AT the Asian Muslim Action Network (Aman) assembly which took place in Pattani, Thailand in February this year, a discussion took place as to the prerequisites of being a progressive Muslim. I was asked to speak on the subject, and the following is what I had to say. A progressive Muslim is one whose actions are firmly grounded in the Quranic values of truth (haq), justice (adl), compassion (rahmah), wisdom (hikmah), and he or she does service to others rather than being served by others. A progressive Muslim does not believe in sectarian Islam (Sunni, Shia or Ismaili, Deobandi or Barelvi, Ahl-i-Hadith or Salafi streak), but rises above all these sects and gives importance to the Quran above everything else.
Adhering to progressive Islam one does not adopt a sectarian approach, but is respectful of entire humanity, and of human dignity as per the Quran: “We have honoured the sons of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favours, above a great part of our creation” (17:70).
Thus, one leaves ideological and theological differences to Allah alone and does not condemn anyone who differs with oneself as kafir, as often many sectarian-minded Muslims do. Such an approach widens the differences and intensifies conflict. A progressive Muslim uses, as per the Quran, wisdom (hikmah) and goodly words (mawizat al-hasanah) in discussions. He does not try to be judgmental.
A progressive Muslim is least influenced by personal prejudices and always gives more importance to knowledge than his own opinion. The Quran condemns prejudiced opinion (zan) and promotes knowledge (ilm). Also, openness of mind is a seminal quality which helps avoid arrogance born more out of ignorance than knowledge. Those who have little knowledge are more arrogant and those who have a greater degree of knowledge know the limitations of their own knowledge and hence tend to be humble.
A progressive Muslim first of all studies his/her own religion in depth and tries to understand as objectively as possible the causes of differences between different religions while showing full respect to the beliefs of others. It is those who do not know their own religion, much less that of others, who condemn the religion of others. The Quran says, “And abuse not those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest, exceeding the limits they abuse Allah through ignorance” (6:109).
Further in the same verse, Allah says, “Thus to every one people have We made their deeds fair-seeming; then to their Lord is their return so He will inform them of what they did.” Thus ultimately it is Allah who will judge. We human beings, when we judge, we judge more out of ignorance and arrogance of our own ego than based on knowledge and selflessness.
The key words in this verse are that for ‘every people’ ‘We made their deeds fair-seeming’ to ‘them’. Then who are we human beings to condemn the beliefs and deeds of others? Let Allah alone be the judge of who is right and who is wrong in their beliefs.
A progressive Muslim celebrates pluralism, as diversity is the creation of Allah. If Allah had desired He could have made entire humanity one community. (5:48). The Quran also says, “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colours. Surely there are signs in this for the learned.” Thus, a progressive Muslim will never have any prejudice against the speakers of any language or the people of any colour or creed, for they are all creations of Allah.
Likewise, both men and women are the creation of Allah and both need to be treated with the same degree of dignity. Allah has created all species in couples and it is necessary for survival of all species. No species will survive unless it is created in couples. Thus the feminine of the couple is as important as the masculine, and in human beings both genders must be treated equally. Gender relations reflect social and cultural constructs while equality and fair play are Islamic values.
A progressive Muslim knows this and treats both men and women with equal dignity, ensuring equal rights to both. In today’s context, gender equality becomes a crucial test for a progressive Muslim. Female servitude was purely a feudal cultural creation; Islam opposes it and pronounces the doctrine of gender equality in clear terms (2:228). A progressive Muslim knows that certain Sharia provisions establishing male superiority were in response to the cultural needs of a patriarchal society rather than based on the Quran and Sunnah.
Thus, a progressive Muslim will give importance to Quranic pronouncements in gender-related matters and not condone the feudal female servitude, considering such provisions of existing Sharia laws as eternal and unalterable. A progressive Muslim, therefore, would strive to reconstruct Sharia laws today in order to accord rights to women which the Quran gives them. One believer cannot be superior to another believer. Male superiority is a human construct and human construct cannot override divine injunctions. Also, physical differences, i.e.
bearing children, etc. should not result in determining who is superior or inferior.
A progressive Muslim would also accord seeking knowledge priority, as knowledge has been equated with light, and ignorance with darkness (zulmat). Allah brings out believers from darkness to light. The Prophet (PBUH) has said that a moment’s reflection is more important than a whole night’s worship (ibadat). Thus knowledge has priority even over worship.
These are some of the characteristics of being a progressive Muslim. Those who imbibe these characteristics will survive the challenges of time and not face difficulty in keeping pace with changing reality.
The writer is an Islamic scholar, who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.