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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Progressive Islam

I've been prompted by some of the comments to write this post about Progressive Islam (Racoon, I hope this answers some of your questions.)

First of all, let's examine some home truths:
  • Islam has fractured into a number of Sects (2 Sunni schools of thought, 6 Shia sects, 6 Sufi orders, 2 Kharajite sects, 4 Kalam schools, 7 movements within Sects including Salafism and Wahabbism and 8 other sects). All this despite the Quran (6:159, 10:19) prohibiting Sectarianism.
  • Sects differ according to the Hadith and Sunnah (sayings and doings of the Prophet), not according to belief in the Quran as the word of God and the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) as his Messenger nor according to the 5 Pillars of Islam (prayer, alms, pilgrimage, shahada, fasting during Ramadan)
  • As most of you will know Hadith and Sunnah were incorporated many years after the death of the Prophet among them some which were considered spurious.
  • Thus, Islamic scholars compiled a list of what they considered authentic Hadith that could be validated- known as Sahih resulting in 6 collections of Hadith of which Bukhari and Muslim are most quoted.
  • Hadith authentication was mainly based on isnad- the chain of authority from which they originated. Authentication was not based on analysis of the Hadith itself and whether or not it could, logically, be considered something the Prophet would have actually said or done.
  • Over centuries Hadith have come to be the principle source of information on how to practice Islam for the majority of Muslims. They have been manipulated and distorted by Muslim clergy and politicians such that the actions of the Taliban, the oppression of women, the killing of innocent lives have all been justifiable through a distortion of Hadith.

Progressive Muslims vary in their level of acceptance of Hadith. Generally speaking, all Progressive Muslims believe that the Hadith has come to replace the Quran as the main source of knowledge for Muslims and that this constitutes a breach of Quranic edicts. All Progressive Muslims advocate for the absolute authority of the Quran and refute the growing authority of Hadith. All Progressive Muslims believe that Islam has lost its way and that the majority of Muslims focus on superficial symbols of religiousity (what is Halal or Haram, to pluck one's eyebrows or not; to have a dog or not; to adorn your house with statues or not- and other such stupidity) in Hadith rather than turning to the principle source of guidance- the Quran.

On one end of the spectrum are those Progressives who completely dismiss all Hadith on the basis that sectarianism is against the teachings in the Quran and has arisen out of Hadith- hence all Hadith must be dismissed. Some can be quite over the top.

There are ofcourse other much more complex arguments about leadership and what exactly constitutes "the message" that Muslims are obliged to obey- but I'm not going to get that deep into it here- maybe another time.

There are also those Progressives who believe that the Hadith must not be accepted at face value and that it must be interpreted according to actual content (remember Hadith was only interpreted according to the line of authority) and according to the context of the day.

Some Hadith actually contradict Quranic edicts- particularly those in relation to the status of women and some have no basis and cannot be validated in the Quran (eg hijab- not in the Quran, only in Hadith and according to which sect you follow might mean anything from a scarf over the hair to a complete covering of face and hands).

Where do I sit?

Well, as you will probably know from reading my blog, I have a lot of problems with the way Islam is practiced today. It seems to me all the disunity among Muslims comes from different interpretations of Hadith. When I ask someone to show me where, in the Quran, Muslims are not allowed to celebrate birthdays, or keep dogs, or pluck their eyebrows, or have statues- they direct me to Hadith. Why? Because it's not in the Quran. These people are actually placing Hadith above Quran as authoritative text!

I don't think that all Hadith should be dismissed but I do strongly believe that God has given each and every one of us the ability to think for ourselves. Through the Quran, God has also charged us to learn, educate ourselves and become better people. Is not plucking my eyebrows going to make me a better person? Is killing innocent Jews and Christians going to make me a better person? Is blowing myself up into a million pieces going to make me a better person? It sounds ludicrous doesn't it- but this is what Islam has become- the illogical, the ludicrous, the ugly!

