the Progressive Muslim Movement?
Khan | May 2, 2005
[MWU], a very popular Muslim e-zine has definitely enriched and shaken up
the American Muslim public sphere and is also being noticed by Muslims
overseas. It has also received rave reviews from the mainstream press in
America, which is thirsting for proof of diversity within the Muslim
community and MWU is a flaming example of that. Importantly MWU is part of
the rapidly coalescing of progressive Muslim forces in North America and
is perhaps their most important vehicle for communications. Along with the
book Progressive Muslims, edited by Prof. Omid Safi, Asra
Noamani’s mosque protests, and Amina Wadud’s leading of friday
prayers, MWU is easily one of the key Progressive Muslim moments in the
history of American Islam. Thus
MWU has clearly carved a place for itself, in the American Muslim public
the Friday prayer initiative, I have been engaged in many debates and
discussions with Muslims of all types in many Internet forums, conferences
and on phone calls on the subject. While in most cases I was trying to
defend the importance of the progressive agenda of the Progressive Muslim
Union [PMU], I
was also defending my right to dissent against Progressive
Muslims who were attacking me for not endorsing the Wadud initiative.
I make my arguments, I would like to state in the interest of disclosure
that I am connected with both the Progressive Muslim movement and with
Muslimwakeup.com. I am on the advisory
board of PMU and several of my
articles have been published by MWU in the past. This article
should be read as advise from someone invited formally to sit in an
advisory position and be read and engaged in the spirit of constructive
criticism. I am essentially reporting, with some analysis, the criticisms
of MWU that I receive. There are other nasty and eminently false
allegations being made by some mainstream Muslims about MWU being a
conspiracy of Rand Corporation and Neoconservatives in the US. I ignore
them. There is no room for rational discourse with those who subscribe to
conspiracy theories. For them their own imagination serves as evidence and
it is irrefutable.
conclusion that I can draw from all these debates and discussions is that
while majority of Muslims sympathize and may even
endorse the agenda of Progressive Muslims (1) seeking gender
justice, (2) struggling for social justice, (3) advancing a moral
inclusivist theology, and (4) opening the doors of Ijtihad for
reinterpretation of Islam in the contemporary context, they strongly
oppose the method and style of MWU.
repeat, most American Muslims seem to sympathize with the causes that
underpin the philosophy of Progressive Muslims, but they strongly
disapprove of MWU’s style. This raises the question, will MWU in the
long run undermine the very movement, the Progressive Muslim movement that
it seeks to promote.
on my discussions these are the main reasons why MWU maybe undermining the
Style: There are several aspects of style that seems to bother average
Muslim readers. The tendency to immediate mock and ridicule prominent
American Muslim leaders and organizations – a song that calls Siraj Wahhaj
a fag is often cited. Most people have no problems with
criticism, but they object to the complete lack of Islamic adab. Regardless
of what ploy MWU editors may use to defend this – “oh it is under the
section satire, or humor “ – the distasteful content speaks or rather
stinks for itself. This is not the Islamic way. One thing that many people
told me was that they were deeply hurt by the manner in which MWU either
dismissed or mocked traditional Muslim scholars of the past and the
Islamic content: The manner in which many articles on MWU approach
debates on Islamic theological issues are also an issue with many readers.
Remember these are not complaints from fans or regular readers. These are
complaints from most mosque related mainstream Muslims who have visited
MWU once or twice to gauge what progressive Muslims are up to and have
been turned off.
woman led Friday prayer has attracted a lot of attention to the
Progressive Muslim cause and increased traffic to MWU. But the arguments
advanced in several articles published by MWU has sent Muslims two
Progressive Muslims are arrogant, full of themselves and
condescending of other Muslims.
