In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Progressive Islam and Progressive Muslim Thought

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Framework
  • Intellectual Predecessors
  • Women, Gender, and Religious Authority
  • Sufi Thought
  • Political Thought
  • Qurʾan-Sunna Hermeneutics
  • Islamic Theology
  • Islamic Ethics
  • Islamic Philosophy

Islamic Studies Progressive Islam and Progressive Muslim Thought
Adis Duderija
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0230


The religious authority of traditionally educated Muslim scholars (ulama), the fashioners and perpetuators of the classical Islamic tradition, has been seriously disrupted and contested by a number of actors, among the most influential of whom are apologists, puritan fundamentalists, public intellectuals, and what are termed scholar-activist proponents of progressive Islam / progressive Muslim (PM) thought. PM thought is an umbrella term covering approaches to the Islamic tradition and (late) capitalist modernity, which, at times, employ the words “progressive” or “critical” (e.g., the magazine Critical Muslim published in the United Kingdom) when self-labeling themselves or which fall into PM thought as defined herein. PM thought emerged in the shadows of the tragic events of 9/11. Although the origins and the main theoreticians behind this modern Muslim thought are to be traced mainly to Muslim academics and intellectuals residing in the West, the proponents of PM thought can be found both in Muslim majority and Muslim minority contexts. Importantly, PM intellectuals and activists include a significant number of females. PM thought is best characterized by its commitment and fidelity to certain ideals, values, practices, and objectives that are expressed and take form in a number of different themes. These themes primarily concern issues pertaining to their “critical” positioning in relation to (1) the hegemonic economic, political, social, and cultural forces from the Global North, (2) hegemonic patriarchal, exclusivist, and ossified interpretations of their own inherited Islamic tradition, and (3) both the values underpinning the Age of Enlightenment modernity as well as radical forms of postmodern thought. This critique simultaneously challenges both (neo-)traditional and puritan Islamic hegemonic discourses on many issues (including the debates on modernity, human rights, gender equality and justice, democracy, and the place and role of religion in society and politics) and Western-centric conceptualizations and interpretations, embedded as they are in the values and worldview assumptions underpinning the Enlightenment. Commitment to social and gender justice (including indigenous Islamic feminism) and a belief in the inherent dignity of every human being as a carrier of God’s spirit are fundamental to PMs’ Weltanschauung. The centrality of spirituality and the nurturing of interpersonal relationships based on Sufi-like ethico-moral philosophy and principled prophetic ethics of solidarity is another important characteristic of this thought. Bringing about and strengthening the multifaceted and dynamic aspects of the inherited Islamic tradition and resisting its reductionism and exclusivist interpretation founded on patriarchy, misogyny, and religious bigotry is an important additional trait of PM thought. Another significant attribute of PM thought is its epistemological and methodological openness and fluidity. PMs do not subscribe to commonly employed dichotomies such as tradition versus modernity and secularism versus religion, or simplistic generalization such as modernity equals Western or Judeo-Christian intellectual/civilizational tradition. As such, PMs are engaged in permanent dialogue with the progressive agendas of other cultures, drawing inspiration not only from faith-based liberatory movements such as liberation theology but also from movements that are premised outside a faith-based framework, such as secular humanism. Progressive Islamic hermeneutics is characterized by its emphasis on the role of context and history (i.e., nature of previous communities of interpretation) in interpreting the foundational Islamic texts without questioning their ontologically divine nature. It is these characteristics that set them apart from other modern reformist-minded movements such as those associated with traditional islah and tajdid (see Duderija 2011, cited under Theoretical Framework). Therefore, the material selected under every heading in this article meets the described relevant criteria or is consistent with them. Methodologically, PM thought is here identified as a “community of interpretation” in the sense employed by a modern literary critic, Stanley Fish (b. 1938). Hence, the proponents of PM thought share certain interpretational assumptions, be they epistemological, hermeneutical, or methodological, when conceptualizing and interpreting the turath and its foundational texts, as documented in Duderija 2011. The proponents of PM thought should not be seen as an entirely internally homogenous group or as a rigid conceptual category; the concept of PM thought should primarily be seen as a heuristic tool that may be used to define and delineate a particular type or way of being a Muslim.

Theoretical Framework

A handful of Muslim scholars primarily residing in the United States have contributed to the theoretical framework behind PM thought. The pioneering work is Safi 2003 (further developed in Safi 2006), especially its introduction to the edited volume and chapters in Moosa 2003 and Esack 2003. Moosa 2007 and Duderija 2011 provide the most theoretically sustained arguments on defining PM thought.

  • Duderija, Adis. Constructing Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation. Edited by Khaled Abou El Fadl. Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230337862

    This is the most comprehensive and up-to-date source concerning the definition of PM thought and its theoretical framework. It also situates and describes PM thought and its approach to interpretation of sacred texts both in relation to the Islamic tradition and with respect to late modernity and its episteme.

  • Esack, Farid. “In Search of Progressive Islam Beyond 9/11.” In Progressive Muslims; On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Edited by Omid Safi, 78–98. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.

    Offers useful insights into dilemmas associated with definition of progressive Islam and how PMs differ from liberal Muslims, especially in relation to their response to western political and economic hegemony in general and to the 9/11 events in particular.

  • Moosa, Ebrahim. “The Debts and Burdens of Critical Islam.” In Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Edited by Omid Safi, 111–128. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.

    Provides an important discussion on the kind of questions and debates modern Muslims face pertaining to the nature of the Islamic tradition and its conceptualization and interpretation.

  • Moosa, Ebrahim. “Transitions in the ‘Progress’ of Civilisation.” In Voices of Islam. Vol. 5, Voices of Change. Edited by Omid Safi, 115–130. Praeger Perspectives. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

    Provides a very significant theoretical engagement about what progressive Islam is and is not and the perils associated with its definition. It contains an important discussion on how the concepts of “progress,” “history,” and “tradition” are conceptualized in PM thought.

  • Safi, Omid, ed. Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.

    Describes and situates PM thought and its major concerns and themes, as more or less described in the Introduction. The fourteen essays are grouped into three themes as reflected in the book’s subtitle: social justice, gender justice, and pluralism.

  • Safi, Omid. “Progressive Islam in America.” In A Nation of Religions: The Politics of Pluralism in Multireligious America. Edited by Stephen Prothero, 23–43. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

    Usefully situates and describes progressive Islam in the context of North American Muslim communities and the challenges they face.

  • Safi, Omid. “Introduction: Islamic Modernism and the Challenge of Reform.” In Voices of Islam. Vol. 5, Voices of Change. Edited by Omid Safi, 17–34. Praeger Perspectives. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

    This work builds on Safi 2003 and Safi 2006 and helpfully situates and delineates progressive Islam from other Muslim modernist movements, including secularists. It also discusses the issue of Islamic reform from a progressive perspective.

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