the secular worldview. This explains to him the subordination of Islam to modernist values by the progressives. “But why should this be a one-way lane where religious values that are divine, reinterpreted to comply with man-made secular values?” Yamin exclaims. “This means that the ‘progressive’ ‘religious’ movements are using secular values as the ultimate arbiter: clearly they are a fraudulent religious movement. Their activity is undermining the divine text from within that makes them more dangerous than the clearly visible belligerent apostates and infidels.”

Islam and Cultural Traditions

Islam aims at realigning cultural attitudes and social practices with a set of universal values and principles that transcend all specific cultures and modes of social organization. Early Muslims were aware of important differences between religious injunctions and their manifestations in a particular cultural tradition. This awareness allowed people to reintegrate Islamic teachings to their own cultures. This has given rise to a multitude of manifestations of Islamic values, and allowed different cultures to maintain local traditions while embracing the teaching of Islam.

The interaction between Islamic values and local traditions can be observed in the variety of fashions, architectures, marriage ceremonies, celebrations of festivities, selection of judges, etc, that set different Muslim cultures apart. The Prophet, peace be with him, is clear that his mission was not to reject early traditions, but to build on traditions and practices founded on sound moral principles while reforming degenerate traditions and practices. “I was sent but to complete good morals.” He, therefore, embraced those pre-Islamic cultural traditions of his community that fostered mutual help and compassion, such as honoring guests, and the welfare system offered by the tribe to all tribesmen. The Prophet, by the same token, rejected practices that lent themselves to aggression and injustice, condemning, for instance, tribal solidarity with members of one’s tribe regardless of their culpability in criminal cases.

The Qur’an itself recognized local customs as a legitimate source of social norms, and directed the Prophet to respect local customs as long as they do not contravene established Islamic principles. “Hold to forgiveness; command the practice of good customs (‘urf), but turn away from the ignorant.” (Qur'an 7:199) Yet, the Qur’an was very critical of established practices that defied the principles of right and justice, and was forthright in rejecting the attempts to justify corrupt practices on the basis of established traditions. “When it is said to them: Follow what Allah has revealed, they say: Nay! we shall follow the ways of our fathers. What! even though their fathers were void of wisdom and guidance?” (Qur'an 2:170)

Subordinating Islamic Injunctions to Cultural Tastes

Traditions are essential for human development, as they are essential for coordinating individual actions and ensuring social harmony. Traditions are not static, but evolve with social and cultural changes experienced by all societies. The development and evolution of traditions are not arbitrary, but are guided by basic attitudes and values. It is, therefore, important to identify the normative sources of a particular tradition when we examine competing traditions and ideologies within the Muslim community.

It is a fair question to ask about the extent to which tribal traditions and the gender-laden notion of honor influence recent immigrants from Middle Eastern societies, as it is fair to ask about the extent to which sexual promiscuity and moral laxity rampant in the post-modern west are at work among Muslims acculturated in western societies. When honor killing is condoned in societies with strong tribal heritage, even though it is a major crime in Islam, without a strong condemnation by religious leaders the question of subordinating Islamic principles to tribal traditions is unavoidable. Similarly, when Muslim communities neglect to provide a proper space for women in the masjid, and the male leaders of the masjid prevent women from entering the main hall to participate in Islamic learning sessions, the question of subordinating Islam to patriarchic cultures is in order.

By the same token, when the progressives reduce sexual promiscuity, be it out-of-wedlock or same-sex sexual relations, into none issue, and insist that modesty in dress or gesture are governed by cultural taste rather than Islamic principles, the question of subordinating Islamic principles to progressive “common sense” becomes an issue. The progressives openly reject the hijab, normalize homosexual lifestyle, and find it convenient to use sexual innuendos as a strategy to engage public issues; they have privileged the promiscuous and the hedonistic post-modern culture over fundamental Islamic principles and values.

No Genuine Moral Claims outside Living Communities

An important sign of one’s commitment to a set of moral values is to see them evolve in a moral community. That is, the true value of moral principles is not in their academic expression and annunciation, but in their ability to transform a living community and improve the quality of life therein. The question about the purpose of sponsoring the mixed-gender prayer is exceedingly important in evaluating the Muslim Progressive Agenda. The event is more of a religious stunt by media savvy individuals than a step in community building. Such events may create a new world record in Guinness Book but does not nurture a new way of life. If the progressive Muslims were more serious about prayer and the masjid, they would have waited to evolve a living community and establish a masjid that embraces their moral interpretations of Islam. Such a community would have provided a true test and practical illustration as to whether the proposed practices could uplift the Muslim spirit, or degenerate into a hedonistic colony.

Historical Muslim society, regardless of what faults we moderns can assign to, has a distinctive quality: combining stress on religious identity with unparalleled tolerance to religious, doctrinal, and moral diversity. Morality and justice was not expressed as an abstract notion to be debated within academic circles, but as a set of shared values to be lived and evolved in a living community. The standards of moral living were those embraced by the members of the community; the various fiqh schools were not simply academic schools or clubs, but formed around moral communities. Ultimately, a person is judged morally, even legally, by the standards to which he or she subscribed. A follower of the Hanafi school of fiqh is judged by a Hanafi judge, i.e. a member of the moral community to which they belonged, and not by any other judge belonging to a different moral community, or by a legal code enacted by central authorities.

