Islam’s Encounter with American Culture: Making Sense of the Progressive Muslim Agenda

The Progressive Muslim Union (PMU)’s [1] drive to realign Islam to progressive values has stirred a controversy [2] that was felt beyond the American shores. While the immediate questions of the controversy evolved around the right of women to lead a mixed-gender prayer, the discussion revealed deeper and profounder issues and concerns. At the core of the debate lies the old question of understanding divine intent and relating the revealed word to social context and cultural practices. How does one interpret Islamic sources in the contemporary world? How can one differentiate the universal elements of Islam from cultural practices that have particular relevance to specific time and place? And, above all, how does Islam affects, and get affected by, American cultures and traditions.

Arguments from Common Sense

Does Islam allow women to lead men in prayers? The question, for progressive Muslims, evolves around the issues of gender equality, women empowerment, and the egalitarian ethos of modernity. For conservative Muslims, however, the question focuses on preserving Islamic traditions and avoiding the corrupting effects of modernity.

The proponents [3] of women’s rights to lead a mixed-gender congregation stress the fact that the Qur’an is clear on the moral equality of men and women, and reject the notion of Islamic traditions, which they see as an appeal to historically and geographically bound cultural traditions of an essentially patriarchic society. Husein Ibish, PMU vice chair, epitomizes this stance [4] as he dismisses Hina Azam’s appeal [5] to methodology and tradition as sheer legalism in the service of patriarchy. “For the sake of tradition, and in order to preserve what she claims is a divinely ordained male religious leadership,” Ibish protests, “her own better judgment and indeed the principal of scrutability are tossed aside.” For Ibish, Azam is guilty of abandoning modern spirit for membership in the jurists’ club. “It’s not about what you and I want, or what makes sense,” he contends, “or what I can defend in any way without reference to the deeply patriarchal and hermeneutically closed circle of the traditions of legal scholarship-¦”

Arguments from Tradition

Hina Azam rejects the “common sense” position embraced by the progressives, reminding us that submitting to the divine will is the essence of Islam, and this must be done is a systematic and consistent way. “It is the divine will that I believe we are charged with discerning, not our personal sensibilities.” Since the divine will is communicated through the Qur’an and exemplified in prophetic actions and statements (sunnah), the way to discern it is through a proper reading and sound methodology, i.e. a “sound system of legal reasoning which is consistent with the texts of the Qur’an and the most-likely-authentic Sunna, and which emerges from a spirit of piety and submission to Allah (or khushu’).”

The progressives are impatient with the very idea of a systematic and internally consistent reasoning, rooted in Islamic traditions, and are more comfortable with a free floating reasoning that rests comfortably in the “common sense” of post-modern American society. It is not difficult to see that the progressives are promoting a set of values embraced by the global progressive movement. It is not logic and methodology that disturbs Ibish in Azam’s argument, but rather the juristic tradition she invokes, which seems to compromise the puritan and absolute gender equality the progressives wholeheartedly embrace.

Muslim Identity and Competing Traditions

The conflict that plays itself out in the women-imam saga stems out from competing traditions that are informed by both cultures and ideologies. On one extreme stands an ultra-conservative tradition behold to a social mode in which men reign supreme in society. Women may receive education but are either discouraged from or denied the right to participate in social services and decision making. Traditional Muslim societies have pushed, over many centuries, women into the private sphere, and confined them completely to household concerns and services.

On the other extreme stands western feminism, uncritically embraced by progressive Muslims, which rejects all gender differences as irrelevant. The feminist obliteration of gender differences are strongly protested by reformist voices within the Islamic community as an obliteration of all feminine experiences and as a sign of male-worshipping tendencies. “But as western feminism erases God from the scene,” Yasmin Mogahed [6]argues, “there is no standard left-“but men. As a result the western feminist is forced to find her value in relation to a man. And in so doing she has accepted a faulty assumption. She has accepted that man is the standard, and thus a woman can never be a full human being until she becomes just like a man-“the standard.”

