Monday, April 04, 2005

Debating 'Progressive' Islam

This entry was substantially edited and updated. It appeared in the April 4, 2005 issue of Broadside, the official student newspaper of George Mason University.

On March 18 in New York City, Amina Wadud, a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who holds a PhD in Arabic and Islamic studies, publicly challenged centuries of entrenched orthodox Muslim tradition: women do not lead prayers when there is a group of both men and women involved. (

The event was sponsored by Muslim WakeUp! (, a Web site that serves as the mouthpiece of “progressive” Muslims, primarily in the West, and was designed to help “Muslim women [reclaim] their rightful place in Islam.”

Wadud’s (left) actions were harshly criticized by many Muslim traditionalists, including Shaykh al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi of Egypt, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an influential Qatar-based Sunni cleric. Other intellectuals, particularly Khaled Abou El Fadl (, a professor of American constitutional and Islamic law at the University of California-Los Angeles have been much more receptive to the idea of female-led mixed congregational prayers. In The Chicago Tribune Abou El Fadl, an expert in Sunni Muslim jurisprudence and interpretations of Islamic Shari’a law, said Wadud was leading a “counter-jihad” for moderate Muslims and “upholding the true teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.”

The debate over the Wadud’s actions has brought to the forefront the issue of “progressive” Islam, which many Muslim traditionalists see as simply a manifestation of Western values, or lack there-of as the case may be, which is used to attack the “pure” form of the religion. On the other side of the debate are those to the far left in the Muslim community, including Muslim WakeUp!, who envision a modern Islam that has been transformed into a faith that is totally ingratiated with “progressive” values. However, who decides what “progressive” values are?

One professor of mine pointed out recently how groundbreaking Wadud’s challenge to the traditional religious authority of men really was. Whatever my personal views on the matter, I would certainly have to agree. However, the real question remains: is this challenge to traditionalism a good or bad thing for Islam and Muslim communities?

I agree with Wadud and Abou El Fadl that men and women are equal in terms of spirituality and their worth in the eyes of God. However, I also believe that whether or not women should lead prayer services involving mixed groups is not the most important issue that is currently facing Muslims around the world.

Instead, the issues of the voting and inheritance rights of Muslim women are much more important to the worldwide community. In addition, the current battle against the radicalism of al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups that use the banner of Islam and the nature of the defense of Muslim communities from outside aggression, whether it be from militant Israeli settlers or the Russian military, is an issue of more immediate consequence than who leads congregational prayers.

At the very least, individuals such as Wadud and Abou El Fadl, who have a solid grasp of the range of Islamic legal and theological sources, are capable in my view of spearheading the debate of women’s rights within the religion. Unlike an ignoramus like Irshad Manji, they have the requisite knowledge and understanding of Islamic history and jurisprudence that will allow them to formulate an argument. This is not to say that I agree with their conclusions, but I can at least acknowledge that they are basing their findings on the sources and not on a desire to artificially “Westernize” Islam. In stark contrast, Muslim WakeUp!, who seem to be more interested in offending traditionalists than truly working to change the face of Islam in America, Canada and Europe, base their version of “progressive” Islam on quoting sources piecemeal, which in the end results in a lot of bluster with very little substance, and does not influence the vast majority of Western Muslims.

For more background on Wadud and for insight into her understanding of Islamic traditions and jurisprudence, see:

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