13 November 2013

What's Behind the Progressive Reading of the Qur'an and Sunna?

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'I am a Muslim and a Feminist' - The Rediff Interview/Writer Asma Gull Hasan - May 21, 2004. 'I am a Muslim and a Feminist' - The Rediff Interview/Writer Asma Gull Hasan - May 21, 2004. http://www.feministezine.com/feminist/international/Islamic-Feminism-03.mwo4ml


My first blog dealt with the interpretive assumptions and methods of the Salafis (the “Neo-Traditionalists” in Adis Duderija’s book, Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam). So who are these “progressive Muslims” who stand in such contrast to the ultraconservative Salafis?

In his Introduction, Duderija announces that for the second half of the book he will be “drawing on the works of leading progressive Muslim thinkers such as Khaled Abou El Fadl, Omid Safi, Farid Esack, Ebrahim Moosa, Kecia Ali, Amina Wadud, and others” (p. 3). All but one (Farid Esack, and maybe Amina Wadud nowadays) are academics teaching in American universities. What they do have in common, at least in terms of this label, is that they and others contributed to a sort of manifesto in 2003 – a book Omid Safi edited, entitled, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism.

But lest you think it’s all about American Islam, Safi wrote this in an article that same year:


“Progressive Muslims are found everywhere in the global umma. When it comes to actually implementing a progressive understanding of Islam in Muslim countries, particular communities in Iran, Malaysia, and S. Africa are leading, not following the United States” (quoted in Duderija, pp. 121-2).


Duderija explains that progressive Muslims share in the general reforming trend of the “classical modernists” of the 19th century – Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Muhammad Abduh. They also represent a clean break from that “modern” movement. That’s why I didn’t hesitate to write that Duderija himself was writing from a “postmodern” perspective (a complex idea that my book Earth, Empire and Sacred Text – now in paperback – seeks to elucidate).

At the risk of oversimplifying, here are three areas progressive Muslims are most concerned about (realize too that this is a very diverse group of people with a whole spectrum of views on many things and who, additionally, pride themselves in that diversity!):


1. Postmodern hermeneutics: they believe language is fluid, evolving and giving rise to multiple meanings. Hence, a text doesn’t speak for itself. What is its literary genre? What are the circumstances of its production? What is known about the author? But equally, what are some of the lenses through which a particular reader or commentator has approached the text? Personality, culture, sociopolitical circumstances, academic discipline, school of thought and more – these are some of the filters that affect how the text is absorbed and understood. But it’s not only true that we have to investigate a sacred text’s historical context if we want to interpret it correctly, but also that no interpretation is final, since readers at different times bring different questions and concerns to the text. In the end, meaning is mostly constructed by the reader – like what I said about theology in the first blog. It too is always worked out in particular contexts and therefore remains a very tentative, ongoing, and hopefully humble enterprise.


2. Ethical values are paramount: without discarding or even disparaging the rich legacy of Islamic law (Shari’a in the sense of fiqh – the accumulated jurisprudence of the four Sunni schools of law and the Shi’i Ja’fari school), progressive Muslims view that body of knowledge as honorable but also time bound. Another way of putting this is to return to my first two of three lenses I offered in the previous blog. They reject ethical voluntarism (something is “good” because God commands it) in favor of ethical objectivism (good and evil are moral absolutes, i.e., they exist independently of God and humans). With regard to their theology of humanity, they believe that humanity’s divine calling as God’s earthly trustees equips and mandates them to rule over creation with justice, compassion and love. Specifically, they are to defend the rights of the poor, the discriminated against and the most vulnerable (especially women) and fight all manifestations of arrogant power (“empire”) so that all human beings are given the chance to live free, with dignity and the basic amenities of life.

This means that any past rules and injunctions of Islamic jurisprudence that do not meet these criteria need to be revised to fit humanity’s new understanding of a good society. After all, these values are clearly taught by the Qur’an and the Sunna. Human rights, therefore, democracy and the rule of law apply to all, Muslims and non-Muslims. International law is a necessary requirement of a world of nation-states and deserves to be continually submitted to debate and refinement by members of the international community.


3. A politics of liberation: Farid Esack is a veteran of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and Omid Safi is an Iranian-American who is outspoken in his critique of both the authoritarianism of the Mullah-driven Iranian regime and the arrogance of the global American empire. Social justice not only means liberation for those economically oppressed by neoliberal capitalist policies and the selfishness and greed of the rich. It also means gender justice, which they see as a crying need in most Muslim-majority countries. Hence, a vibrant feminist discourse runs through most of their literature and animates their activism in many places.


The progressive Muslims’ “ideal believer”

Only three authors from this perspective have written about this topic, the South African Farid Esack, the Syrian Muhammad Shahrur and the late Nasr Abu Zayd who was condemned as an apostate by a Cairo Shari’a court in 1995 and finished his career in the Netherlands. For my purposes here, I’ll stick with Esack and his book, Qur’an, Liberation and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression (Oxford: Oneworld, 1997) and Duderija’s general thread about how progressives see the issue of the religious Other.

