Kindred Spirits in Moderate (Progressive) Islam

There’s always a danger in posting summaries of upcoming sermon themes that you might feel you know what I am going to say before you get here on a Sunday morning.

The thirteenth century Muslim teacher, Mulla Nasreddin tells a playful story about this issue. Nasreddin told many stories about himself as a kind of village idiot, and the stories leave you unsure if he was a genius or a clown.

So the story goes that on his first day in a new mosque, he spoke to the congregation, “Those who know what I am going to say to day, put your hands up.” Well, that seemed an odd question to them and none put there hand up.

“What!?” shouted Mulla. “Do you expect me to cast pearls before swine? If you can’t grasp my thinking, why bother talking to you?” And he immediately left the mosque.

The next week, he began again, “Those who know what I am going to say, put your hands up.” Wise to him now, they all put their hands up. Looking about, Nasreddin cursed, “Since you all know everything already, why should I bother?” And again he left the mosque.

The third week the congregation came prepared. Sure enough, he started with the same remark. Half put their hands up and half kept them down. Nasreddin responded, “Those of you who know tell those who don’t know.” And with a smile, he headed home.

So I ask you- Those who know what I am going to say this morning, put your hands up!

Well maybe you didn’t expect me to say this- The Taliban needs you! Yes that’s right. You are here this morning because you are already a member of the Taliban. Your charge as a member of the Taliban is to wage jihad. Will you join the jihad and defend the honor of God against the infidels?

Bear with me, especially if you are new here this morning. You have not inadvertently walked into a terrorist recruitment rally.

You see, Taliban is the Farsi word meaning, “student of religion”. Jihad means struggle. Jihad is described in the Quran as being two fold, lower and higher. The Lower Jihad is justified self defense against persecution. Higher jihad, which is far more important, is the inner struggle against the ego. Infidel signifies ungratefulness. The mention of Infidels in the Quran is most likely a very specific reference to Meccans who were denying the rights of Muslims to free religious expression. That all sounds very universal, and not at all the way we have come to understand the meaning of these words.

Islamic fanatics, like Christian fanatics, have given fundamental religious concepts a bad name.

The oppressive and fanatical group from Afghanistan have hijacked the name Taliban and warped its meaning to justify a violent agenda. Jihad is now associated with suicide bombers and terrorists and infidels are seen as anyone who is non Muslim.

The progressive movement in Islam, though small and not well organized, is interested in regaining the true spirit of Muhammad and Muslims through the centuries, a spirit of peace, compassion and mercy. Those we would consider progressive Muslims more often describes themselves as moderate Muslims to distance themselves from the fanatical terrorist wings.

The Defining Issue of our Day

Since Christmas celebration there have been three significant events that relate to today’s theme.

1. The assassination of Influential Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto. While not removed from her own controversy and checkered history, Bhutto seemed more and more to be championing a moderate form of Islam; honoring the rights of women and religious freedom as well as genuine efforts to eradicate poverty. It seems she might have been killed by a fanatical Islamic group hell bent on preventing her form of moderate Islam. The rise and fall of Benazir Bhutto captures the internal crisis of Islam, and its not dissimilar to the crisis of Christianity between literalists and revisionists.

2. The release from prison of David Hicks, the most unlikely terrorist. Hicks was an Aussie Kangaroo skinner who seemed somehow to get caught up with the Taliban soon after 9/11, was captured and spent time in Guantanamo Bay before serving 6 months in an Australian prison. Details are sketchy, but it seems that fanatical Islam offered an outlet for some general angst in Hicks and he lost his sense of personal responsibility. The fall and rise of David Hicks captures some of the personal conflict that leads to so much fundamentalist religion. Again, literalistic Christianity offers a similar outlet for many lost souls.

3. George Bush’s current tour of the Middle East. Time will tell if good comes of this trip, but I commend the effort and more importantly the fact that Bush is reaching out to the Palestinians with greater zeal than previously.
The relationship between Islam and the West may well be the defining issue of our day.