Yamin Zakaria [7] agrees with Yasmin that making man the standard of human behavior is interconnected with the gradual disappearance of the notion of God from the secular worldview. This explains to him the subordination of Islam to modernist values by the progressives. “But why should this be a one-way lane where religious values that are divine, reinterpreted to comply with man-made secular values?” Yamin exclaims. “This means that the ‘progressive’ ‘religious’ movements are using secular values as the ultimate arbiter: clearly they are a fraudulent religious movement. Their activity is undermining the divine text from within that makes them more dangerous than the clearly visible belligerent apostates and infidels.”

Islam and Cultural Traditions

Islam aims at realigning cultural attitudes and social practices with a set of universal values and principles that transcend all specific cultures and modes of social organization. Early Muslims were aware of important differences between religious injunctions and their manifestations in a particular cultural tradition. This awareness allowed people to reintegrate Islamic teachings to their own cultures. This has given rise to a multitude of manifestations of Islamic values, and allowed different cultures to maintain local traditions while embracing the teaching of Islam.

The interaction between Islamic values and local traditions can be observed in the variety of fashions, architectures, marriage ceremonies, celebrations of festivities, selection of judges, etc, that set different Muslim cultures apart. The Prophet, peace be with him, is clear that his mission was not to reject early traditions, but to build on traditions and practices founded on sound moral principles while reforming degenerate traditions and practices. “I was sent but to complete good morals.” He, therefore, embraced those pre-Islamic cultural traditions of his community that fostered mutual help and compassion, such as honoring guests, and the welfare system offered by the tribe to all tribesmen. The Prophet, by the same token, rejected practices that lent themselves to aggression and injustice, condemning, for instance, tribal solidarity with members of one’s tribe regardless of their culpability in criminal cases.

The Qur’an itself recognized local customs as a legitimate source of social norms, and directed the Prophet to respect local customs as long as they do not contravene established Islamic principles. “Hold to forgiveness; command the practice of good customs (‘urf), but turn away from the ignorant.” (7:199) Yet, the Qur’an was very critical of established practices that defied the principles of right and justice, and was forthright in rejecting the attempts to justify corrupt practices on the basis of established traditions. “When it is said to them: Follow what Allah has revealed, they say: Nay! we shall follow the ways of our fathers. What! even though their fathers were void of wisdom and guidance?” (2:170)

Subordinating Islamic Injunctions to Cultural Taste

Traditions are essential for human development, as they are essential for coordinating individual actions and ensuring social harmony. Traditions are not static, but evolve with social and cultural changes experienced by all societies. The development and evolution of traditions are not arbitrary, but are guided by basic attitudes and values. It is, therefore, important to identify the normative sources of a particular tradition when we examine competing traditions and ideologies within the Muslim community.

It is a fair question to ask about the extent to which tribal traditions and the gender-laden notion of honor influence recent immigrants from Middle Eastern societies, as it is fair to ask about the extent to which sexual promiscuity and moral laxity rampant in the post-modern west are at work among Progressive Muslims. When honor killing is condoned in societies with strong tribal heritage, even though it is a major crime in Islam, without a strong condemnation by religious leaders the question of subordinating Islamic principles to tribal traditions is unavoidable. Similarly, when Muslim communities neglect to provide a proper space for women in the masjid and the male leaders of the masjid prevent women from entering the main hall to participate in Islamic learning session, the question of subordinating Islam to patriarchic cultures is in order.

By the same token, when the progressives reduce sexual promiscuity, be it out-of-wedlock or same-sex sexual relations, into none issue, and insist that modesty in dress or gesture are governed by cultural taste rather than Islamic principles, the question of subordinating Islamic principles to progressive “common sense” becomes an issue. The progressives openly reject the hijab, normalize homosexual lifestyle, and find it convenient to use sexual innuendos as a strategy to engage public issues; they have privileged the promiscuous the hedonistic post-modern culture over fundamental Islamic principles and values.