Here is a summary of some of the points Duderija makes in this section of his book (pp. 169-77):


1. The Sunna is much more than a collection of hadiths, bearing in mind too that progressive Muslims are much more skeptical about the authenticity of most of these individual reports. So with respect to the “religiously hostile” hadiths quoted especially by the Salafis, “they contradict the concept of Sunna as based on the overall Qur’anic attitude . . . toward the religious Other as well as on the Prophet’s praxis [or “practice,” a term Esack borrowed from Christian liberation theology], which is an embodiment of that attitude” (p. 171, emphasis his).


2. The Qur’an embraces a position of inclusivism, even of pluralism, with regard to other faith traditions. Term like islam (submission to God), iman (faith in God), kufr (unbelief), ahl al-kitab (people of the book), din (debt, obligation, but later used at “religion”) and the like do not point to a particular “reified” religious identity and institutional framework (as “Islam” came to be known subsequently), but rather are dynamic and “multi-dimensional, i.e., having a number of meanings and connotations ranging from an intensely personal/spiritual to doctrinal, ideological, and sociopolitical, but all of which are inextricably intertwined.” Those meanings change over time, he adds, and “they are linked to issues of righteous deeds and conduct, i.e., to orthopraxis [“right action,” as opposed to orthodoxy, or “right doctrine”).

Some Qur’anic verses are often cited in this regard:

“To each of you We have prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If Allah had so willed He would have made you a single people but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of all matters in which ye dispute” (Q. 548).

“If it had been the Lord’s Will they would all have believed all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind against their will to believe!” (Q. 10:99).

[The immediate context is the permission to fight in self-defense] “Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure?” (Q. 49:13; see also 22:40).

“Those who believe (in the Qur’an) and those who follow the Jewish (Scriptures) and the Christians and the Sabians and who believe in Allah and the last day and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve” (Q. 2:62; 5:69; 22:17).


3. Faith in God is tied to good works, and especially the mandate to bring about social justice. This is one of the main points of Esack’s book based on his own experience of nonviolent struggle against the evil apartheid regime in the 1980s alongside people of other faiths, and in particular Christians steeped in liberation theology (its origins go back to Marxist-inspired Catholic groups in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s; it then attracted many Protestant theologians in South Africa and elsewhere).

This connection is clearly drawn in the last verse quoted above, yet it can be seen consistently taught throughout the Qur’an, as in the Bible, of course (consider Jesus’ teaching that a tree is known by its fruits and James’ emphasis on the idea that faith without works is dead). In this respect Duderija quotes from Khaled Abou El Fadl’s hard-hitting book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists. Abou El Fadl, who is also the editor for the series of books in which Duderija’s was published, draws a stark contrast between the “Puritans” (or extremists, of Salafis of all types) and the “moderates":


Moderates argue that not only does the Qur’an endorse [the] principle of diversity, but it also presents human beings with a formidable challenge, and that is to know each other [Qur’an 49:13]. In the Qur’anic framework, diversity is not an ailment or evil. Diversity is part of the purpose of creation, and it reaffirms the richness of [the] divine. The stated goal of getting to know one another places an obligation upon Muslims to cooperate and work towards specified goals with Muslims and non-Muslims alike” (quoted in Duderija, p. 177).


The progressive Muslims’ “ideal woman”

On this this topic the literature is vast indeed. Yet apart from some differences in emphasis and methodology, these feminist writings agree on the essentials. As Duderija puts it, the views of the Neo-Traditionalist Salafis (NTS) are “sociologically contingent and tainted.” He continues,


“Thus, they reject the classical view of the inherently active female sexuality and the concept of the female body being innately morally corrupting . . . They also consider the NTS conceptual linking of women to the notion of causing social chaos (fitna) is based on flawed assumptions concerning the nature of female (and by implication male) sexuality.”


The misogynistic hadiths often quoted by NTS writers are “considered essentially as remnants of the patriarchal nature of the interpretive communities in the past.” In the words of Indian scholar Muhamad Ashraf, “Progressive Muslims have long argued that it is not religion but the patriarchal interpretation and implementation of the Quran that have kept women oppressed” (p. 178).

Specifically, these are some of the hermeneutical strategies this school uses to “construct” an egalitarian theology of gender (a very partial list):


1. Keeping the historical context in mind, while separating the contingent from the universal: take this verse that tells the believing women to cover themselves with a jilbab (large, loose cloth like a cloak):


“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognised and not annoyed. Allah is ever Forgiving, Merciful” (Q. 33:59).


Asma Barlas, in her book, Believing Women in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, shows that the cultural context in 7th-century Arabia was that of slavery:


“[In] mandating the jilbab, then, the Qur’an explicitly connects it to a slave-owning society in which sexual abuse by non-Muslim men was normative, and its purpose was to distinguish free, believing women from slaves, who were presumed by jahili men to be non-believers and thus fair game. Only in a slave-owning jahili society, then, does the jilbab signify sexual non-availability, and only then if jahili men were willing to invest in such a meaning” (quoted in Duderija, p. 180).


