The misunderstood concepts of progressive and liberal Islam

More Malaysian Muslims should strive to be progressive and liberal. Muslim civil society groups should declare themselves liberal and reformist organisations.

Sharifah Munirah Alatas, Free Malaysia Today

These opening sentences have most probably angered many. Too many Muslims in Malaysia understand that a “liberal” and “progressive” Muslim is deviant (sesat).

However, those who insult and slander the minority liberal Muslims need to be educated rather than ignored. So please, read on.

The notion of progressive Islam exposes how ignorant many Malaysians still are. They should realise that such ignorance is actually extremely unIslamic.

The global understanding of the term became popular in the post-9/11 era. Sociologist Syed Farid Alatas states that in 2003, the term was used by Omid Safi, a Persian-American professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

Safi defined progressive Islam as (i) a just and pluralistic society through critical engagement with Islam, (ii) the pursuit of social justice, (iii) an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, and (iv) a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism.

Proponents of progressive Islam see themselves as advocates for all human beings, not just Muslims. Progressive Muslims represent the voices of the voiceless, empower the powerless and restore the dignity of the mustad’afin (the downtrodden who are oppressed by tyrannical leadership). They are definitely not deviant.

The appearance of the term “progressive Islam” in Malaysia dates further back to the 1950s. The fact that we associate it with a largely Euro-American premise (post-9/11 “war on terror”) says a lot about how myopic we Malaysian Muslims are.

The idea of progressive Islam actually emerged in the Malay world almost 70 years ago. It is attributed to our very own Malaysian scholar, Syed Hussein Alatas.

“Progressive Islam”, a monthly publication, appeared in 1954 for two years. Alatas wrote in the editorial of the first issue: “The name ‘Progressive Islam’ does not imply any dissection whatsoever as to the nature of the Islamic faith. The idea which we intend to convey is not a kind of abstraction from the totality of the Islamic religion.

“By calling this paper ‘Progressive Islam’, we do not mean that we have extracted one part of Islam which is progressive and left the other part of Islam which is not progressive. Rather, the name ‘Progressive Islam’ should be regarded as another way of saying that Islam IS progressive.”

Islam Wasatiyyah and Islam Hadhari embody the same principles of progressiveness. These are a fair and just government system that promotes a balanced and comprehensive economic development. It also promotes the protection of women’s rights and minority groups. Lastly, it is supposed to uphold morality and ethics, together with the acquisition of knowledge.

Most religious and political leaders in Malaysia claim Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, without compulsion. But claiming is one thing; practising it is another.

How do we reconcile Islam as a religion of peace and tolerance with the recent imprisonment and fining of youths who did not attend Friday prayers?

How do we apply “Rahmatan Lil Alamin” to the hateful reactions concerning the return of Chin Peng’s ashes?

Typical answers to such questions are often in the form of mindless excuses – that matters of religion are under the purview of the states and not the federal government.

Notwithstanding, our answers should allude to the overall guiding philosophy for Malaysia as a nation, with Islam as its official religion. This guiding philosophy must be grounded in a singular notion of Islam, i.e. a progressive Islam.

The problem lies not with Islam the religion but with ideological interpretations of it. To complicate matters, our society is so enmeshed in identity politics that Islam, the religion, has been manipulated to serve political ends. This is the reason the very mention of “progressive” results in the wrath of many.

The term “liberal Muslim” invites equally vicious attacks by the majority who feel they need to protect Islam. These reactions are based on ignorance.

Furthermore, how presumptuous of them to think that Islam needs such protection when it is inherently ageless, accommodating, philosophically rational and ideologically stable.

The aversion to the term “liberal” is grounded in the thinking of the Malays’ feudal past. There is a deep fear of authority in general, a strong emphasis on rituals and mysticism, and little regard for universal Islamic values such as inclusiveness, compassion and equality.

The exclusive Malaysian Muslim attitude towards faith also goes against Islam’s approach to tolerance. The Malay Dignity Congress reeked of exclusivity, with calls for a preferred all-Malay Muslim leadership as being the right way forward for governance in Malaysia.

It is no surprise that there was no reference to a corruption-free and honest leadership during that congress.

Many among us Malaysian Muslims are neither accommodating nor compassionate. Many are philosophically irrational while remaining slavish to certain leaders.

The overwhelming, undying support for Najib Razak is testimony to this. It seems those tainted with allegations of corruption are looked up to rather than shunned. Could this be their version of liberalism? That they feel liberated to venerate the material excesses of the few at the expense of the majority?

What has emerged in our society is a thoughtless reaction to the term “liberal”, associated with a false notion of reform.

For such people, a liberal reformist is one who disagrees with the wider establishment. It does not refer to the ideas themselves. It only refers to the phenomenon of disagreement and superficial non-conformity.

For example, a potential first line of attack against a Muslim woman with liberal reformist ideas would be the fact that she does not wear a hijab. Among the public, it is the non-Muslims who seem to support liberal ideas of reform in how Islam is administered in Malaysia. This is despite the fact that such attempts at reform may have only a minute impact on their lives.

A liberal and progressive Muslim is seen as a threat to the status quo. Liberals are attacked because critics see such ideas as a disruption of Allah’s predestined plans for the chosen few.

There is confusion over what constitutes universal Islam and the fallacy of deviant, progressive Islam. Confusion sets in because the premise itself is false. There is only one Islam, not multiple Islams.

Psychologically, Malaysian society has been conditioned for decades by identity politics. Coupled with that, a wave of inferiority complex has descended on our Muslims.

For instance, many Malays take pride in believing they become more authentic Muslims if they substitute Malay dressing with Arab robes.

In the 1970s, the Malays experienced an Islamic resurgence. The common goal was to introduce an alternative Islamic way of life which they believed was all-encompassing. Hence, the mushrooming of Islamic banks, Islamic finance and Islamic dressing, among other aspects of cultural and social life.

There also emerged the notion that all modern problems could be resolved through reference to the Quran and Sunnah. Along with this, the attitude of “us versus them” emerged with gusto.

Political institutions and preferential policies embodied in the New Economic Policy and subsequent education policies perpetuated this attitude.

Automatically, extremist notions seeped in. They do not see the mutual compatibility of din with material, cultural and ideological expressions of Muslims. This is the form of pluralism that was encouraged by Prophet Muhammad himself.

Historically, classical Islam mirrored a coexistence of “Islam as revelation” and “Islam as interpretation”. Many among our current political and religious leaders seem to have difficulty understanding the dichotomy of Islam as interpretation and lived experience of Muslims.

As a result, liberal and progressive Muslim ideas are considered deviant. Critics should be educated in the following:

  • That one of the main purposes for Allah’s seventh-century revelation through the Prophet was to bring back the people of Arabia to the true teachings of Abraham, Adam, Ezekiel, Jonas, Noah, David, Moses, Jesus, Solomon, Ezra, Jacob and all previous prophets. This is fundamental to the provision of dialogue, and unity in diversity, in Islam.
  • That the first pillar, “belief in Allah and the Prophet as his messenger”, is to believe that Muhammad is the “seal” of all previous prophets. The implication is that amid diversity, there is acceptance and compassion.
  • That the message of Islam is to clarify that human life is a journey of remembering, accommodating and adaptation.
  • That the term for human in Islam is “insan”, etymologically related to the word “to forget”. This means, Allah’s message through the Prophet is for humans to remember His first testimony to the previous prophets of Judaism and Christianity.
  • That there is a continuity with past civilisations, and that Islam in future civilisations is space-time bound and continually changing.
  • That Islam is not illiberal because it accommodates pluralism within basic theological tenets.