We teach our kids to recite Quran, we praise those who become Hafeez (memorised the entire Quran) and give Masha'Allah to 8 year olds who can recite Surat Yassin in full. But do we teach them what it means? Do we guide them in applying it to their lives? No we don't- instead we admonish them with "haram" and "ayb".

Imam baqir (the 6th successor of the Prophet), said that the Quran is like an ocean, where everyone benefits from it..... The young pick up pebbles and shells from close to the shore, wehreas the older (advanced) search out the depths of it for it's pearls.

I can be like the majority of Muslims and stand from afar gazing at the Ocean and occassionally admiring its beauty but never really fathoming this wondrous creation.

I can be like the majority of Muslims and sit on the shore line accepting second hand shells discarded by those who know better but never venturing into the ocean, never allowing myself to be overcome by its beauty.

I want to find my own pearls. I want to experience the beauty of the ocean in all its glory. I want to search for truth, for beauty.


The Raccoon said...

Hmmm. Thank you, TUS.

Disregarding the ahadith and sirat rasul allah sounds like a good start.

How large is this movement?

What do you do about the more problematic bits of the Quran, like the infamous Sura 9:29?

Many monsters dwell in the depths of oceans...

Roman Kalik said...

Thanks for the post, TUS.

The numerous sects/orders/etc is in itself a positive thing, in my opinion. If they manage to learn mutual acceptance of philosophies and beliefs within Islam, then it will be easier to talk to those outside Islam. One religious structure is a surefire recipe for stagnation.

howie said...


The Jews have gone through the a similar process with Torah, Tanach, Misnah, Talmud, Commentary and super commentary and onward. We have numerous Orthodox sects and we have Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and I don't know what else. The Christians must have hundreds of sects and demoninations with various doctrinal beliefs and canons etc.

My biggest problem with interpretation is I think most are dishonest. Folks push in pull at their holy book until it fits what they need...Jews making loans to Jews at interest (clearly "illegal"), Christians killing, Muslims blowing themselves up or whatever...and all "supported by scripture".

There is a word in English that I have forgotten, but its meaning has to do with the salient issues that seem to be pretty common in almost all religions; truth, protection of the weak, fairness, charity, self-sacrifice, sharing, being decent to neighbors...sounds cool to me.

But then things get real real twisty...don't they...and almost none of our religions have done a good job of following those basic values.

TeacherLady said...

Thank you so much for taking the time to post this. It was really interesting.

The Usual Suspect said...

I used to think it was quite small- but I've since discovered that Progressive Islam is growing each day as more and more people grow dissillusioned by the clergy. Unfortunately it is also a rather silent movement as there is still a lot of fear and the clergy holds a lot of power. If Islam is to enter into a period of enlightenment, it will do so through the ideology of Progressive Islam- but it will take years and strength to make it happen.

RK- difference can be positive- but in Islam it's not because the people who practice Islam don't know tolerance or mutual acceptance- they only know absolutes and hatred!

Howie- Yes, I'm familiar with the fractioning process in Judaism and you are right that all religions have suffered the same consequences but I really don't see Jews and Christians killing each other do you? Even if there is fractioning within the religion, Jews in particular are a remarkably united group- at least that's how it appears to an "outsider". After reading Racoon's blog a while back I get a sense that resilience has built unity among the Jewish people- the history of Judaism (as I understand it) is marked by hardship and struggles to survive.I am in all honesty, in complete awe of the Jewish diaspora in Australia and their ability to stand united even if there is disagreeance among them. In fact, my friends and I often say "if only the Muslims could learn from the Jewish community here."
Islam does not have a comparable history to Judaism- the middle ages marked the golden days of Islam and ever since Muslims have rested on the laurels of the glorious Caliphate- instead of looking forward, they look back. There is no hope for the future, only longing for a return to the past and a willingness to kill for it. This is why the true beauty of Islam, as a spiritual ideology that encompasses the visions of faith- as you say, truth, fairness, charity etc, will never ever be realised as long as we have sects who insist in absolutes and clergy who control the masses through the manipulation of Hadith, and masses who place Hadith above Quran.

Thanks Teacherlady

The Usual Suspect said...

