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Book Review: Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Guest Post)

February 12, 2010

by Nancy Milio, Clerk of FCNL’s Policy Committee

Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism is written and edited by Omid Safi, an Iranian-American. I have corresponded and talked face-to-face with him about his efforts to spread his message. He presents us with the views of a group of more than a dozen self-identified “progressive Muslims…..scholars and activists”, many of whom emigrated and were educated in the US. I was first introduced to him when he responded to the newly approved “Epistle Encouraging Quaker Engagement with American Muslims” by the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).

I hear in his overview of this joint work clear echoes of Quakerism. The writers uphold the values of social justice, pluralism, and gender equality. They say that a progressive Muslim interpretation of the Quran is the idea that every human life, female and male, Muslim and non-Muslim, rich and poor, “Northern” and “Southern,” has the same intrinsic worth. And that requires them to actively challenge those Muslims who “hold exclusivist, violent, and misogynist” interpretations of Islam.

The authors began the discussions that preceded this book in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, seeing a need to raise the level of conversation above the simplistic “standard apologetic” presentations of Islam—essentially that “we are a religion of peace; we are not terrorists.”

On one hand, they want to hold Muslim societies accountable for justice and pluralism, exposing the violations of human rights and freedoms of speech, press, religion, and the right to dissent in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt, and others—while not excusing the Western role in past and current affairs that help perpetuate authoritarian regimes and an unequal distribution of resources around the world.

On the other hand, they want to educate all audiences—Muslim and others—that “as the Qur’an reminds us, each of us has the breath of God breathed into our being.” How like George Fox’s example is this, as he tried to live “answering that of God in every person”

What amounts almost to a manifesto for progressive Muslims, Safi leads their call for not simply thinking more about the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet, but also thinking about the “life we share on this planet with all human beings and all living creatures.” How like the Quaker commitment to simple living, conserving the environment and actively working to reverse climate change.

They assert too that the Muslim community as a whole cannot achieve justice unless justice is guaranteed for Muslim women.

Safi also acts as teacher to us, who are so poorly informed in our understanding of Islam and the varieties of Muslim life. For example, he explains the term Islamic ijtihad, or committed critical thinking based on disciplined but independent reasoning, to come up with solutions to new problems. Safi and colleagues say they have taken up this jihad as their jihad in the aftermath of 9/11. They find that “jihad” is all too—inaccurately—familiar to most people. They claim that to both the Muslim fanatic and the Muslim-hating xenophobe, jihad is simply “holy war” declared against Westerners or, as the Muslim apologist sees it, as purely the inner struggle against one’s own selfish tendencies. Rather, they want to define it in today’s world as the struggle to engage and transform the social order and the environment in a “just and pluralistic fashion that affirms the humanity of us all”, to recognize that “jihad” is linked to the concept of ijtihad.

Safi is eloquent in his advocacy of the need for presenting Islam as a religion of peace that goes beyond “tolerance” .He says,

I am not interested in teaching or preaching ”tolerance” …the root comes from medieval toxicology, marking how much poison a body could “tolerate” before it would succumb to death.  …I don’t want to “tolerate” my fellow human beings, but rather to engage them at the deepest level of what makes us human… We seek to bring about a pluralistic society in which we honor and engage each other through our differences and our commonalities.

Here Safi echoes FCNL’s “Epistle Encouraging Quaker Engagement with American Muslims”:

…..As Quakers we are called to “answer that of God in everyone.” Our work begins with ourselves and our own country. This work must include our embrace of the “other,” in order to replace “tolerance” with understanding, respect, and sustained collaboration on issues of mutual concern.

Like many Quakers, Safi and friends accept the “challenge…. to find a non-violent means of resisting the powers that be, and to speak truth to them…. we must aim to bring about a just and pluralistic society in which all of us can live and breathe, and realize the God-given dignity to which we are entitled as human beings…as the Qur’an teaches us, all of us have the Divine spirit breathed into us.”

One Comment
  1. Ellen N. Duell permalink
    February 12, 2010 4:14 pm

    I send blessings for well-being and peaceful living to all those of Muslim faith. Since we cannot nelp–would not change–being human, it’s most likely that every Muslim has her/his own inner light.

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