As moderate Muslims, and Progressive Christians, as human beings on a spiritual quest you are Taliban on your own inner jihad, fighting the tendency towards ungratefulness and despair. In partnership, we can get organized and offer an alternative to the fanaticism of Islam and Christianity- a contemporary spirituality based in peace, compassion and mercy- the way Mohammed and Jesus and the other Axial prophets intended.

Some very similar themes run through moderate Islam as we have explored running through progressive Christianity. I will outline 3 of them now.

1. The Mohammed Seminar
2. Gender and Sexuality Revolution
3. The Great Separation between Religion and State.


1. The Mohammed Seminar
I use the name creatively as there is no such organized group, but there are scholars who are doing the work of Quranic criticism.

One of the tasks of both biblical and Quranic criticism is to determine which of the words of the scriptures are historically authentic, which are later additions and which have no reliability.

Like the Bible, there are occasional archeological findings that augment the canonical Quran. In Istanbul alone there are 30 mosques with libraries whose manuscripts have hardly been touched. Huge collections of Muslim writing in Cairo, Damascus, Mosul, Baghdad, and Delhi have not even been catalogued. What we know of the rich and varied perspectives that came out of Islam’s intellectual golden era in the 10th century is but a fragment of what lies collecting dust in these libraries.

Like the Bible, the original manuscripts are written with a mixture of many different authors, witnesses and languages. In the case of the Quran, there are at least 11 languages.

Part of the challenge with the Quran is that not only did Arabic not write vowels, but at the time the Quran was collated, even “consonant points” were not used. Thus, the letters t, b, n, th all looked alike. Similarly, z and r or d and th. If you go through an Arabic dictionary you come across many words that are “almost” the same, clearly the result of mis-pointing the consonants of a word.

Like the Bible, the Quran is the work of fallible people using limited, primitive tools and resources. It is a human document, full of wisdom and an inspiring account of the history of another era, but it is no more the authoritative word of God than the Bible. There are parts that may offer inspiration and guidance to some, and there are parts that many wish were not there.

There is a freedom in this critical endeavor to wrestle with texts that are violent or oppressive. An example of this is the statement of Mohammed- “I was ordered to fight all men until they say ‘There is no god but Allah.'” This text has been misused through the centuries in much the same way that Jesus saying “noone comes to the Father but by me” has been used to justify an exclusive agenda amongst some Christian groups.

Ayatollah Khomeini said in 1979 – “We will export our revolution throughout the world…until the calls ‘there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’ are echoed all over the world.”

Osama bin Laden said in November 2001: “I was ordered to fight the people until they say there is no god but Allah, and his prophet (is) Muhammad.”

There are also some wonderful principles in the Quran, such as the idea that God’s breath fills all people equally, and my favorite is the Quran’s use of the word zannah to describe self-indulgent theological guesswork that makes people pointlessly quarrelsome and sectarian.

Moderate Islamic scholars have begin this process of textual criticism and if this process follows the same course as biblical criticism then we can expect a major shift away from dogmatism and literalism in Islam.


2. Gender and Sexuality Revolution

There are some significant feminist scholars and liberationists within Islam.

Irshad Manji is a feminist Muslim whose family fled Uganda when it was taken over by Idi Amin. She has faced much persecution and had every reason to abancon Islam, but has persisted.

This is an extract from her book “The Trouble with Islam Today”

“In this letter, I’m asking questions from which we can no longer hide. Why are we all being held hostage by what’s happening between the Palestinians and the Israelis? What’s the stubborn streak of anti-Semitism in Islam? Who is the real colonizer of Muslims-America or Arabia? Why are we squandering the talents of women, fully half of God’s creation? How can we be so sure that homosexuals deserve ostracism-or death-when the Quran states that everything God made is “excellent”? Of course, the Quran states more than that, but what’s our excuse for reading the Quran literally when it’s so contradictory and ambiguous?Is that a heart attack you’re having? Make it fast. Because if we don’t speak out against the imperialists within Islam, these guys will walk
away with the show. And their path leads to a dead end of more vitriol, more violence, more poverty, more exclusion. Is this the justice we seek for the world that God has leased to us? If it’s not, then why don’t more of us say so publicly?…
Through our screaming self-pity and conspicuous silences, we Muslims are conspiring against ourselves. We’re in crisis, and we’re dragging the rest of the world with us. If ever there was a moment for an Islamic reformation, it’s now. For the love of God, what are we doing about it?”