Oh Racoon
I'm sorry I didn't answer your question about the monsters in the oceans.
OK- let's start with language is a living thing (I used to be a linguist)- language changes with time and context.
One of the miracles of the Quran is that it remains today as it was written thousands of years ago- the language has remained unchanged- BUT that does not mean that the meaning of the language has remained unchanged.
When people interpret Quran, they interpret the Arabic words with the meaning those words have TODAY- not the meaning they might have had in Quranic times.
So what to do? This is indeed a conundrum Racoooooooooon!
Firstly, the Quran must be read in its entirety and Suras interpreted as part of a whole including 9:29 such the order to "fight against" the "unbelievers" must be interpreted in the broader context of verses such as 2:109 which says "forgive and overlook" as well as the overall notion of peace in the Quran.
Secondly, 9:29 needs to be read in the context of Quranic times- now I'm not a scholar- nowhere near it in fact- I've actually never really studied religion- I only go by what I think is logical and makes sense within a broader framework of the basic tenets of all religions- peace, love, beauty, tolerance. I think that's what religion is supposed to be. So I can't comment much more than that- only that there are many other Suras that tell us not to kill and that refer to Jews and Christians as believers. I guess it's like the whole "eye for an eye" thing- If you truly believe in being a better person then you do not seek revenge through violent means- you subsume the good things into your daily being and through that you interpret everything else so that "an eye for an eye" becomes "turn the other cheek"- we have free will- we can choose- which one we choose depends on who we are.

Egypeter said...

Suspect - I'd like to nominate you as Queen of Egypt - along the lines of the great Hatshepsut, Nefertari and Nefertiti! Would you consider moving back to Egypt and assuming the throne?

You're writings remind me a little of our friend Big Pharaoh. You both talk and hope for a "reformation" in Islam. But I don't know if we'll be alive to see something like that happen. When one compares the Islamic world in the middle of the last century to today (look at Egypt for example) you see a huge shift from liberal Islam to conservative Islam, right? I mean look at how much more liberal Egypt was when our parents were growing up? So, I don't know? I hope I'm wrong and I guess only time will tell.

Anyway, hope you and your little buggers are doing well ya masreya ya gameela intee - emma elbeek obyad :)

Roman Kalik said...

TUS, not all Muslims think that way, but many do. Far too many. Take the Salafis and the way they consider the Sufis to be heretics, or just the whole Sunni/Shi'a thing...

You are right in saying that Islam is too rooted to its past, and that today the religious institution has become more important than the basic tenents of the faith. Muslims must learn tolerance or Islam will go the way of Europe in the Middle-Ages.

It will either learn tolerance the hard way, or it will learn it by self-destructive war

kinzi said...

What a very interesting read! It will definately take a few more looks to get it all in. THIS is what I have been asking friends for and not getting...you have cast an interesting vision for Islam and women.

(WOW, thanks for the link!!! You even know how much I love CAPITALS! One of my girlfriends told me tonight, and there it is! thanks!!)

howie said...


The Jews have not really got into killing each other since just before the Babylonian exile...about 3,000 years ago. There was a horrifc civil war and then the destruction of a good part of the Jewish people.

Since then...no...we fight, bicker, namecall, backstab and SUE the hell out of each other...but you are correct...we don't kill each other. In spite of all the press about the Israeli army...we are not really the killer types. Even there, though I know people will dispute this..you don't here soldiers running around "glorying" in killing. Ask Raccoon, the most famous line with Israeli soldiers, at least for many years was "ain brerah" which is "there just is not other option"...I have never heard an ex-soldier revel in having killed...mostly it is regret or "it was my ass or his".

You know the Muslim people...I can only look in as an outsider...I have noted those that revel in glory and death...and I have read from those that are appalled by it. That is what I have seen...but I do agree, as a "people" the Muslims just have not gotten themselves on track overall...it is not for lack of intelligence...I would be interested in your thoughts.

Oh...and through history Christians have pretty passionately killed each other...it seems much less so in recent years...at least not happening on the basis of religious issues.

