What it means to be a “progressive Islamist”

The Muslim intellectual tradition is full of instances of contestation over the meaning and implications of many of its major concepts such as Sunna (custom or habit), Salafism, imam (belief or faith), tawhid (oneness or unity), and jihad (struggle), to name but the most prominent few.

It is little wonder, then, that these and other major concepts in the Muslim intellectual tradition have been appropriated throughout Muslim history by various religious and political actors, with various degrees of success. Hence certain groups or actors were able to monopolies some of these concepts and came to be regarded or, indeed, simply to regard themselves as their most faithful, if not the only legitimate, interpreters.

This history of contested interpretations is sometimes forgotten in the analysis of various aspects of contemporary Islam, including in the political sphere. One such concept is that of Islamism (Islāmīyyûn / Islāmīyyīn), which emerged in the context of a modern, postcolonial nation-state in the Muslim majority world. As it is commonly known, “Islamism” refers to political movements that oppose the “secular” authoritarian political establishments in the Middle East and propose instead some kind of “Islamisation” of society.

While some scholars such as John EspositoPeter Mandaville, and Andrew March have attempted to problematize the category of “political Islam” as overly homogenous, none, to my knowledge, have suggested that proponents of “liberal” approaches to Islam should themselves be labelled Islamists. I suspect this is because Islamism has become so firmly associated with conservative political Muslim movements like the Muslim Brotherhood that a terminological fusion of sorts as taken place, such that they have become conceptually synonymous.

This, in turn, has created further terminological difficulties when such movements have evolved in their political thinking and approach to Islam, sparking discussions on the phenomenon known as “post-Islamism” a term often applied to the Muslim Brotherhood itself in Egypt after the 1990s. Another more recent development is the introduction of a new concept namely, that of Muslim democrats, as a substitute for “Islamist.” The post- “Arab Spring” Tunisian-An-Nahda party is a prime example. Indeed, it has been argued that the term “Islamism” was not applicable to this political party because of its commitment to democratic processes.

Be this as it may, one of the unfortunate consequences of acceding to or accepting such terminological changes is that this strengthens the idea that only the undemocratically-minded political forms of Islam in terms of their view of the theoretical compatibility of Islam and democracy, and not just in their largely utilitarian approach to electoral democracy (as in the case of Egypt’s puritanical Islamists) deserve of the label “Islamist.”

It is imperative, I believe, that we destabilize and ultimately decouple this conceptual fusion between Islamism and conservative or puritanical expressions of political Islam, in light of the long history of contestation and appropriation of major concepts in the Islamic tradition, as well as the emergence of another distinct form of political Islam namely, progressive Islam, which has its own interpretation of Muslim intellectual history and Islamic hermeneutic.

Accordingly, I would like to introduce a new conceptual category of progressive Islamism, based on a progressive Muslim interpretation of Islam that has real political implications. Unlike the vast majority of conservative forms of Islamism, progressive Islamism is cosmopolitan in outlook, embraces constitutional democracy and contemporary ideas on human rights, gender equality, and vibrant civil society. Progressive Islamism is broadly associated with the work of Muslim scholars such as Abdulaziz Sachedina, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Hassan Hanafi, Nurcholish Majid, Ulil Abshar Abdalla, Abdullahi An-Na’im, Ahmad Moussalli, Hashim Kamali, Muqtader Khan, and Nader Hashemi their differences notwithstanding.

A progressive Islamist is someone who seriously and critically engages with the full spectrum of the Islamic tradition (turāth) and considers Islam not just as a matter of individual or private belief, but as having profound relevance in the political arena but only in accordance with the above principles (cosmopolitan, democratic, committed to human rights and gender equality, invested in a vibrant civil society).

To be a progressive Islamist also means to subscribe to Islamic liberation theology as theorized by progressive-minded Muslim scholars like Shabbir Akhtar, Ali Ashgar Engineer, and Farid Esack. The rediscovery of Islamic liberation theology is of critical importance for Muslims in the twenty-first century, not least because of: the long shadow of the traumatic legacy of colonialism; the growing gap between the rich and poor, in general, and between rich and poor Muslims, in particular; the aggressive spread of forms of Islamic puritanism / fundamentalism and their unholy alliance with centers of neo-liberal capitalist power; and the political, economic, and social impotence of various secular, liberal, modernist, as well as conservative and mainstream forms of political Islam.

This theological stance is, in fact, emblematic of progressive Muslims’ quintessential “multiple critique” approach, which engages in a relentless criticism of all forms of dehumanization and oppression on the basis of radical love and nonviolent forms of resistance rooted in the belief in the God who is Most Merciful and Most Compassionate.

Importantly for the proponents of progressive Muslim thought, adopting Islamic liberation theology also necessitates a radical rethinking of the traditionalist understanding of Islamic law, ethics, and ontology (Sharia) in the light of God’s preferential option for the poor, downtrodden, and marginalized. This could involve issues as diverse as: the reformulation of the very concepts, aims, and objectives on which Islamic theology, ethics, and law (especially Muslim family law) are premised; the transformation of Islamic finance and economics for the purposes of real economic justice; and the recasting of Islamic politics in order to align them with the values, ideals, and objectives of Islamic liberation theology.

In my view, this form of Islamism would offer some real solutions for those Muslim majority countries that find themselves locked in a battle between authoritarian political regimes and conservative Islamists.

Given the ongoing importance of the “Islamic” in the lives of Muslims, and the contested nature of many of the major concepts in the Islamic tradition, the neologism of a progressive Islamist would, in my view, go a long way toward problematizing, destabilizing, and, hopefully, conceptually decoupling the concept of Islamism / Islamist and, more generally, the concept of Islam itself from conservative, puritanical expressions of political Islam.

Adis Duderija is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and Society in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, and a Senior Fellow in the Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue, Griffith University. In addition to two sole authored monographs on progressive Islam published in 2011 and 2017, he is also the co-author (with Halim Rane) of Islam and Muslims in the West: Major Issues and Debates, and (with Alina Alak and Kristin Hissong) of Islam and Gender: Major Issues and Debates.

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