This tremendous concern about the moral autonomy of people explains how Islamic civilization was able to accommodate, in remarkable harmony, different religious, doctrinal, theological, ethnic, and cultural traditions for over 1400 years. It is imperative for American Muslims—who belong to a markedly diverse society and who aspire to develop their community and reassert their Islamic values—to recall the outstanding openness of historical Muslim society, and to allow sufficient space to accommodate variety of interpretations and experiences.

Lashing Out

The Progressive Muslims’s Agenda—which aims at realigning Islamic values with progressivism— is excessive because it is a reaction to serious failure of many Islamic centers to embrace socially-active women and American-born Muslims. By insisting on re-living their cultural traditions, while failing to recognize positive and neutral elements of the American culture, Muslim immigrants have, wittingly and unwittingly, alienated a significant number of American-born Muslims, including a significant portion of their own children. These include: African Americans, white Americans, young Muslim professionals, and Muslim women.

The progressive excesses and provocations are invoked, in the first place, by the deficiencies of the leaders of many Islamic centers, who continue to give priority to the preservation of cultural habits and customs over promoting Islamic values within American society. Two leading members of the PMU shared with me their frustration with the dismissive attitude of masjid officials in their hometowns toward female members of the community. One shared with me her regrets of never having the chance to learn about Islam as her community failed to offer Islamic education to young girls. She told me that “her family never considered Islamic education as important for a Muslim girl.” The opportunity to frequent the masjid was for her male siblings alone. Another bright young woman informed me that she stopped going to the Islamic center in her hometown in recent years as she resented the policy of confining her to a secluded and neglected room in the masjid, away from the main hall where learning, discussions, and activities take place.

Watching for years Muslim immigrants, mainly from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, assert their cultural habits and traditions, the progressive Muslims are in turn asserting the cultural habits and traditions of the most liberal (progressive) elements of the American culture. The chicken came home to roost! Progressive Muslims are clearly lashing out, as their first concerted act reveals. They are not engaged in developing a community but provoking a community that has shunned them. They are not engaged in a critical examination of the culture they grew up in, but challenging the culture that alienate them.

Islam’s Untapped Moral and Spiritual Resources

Islam’s tremendous moral and spiritual resources are compromised when Muslims privilege customs and habits over values and principles. Throughout the history of Islam, Muslim communities thrived when they invoked the moral and spiritual power of Islam, and used it to reform degenerate practices and promote healthy and vibrant traditions. The center of Muslim rejuvenation always moved to areas where people freely and intelligently embraced Islamic values and principles and employed them to develop a living Islamic tradition. American Muslims have today a golden opportunity to serve as catalysts in moving Islamic institutions and practices to new heights. To do that, American Muslims must rise above their cultural limitations, whether they are home grown or imported, and make sure that the sublime values of Islam, rather than their habits and customs, are the locus of social organization and change.


Anonymous said...

Assalaamu Alaikum

Excellent analysis of the current trend. Inshallah I will post the link on with your permission.

It is important to give such views maximum coverage. Have you considered publishing in major newspapers?


Anonymous said...

All of your write-up are penetrating and worthwhile. I get a lot of insights and wisdom there while I read them. My confusion dissipates when I go through any of them and 'true Islamic perspective' transpires before me immediately. This is what I feel in earnest.

I hope we will be always benefited with these sorts of insightfull writings of yours in the future.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent article. People will sure be highly benefited by this sort of perspective. I hope that it should be posted to the maximum possible people to raise thier awarerness about true islamic perspective on the controversial issues of our modern days.

Mokhter Ahmad
IIUC,DC, Bangladesh

Mumin said...

I like the article by Safi. I especially like the following: By the same token, when the progressives reduce sexual promiscuity, be it out-of-wedlock or same-sex sexual relations, into none issue, and insist that modesty in dress or gesture are governed by cultural taste rather than Islamic principles, the question of subordinating Islamic principles to progressive “common sense” becomes an issue. The progressives openly reject the hijab, normalize homosexual lifestyle, and find it convenient to use sexual innuendos as a strategy to engage public issues; they have privileged the promiscuous the hedonistic post-modern culture over fundamental Islamic principles and values.

I hope Ibish understood it.


Roshanali said...

Dear Brother, Assalamu Alaikum.
Your article posted in Mediamonitors'website was quite interesting and informative. Several points you've made, I agree with, as well most of Muslims. I am pleased we have true Muslims in our Community like yourselves defending Islamic Values. Any innovation crossing basic Islamic Principles borders is not accepted. WE hope the so called "Progressive Muslims" and their supporters come to their senses and adhere to Qura'nic and Prophetic teachings and work for the unity in observing the Faith in its due respect.