Most importantly, Progressive Muslims are empty when it comes to
knowledge of Islam and Islamic sources.
the first accusation may be applicable to several other Muslim outfits,
the second one is most debilitating. If MWU will convey the message that
Progressive Muslims do not know their Islam then the cause is lost, PMU
might as well convert to Buddhism that shares many of the same goals. The
most commonly cited examples of this flaw in MWU articles are Hussein
Ibish’s responses to Hina
Azam and Louay
Safi. They are read as insulting and above all completely and
absolutely devoid of any Islamic content. They seem to be written by
someone who knows nothing about Islam and on a more scary level, does not
really care for Islamic sources at all. Many Muslims also seem to recall
that Ibish had declared on national TV that he was an agnostic and did not
practice Islam or something to that effect.
agree with the traditional Muslims’ argument that Progressive Muslims
are methodologically weak, essentially because the progressive Islamic
jurisprudential tradition has yet to begin. That is understandable. But to
engage in a theological discussion without engaging theology is absurd to
say the least. Surely Ibish and some of his friends may get a good laugh
out of it, but I am afraid the joke might be on PMU.
is an important activist of the American Muslim and Arab communities and
has already served them brilliantly. Islamic thought is clearly not his
forte and while he may have interesting observations to make about the
state of Muslim affairs from a progressive standpoint, he would do better
to eschew engaging theological issues.
is incumbent on the scholars associated with the Progressive Muslim
movement to provide the Islamic theological justifications for their
initiatives. Progressive Muslims have always claimed that Islam
is a progressive faith and progressive values are embedded in its sources
and it is our job to extract and articulate them.
This was an opportunity to do so. The traditional and conservative
traditions engaged Progressive Muslims seriously and systematically for
the first time. I must say that the Progressive Muslim response lacked the
same intellectual depth and vigor [with regards to Islamic thought] and
MWU compounded this by frequently indulging in unbecoming conduct. Instead
of using the opportunity to deeply engage Islamic sources, to highlight
its progressive nature, MWU unfortunately engaged in ridiculing
Sex: This is a source of
great contention. Many Muslims have a problem with the discussion of sex
itself, others have a problem with how some prominent Islamic
personalities have been dealt with in some of this sex columns. I think
the sex columns do more to establishing the personality of MWU with their
fan base and may not directly undermine the progressive Muslim movement as
long as they do not seek to reform theology through fictionalized
discussion of sex. But I guess that is the objective of the column, not
only to subvert the Victorian values that have crept into the Muslim
world, but also to problematize orthodoxy.
Intolerance: This is the
irony and tragedy of the Progressive Muslim Movement, that it is accused
of intolerance. Most Muslim readers argue that MWU while preaching loftily
for tolerance and inclusion are vociferously intolerant towards Muslims
who disagree with them. “They have made a big show of hugging Jews”,
said one sarcastic young woman to me, “how about hugging some Muslims
who disagree with them”. Her point is valid. I can personally testify to
rampant intolerance that characterizes several progressive Muslim groups.
Not only do many articles on MWU, but also several postings in the
discussions reflect a culture of animosity and intolerance for Muslims who
do not share their views. This of course is not limited to progressive
Muslims but is displayed widely across Muslim groups of all ideological
Muslim Union and Muslimwakeup.com do not have any formal relationship; A
few months ago the decision to separate MWU and PMU was taken and now
there is no institutional relationship between the two. The only thing
common is the presence of Ahmed Nassef, the editor of MWU, on the
executive board of PMU. The justification for the Friday Prayer initiative
that Omid Safi wrote was not even published on MWU. But MWU clearly has
become the vehicle for some progressive Muslims to push their causes. Its
novelty value continues to attract both mainstream and Muslim attention.
But hopefully MWU will settle down and focus on pressing issues of
progressive reform in the Muslim community, abhor juvenile tactics and
distasteful style. One cannot ridicule and alienate the very audience one
seeks to reform. Most importantly, when serious issues are raised, MWU
should give it due respect. It must show respect for the issue and for
those who disagree with it. There is no point in advocating tolerance and
acceptance of the other if one does not practice it. How can progressive
Muslims preach an inclusive theology if MWU adopts exclusivist tactics?
PMU and MWU are uniquely American Muslim institutions. They have a lot of
good to offer to Muslims and to the rest of the society here and abroad.
Let’s not squander the opportunity and the meager resources available to
our community through juvenile and distasteful packaging.
the coming years the battle for the soul of Islam will rage across the
world. Already one can see the beginning of a global impact of the woman
led Friday prayers. We will be engaging contentious issues more regularly.
Progressive Muslims, all of us including myself, cannot have an impact on
the practice of Islam in Muslim communities without practicing Islamic and
progressive values of tolerance, adab, inclusion and acceptance of
A. Muqtedar Khan is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and
a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding. He is
also a member of the advisory board of the Progressive Muslim Union. His
website is (www.ijtihad.org).