These are strong words and they come from within Islam. There is a small movement within Islam that seeks a reformation and this is another place where Progressive Christians will find kindred spirits.

One side bar comment here. Its important not to confuse our own notions about what gender liberation looks like. Barbara Ehrenreich, the American journalist and author of Nickel and Dimed, made this point in an article in The Nation last October. She said that many Muslim feminists are putting their head scarves back on in reaction to the American war in Iraq, which is perceived as a curbing of religious diversity as much as a war on terror. It’s a question of which freedom is more important- the right to free religious expression or a religious practice that is discriminatory.

Progressive religious movements are concerned with gender and sexual liberation, but these issues need to be understood in a broader context of global politics.

3. The Great Separation

Tariq Ramadan is a moderate Islamic scholar. He was supposed to take up a teaching position at Notre Dame in 2004, but was refused entry into the United States on the accusation that he had supported terrorist organizations. He teaches in Europe instead. He is a well respected global authority on Islamic scholarship.

He has this perspective on the separation of religion and state.
“we must follow the rules in the countries in which we live. We should not confuse everything and Islamise social problems. Social problems are social problems and we have to deal with them as citizens claiming our rights, not as Muslims defending their religion. It is true that there are some special problems that Muslims face, certain kinds of discrimination or prejudice based on faith, that we call Islamophobia. But most problems that Muslims face are faced by other citizens too.” Tariq Ranadan

A healthy separation between religion and state is encouraged by moderate Muslims as it is Progressive Christians. This doesn’t mean that religious values don’t shape political perspectives. On the contrary, Islamic principles of peace, mercy and compassion will guide politics. However, no religion has the right to foster a political perspective that curbs the free expression of all other religions and there are huge dangers in the state favoring one religious expression over any other.

So much more could be said. However I want to conclude with two stories out of the Sufi, or mystical branch of Islam. They are stories that both capture the spirit of progressive Islam, and also make universal points that will empower you in your spiritual journey.

The first is the story of a sufi who traveled to a new land and adopted the dress of those people. When he came across an old friend in that country the friend was shocked and asked him why he had abandoned the well-known patchwork waistcoat of the sufis.

He said that it is fine, when living in another place, to adopt local dress as long as it conforms to one’s principles. And then he revealed that he still wore his Sufi vest underneath his garments.

Progressive religions are adaptable and move with the times, and at the same time find some relevance and meaning in the stories and practices of their tradition. As a progressive, you can have both- you can find your own balance of new expression and traditional expression. There are no rules.

Building Bridges Between Religions

Lastly, this story. Another playful story in the style of Mullah Nasredin.

A sufi came to a huge city, and he was confused by the number of people in the streets. Fearing that if he slept and woke again he would not be able to find himself among so many people, he tied a tag to his ankle for identification. A practical joker knowing what he had done, waited until he was asleep, then removed the tag and tied it around his own leg. He, too, lay down on the floor to sleep. The sufi woke first, and saw the gourd. At first he thought that this other man must be him. Then he panicked, shouting, “If you are me: then who, for heaven’s sake, am I and where am I?”

Rumi, the 13th Century Sufi mystic put it like this, “I thought I knew who I was, but I was you.” The truth of the matter is we can only know ourselves in relation to others who hold up a mirror in which we see a reflection of ourselves in their eyes. Out of the many mirrors reflecting various images of who we are we weave a sense of self.

This is essential to progressive spirituality. There is so much reason for optimism if world religions can get beyond polite and patronizing “dialogue” and see reflected in the other their own journeys. This is the path to peace, no more enemies, and no more “others”. An ocean refuses no river. Islam might be one river, and Christianity another- but each swims in the same ocean of humanity and history that is universal and infinite.

This is the hopeful path of moderate Islam, and progressive Christianity has many kindred spirits in the moderate Islamic world.


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