On Being a Conservative-Liberal Muslim (or why the progressive label is bad)

Several things began to come together in my thinking at the MLT Conference in Copenhagen. To be clear, it was not a result of the planning of the MLT, but a series of amorphous thoughts that started to click from meeting people at the conference. With the Progressive Faith Blog Con coming straight after, these ideas began gaining more clarity. Coincidentally, both the good folks at Progressive Islam (1, 2, 3) and Von Aurum published pieces that further moved my thoughts forward. I had been planning on this post for some time, but as the adage goes “Man proposes, God disposes.” After this rather long preamble, I’d like to explain to you why am a conservative-liberal Muslim (not progressive, as the correct antonym should be reactionary; and in my world view Islam by definition is progressive, it’s just how we implement that message), and why I hope never have to use that label again.

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At the beginning of the MLT, we were asked to describe ourselves as liberal or conservative based on how other people saw us. Most people when referencing others spoke of non-Muslims. I choose to reference other Muslims and their perception of me. As a Shi’ah, I said that most Muslims would automatically consider me liberal, to the extent that I would be considered heretical. There is the pernicious use of language that talks about Islam and Shi’ah Islam (or Muslims and Shi’ah Muslims), relegating the Shi’ah to not being true Muslims; making us aberrations to the true understanding of Islam. This approach was readily apparent in the panel on Pluralism, where individuals said they were Muslim when asked to describe what type of Muslim they were. I understand the idea of trying to limit differences in the community, but this was a conference by Muslims for Muslims to discuss who we were. By simply stating “Muslim,” the power relationship of majority Sunni interpretations is normalized and the Shi’ah are marginalized. Those who argue against unequal power relationships when it applies to their disempowered status are more than happy to exercise the same unequal power when they are in power. Even if the use of “Muslim” was more innocent, to indicate difference doesn’t matter in this setting, I would argue that it helps the homogenizing influence of the Cult of Abd al-Wahhab, which wants sameness at all costs. In a panel on pluralism, difference should be acknowledged. In general, I think we as Muslims do not do enough to acknowledge difference. I’m suggesting it should be all we talk about, but it has to be stated. We’ll agree on 90% of everything related to the faith, but we need to know about the 10% as well. Our definitions are simple: if you accept that Hazrat Ali was the designated religious leader after Prophet Muhammad, you are Shi’ah. If you don’t, you are Sunni. Not tough.

Back to the opening event. I said that most Muslims would tag me as “liberal,” but most non-Muslims would tag me as “conservative.” The reality is that conservative has become a polite why of saying fundamentalist, or to indicate a degree of fundamentalism. There are of course real concerns with using the term fundamentalist to refer to Muslims. By that logic, and it is one I subscribe to, I am a fundamentalist/conservative. I believe that our common source text, the Qur’an, is our raison d’être. However, I do not believe that the text involves sameness. It is the word of God, and just as God is unknowable in His totality, so too is His word.

If all the trees of the earth were pens

And the oceans ink,

With many more oceans fro replenishing them,

The words of God could never be written.

Truly he is all-mighty and all-wise.


He [God] has sent down this Book which contains

some verses that are categorical and basic to the Book,

and others allegorical.

But those who are twisted of mind look for [the] metaphorical verses,

to give them their own interpretation and deviate [from the truth.]

No one knows their meaning except God

and those firmly grounded in knowledge.

They attests “We believe in them as all of them are from the Lord.”

Only those with wisdom understand.


[Adapted from Ahmed Ali’s translations.]

That level of knowledge is incomprehensible to us, and so the human endeavor is to make it comprehensible. In turn, that leads to the diversities in interpretations that we see in the Islamic tradition. Because of that lack of sameness, to be a conservative in respecting the text, does not mean that there is a conservative attitude in what I understand the text to mean.

I am a believer that all the Abrahamic faiths are inherently progressive. The political idea of liberal and conservative is that they are ends of a spectrum in a particular system, and they are, in some capacity, interested in maintaining the system. A progressive ideology is one that sees what could be better, and tries to make it so, even if it means upsetting the system. Its opposite, the reactionary ideology, wishes to prevent change in the system, fossilizing it at a particular moment, a move that is equally upsetting to a balanced, dynamic, functioning system. Using these definitions, the Abrahamic revelations, and communities of followers, are all progressive. Judaism institutionalized the idea of radical monotheism, an idea so revolutionary that even 500 years after its introduction, an Egyptian pharaoh could still not introduce the idea to his people. Christianity brought us the radical idea of Love as an article and practice of faith. The Prophet Jesus spoke not only of the law, but of justice and temperament and humanity. Prophet Muhammad was given a revelation that spoke briefly of law, but gave us the idea of a radical equality amongst people. [This list is reductionist, I know. Add to it.] From this perspective, I do not believe that the appellation of “progressive” is necessary; in fact, I think to use it is to cede power to the reactionary forces in our traditions that are becoming normative. [This last comment is not meant as a dig at Progressive Islam, whom I believe to share my same concerns; our differences are semantic, not in content. Nor is it a comment on the Progressive Faith Blog Con, which was about faith and political progressives.]

Unfortunately, what is happening now is that the idea of political progressivism is being read back into faith discussions, so that politically progressive ideas are being forced onto faith communities to show that they are modern. As a result, particularly in the Islamic tradition, progressive Islam has come to mean leaving the text behind, or coming to a conclusion as to what “Islam” says and creating a forced reading of the text. In this respect, progressive Muslims are similar to the cults of Bin Laden and Abd al-Wahhab; they are willing to leave behind the traditions of Islam to achieve their ends. Islam has existed for over 1400 years changing and adapting, and we have had our radical departures from tradition (think of the Mihna, or even Ghazali’s appropriations of Fatimid thought for Sufi Sunni thinking), but these events have all engaged with the past. What the “progressives” and the cultists are doing now is breaking with the past and creating a new framework what is modeled on personal desires rather than intellectual vigor. To me, both are contributing to the decline of Muslim thought, and thus to the decline of Muslim societies. In many respects the “progressives” are as reactionary as the cultists when it comes to dealing with modernity.

Rather than reading progressivism into the text, we need to read it out of the text. With a document as revolutionary as the Qur’an, it should not be difficult. I have suggested elsewhere (1, 2, 3), there are a variety of ways to approach the text, and that most Muslim scholars agree many of the legal aspects of the text are bound to Medinah, whereas the ethical framework is universal and timeless (the AKDN is a good example of putting this theory into practice). I don’t expect all Muslims to agree on everything, and that applies to politically progressive causes. However, I think we need to re-emphasize the ethical and moral message that is in our most radical and progressive text, the Qur’an.

So, I am uncomfortable with the label “progressive.” To me Islam by definition is progressive, so by using that label I’m either indicating I’m leaving the Qur’an behind, or that I’m allowing the cult of Abd al-Wahhab to define Islam as being atextual and based on the cult of personality. I am a conservative-liberal Muslim, and I hope never to have to justify or use that label again. I am a Muslim. [Here, of course, that 10% doesn’t matter.]

One thought on “On Being a Conservative-Liberal Muslim (or why the progressive label is bad)

  1. Rather than reading progressivism into the text, we need to read it out of the text.
    ::wild applause::
    I like your point that it is perfectly possible to be conservative in respect for one’s central text, while being progressive in one’s interpretations of what that text might mean.
    One of my favorite quotations on this subject comes from Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, formerly chancellor of the primary Conservative Jewish seminary. He wrote: “in Judaism precisely because the Torah is revered as divine, it becomes susceptible to unending interpretation. It would be a denigration of God’s word to saddle it with just a single meaning.”

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