No Genuine Moral Claims outside Living Communities

An important sign of one’s commitment to a set of moral values is to see them evolve in a moral community. That is, the true value of moral principles is not in their academic expression and annunciation, but in their ability to transform a living community and improve the quality of life therein. The question about the purpose of sponsoring the mixed-gender prayer is exceedingly important in evaluating the Muslim Progressive Agenda. The event is more of a religious stunt by media savvy individuals than a step in community building. Such events may create a new world record in Guinness Book but does not nurture a new way of life. If the progressive Muslims were more serious about prayer and the masjid, they would have waited to evolve a living community and establish a masjid that embraces their moral interpretations of Islam. Such a community would have provided a true test and practical illustration as to whether the proposed practices could uplift the Muslim spirit, or degenerate into a hedonistic colony.

Historical Muslim society, regardless of what faults we moderns can assign to, has a distinctive quality: combining stress on religious identity with unparalleled tolerance to religious, doctrinal, and moral diversity. Morality and justice was not expressed as an abstract notion to be debated within academic circles, but as a set of shared values to be lived and evolved in a living community. The standards of moral living were those embraced by the members of the community; the various fiqh schools were not simply academic schools or clubs, but formed around moral communities. Ultimately, a person is judged morally, even legally, by the standards to which he or she subscribed. A follower of the Hanafi school of fiqh is judged by a Hanafi judge, i.e. a member of the moral community to which they belonged, and not by any other judge belonging to a different moral community, or by a legal code enacted by central authorities.

This tremendous concern about the moral autonomy of people explains how Islamic civilization was able to accommodate, in remarkable harmony, different religious, doctrinal, theological, ethnic, and cultural traditions for over 1400 years. It is imperative for American Muslims-“who belong to a markedly diverse society and who aspire to develop their community and reassert their Islamic values-“to recall the outstanding openness of historical Muslim society, and to allow sufficient space to accommodate variety of interpretations and experiences.

Lashing Out

The Progressive Muslims’s Agenda-“which aims at realigning Islamic values in line with progressivism-” is excessive because it is a reaction to serious failure of many Islamic centers to embrace socially-active women and American-born Muslims. By insisting on re-living their cultural traditions, while failing to recognize positive and neutral elements of the American culture, Muslim immigrants have, wittingly and unwittingly, alienated a significant number of American-born Muslims, including a significant portion of their own children. These include: African Americans, white Americans, young Muslim professionals, and Muslim women.

The progressive excesses and provocations are invoked, in the first place, by the deficiencies of the leaders of many Islamic centers, who continue to give priority to the preservation of cultural habits and customs over promoting Islamic values within American society. Two leading members of the PMU shared with me their frustration with the dismissive attitude of masjid officials in their hometowns toward female members of the community. One shared with me her regrets of never having the chance to learn about Islam as her community failed to offer Islamic education to young girls. She told me that “her family never considered Islamic education as important for a Muslim girl.” The opportunity to frequent the masjid was for her male siblings alone. Another bright young woman informed me that she stopped going to the Islamic center in her hometown in recent years as she resented the policy of confining her to a secluded and neglected room in the masjid, away from the main hall where learning, discussions, and activities take place.

Watching for years Muslim immigrants, mainly from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, assert their cultural habits and traditions, the progressive Muslims are in turn asserting the cultural habits and traditions of the most liberal (progressive) elements of the American culture. The chicken came home to roost! Progressive Muslims are clearly lashing out, as their first concerted act reveals. They are not engaged in developing a community but provoking a community that has shunned them. They are not engaged in a critical examination of the culture they grew up in, but challenging the culture that alienate them.

Islam’s Untapped Moral and Spiritual Resources

Islam’s tremendous moral and spiritual resources are compromised when Muslims privilege customs and habits over values and principles. Throughout the history of Islam, Muslim communities thrived when they invoked the moral and spiritual power of Islam, and used it to reform degenerate practices and promote healthy and vibrant traditions. The center of Muslim rejuvenation always moved to areas where people freely and intelligently embraced Islamic values and principles and employed them to develop a living Islamic tradition. American Muslims have today a golden opportunity to serve as catalysts in moving Islamic institutions and practices to new heights. To do that, American Muslims must rise above their cultural limitations, whether they are home grown or imported, and make sure that the sublime values of Islam, rather than they habits and customs, are the locus of social organization and change.