Ofcourse we need some reforms and changes to our attitudes specially while living in this Western society. You wrote to the point about our sisters' complaints-particularly attending the mosque. I am in Toronto and always hear to my wife's displeasure about when going to thr mosque. No wonder, the reason is- you have mentioned in your article beside others. Those mosques which discourge sisters to attend, are actually depriving them of a number of things beside acquiring Islamic knowledge through listening Khutbah, lectures etc. Althogh major mosques here have facilities for sisters, yet the number of them is quite low. I notice very often on Jumah and other times, sisters (sisters who are not working for any reason or who have day off, shopping in the Malls and other places during the Salah times, just neglecting their duty when they at that time should be in the mosques to benefit themselves by peforming Salah with the Jamat! If better facilities and access is available to!
them as well encouragement from mosque leaders, surely we will see sisiters attending the mosque in large numbers with families and by themselves.

Br. Roshanali

Muhammad Siddeeq said...

I thought your article was excellant and on point. As an African-American revert, I too see the divide between Islamic values inshrined in the Qur'an&Sunnah and cultural traditions. I live in the Washington D.C. metropolitn area, so I have visited many different Masaajid and I have hope for the future.

Anonymous said...

So will the media outlet of "progressive muslims" "Muslim wake up" publish this article?! NO! They won't - they are too buzy distributing their reactionary propaganda.

al-fikri said...

You have articulated very well the key issues with the most balanced and objective perpectives so far.

It is sad that part of the cause for the reaction by the progressive muslims was a direct result of our own neglect to take care of our womenfolk, especially in matters concerning their roles in mosques.

Where I am living, in Singapore, many of our mosques have committees that included women members and they play an active role in organising lectures and other social events. In fact, many of my muslimahs colleagues and friends feel quite appalled at some of the treatment that their fellow sisters in America have endured. I think all of us (including the progressive muslims) need to be courageous to face up to our flaws and shortcomings.



Anonymous said...

check out this web site for more on the PMUNA's reactionary agenda:

Julaybib said...


This is by far the best thing I have read on the PMU/MWU mixed-gender prayer issue so far.

In my view, MWU use to be an interesting forum for conducting debates about controversial issues. But it has now radicalised its reactionary agenda and that particular discursive role is at an end. The result, I surmise, is they are not even hearing the citicisms or debates surrounding what they do, except in terms of 'how can we contradict them'.

That kind of reactionary agenda is tantamount to intellectual suicide. Even Omid Safi, perhaps the most sympathetic figure in the whole coterie, has recently descended to defending Wadud by asserting the world is full of dumb Mullahs and us clevers know better. This kind of puffed up, emotive, insular polemic cannot be sustained without critics emerging from within, in my view.

Only Allah knows, but I suspect that within 2 years, MWU or PMU or both will have imploded.



Anonymous said...

You've raised relevant points through your systematic rational analysis. On reading the comments above, though, it appears many commentators are reading your text with a set world-view that the progressive muslim group and MWU! have got it wrong, rather than trying to understand that a tactical move by the group to open up discussions so that those of us Muslims from all walks of who have been denied the safe space to articulate our concerns, amidst our more vocal Muslims who insisted their interpretation as the ONLY correct one.

It should be noted that the strategy of "provocation" (using Safi's term) is but ONE strategy to motivate Muslims to open up to discussions. Likewise, other Muslim groups are using other strategies to open up discussions and review traditions, social norms and laws that are discriminatory and oppressive with the objective of improving the lives of Muslims.

At this juncture it is detrimental to have voices like some of our commentators above demanding "unacceptability" of MWU and seeking its implosion. Then, you are continuing all over again to shout down other groups in a "puffed up, emotive and insular" manner (to use the phrase of one of the commentator above).


Kris Ramlan

Julaybib said...

Salaams Kris

Is there a discussion going on at MWU? Discussions usually involve two sides. The fact is, MWU - just like the reactionary Salafabis they so detest - seem to be presenting only their side of the argument, and like the Salafabis, only their side of the argument is the 'right' one.

Of course, you can post in their comment boxes. I post in them. The response? MWU supporters post racist comments against me, without fear of deletion. Even the PMU 'resource' on mixed gender prayer is massively slanted in support of Wadud/MWU views.

I'm not 'seeking' the implosion of MWU. You have twisted my comment in order to present my views as peverse and unreasonable - a strategy fully in keeping with PMU/MWU tactics. I am stating that MWU and possible PMU will go the same way as most organisations whose own groupthink prevents full and proper debate about its own policies. Sooner or later, muted voices within will bounce up and fracture the facade of consensus.

That's called an analysis. It's not the same as a death threat.



Abdul-Halim V. said...

I think that figuring out how to be American and Muslim will be among the biggest issues for the Muslim community in the US for the next few decades.

And a big part of that will be a matter of trying to "satisfy" the different components of the ummah will staying unified.

Unity is going to be a big challenge. Groups calling themselves progressives will form organizations and then do things to push the limits. The more reactionary of us will say "la, bida, kufr, shirk, haram" and it will become a game of tug of war.

But people on both sides need to be willing to compromise. The hard-liners will need to recognize the difference between what they did "back home" and what islam actually requires.

While the "progressives" will need to learn that "slow and steady wins the race". Keep pushing and working to improve the community and improve things without forming a scandal and alienating the base.