Books Review

PROGRESSIVE MUSLIMS: ON JUSTICE, GENDER, AND PLURALISM

EDITED BY OMID SAFI. OXFORD: ONEWORLD PUBLICATIONS, 2003. 351 PAGES, ENDNOTES; SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY; INDEX. $25.95 (PAPER) ISBN 1-85168-316-X REVIEWED BY: ROBERT ROZEHNAL

IN MASS MEDIA IMAGES AND POPULAR POLITICAL DISCOURSE, ISLAM IS OFTEN CHARACTERIZED AS MONOLITHIC, PATRIARCHAL, AUTHORITARIAN AND INHERENTLY VIOLENT, HOPELESSLY MIRED IN A MEDIEVAL PAST.  THE CONTRIBUTORS TO THIS AMBITIOUS VOLUME CONFRONT AND CONFOUND THESE EASY STEREOTYPES.  THIS DIVERSE COHORT OF FIFTEEN MUSLIM SCHOLARS AND ACTIVISTS MOVE FLUIDLY WITHIN MULTIPLE GEOGRAPHIC, CULTURAL AND EPISTEMOLOGICAL UNIVERSES. THEY ARE UNITED, HOWEVER, IN AN UNWAVERING COMMITMENT TO A COSMOPOLITAN, “PROGRESSIVE” ISLAM—A DYNAMIC INTERPRETATION OF FAITH THAT IS FIRMLY ROOTED IN TRADITION, BUT EQUALLY RESPONSIVE TO CHANGE.  IN A RANGE OF ESSAYS BROAD IN SCOPE AND SCALE, THE AUTHORS ARTICULATE A COLLECTIVE VISION THAT IS SHARPLY CRITICAL OF THE ESSENTIALISMS OF BOTH WESTERN ISLAMOPHOBES AND ISLAMIST IDEOLOGUES.  THE VOLUME’S EDITOR, OMID SAFI, OUTLINES THE OVERALL PROJECT IN AN ECLECTIC INTRODUCTION THAT CALLS FOR AN UNAPOLOGETIC INTELLECTUAL JIHAD. IN SAFI’S WORDS, “THE CHALLENGE IS NOT TO FIND SOME MAGICAL, MYTHICAL MIDDLE GROUND, BUT RATHER TO CREATE A SAFE, OPEN, AND DYNAMIC SPACE, WHERE GUIDED BY CONCERNS FOR GLOBAL JUSTICE AND PLURALISM, WE CAN HAVE CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE ISLAMIC TRADITION IN LIGHT OF MODERNITY” (6).

PROGRESSIVE MUSLIMS WRESTLES WITH A BROAD SPECTRUM OF COMPLEX AND CONTROVERSIAL TOPICS:  INTOLERANCE, RACISM, PATRIARCHY, INTELLECTUAL STASIS, EXCLUSIVITY, HOMOPHOBIA, AND THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY.  AS THE SUBTITLE SUGGESTS, THE VOLUME IS ORGANIZED THEMATICALLY.  PART I, “PROGRESSIVE MUSLIMS AND CONTEMPORARY ISLAM”, CONTAINS A SERIES HARD-HITTING ESSAYS THAT PROVIDE A VARIETY OF PERSPECTIVES ON THE PROJECT’S AGENDA.  AHMET KARAMUSTAFA’S THEORETICAL PIECE INTERROGATES THE CONCEPTUAL CATEGORIES UNDERLYING THE ACADEMIC STUDY OF THE MUSLIM WORLD, ARGUING FOR A COMPARATIVE APPROACH THAT MARKS ISLAM “A CIVILIZATIONAL PROJECT IN PROGRESS” (109).  FARID ESACK AND EBRAHIM MOOSA EACH REFLECT ON PROGRESSIVE ISLAM’S INTELLECTUAL DEBTS AND CHART A COURSE FOR THE MOVEMENT’S CRITICAL ENGAGEMENT WITH GLOBAL MODERNITY.  TAZIM KASSAM’S ESSAY, “ON BEING A SCHOLAR OF ISLAM: RISKS AND RESPONSIBILITIES”, OFFERS A FRANK AND SOBERING ASSESSMENT OF THE ALTERED LANDSCAPE OF THE POST-9/11 AMERICAN ACADEMY.  ESPECIALLY INTRIGUING IS “THE UGLY MODERN AND THE MODERN UGLY: RECLAIMING THE BEAUTIFUL IN ISLAM”—A SEARING INDICTMENT OF THE “SUPREMACIST AND PURITANICAL” MYOPIA OF THE TRADITION WHICH THE AUTHOR, KHALED ABOU EL FADL, LABELS SALAFIBISM (43). PART II, “PROGRESSIVE MUSLIMS AND GENDER JUSTICE”, EXPLORES THE BOUNDARIES—AND BARRIERS—OF VARIOUS CONSTRUCTIONS OF GENDER.  ESSAYS BY SADIYYA SHAIKH AND KECIA ALI DEFEND MUSLIM FEMINISM AS A VITAL CORRECTIVE TO BOTH WESTERN FEMINIST DISCOURSES AND THE PATRIARCHAL LEGACY OF ISLAMIC JURISPRUDENCE.  CHAMPIONING THE IMPERATIVE FOR INTERPRETATION, ALI NOTES THAT “THERE IS NOT NOW, NOR HAS THERE EVER BEEN, A SINGLE, UNITARY ISLAMIC LAW.  THOUGH MUSLIMS AGREE THAT THE SHARI’A—GOD’S LAW FOR HUMANITY—IS COMPLETE, INFALLIBLE, AND UNIVERSAL, IT CANNOT BE KNOWN DIRECTLY BUT ONLY THROUGH THE WORK OF HUMAN INTERPRETERS.” (167)  IN “ARE WE UP TO THE CHALLENGE?: THE NEED FOR A RADICAL RE-ORDERING OF THE ISLAMIC DISCOURSE ON WOMEN”, GWENDOLYN ZOHARAH SIMMONS DRAWS REVEALING PARALLELS BETWEEN THE ONGOING STRUGGLE OF MUSLIM FEMINISTS FOR EQUALITY AND HER OWN EXPERIENCES IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT.  ONE OF THE VOLUME’S BOLDEST AND MOST COMPELLING ESSAYS IS SCOTT KUGLE’S, “SEXUALITY, DIVERSITY AND ETHICS IN THE AGENDA OF PROGRESSIVE MUSLIMS.”  THROUGH CAREFUL TEXTUAL EXEGESIS, KUGLE PROVIDES A DETAILED REJOINDER TO THE NARROW AND EXCLUSIVIST CONSTRUCTIONS OF HOMOSEXUALITY AMONG PREMODERN MUSLIM JURISTS.