Oh...and I agreew with your point that one thing that has held Muslim back has been typically repressive religio/police states that don't allow freedom of speech, dissent and therefore...hold back progress.

The Raccoon said...

TUS - thank you for the answer. The linguistic approach to Ijtihad is something I ran into before; it is an interesting concept that can have a real impact on fiqh.

Also, from a legal and historical POV, there is serious doubt about the autheticity of the currently circulated edition of the Quran - the whole Uthman thing, and the Hakam thing.

So it certainly could be that the killing, enslaving, opressing and taking over the world bits are just a mistake. This is particularly tenable if one has your view of the purpose of religions. I tend to think religions are mostly there to provide structure to the herd and stifle dicontent by providing easy answers to inexplicable phenomena - which is why I am a devout Discordian (and, well, also because it's funny) :)

The main problem, however, is not fiqh. Most Muslims are not only ignorant of fiqh, they are ignorant of the Quran as well - only getting second-hand knowledge through the clerics you mentioned. In such a situation, the actual texts, theology, interpretation, jurisprudnce and indeed reason are irrelevant. Moreover, I have a suspicion that most of those clerics who are not psychotic, raving madmen are cynical bastards, using religious pretexts to rape, exploit, rob and pretty much do whatever they want.

How can you get to the Islamic proles with the pretty radical Ijtihad Progressive Islam espouses? It will deprive millions of hormonally disbalanced males of their sex toys AND their psychological crutches; and it will create horrible cognitive dissonance in millions of house-broken baby factories.

I smell blood and charred flesh in this theological revolution... and I see before my mind's eye the catalyst of the European Renaissance - the Black Plague.

But then again, I am a Raccoon, so it could be that I think of blood, burned flesh and bountiful corpses on the streets simply because I am hungry.

Uhm. Sorry for the disturbing imagery :/

The Raccoon said...

Howie -

I've seen three kinds of soldiers who speak positively of killing:

1) young'uns who have veins full of poison and've never actually had to wash someone else's brains from their face (passes after some cold and lonely nights on guard duty, or progress into category 2);

2) Some endorphine junkies dealing with PTSS (passes after a while in India or a few years of therapy);

3) Twisted 514 operatives. I am pretty sure some of these guys are just homicidal maniacs.

These cases are less common than black lesbian disabled midget albinos with Down syndrome.

And yeah, ein breira is the thing still. Although the real catchphrase of IDF combat units is, of course, "kos hazayin/ad matai[insert draft cycle date here]". Literally translated as "all the phallus", meaning "total bummer"/"until when", and grafittied all over the guard posts and many bus stops in Israel.

But yeah, I have also never met an ex-soldier who revelled in killing.

Ravine85 said...

Your blog header is fantastic and your post is amazing. I have nothing but praise for you ;).

howie said...


Related to your comments...I strongly recommend you read the March 6th post....


howie said...


Thought you might find this one interesting?

Phyllis Chesler

Once I was held captive in Kabul. I was the bride of a
charming, seductive and Westernised Afghan Muslim whom I met
at an American college. The purdah I experienced was
relatively posh but the sequestered all-female life was not
my cup of chai - nor was the male hostility to veiled,
partly veiled and unveiled women in public.

When we landed in Kabul, an airport official smoothly
confiscated my US passport. "Don't worry, it's just a
formality," my husband assured me. I never saw that passport
again. I later learnt that this was routinely done to
foreign wives - perhaps to make it impossible for them to
leave. Overnight, my husband became a stranger. The man with
whom I had discussed Camus, Dostoevsky, Tennessee Williams
and the Italian cinema became a stranger. He treated me the
same way his father and elder brother treated their wives:
distantly, with a hint of disdain and embarrassment.

In our two years together, my future husband had never once
mentioned that his father had three wives and 21 children.
Nor did he tell me that I would be expected to live as if I
had been reared as an Afghan woman. I was supposed to lead a
largely indoor life among women, to go out only with a male
escort and to spend my days waiting for my husband to return
or visiting female relatives, or having new (and very
fashionable) clothes made.

