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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.