Safi, Omid - Interview on ‘Progressive Muslims’

Omid Safi teaches Philosophy and Islamic Studies at Colgate University,

USA. He is the editor of Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and

Pluralismђ, published recently by Oneworld Press, Oxford. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand he speaks about his vision of a progressive understanding of Islam.

 

Q: What sort of work are you currently engaged in?

A: I am a father, a husband, a scholar, and an activist. I was trained

originally in medieval Islamic thought, particularly the mystical

tradition in Islam known as Sufism. More recently, I have been trying

to

figure out a way to combine the spiritual sensitivity of Sufism with

the

current emphasis on social justice, and that has led me to explore the

area

that today many know as progressive Islam.

 

 

Q: What sort of inter-faith dialogue work have you been engaged in?

 

A: Yes, I have been deeply involved in inter-faith dialogue work.  I

often

joke with people that on the day of resurrection, Jesus (alayhi salam)

better intercede with me, because of all the time that

I have spent at his house of worship. Living in the upstate New

York area, I have been involved with interfaith dialogue with our

Jewish,

Christian, and Buddhist friends.

 

 

Q: How do you feel relations between Muslims and people of other

faiths [or of no faith at all] can be improved? What role does

inter-faith dialogue have to play in this? What would this mean for

the ways in which Muslims need to reconsider how they view the

religious ‘Other’?

 

A: I often urge us to think about moving beyond the concept of

“tolerance”, or “tolerating” our differences, towards the higher ground

of

genuine pluralism.  Tolerance is a terrible medieval concept, that

deals

with how much poison a body can tolerate before it kills us. I think we

can

do better than merely figure out how much of another person or

tradition we

can take before he/ it kills us.  We can move towards a pluralistic

society

in which we come to engage one another at the deepest level of what

makes us

human, and that means engaging both our commonalities and our

differences.

 

Q: What forms, in your view, should inter-faith dialogue take?

A: Since human beings are complex and multi-leveled creatures, our

Inter-faith work should also take place at all of our different levels:

physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual.  And while it may seem

superficial, it should also take place at the food level. It is much

too

hard to hate a person with whom we have broken break, or had “bread and

salt”, as our Persian friends say.

 

Q. What role can ‘popular’ forms of Islam play in the inter-faith

dialogue project? ?

 

A: A very popular tradition in Islam, particularly in South Asia and

the

Persianate regions, has been the Sufi strand.  Sufis have often

approached the other self-manifestations of the Divine with respect and

admiration, and we would do well to head their example in this light.

 

 

Q: Is it possible for Muslims to develop a more positive understanding

of

other religions and their followers while still adhering to

prescriptions of

medieval fiqh? In this regard, how do you envisage ijtihad in

reformulating

the ways in which Muslims can view orrelate to the ‘Other’ in a more

positive way?

 

 

A; Absolutely, I see no problem in this regard.  At the same time,

however,

I also think that our own juridical understandings of Islam need to

continue

to evolve, as some of it is based on a xenophobic understanding of

humanity

that we no longer share

today.

 

 

Q: How do you understand the shari’ah and the distinction between the

divine shari’ah, the historical shari’ah and fiqh?

 

 

A: I accept the divine shari’a as the guidance designed by Allah for

humanity.  At the same time, I realize that what we today call shari’a

is the product of a human attempt to deduce that divine guidance.  Fiqh

is

strictly a human process, full of all the nobilities and all the

shortcomings that being human entails.  So yes, I do believe that we

must approach the historical shari’a with a critical perspective.

 

 

Q: How do you define the terms ‘progressive Islam’ and ‘progressive

Muslim’? How would these differ from the other forms of Islam/Muslim

that they seek to define themselves against?

 

 

A: A progressive Muslim I define as one who believes that every human

being on earth is entitled to a great and equal level of dignity simply

by

the virtue of being human.  That dignity does not depend on one’s

religion,

race, class, national origin, sexual orientation, etc.. Progressive

Islam to

me is an understanding of Islam that upholds this conviction, and seeks

to

root in an ever changing and more pluralistic and just understanding of

Islam (as opposed to say, merely a humanistic understanding by a

Muslim).

 

This is perhaps closest to what traditionally has been called liberal

Islam, with the difference that progressives are very skeptical and

critical

about all institutions of power, whether Muslim or non-Muslim.  Part of

our

task is to hold all powers that be accountable, and speak out when they

put

their own interests before that of other members of humanity. Foremost

among

that, of course, is holding governmental structures responsible and

accountable.

 

 

Q: How have your own academic efforts (and efforts of other

‘progressive Muslims’ in general) in reformulating our understanding

of Islam actually impacted on popular perceptions? What should be done

in

order to make that impact more deeply rooted? How have other Muslims

reacted

to your own writings?

 

 

A: we are very much in the initial stages of this process. I have no

intention of pursuing a merely academic enterprise. This has to be

and remain a grassroots movement.  I think rather than defining our

task as

one that works against the ulama, we should work with the ulama members

who

share our commitment to pluralism and social justice and gender

equality.

There are surely many such ulama, as we have seen in places like Iran

and

elsewhere.

 

 

Q: What are your own future plans in the field of ‘progressive

Islam’ and inter-faith dialogue work?

 

 

A: I wish to keep moving forward, Insha’allah with humility and

compassion.

My on-going task is to help create a network of relationships among

people

who share our commitment to a universal understanding of human dignity,

rooted in the Islamic concept of God having breathed into humanity

something

of His own spirit (wa nafakhtu fihi min ruhi). It is also about

establishing

small scale communities that share and celebrate that idea.

 

May God continue to guide all of us, Inshallah.

 

 


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