In America, my husband was proud that I was a natural-born
rebel and free thinker. In Afghanistan, my criticism of the
treatment of women and of the poor rendered him suspect,
vulnerable. He mocked my horrified reactions. But I knew
what my eyes and ears told me. I saw how poor women in
chadaris were forced to sit at the back of the bus and had
to keep yielding their place on line in the bazaar to any

I saw how polygamous, arranged marriages and child brides
led to chronic female suffering and to rivalry between
co-wives and half-brothers; how the subordination and
sequestration of women led to a profound estrangement
between the sexes - one that led to wife-beating, marital
rape and to a rampant but hotly denied male "prison"-like
homosexuality and pederasty; how frustrated, neglected and
uneducated women tormented their daughter-in-laws and female
servants; how women were not allowed to pray in mosques or
visit male doctors (their husbands described the symptoms in
their absence).

Individual Afghans were enchantingly courteous - but the
Afghanistan I knew was a bastion of illiteracy, poverty,
treachery and preventable diseases. It was also a police
state, a feudal monarchy and a theocracy, rank with fear and
paranoia. Afghanistan had never been colonised. My relatives
said: "Not even the British could occupy us." Thus I was
forced to conclude that Afghan barbarism was of their own
making and could not be attributed to Western imperialism.

Long before the rise of the Taleban, I learnt not to
romanticise Third World countries or to confuse their
hideous tyrants with liberators. I also learnt that sexual
and religious apartheid in Muslim countries is indigenous
and not the result of Western crimes - and that such
"colourful tribal customs" are absolutely, not relatively,
evil. Long before al-Qaeda beheaded Daniel Pearl in Pakistan
and Nicholas Berg in Iraq, I understood that it was
dangerous for a Westerner, especially a woman, to live in a
Muslim country. In retrospect, I believe my so-called
Western feminism was forged in that most beautiful and
treacherous of Eastern countries.

Nevertheless, Western intellectual-ideologues, including
feminists, have demonised me as a reactionary and racist
"Islamophobe" for arguing that Islam, not Israel, is the
largest practitioner of both sexual and religious apartheid
in the world and that if Westerners do not stand up to this
apartheid, morally, economically and militarily, we will not
only have the blood of innocents on our hands; we will also
be overrun by Sharia in the West. I have been heckled,
menaced, never-invited, or disinvited for such heretical
ideas - and for denouncing the epidemic of Muslim-on-Muslim
violence for which tiny Israel is routinely, unbelievably

However, my views have found favour with the bravest and
most enlightened people alive. Leading secular Muslim and
ex-Muslim dissidents - from Egypt, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq,
Jordan, Pakistan, Syria and exiles from Europe and North
America - assembled for the landmark Islamic Summit
Conference in Florida and invited me to chair the opening
panel on Monday.

According to the chair of the meeting, Ibn Warraq: "What we
need now is an age of enlightenment in the Islamic world.
Without critical examination of Islam, it will remain
dogmatic, fanatical and intolerant and will continue to
stifle thought, human rights, individuality, originality and
truth." The conference issued a declaration calling for such
a new "Enlightenment". The declaration views "Islamophobia"
as a false allegation, sees a "noble future for Islam as a
personal faith, not a political doctrine" and "demands the
release of Islam from its captivity to the ambitions of
power-hungry men".

Now is the time for Western intellectuals who claim to be
antiracists and committed to human rights to stand with
these dissidents. To do so requires that we adopt a
universal standard of human rights and abandon our loyalty
to multicultural relativism, which justifies, even
romanticises, indigenous Islamist barbarism, totalitarian
terrorism and the persecution of women, religious
minorities, homosexuals and intellectuals. Our abject
refusal to judge between civilisation and barbarism, and
between enlightened rationalism and theocratic
fundamentalism, endangers and condemns the victims of
Islamic tyranny.

Ibn Warraq has written a devastating work that will be out
by the summer. It is entitled Defending the West: A Critique
of Edward Said's Orientalism. Will Western intellectuals
also dare to defend the West?

Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and
Women's Studies at the City University of New York

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