Safi, Omid - Interview on ‘Progressive Muslims’

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Jun 19, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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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


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


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


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


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


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


genuine pluralism.  Tolerance is a terrible medieval concept, that


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


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


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



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


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


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


other religions and their followers while still adhering to

prescriptions of

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


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,


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


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


that we no longer share




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


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


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


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

Islam to

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


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

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



This is perhaps closest to what traditionally has been called liberal

Islam, with the difference that progressives are very skeptical and


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


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


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


that, of course, is holding governmental structures responsible and




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


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


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


share our commitment to pluralism and social justice and gender


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





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


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


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

rooted in the Islamic concept of God having breathed into humanity


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


small scale communities that share and celebrate that idea.


May God continue to guide all of us, Inshallah.