Progressive Muslims, ed. by Omid Safi. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2003. xi + 332 pages. Further reading to p. 340. Index to p. 351. $25.95 paper.
Will Islam's "silenced majority"1 reclaim its voice or will the extremists continue to set the agenda? That is the central question in the Muslim world today. Inseparable is the broader issue of the relationship between the Qur'an, Sunna, and Hadith, and modern concepts such as democracy and human rights.
The issue is debated a thousand times a day in tea houses and online chat sessions around the globe, and it is being played out in such gritty political confrontations as those between Saudi Arabia's Liberal Tendency and the Wahhabis, and the liberals and literalists of Indonesia.
The need for an adaptation of Islam to the modern world was at the heart of Mahathir Mohamed's October 2003 speech to the Islamic summit. "Islam is not just for the seventh century A.D. Islam is for all times," he told his fellow Muslim leaders. "And times have changed."2
Mahathir may not have had American singer-song writer Bob Dylan in mind when he chose that phase, but the '60s counter-culture bard was very much on the minds of the authors of Progressive Muslims, a collection of pieces from Muslim intellectuals who are part of a larger international network by the same name, which begins with twin quotations from the Qur'an and singersongwriter Bob Dylan's The Times, They are A-Changiri'.
"We realize the urgency of the changin' times in which we live, and seek to implement the Divine injunction to enact the justice ('adl) and goodness-and-beauty (ihsan) that lie at the heart of the Islamic tradition," the book's editor, Colgate University professor Omid Safi, writes in his introduction.
The debate over how - and whether Islam should be adapted to changing times is as old as the religion itself. It gave birth to the 8th century Mu'tazilite movement and has been reflected in the writings of countless reformers, such as the 19th century Egyptian Qasim Amin, who challenged traditional assumptions of the role of women in Islam and took on conservative clerics who labeled him a heretic. "To these people I will respond: Yes, I have come up with heresy, but the heresy is not against Islam. It is against our tradition and social dealings, which ought to be brought to perfection."
That response is echoed in Progressive Muslims. UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, for example, believes that the emergence of "supremist puritanism," together with the arguments of Muslim apologists, have "fossilized" Islam, turning it into "an untouchable, but also entirely ineffective, beauty queen, simply to be admired and showcased as a symbol, but not to be critically engaged in its full nuance and complexity."
The authors, who tackle a range of topics from democracy and economic justice to sexuality, race, and ethnicity, build their case for a modern vision of Islam on a foundation of textual references.
"Shura [consultation] and ijma' [consensus] are two key doctrines that Muslims can use today for the religious development of democratic notions of government and politics as well as human rights," writes Ahmed S. Moussalli of the American University of Beirut, in a passage reflective of the book's constant return to Qur'anic legitimacy.
But even as they take on the "violent zealots," who wield religious texts "like whips to be exploited by a select class of readers," the contributors to Progressive Muslims also lash out at the "increasingly hegemonic Western political, economic, and intellectual structures that perpetuate an unequal distribution of resources around the world. …