Syed Farid Alatas
and extremist ideologies and orientations have always been held on to by a
minority in Muslim societies. But that is enough to cause problems. As a
result, the question as to what constitutes a progressive interpretation of
Islam arises. When we refer to progressive Islam, we are really referring to
the progressive thinking among Muslims on various issues.
The idea of
progressive Islam or its variant, progressive Muslims is generally held to be a
notion that developed in the West during the early years of this century, and
more so after Sept 11, 2001. Various Islamic organisations and movements have
emerged that qualify themselves as progressive. Examples are the Progressive
Muslim Union of North America (New York) and Muslims for Progressive Values
The idea of
progressive Islam was discussed systematically by Omid Safi, an American-based
Iranian scholar, about 15 years ago. Progressive Muslim thought is associated
with the UK-based journal, Critical Muslim. Also relevant is the idea of
progressive Islamic hermeneutics, advanced by the Australian-based scholar,
has hardly been recognised that the idea of progressive Islam actually emerged
in the Malay world. It was the name of a journal founded by Syed Hussein Alatas
while he was a student at the University of Amsterdam. Progressive Islam was
published for two years in 1954 and 1955, in Amsterdam.
of the first issue of the first volume states the following: “This monthly,
which we have called Progressive Islam, is the realisation of an attempt to
formulate a serious view concerning the nature of Islam and its relation with
modern thought. The condition of the Muslim people, the nature of the Islamic
religion and the impact of Western thought upon the societies of the East shall
be the primary concern of this monthly…”
dealing with prejudices and misunderstandings about Islam in the West, the
objective of Progressive Islam was to publish articles on various aspects of
Islam, “laying a great emphasis on its rational and philosophical foundation”.
This was with a view towards dealing with some of the fundamental problems of
Muslim society. The editorial of the second issue, entitled “The Regeneration
of Islamic Societies”, lists five fundamental problems faced by the Muslim
world. They are the nature of the group in power, the lack of sound planning,
and unconsciousness of the vital problems of society, desultory influences from
the West, and materialism and positivism.
of leadership was a concern that was to occupy the thought of Alatas for the
rest of his life. In 1977, he published a book entitled Intellectuals in
Developing Societies. His numerous books and papers on corruption also
highlighted the problems of vicious and irresponsible leadership.
of the predominance of bad leadership was the lack of sound planning. With
reference to Ibn Khaldun, Alatas noted that the sphere of thinking and action
was influenced by the social situation, which formed the background of such
thought and behaviour. Sound planning was necessary in order to create adequate
conditions in society such that people could live to their potential in the
spheres of thought and behaviour. Of primary importance was planning for
economic reforms. This is because social vices were the outcome of economic
maladjustment and exploitation.
planning, however, was not forthcoming because of the lack of awareness of the
vital problems of society. This, in turn, was due to the absence of a group of
thinkers large enough to constitute a force in the regeneration of Muslim
societies. The result is that few Muslims were aware of the vital problems
confronting their societies. Alatas considered it to be “a task of great
magnitude to disseminate ideas and instil attitude into the minds of millions
of men”. His interest in the role of intellectuals in Malaysia and other
developing societies continued till the end of his life.
backwardness of Muslim society, however, was not only a result of deficiencies
to be found within the Muslim world. There were also the desultory influences
of the West. Of particular concern to Alatas was the uncritical imitation and
adoption of nationalism. His objection to nationalism was the glorification of
past imperial greatness and national glory in a way that subordinates ethical
and moral principles to national interests.
and Objectives of Progressive Islam
It was not till
about 50 years later that the term and idea of progressive Islam re-emerged. In
2003, Safi, a prominent proponent of progressive Islam, described it in the
Islam encompasses a number of themes: striving to realise a just and
pluralistic society through a critical engagement with Islam, a relentless
pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of
human rights, and a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism.” (“What is
Progressive Islam”, ISIM Newsletter 13: 48-49, December 2003)
Muslims have a universal approach in that they see themselves as advocates of
all human beings, not just Muslims. The concern is with subalternity in all its
forms, that is, poverty, oppression and other forms of marginalisation. As Safi
said, the task of progressive Muslims is “to give voice to the voiceless, power
to the powerless, and confront the ‘powers that be’ who disregard the God-given
human dignity of the mustad’afun all over this Earth”.
progressive Muslims derive their concern with social justice both from within
the classical Islamic tradition as well as modern orientations, drawing from
sources as diverse as the Quran and Sunnah as well as scholars and activists
such as Ali Shari‘ati. In addition to that, they enthusiastically draw from
non-Muslim traditions to the extent that such traditions are instrumental to
the pursuit of their aims. Such external sources include the liberation
theology of Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez and Rebecca S Chopp, and the
secular humanism of Edward Said and Noam Chomsky.
Islam is, therefore, Islamic humanism, premised on the idea that, as Safi said,
“all members of the human race have this same intrinsic worth because each of
us has the breath of God breathed into our being”.
proponents of progressive Islam are Muslim scholars such as Abdulaziz
Sachedina, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Hassan Hanafi, Nurcholish Majid, Ulil Abshar
Abdalla, Abdullahi An’Naim, Ahmad Moussalli, M Hashim Kamali, Muqtader Khan,
Adis Duderija and Nader Hashemi. While there are differences among them, what
makes them proponents of progressive Islam is their effort to seriously and
critically engage Islamic tradition (turath) and their position that Islam is
not merely a matter of private belief but has relevance for politics.
being rooted in tradition, however, progressive Muslims, as noted by Duderija
in his book, The Imperatives of Progressive Islam, are also nourished by
“movements and schools of thought that are not necessarily part of the
historical experience of Islam’s concrete historical trajectory but which are
considered as being in accordance with its overall ideals, values, objectives,
and, therefore, imperatives”.
In terms of
their methods, progressive Muslims seek to develop “systematic and
sophisticated non-patriarchal Quran-Sunna/hadith hermeneutical models which
affirm gender-just interpretations of Islam … characterised by rationalist,
contextualist-driven, and holistic hermeneutics which privilege the purposive
and values-based approach to the Islamic tradition, as embodied in certain
values considered to form the very core and spirit of Islam such as justice,
fairness, and mercy”.
Hussein Alatas had said in the first issue of Progressive Islam in 1954, “[t]he
name Progressive Islam does not imply any dissection whatsoever as to the
nature of the Islamic faith … 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 in progressive”.
Farid Alatas is professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore
Headline: Against The Grain: The Meaning Of Progressive Islam
Source: The Edge Markets