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What it means to be a Liberal Muslim ?

14 February 2010 1,092 views 6 Comments

liberal and progressive Muslims have been advocating the reinterpretation of Islam and its message. They claim to be different from traditional Muslims for they believe in reformation of religion using Ijtehad; with an emphasis on use of reason and intellect. They believe in interpreting the sources of religion on a metaphoric basis and not literal. The core difference is on the interpretation of application of core Islamic values and laws. 

There is no consensus between liberal, progressive and reformist Muslims on their views but they all agree on reinterpretation of the message.  They believe in individual autonomy/freedom and encourage free thought process and dialogue. They also stress on forming a society that is just and humane and is not discriminatory to anyone on the basis of religion, color, caste, creed, gender or whatsoever. 

What does it really take to be a Liberal Muslim ? I’ll list the views and beliefs of various reformist movements in Islam or those of famous liberal/progressive Muslim figures. 

Islam and the Secular State - Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im - Negotiating the future of Shari'a

Separation of religion and politics:Liberal Muslims reject theocracy. They believe in separating the authorities of religion from the authorities of politics. Every individual should have freedom of belief and to practice his faith but religion should be a private domain. They believe that religions are a sources of inspiration but public administration and legislation should be achieved by consensual process. In other words, the state should not have a religion of itself but should allow all citizens to believe in and practice whatever they want. 

Support and encourage free thought and critical thinking: Liberal Muslims believe in free thought process and encourage critical thinking. They believe that questioning, thinking and exploration will leads Muslims find out better solutions for modern day problems from within Islam. They believe that Islam does not put bounds on questioning and thought process and it must be encouraged otherwise these restrictions and bans will pose a serious threat to Islam. This is one of the reasons they encourage and rely on Ijtehad with the use of reason and intellect to re-interpret the message of Islam. 

Relative Truth: They believe that truth is relative, in interpretation of religion. They suggest that since interpretations come from humans; they are made in specific circumstances and times or contexts. They suggest and encourage the need of interpreters in every age to achieve a pluralistic society. 

Emphasis on religio-ethics: Liberal Muslims believe that religions are a source of inspiration and can give us some guiding principle to achieve a better society. Thus, they suggest that religion should be studied, researched, understood, and interpreted with an emphasis on religio-ethics and not literal interpretation of the sources. They believe that this way Muslims can contribute a lot taking inspiration from ethics of Islam to achieve a more human and just society. 

Equality of rights and preveliges for minorities: Liberal Muslims believe that minorities; whether they be based on a different religion, sect, caste, creed, race, tribe, nationality, gender or whatsoever should have equal rights as enjoyed by the majority. There should be no discrimination in any aspect of affairs of life in public sphere. They suggest that one should side with the marginalized and oppressed as a token of solidarity and to demand equality for them. 

Freedom of belief, non-belief or change of belief: They believe that religion is one’s personal matter and it should be one’s own choice to believe or not to believe in a religion. They suggest that one should be completely free to choose for himself a religion or belief system of his choice or not to believe in any.  One should also have the freedom to quit a belief system or to choose another one. They further add that one should have the freedom of practice or non-practice of the religion one chooses; this being his/her personal matter. 

All humans are equal: They believe in the notion of absolute equality of all human beings. They believe that all human beings are born free and equal and must be treated likewise. 

Liberal Muslims reject burqa for it being against the teaching of Islam and an attack on personality of the women.

Feminism: Women rights is one of the most important aspect of the clash between liberal and conservative Muslims. Liberal Muslims believe in complete equality of genders and suggest that a woman, being equal to a man in intellect and abilities can be a head of the state. They reject segregation of genders. Liberal Muslims have also been critical of traditional dress-codes prescribed for women in relatively conservatives societies. They have called the burqa; which covers a woman from head to toe, as against the individual liberty and personality of the woman and is against the teachings of Islam as well which according to them only asks for modest dressing. 

Appreciation for science: Liberal Muslims believe that science has done wonders for the mankind. They reject the notion of mixing science with religion or superstitions. They suggest that science as a study of natural phenomenas can help humans know the world around them better which will in turn help for achieving a better society. They believe that science and religion are completely different domains and should not be mixed. They are likely to accept the idea of evolution over creationism. 

Ayotullah Montazeri; a Shia cleric from Iran had been advocating a constitutional social democratic state.

Ayotullah Montazeri; a Shia cleric from Iran had been advocating a constitutional social democratic state.

democracy and Social welfare: Liberal Muslims advocate a constitutional democracy under the guiding principle of social welfare as a political system for Muslim socities. They suggest that democracy is one of the tenants of early Islam and should be encouraged in Muslim socities. They reject monarchy or dictatorships. There have been a few religious scholars who have been defending a democratic state for Muslim socities. Ayotullah Montazeri; a Shia cleric from Iran had been advocating a constitutional social democratic state for Iran. 

Although there have been a few reformist movements in Islam and a few by liberal/progressive Muslims in different parts of the world; but none of these has been popular at mass level. In times of crisis like the one we are going through; there is vacuum which needs to be filled by liberal and progressive Muslim scholars and academics.  





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  • Umer said:

    A very well written piece. A short manifesto of liberal Muslims. This and similar writings like this could be very helpful in removing the misconceptions that there’s a huge difference between being a liberal and a secular Muslim and being an atheist, the notions which conservatives afflicted with religious rigidity tend to entangle.

  • admin (author) said:

    Thanks for liking, Umer.

  • Jack Fertig said:

    Assalaamu Aliekum –

    While I would quibble over a few points this does largely correspond with my own beliefs and commitments as a Muslim progressive.  I would argue that no, truth is not relative, but absolute.  The problem is that each of us sees the Truth through our own imperfect human perceptions and filters and the Qur'an calls us to open-mindedness and respect as we disagree and/or work with each other in search of the Truth.

    Also each of the points listed above does have a basis in the Qur'an and Hadith.  They are presented here as if they come from nowhere as an imposition upon traditional Islam.  But we have to ask ourselves, is "traditional Islam" actually more tradition than Islam?  However one may answer that question, we cheat ourselves if we don't even ask it.

  • Jihad Punk said:

    great article, and I wholly agree!
    Unfortunately the word “liberal” has quite a negative stigma for many Muslims everywhere, both in Western and non-Western nations.

  • Yakoub said:

    “All humans are equal”

    That misrepresents liberal ideas on equality by a margin. Equality pertains to opportunity and access, regardless of social markers such as disability or ethnicity. That doesn’t mean everyone is equal – cleary some people are more competent in some skills than others.

  • Usmann Rana said:

    A good start for Liberal/Progressive Muslims to form a manifesto. The Liberal Muslim/Reformist  Movement has so much to do as of now… you are right,there is a vacuum and it needs to be filled by liberal and secular muslims.However so few of them are there and they too live under constant threat :(

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