Allah is in the Details: Towards a Theory of Progressive Islam
Posted Jul 24, 2005

Allah is in the Details: Towards a Theory of Progressive Islam

By: Sanjay Bavikatte

Introduction: The current accelerated phase of globalisation does not refer to the triumph and the sovereign domination of any meta-narratives but rather to their dissipation (Lyotard 1984). A globalised culture is chaotic rather than orderly-it is integrated and connected so that the meanings of its components are ?relativized? to one another but it is neither unified nor centralized. The absolute globalisation of culture would involve the creation of a common but hyper-differentiated field of value, taste and style opportunities, accessible by each individual without constraint for purposes either of self-_expression or consumption (Waters 1995).

Under a globalising cultural regime Islam wouldn?t so much be linked to territorially based communities whether in the Middle-East, Africa or South/East Asia but would be universally available across the world with varying degrees of orthodoxy as indeed it is today. A globalised world ensures the continuous flow of ideas, values, images at a rapid pace, (space and time compression through transport and telecom revolutions) both/either as choices and/or effects depending on the socio-economic location of the individual.

These flows give a globalised culture a particular shape. First, it links together previously encapsulated and formerly homogeneous cultural niches forcing each to relativize itself to others. This relativization may take the form of either reflexive self-examination in which certain principles (projected as fundamental) are reasserted in the face of threatening alternatives or the absorption of some elements of other cultures. Second, it allows for the development of genuinely trans-national cultures not linked to any particular nation-state-society that may be either novel or syncretistic (Featherstone 1990).

Progressive Islam as an ideology emerges at the node of this complex matrix of reflexivity, relativization and trans-nationalization. More specifically, Progressive Islam is a process of self-examination that results in attempts at cultural legitimisation and assertion within Islam of specific ?progressive? ideas. These ideas may be both the result of absorption of elements of other cultures and a resurrection of previously marginalized ideas/fragments of belief within Islam itself.

But Progressive Islam isn?t the only form of Islam that emerges as a response to and the result of cultural globalisation. Other kinds of Islam/s emerge, simultaneously, at once in stark contrast and similar to each other. Amidst the overwhelming assault of images, ideas and issues these Islams spill out laying claim to minds, loyalties and the truth with the urgent power of ideas whose time has come.

Liquid Religion: These various Islams (progressive Islam included) don?t stand out like green behind the ears, tentative and apologetic latecomers to an ever-unfolding carnival of ideologies. On the contrary they enter with a bang, akin to a super star in disguise, who went unrecognised in a TV sitcom peopled by mediocre actors. They claim their greatness with the vengeance of harbingers of truth, dismissing all others as charlatans and stare you in the eye with the earnestness of the genuine inheritors of the traditions of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him). They do this by effectively denying their ostensible newness through constructing religious legitimacy.

Geertz defines culture as ?an historically transmitted pattern of meanings in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men and women communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge and attitudes to life? (Geertz 1973). Religion is an integrally intertwined strand in the rope of culture, and/or vice versa. It informs and constitutes subjects and their worldviews almost as if there is awareness of ones religion without an awareness of that awareness, like a seeing eye that itself cannot be seen.

But religion as a category is fluid as if by design. The fluidity of religion is constituted by three paradoxes. These paradoxes give religion a liquid like character that while having a quality of its own yet takes the shape of the vessel it is poured into. These paradoxes are elaborated by An-Na?im as paradoxes of culture generally and I take the liberty here of extending them to religion. Firstly religion combines stability with continuous dynamic change. This change is induced by internal adjustments and external influences. Both type of changes must however be approved through religiously validated mechanisms and adapted to pre-existing norms and institutions. Otherwise religion would lose its coherence and stability. Secondly, religion in most cases offers its members a range of options or is willing to accommodate varying individual responses to its norms. But this degree of flexibility allowed by religion and the choices it offers are controlled by its internal criteria of legitimacy. Thirdly, there is a certain ambivalence of religious norms that make them susceptible to different interpretations. More often than not, powerful individuals and/or groups tend to monopolize the interpretation of religious norms and manipulate them to their advantage (An-Na?im 1992). Pitched battles of interpretation are fought over religious terrain, almost as if those who control the past control the future.

