Does Progressive Islam Need a Genealogy?

By Farish A. Noor

(Note: This is a summary of the paper I gave at the Conference on Progressive Islam and its Global Challenges organised by the Sharif Hidayatullah Islamic University (UIN) in Jakarta over the weekend. – Farish)

History has the curious effect of rendering permanent, firm and stable things that are contingent and even radically so. More often than not the recourse to history is precisely a search for the sort of stability and certainty that many a political project needs, as if without the benefit of a long history behind it a new idea is rendered novel, contingent and possibly even dismissed as being out of place and out of time. But herein lies the irony of the situation: for in our search for origins and the false comfort of an immutable history, have we forgotten the fact that almost all the great ideas that have shaped the development of human civilisation were, at the point of their genesis, radically contingent and outside the frame of the ordinary as well? Its not for nothing that revolutionary ideas are historically revolutionary as well.

Which brings us of the past, present and future fate of this thing called ‘Progressive Islam’.

Progressive Islam is not a new school of thought or some fad that is a symptom of the post-modern times we live in. Progressive Muslims are not re-inventing Islam or re-writing the Quran and Hadith, anymore than progressive Christians, Hindus or Buddhists are reinventing Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism. What all these religious progressives have in common is the earnest wish to translate the meaning and ethical import of their respective faith and belief-systems into social and political realities that are keeping with the spirit of the times we live in, for fear of the fact that if the normative aspects of lived religiosity do not tally and concur with the ethical norms and the phenomenal discoveries of the modern age then religion will simply be reduced to a relic of the past and religiosity will be reduced to empty meaningless rituals.


Of course the development of progressive Islamic thought has a history to it, in as much as the development of progressive Christian thought can also look back to the past to seek assurances of dogmatic conformity and exemplary models to emulate. In the case of progressive Islam, progressive Muslims today look back to the models that were set by the likes of al-Ghazali, ibn Rushd, ibn Khaldun et al. It was ibn Khaldun who pioneered what would later come down to us as modern political sociology, in his landmark work the Muqadimmah. Ibn Khaldun’s emphasis on the role played by human reason and agency as the central motor to history was revolutionary at the time as it placed human beings at the centre of the phenomenal world, and relegated to the margin the effects of fate, chance and even divine intervention. It was Khaldun who insisted that the rise and fall of nations was due to human beings and their actions, rather than being fated or determined by metaphysical or supernatural forces.