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Debate: Moderate vs. Progressive Islam

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Language defines critical terms. Moderate means sensible, judicious and restrained.
But it does not necessarily mean liberal.

A recent BBC radio program and subsequent encounter with one of the guests illuminates an important discussion about moderate Muslims. Up close and personal, it appears that most moderate Muslims are essentially conservative. Within the Muslim community - the ummah, as it is called - there are divisions but with relatively small gaps between them. In contrast, there is a Grand Canyon-like abyss separating moderate/conservative Muslims and the small but growing movement of progressives.

British Ajmal Masroor is a prime example of what mainstream society calls a moderate diaspora Muslim. Born in Bangladesh, the 43-year-old Imam grew up and was educated in England. Today, he leads Friday prayers at several London mosques; is a politician in the Liberal Democrat party; active with many British Muslim associations while serving as the Director of an organization called Communities in Action.

If you Google Masroor, you find an attractive personality. As a widely known presenter on various UK television channels, he is often used as a commentator on social, political and religious issues. He appears in several YouTube videos with a bright engaging smile, asking in one of them for British Muslims to have a sense of humor and stop being so thin skinned. He denounces jihadism and has been targeted in a propaganda video created by Al Shabaab.

When the BBC's radio 4's Today program recently chose "progressive Islam" as its topic, Masroor was a likely candidate to give balance. The day after, he posted a lengthy commentary on his Facebook to discredit progressive Muslims and trivialize their efforts.

"There is a strange debate taking place in some sections of the Muslim community," he says, "led by people who possess very little knowledge of Islam. They are not reformers, they are actually deformers... demanding a total reneging on the essential pillars and characteristics of Islam."

His list of progressive Muslim misdemeanors include (1) allowing women to pray beside men; (2) permitting women to be Imams and lead prayer; (3) asserting that veiling is optional and not compulsory because the verse in the Qur'an about modesty is contextually ambiguous; (4) asserting that women's rights and LGBT rights are human rights.

Masroor says on his Facebook: "My response to those who wish to alter Islam to the degree that it loses its total meaning and purpose is very simple. If you want to be a Muslim you must be prepared to submit to Qur'an and the teachings of the blessed Prophet. I am afraid there is no half way house in Islam - you either submit or you don't."

Responding to Imam Masroor's claims is progressive Muslim, Akmal Ahmed Safwat, an Egyptian-Danish physician who was active in the formation of Democratic Muslims of Denmark after the 2006 cartoon crisis. "Where we part ways," says Dr. Safwat "is our opinion that the Qur'an's divine instructions were interpreted and explained by fallible and mortal men who were the product of their time and culture. Early Muslim scholars did their best to interpret the Qur'an and Sunna through consensus, analogy and ijtihad. They presented their results to us as Islamic fikh and shari'a laws. But history matters. As contemporary Muslims, it saddens our heart to see how traditionally conservative Muslims today are frozen in time and place. They insist on applying old fatwas unchanged with no consideration to changes in circumstance or location."

In a series of emails, Dr. Safwat continues: "At the heart of the issue is this: we progressive Muslims feel there are contradictions between the sublime principles on which Islam was built and the conservative interpretations that continue to dominate current discourse."

He then offers recent developments in Egypt as a case study. "When Islamist political parties got hold of power in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak in 2011," he says, "they decided to abolish the minimum age of marriage for girls and make it legal to marry very young, even pre-pubescent girls. They did so based on an uncritical acceptance of accounts of the age of Aisha when she married the prophet."

And then speaking directly to Imam Masroor, Dr. Safwat says: "I hope you agree with me that the idea of child marriage is appalling and should be denounced. When we do denounce it, we do so by accepting and relying on alternative interpretations of the scripture, demonstrating that we can use our mental and moral judgement to declare an interpretation as outdated, in spite of so-called irrefutable authority."

Dr. Safwat wants us to know that this astonishing opinion about child marriage in Egypt was not necessarily extreme but held by mainsteam Muslims, including many middle class professionals such as one medical doctor specializing in pediatrics.

On his Facebook Imam Masroor's declares: "Anyone who suggests that Islamic law is outdated, cruel and barbaric has failed to understand the essential rationale behind Islam."

Dr. Safwat says that when some Muslims in Egypt opposed this preposterous legislation legalizing child marriage, the various Islamic parties tried to silence them using the same argument.

"This is not acceptable to us. It effectively means that we have to cast aside any critical thinking, any sense of morality or understanding of right and wrong and accept centuries-old and outdated interpretations as the eternal will of Allah. And to this we must adjust our moral compass."

Dr. Safwat then calls upon UCLA legal scholar, Khaled Abu El Fadl, quoting him from the 2002 book The Place of Tolerance in Islam: "it is impossible to analyze any verse except in the light of the overall moral thrust of the Qur'anic message."

Progressive Muslims vigorously assert that Islam is a religion of justice, tolerance and compassion. They say that they approach the Qur'an with these values and vision and then let it guide them to its meaning.

Dr. Safwat continues:

"On the subject of women, we say that women's rights are human rights. And that human rights are not necessarily a western value but an Islamic value."

"On the matter of homosexuality, we do not dwell on the theological question of whether it is a sin or how big a sin it is. All human behavior is a matter between the individual and God. Instead, we focus on tolerance, acceptance and inclusion and on fighting discrimination and bigotry, undeniably Islamic virtues."

"On the matter of shari'a, we progressives see it as a code for ethical behavior; a path to the source of life, i.e. God. But. We believe that shari'a's laws are not immutable because they are man-made. The foundation of Islamic Jurisprudence was not finalized until 3 centuries after Mohammed's death."

In his Facebook denunciation of progressive Muslims, Imam Masroor claims they have no theological authority. Dr. Safwat says this is categorically untrue and cites the scholarship of Nasr Abu Zayed, Abdullahi An-Na'im, Khaled Abu El-Fadl, Amina Wadud, Fazul Rahman and Iqbal Ahmad.

In answer to Imam Masroor's claim that progressive Muslims are so small in number that they do not matter," Dr. Safwat says: "You should understand that progressive Islam is a growing movement for many Muslims - diaspora and otherwise - who want an Islam for the twenty-first century."

Imam Masroor is entitled to his opinions but the progressives do have history on their side. All reform movements started small and this fledgling crusade most certainly has enough spiritual motivation, not just to survive, but to move forward.

One can find a parallel in the Jewish faith. Long ago there were only two divisions: Orthodox and Conservative, Today, there are Ultra-Orthodox, Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed and Reconstructed Judaism.

John L. Esposito, one of the worlds leading experts on Islamic cultures says that such divisions are also inevitable in Islam. It's just a matter of time.