The Machinery of Critical Islam: I would identify three recent strains of Islam as constituting critical Islam. The first is Islamism; the second is ?liberal Islam? and finally ?progressive Islam?. I will define all three of them in due course. But before that let us examine ?critical Islam? as an analytic category. The emergence of the critical Islam is a possibility that is always thrown open by the dominant discourse. Social criticism is a by-product of a larger activity of cultural elaboration and affirmation. Religious affirmation takes place through the work of the ulemas, mullahs, teachers, historians, writers etc. But as long as these groups of people exist there is always the space for social criticism. It isn?t that these people occupy a permanently subversive class. They also do the intellectual work of those in power. But as long as they do the intellectual work, they open the way for adversary proceeding of social criticism.

This is the argument that Marx works out in The German Ideology (Marx 1947). What makes criticism possible according to this account is the fact that every ruling class is compelled to present itself as a universal class. The rulers have to present themselves as the guardians of common interest and their goal is transcendence. The intellectuals elaborate this self-presentation of the rulers. Their work is apologetic, but this apology gives ammunition to future social critics. It sets standards that the rulers are unable to live up to, given their particularist ambitions. These standards have a universalistic disguise, and to make the disguise effective they also embody the interests of the oppressed. Ideology always strains towards universality as a condition of its success.

Gramsci pursues this idea, when he argues, ?hegemonic cultures are complex political constructions. The intellectuals have to make a case for these ideas in order to convince people who have ideas of their own. The fact of hegemony presupposes that one takes into account the interests and tendencies of the groups over which hegemony will be exercised, and it also presupposes that the hegemonic groups will be able to make some sacrifices of a corporate nature? (Mouffe 1979). These sacrifices mean that the ruling classes internalise contradictions, and so criticism always has a starting point inside the dominant culture. Gramsci continues that radical critics initiate a ?process of differentiation and change in the relative weight that the elements of the old ideologies used to possess. What was taken as secondary and subordinate is now taken to be primary and becomes the nucleus of a new ideological and theoretical complex? (Gramsci 1971) . New ideas thus emerge from the leaven of the old ones by way of interpretation and revision.

Critical Islam as a process is triggered by the reflexivity and relativization of cultural globalisation. It is made possible because of the liquid like nature of religion that combines both stability and dynamic change simultaneously. It uses as it?s vehicle elements of contradiction within the universalising narrative of the dominant discourse and then converts these elements into battering rams of sorts that open, occupy and expand spaces of critique. Critical Islam constantly seeks legitimation by the internal criteria of Islam itself, specifically linking their heritage to ignored, overlooked and misunderstood, but nevertheless significant suras of the Qur?an and the sunnas of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).

What makes critical Islam so critical is because of the gauntlet it throws to the traditionally entrenched power elite. Its war dance gyrates to the drums of justice and emancipation of the hitherto oppressed sections within Islam. The three varying Islams within critical Islam conjure different visions of utopia for the wretched. Even their foes and forces they seek to confront sometimes vary. The chord that binds these Islams together though, is their discourse of justice. They all seek to remedy injustices of the past, secure the present and promise a just future as the inheritance of the long suffering meek.

Islamism: I use the word ?Islamism? rather than ?fundamentalism? to capture the rise of a number of political movements that have stressed on the theme of Islamic regeneration. ?Islamism? as a term is broad enough to capture the diversity and similarities of these movements, whether the Iranian Hezbollah, Algerian FIS, Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt or the Sudanese Brotherhood. ?Islamism? as a word is also more likely to create its own meaning that captures the complexity of these movements as opposed to ?fundamentalism? that is already embedded in the meaning systems of the western media as a form of regressive neo-traditionalism.