So the command to wear a body-covering veil was not meant for women at all times and places. Khaled Abou El Fadl agrees with the slave woman/free woman distinction but also comments on Q. 24:30 (“let women cover their bosoms with their head cloths”). He argues that that the khimar (like a large scarf) worn around the neck was often thrown back leaving the head and chest exposed. In fact, women in Mecca and Medina at that time, he adds, often had their chest partly or wholly exposed, even if their heads were covered. Also the phrase “and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent” points to the prevailing societal custom, a category in fact within Islamic jurisprudence. In that context, it was often to include current practices as perfectly acceptable, except that with the passage of time these conventions became sacrosanct and unchangeable.


2. Focus on the equality verses: if you decide that verses cannot be taken out of context and that the context includes the whole of the sacred text, then you can take a further step by stating that those verses that exemplify the overarching ethical values of the Qur’an are the only ones meant to be universally applicable. I’ve written elsewhere about the popular movement in Islamic law today that is focused on the “purposes of the Shari’a” (maqasid al-shari’a). Those are first and foremost the wellbeing (maslaha) of humans in this world and the next; but then also all the values of justice, equality (including gender equality and justice), compassion and love (especially in the context of marriage). So the following texts become the standards by which all other verses are classified (given here in M. A. S. Abdel Halim’s Oxford World’s Classics translation):


“Another of His signs is that He created spouses from among yourselves for you to live with in tranquility: He ordained love and kindness between you. There truly are signs in this for those who reflect” (Q. 30:21).

“It is He who created you all from one soul, and from it made its mate so that he might find comfort in her” (Q. 7:189).

“People, We created you all from a single man and a single woman, and made you into races and tribes so that you should get to know one another. In God’s eyes, the most honoured of you are the ones most mindful of Him: God is all-knowing, all aware” (Q. 49:13).

“To whoever, male or female, does good deeds and has faith, We shall give a good life and reward them according to the best of their actions” (Q. 16:97).



“Women are but sisters (or twin halves) of men.”

“The best of you are those who behave best to their wives.”

“The more civil and kind a Muslim is to his wife, the more perfect in faith he is.”


These and other verses, argue progressive Muslims, repudiate the wrongheaded assumptions of the classical jurists (and many transmitters of hadiths before them), according to which women are “essentially sexual rather than social beings,” and therefore inferior by nature to men. As in other cultures of the ancient near east – all strongly patriarchal – gender inequality was assumed to be part of the natural order of human existence. For all these peoples a “woman’s biology determined her destiny” and marriage contracts included elements common to slave-owner relationships (“in essence, a woman’s reproductive rights are exchanged for her maintenance,” p. 183).

Duderija cites a publication by an Indonesian progressive think tank, Fahmina (Hadith and Gender Justice: Understanding the Prophetic Traditions, by F. Qodir – unfortunately I couldn’t find any trace of it online). This provides an example of how a growing number of Muslims worldwide are rethinking the traditional Islamic legal norms relative to marriage:


The Qur’an has outlined several principles that guarantee the achievement of successful marriage. One of these requires that a husband-wife relationship ought to be joint or two-way relationship in which one side is equal to the other. In such as [sic] even and equal relationship, one side acts as a companion who completes the other, with no superiority or inferiority issues involved. The picture of such a harmonious and parallel relationship of husband and wife is portrayed in an extremely beautiful poetic language by the Qur’an as in “your wives are a garment for you and you are a garment for them (Al-Baqarah, 2:187).


3. Concept of the text’s moral trajectory: if you look at qur’anic injunctions regarding women in the context of its time, you will notice a divine design going far beyond that particular socio-historical context. The principles of equality, justice and love are enunciated in the text and the specific guidelines that are given clearly correct some of the worst practices of the time – for instance by forbidding female infanticide, by guaranteeing female property rights, and so on. But one shouldn’t stop there. God couldn’t drastically change those cultural practices in one blow. He’s a gracious pedagogue who knows that change among humans can only be best achieved in a progressive manner. So he gives each new generation the responsibility to transform the social order more and more in conformity with the ideals revealed in the sacred text. In Abou El Fadl’s words,


The thorough and fair-minded researcher would observe that behind every single Qur’anic revelation regarding women was an effort to protect the women from exploitative situations and from situations in which they are treated inequitably. In studying the Qur’an it becomes clear that the Qur’an is educating Muslims how to make incremental but lasting improvements in the condition of women that can only be described as progressive for their time and place” (quoted on p. 184).


I’ll stop here, hoping that if this is a topic you find interesting, you will do more reading on your own – starting with Duderija’s book! Here's an excellent summary on Islamic feminism by one top scholar, Margot Badran. Also, I have dealt with the issue of religion and patriarchy from a wider angle in three blogs, showing that gender issues are a challenge to people of all faiths today. Finally, in “resources,” I went into much greater depth exploring the theology of the most controversial of Muslim feminists, Amina Wadud.

More than anything, however, my hope is that in taking our lesson from Duderij’a’s important book, you have grasped how crucial hermeneutics are in reading sacred texts and thus in shaping one’s theological orientations. Indeed, hermeneutics go a long ways in explaining why Salafis and progressives seem to be living in different worlds.