Friday, April 22, 2005

COMMENT: Some Crazy Thoughts On Progressive Islam

These days, every Muslim with any public profile is tripping over him/herself to jump off any band wagon labelled ‘extremist’ islam or ‘islamism’ or other undesirable nametag.

This has led to the growth of a whole raft of groups struggling to monopolise on terms such as ‘moderate’ and ‘progressive’.

The events of September 11, 2001 may have caused 4 domestic airplanes and a few buildings to collapse in the US. But in the Muslim world and in Muslim communities across the western world, that one terrorist attack caused a huge ideological earthquake whose aftershocks are still being felt.

And after all the allegedly sophisticated rhetoric and clumsy linguistic gymnastics that have gone into writing the first 3 paragraphs of this article, I would like to ask a simple question. What on earth is a ‘progressive’ Muslim?

Is a progressive Muslim someone who reads and/or writes for a particular online rag (e.g. Or is it an unreconstructed Marxist ? Or is it a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party or the Pahlavi Shah’s entourage who fled to the West in their private jet when marshal law and/or the revolution finally arrived?

Is a progressive Muslim someone who believes that sharia should recognise matrimony between same-sex couples? Or someone who wants to make wholesale changes to 14 centuries of liturgical consensus?

Many of the so-called progressive Muslims I see resemble little more than the infantile ranters of campus socialism. Which is scary, since campus socialist groups have an uncanny ability to splinter. And I would hate for people 2,000 years from now to be making a film about Muslims similar to the Life of Brian ...

Brian: “The People’s Progressive Front of Islam? Who are they?”

Ahmed: “There he is over there!”

Everyone: “Splinter!!”

Unless progressive Muslims define exactly what it is that makes them progressive, they might soon end up hacking into each other. And their opponents may just sit back and watch the circus get progressively more entertaining.

A tragic outcome would be if all those progressive activists wasted their limited energies on factional war, leaving them with no energy to re-join the bigger struggle.

I personally find the adjective “progressive” quite offensive. Then again, what do you expect? I am, after all, an old-style social conservative. But beyond that, I seriously have problems with this label. It suggests that anyone who is not in the group is reactionary or entrenched in old thinking or old-fashioned.

Some progressives love having a go at people like the Zaytuna Institute crowd. An article appearing in MWU! entitled “Zaytuna’s Smelly Kebabs” comes to mind. But how regressive are the Zaytuna people? And why is it that many “conservative” Muslims in Australia think people like Hamza Yusuf are too “modern”?

Many progressives accuse ‘traditionalists’ of being locked in Islamic tradition, never reaching out to non-Muslim traditions. Yet I have rarely heard a lecture of Hamza Yusuf which does not refer to some linguist or philosopher or poet or writer from a non-Muslim tradition. And when Shaykh Nuh Keller is not comparing a sufi principle to some Tao or Buddhist concept, he loves talking about life as a commercial fisherman.

My own shaykh, the late Professor Mahmud Esad Cosan (pronounced ‘Joshan’) used to spend much of his time telling his students to go out and make some serious cash. He used to frequently tell us about his first property deal. We needed an interpreter to understand what he said. Though when he was in Germany, the youngsters used to relish his speeches given in fluent German.

If progress is about being prepared to borrow from other traditions, then traditional Islamic scholarship is perhaps the most progressive force in the Muslim world today. And this is not a recent phenomenon.

OK, that’s my thoughts for the day. Time to go and eat a doner kebab. Why? Because of all things, weight loss must be progressive.

Words © 2005 I Yusuf

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