Fundamentalism popularly represents a form of religious inflexibility, political traditionalism, social conservatism and rejection of the modern world. But this description lacks a basic empirical integrity. Unlike Christian fundamentalism these Islamic movements engage with modernity in ways that at least claim to interrogate traditional power structures, state repression and imperialism. They are distinctly anti-traditionalist since they don?t seek to conserve a social order that is eroded by capitalism. On the contrary they stress on the theme of religious regeneration attempting to give voice to their mass base, which is predominantly the petty bourgeoisie and sections of the working classes. This religious regeneration could go to the extent of Khomeni?s denouncement of the last 1,300 years of Islamic history, harking back to a mythical past that involves reclamation, doing away with obfuscation by tradition and a renewed search for origins. The enemy is false tradition, since by and large these movements welcome modern industry, technology and science. Practices that are associated with false tradition are seen to have weakened the Umma, and the stress on female modesty and an end to promiscuous mixing of sexes is projected as a fight against western cultural imperialism. There is a contemporaneous construction of a mythical past that is projected back through history and attempts are made to reclaim the pious Muslim identity that has been diminished by the cultural compromises of tradition. This is hardly religious inflexibility or traditionalism but on the contrary is a complex mixture anti-imperialism, demands for economic redistribution and a critique of traditional power structures with a strong flavour of cultural fascism (Harman 1998).

It is imperative to remember that this attempt at religious regeneration is the result of and a response to forces of modernity. It is a result of the weakening of the traditional relations of production and attempts by the emergent classes in a semi-feudal state to secure economic opportunity. It is a backlash against a repressive state that is controlled by the traditional power elite. It is a critique of imperialism by the masses that have borne the brunt of its effects. At the same time it is a construction of a mythical identity that has little to do with the complexity of tradition and bears greater resemblance to chauvinistic nationalism and fascism.

There is lack of ideological clarity in Islamism that is its strength. The core ideas are ambiguous to the point where it means everything to everybody. The use of broad religious phraseology whitewashes the material differences and differing interests between the different interest groups. In the heat of the struggle, the compulsory veiling of women is seen as the fight against Western cultural hegemony, which in turn is seen as a critique against the complicit and repressive state. What would be termed in liberal rights discourses as religious chauvinism and blatant sexism has to contend with counter arguments by Islamism?s intelligentsia who also rely on discourses of modernity. These arguments underpin ideas of cultural relativism, anti-imperialism (Khomeini?s notion of ?westoxification?, Qutub?s notion of Jahilliya), third world nationalism, state sovereignty, right to collective self determination, post-structuralism and finally scientifically verifiable capability differences between the sexes that justifies differing gender roles.

Liberal Islam: Liberal Islam in substantially draws from a liberal individualist rights discourse. Before we brave the current of liberal Islam in our endeavour to comprehend it, we need to list out some of the basic ingredients of liberalism. Depending on the theorist of one?s choice, one may either hold out that civil and political rights always trump over economic and social rights (Rawls and Dworkin) or assert that civil rights though important are not the only determinants of political action (Raz).

Rights always set limits on the actions of others be they the majority or the state.

Rights are vested in individuals.

The role of the state is to protect basic individual liberties and not to make the citizens virtuous, i.e. the state is both neutral and non-virtuous.

The individual is sovereign to the extent that the only justification for the state?s encroachment on an individual?s right to self-determination is to either prevent or punish harm to others. Promotion of neither public policy nor individual?s own welfare is sufficient to justify the state?s curtailment of individual rights.

There is an assumption of the existence of an array of choices and opportunities available to individuals in society.

The choosers at a minimum are capable of making choices, i.e. not completely debilitated by drugs, threats by others or absolute ignorance. This is a negative basic minimum requirement without any positive criteria of intelligence, education etc (McDonald 1992).

Liberal Islam is a work in progress. It is open ended; responsive and yet circumscribed by the structural limitations of the liberal project. But this shouldn?t be perceived as a criticism but rather as an observation. Advocates of liberal Islam are not apologists for capital and cultural imperialism. In most cases they speak against entrenched and insolent power both within and outside Islam often at grave risks to themselves. They are at pains to establish that religious pluralism, equality, freedom of speech and _expression, right to personal liberty etc. are an intrinsic albeit suppressed part of Islam. They further vigorously assert that Islam is a precursor to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and that the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) was one of the original advocates of civil and political rights (An-Na?im 1992, Engineer 1999, Muzaffar 2000).