THE FIVE ESSAYS IN PART III, “PROGRESSIVE MUSLIMS AND PLURALISM”, RAISE EQUALLY POIGNANT QUESTIONS ABOUT ISLAMIC IDENTITY AND DIFFERENCE.  AMIR HUSSAIN, AHMAD S. MOUSSALLI AND FARISH A. NOOR EACH OFFER TRENCHANT REFLECTIONS ON THE ISLAMIC WORLD’S INHERENT DIVERSITY, AS WELL AS THE PROFOUND CHALLENGES OF ITS ENGAGEMENT WITH NUMEROUS OTHERS.  IN NOOR’S VIEW, “RECOGNIZING THE MULTIPLICITY WITHIN OURSELVES OPENS THE WAY FOR US TO RECOGNIZE THE MULTIPLICITY OF THE OTHER AS WELL” (327). THE REMAINING ESSAYS DOCUMENT MOMENTS OF EXCLUSIVITY.  IN “AMERICAN MUSLIM IDENTITY: RACE AND ETHNICITY IN PROGRESSIVE ISLAM”, AMINA WADUD HIGHLIGHTS THE UNDERLYING RACIAL TENSIONS THAT FREQUENTLY SEPARATE AFRICAN-AMERICAN MUSLIMS FROM THEIR IMMIGRANT COUNTERPARTS.  MARCIA HERMANSEN ALSO BREAKS NEW GROUND WITH “HOW TO PUT THE GENIE BACK IN THE BOTTLE?: ‘IDENTITY’ ISLAM AND MUSLIM YOUTH CULTURES IN AMERICA”, A REMARKABLE PIECE THAT TRACES THE GROWING CONSERVATISM AMONG MUSLIM STUDENTS ON AMERICAN COLLEGE CAMPUSES.

PROGRESSIVE MUSLIMS OFFERS A COURAGEOUS AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING COMMENTARY ON MANY OF THE MOST VEXING ISSUES THAT NOW CONFRONT TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY MUSLIM COMMUNITIES.  THIS DIVERSE COLLECTION IS DISTINGUISHED BY ITS DETAILED ATTENTION TO TEXTS, THEORETICAL RIGOR, AND INTELLECTUAL HONESTY.  FOR ALL ITS WEIGHTINESS, THE BOOK IS ENGAGING AND ACCESSIBLE.  THERE IS AN INTENSITY AND IMMEDIACY TO THESE ESSAYS THAT WILL RESONATE WITH MULTIPLE AUDIENCES, FROM SCHOLARS AND STUDENTS, TO LAY READERS AND POLICY MAKERS.  FOR ANYONE WHO ASKS, “WHERE ARE THE ALTERNATIVE MUSLIM VOICES?”, THIS VOLUME IS ESSENTIAL READING.

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