Advocates of liberal Islam are also staunch critics of the neo-liberalism, hyper-consumerism and rogue capital. But this in itself is insufficient to place them in the progressive camp since liberalism has a rather large and accommodative canvas and most liberals in their right minds would oppose the current pattern of economic globalisation (Sen 1999, Stiglitiz 2002). What the liberal Islam group lack is a coherent agenda of how they would balance socio-economic rights vis-୶is civil and political rights and group rights vis-୶is individual rights. Further they are also devoid of a specific political agenda that goes beyond establishing a functioning liberal democracy. Issues relating to property, ownership etc. remains under-interrogated. At best a proponent of liberal Islam would speak of fair distribution and adequate social security measures by the state (Muzaffar 2000).

To be fair to the foot soldiers of liberal Islam I must add the caveat that their work comes from the trenches. The struggle they are engaged in must be seen as work in progress whose potential is unpredictable. Yet there must be an awareness that there is only so far that the vehicle of liberalism can take them. By no means however should the liberal Islam be confused with those I would classify as Islamic apologists. Islamic apologists are a variety that seeks to find cultural legitimacy within Islam for ideas that are conducive to capital and accommodative of imperialism. Their strategy is simple enough to be stated as, ?what is good for capital is good for Islam? and that ?Islam means peace?. Thus their advocacy of civil liberties is more instrumental than altruistic. Liberal Islam on the other hand still occupies the analytical category of ?critical Islam? all of whose constituents relentlessly challenge unbridled power.

Progressive Islam: Different ideological aspirations and support bases is what would distinguish progressive Islam from liberal Islam and Islamism. Progressive Islam claims its reach extends beyond liberalism and that structural transformation is its goal. Progressive Islam also steers clear from the populism of Islamism where the middle classes mobilize large sections of the masses with radical rhetoric against imperialism, foreign capitalism etc. promising drastic economic betterment. But this drastic restructuring is not a socio-economic transformation but more often than not a politico-cultural change shifts power from the traditional feudal elite to the petty bourgeoisie. Further there is a strong emphasis on civil liberties in progressive Islam that Islamism denies. Islamism invariably avoids confronting the real forces of economic exploitation but strategically plays on the anti-imperialistic rhetoric to target those who adopt a ?western lifestyle?, speak a ?foreign? language, happen to be ?immodest? women, watch American TV, or constitute religious and ethnic minorities.

Despite being forged in the flames of struggle and its radical goals, progressive Islam at least in theory is at a nascent stage. It has been insufficiently theorized and seems to be at a stage of consensus building. Working papers on progressive Islam are at best manifestos that outline broad goals but lack the nuts and bolts.

Esack argues that, ?progressive Islam is used in opposition to liberalism?s emphasis on individual liberties within a societal framework in which all have equal opportunity regardless of the starting points of various classes within a society. While liberals would advocate social change, progressives would additionally interrogate the nature of change and ask which socio-economic class stand to benefit from these changes. Within the broader socio-economic context, liberalism with its commitment to minimalist universal ethics (and minimum state intervention in the market) is often seen as merely a set of ideas advocating greater individual liberties while it is actually inextricably interwoven with the free market ideology. Progressive ideologues have, in fact, argued that the North ? or the developed countries - with its stress on an individualistic competitive system causes social dislocation and injustice and that while it has the outward forms of freedom and human rights but that, in reality, there are subtle forms of violation which are even more repressive and unjust.?(Esack 2002)

Esack gets more specific in his definition of progressive Islam by listing its elements. Progressive Islam opposes: ? a) the projection of an inevitable of Pax Americana and the unfettered march of globalization in the service of the market. b) The relentless promotion of corporate culture and consumerism which results in the exploitation of our natural environment, deforestation, the destruction of local communities and the eco-system and cruelty to animals. c) Racism, sexism, homophobia and all other forms of socio-economic injustices, both within and outside of Muslim societies and communities. d) Intolerance and fascist tendencies which insist on and seeks to enforce a single and absolute appreciation of truth in all religious and cultural communities including Islam.?(Esack 2002)

The promises of progressive Islam though radically seductive need to be examined and relativized. Opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia and religious intolerance could just as well owe their origins to the liberal rights discourse. Anti-imperialism, environmentalism, opposition to excessive consumerism could again be accommodated within a system of group rights that could still be argued for within liberalism. Most liberals would further eschew what today passes in the name of ?free-market? ideology. Some of the most vociferous supporters of the neo-liberal economic model such as the World Bank have now hastily back tracked and currently advocate a free-market model that ensures a reasonable amount of public spending by the government and strong social security measures. The ?Enhanced Poverty Reduction Strategy? programs initiated jointly by the IMF and the WB stands testimony to this. Free-market economists such as Amartya Sen are currently pushing a free-market economic model that incorporates civil liberties and minimum socio-economic rights as not just the ends of development but empirically verifiable means to it (Sen 1999). I don?t for a moment harbour the naivet頴hat these changes in theory have translated into reality, but am merely taking stock of the ideological shifts that have occurred over the last decade that progressive Islam must engage with.

If progressive Islam as an ideology seeks to distinguish itself from both Islamism and liberal Islam, it needs to not just critique the free-market model but specify alternatives to it. It will also not help to brand the apologists of rogue capital as liberal since that would be constructing the proverbial ?straw man? and proceeding to poke holes in him. Progressive Islam has to view liberalism with the intellectual rigour it deserves and then distinguish itself from the latter. For that progressive Islam must now move beyond the stage of critique and manifestos to actually undertaking the difficult but imperative task of constructing real alternatives. The progressive Muslims who seek to engage in this effort must begin by asking themselves some necessary questions. These questions are:

1) What does Progressive Islam understand by political transformation? What theories of democracy does it rely on: liberal, anarchist, Marxist etc.? Or does it seek to advocate a uniquely Islamic conception of democracy that may or may not rely on other theories?

2) What is/are the specific model/s of economic transformation that Progressive Islam subscribes to? Is it the present model but with an emphasis on strong social spending and redistribution or is it one of the various Marxist or anarchist models? Or does it seek to advocate a uniquely Islamic conception of economics/development that may or may not rely on other theories?

3) Who will be the beneficiaries of these transformations?

4) What will be its strategies to achieve these transformations?

5) What are the forces that Progressive Islam will align itself with?

Conclusion: I have endeavoured in this outline to map the contours of the ?critical Islam?. I have argued that ?critical Islam? is result of and response to the current phase of cultural globalisation. Critical Islam as a movement seeks cultural legitimacy within Islam and this is made possible by the liquid like nature of religion that at once encapsulates both stability and strategic dynamism. The critical element in ?critical Islam? lies in its subversive ability to destabilise traditional power formations within Islam by demystifying its contradictions. Progressive Islam is one of the manifestations of ?critical Islam?. But ?progressive Islam? as an ideology can be comprehended only by distinguishing it from the other two manifestations of ?critical Islam?: Liberal Islam and Islamism.

Progressive Islam seems to promise the bravest of the new worlds when compared to the other ?critical Islams?. It is pregnant with potential and offers much needed hope in these bleak times. But it is precisely because of its tremendous power that it shoulders a great responsibility. This is the responsibility of conceptual clarity and rigour. Despite Progressive Islam?s stress on praxis where theory is forged through struggle, one must bear in mind that there is a dialectical relation between theory and action.

It is in pursuit of theorizing ?progressive Islam? that further labours must be yoked. I do not claim to be able to answer the questions that I have posed to ?progressive Islam?. Progressive Islam for large part is not just a theory but also a possible people?s movement. The essence of a genuine people?s movement is that its future is not a pattern that is presented to its supporters as a given. On the contrary people are invited to join in collectively weaving the rich designs of the tapestry of their future. For the progressive Muslims, their objectives initially can be far more humble. They can start by bringing some clarity into what ?progressive Islam? is not, by defining both ?Islamism? and ?liberal Islam? with greater care. They would thereby provide some kind of compass for drawing the trajectories of future action for ?progressive Islam?. Perhaps that is the best we can do, since being a ?progressive Muslim? is not a closed identity but an open ended one. It must be, as Foucault puts it, an ?identity of becoming?. Never complete but always moving towards - thankfully - incomplete, reflexive, and responsive.

Originally printed at, and reprinted at TAM with permission.