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Lesson Plan: Progessive Islam

Adis Duderija
Lecturer in the Study of Islam and Society
Griffith University

Audience: This lesson plan is aimed at undergraduate students.

Course: Contemporary Islamic Movements

Course: Introduction to Islam
Syllabus Section: Contemporary Islamic Movements / Islamic Modernism

Course: Contemporary Religious Movements
Syllabus Section: Islam

Course: Progressive Religious Movements
Syllabus Section: Islam


At the end of this lesson/course students will:

1. be familiar with the major contemporary theoreticians of progressive Islam,
2. understand the discursive continuities and discontinuities between progressive Islam and a number of Islamic modernist movements,
3. possess a general understanding of the major themes, values, and objectives underpinning the progressive Muslim worldview,
4. be familiar with progressive Islam’s approach to the concept of progress, tradition, and authenticity,
5. gain a broad understanding of progressive Muslims’ approach to modernity, and
6. become familiar with the nature of scriptural reasoning and interpretational methodology characterizing progressive Islam.

General Themes: Characterizing Progressive Muslims’ Worldview and Main Theoreticians

Progressive Islam is an umbrella term covering certain specific approaches to the Islamic tradition and its relationship with modernity. The word “progressive” is at times used interchangeably with “critical” (for example, the UK-based magazine Critical Muslim is a progressive Muslim publication).

Students will be introduced to the idea that the core concept of "progress" within progressive Islam is premised on the idea of the possibility of change at the level of ethics and epistemology, rather than a totalitarian pseudo-scientific construct that considers change inevitable, unilineal, and a priori desirable.

Students will then be introduced to the main theoreticians and ideologues of progressive Islam from both Muslim majority and minority contexts. These include Ḥasan Ḥanafī from Egypt, Enes Karić from Bosnia, Asma Lamrabet from Morocco, Ashghar Ali Engineer from India, Nurkolich Majid from Indonesia, Sa'diyya Shaikh, Ebrahim Moosa, and Farid Esack from South Africa, Ziba-Mir Hosseini, Abdolkarim Soroush, and Mohsen Kadivar from Iran, Mohammed Abed al-Jabri from Morocco, Jasmine Zine and Nader Nashemi from Canada, Mohammed Hashim Kamali from Afghanistan and Malaysia, Omid Safi, Kecia Ali, and Amina Wadud from the United States, Abdulaziz Sachedina from Tanzania and the U.S., Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naʿim from Sudan, Khalid Masud from Pakistan, Khaled Abou El Fadl from Egypt and the U.S., and Abdullah Saeed and Adis Duderija from Australia, among others.

The instructor will highlight the fact that progressive Muslim academics and intellectuals include a significant number of women, and that understanding progressive Islam requires not just understanding theoretical constructs, but on-the-ground, contemporary realities, such as the global grassroots activist movement led by the Alliance for Inclusive Muslims, Musawah, and other progressive Muslim movements.

Students will then be exposed to the main themes underpinning the worldview of progressive Islam. These themes primarily concern issues pertaining to progressive Muslims’ critical positioning in relation to (1) hegemonic economic, political, social, and cultural forces from the Global North, (2) hegemonic patriarchal, exclusivist, and ethically ossified interpretations of their own inherited Islamic tradition, and (3) values underpinning the Age of Enlightenment and modernity, as well as radical forms of postmodern thought. This critique, therefore, simultaneously challenges both neo-traditional and puritan Islamic hegemonic discourses on many issues (including the debates on Islam and modernity, human rights, gender equality and justice, democracy, and the place and role of religion in society and politics) and their Western-centric conceptualizations and interpretations, embedded as they are in the values and worldview assumptions underpinning the Enlightenment.

One of the main concepts permeating progressive Muslim thought is the centrality of spirituality and the nurturing of interpersonal relationships based on Sufi-like morality and philosophy, an intellectualised form of Sufism without the accompanying misogynist and hierarchical elements present in many of its premodern iterations. Moreover, progressive Muslims emphasize God’s universal nature, and the universality of the faith itself, through demonstrating God’s concern for humanity in general, which leads them to embrace a robust form of Islamically-affirmed religious pluralism.

Bringing about and strengthening the multifaceted and dynamic aspects of the inherited Islamic tradition and resisting its reductionist and exclusivist interpretations rooted in patriarchy, misogyny, and religious bigotry is an important part of Progressive Islam’s worldview. As such, Islamic feminisms, among other alternative and more modern understandings of Islam, are important facets of progressive Islam.

Progressive Muslims are also very critical of the prevailing capitalistic, free market-based economic, political, and social structures, institutions, and powers (“The Empire”) in existence today, which support, maintain, and remain uncritical of the status quo. Progressive Islam typically holds that “The Empire” has transformed human beings, carriers of God’s spirit, into primarily economic consumers, which has produced enormous economic disparities between the majority world of the poor South and the minority world of the rich North. Progressive Muslims also wish to shift the prevailing discourse on jihad from being primarily embedded in geo-political and security/terrorist constructs toward broader and more authentic interpretations of the term, which pertain to the inner intellectual and ethical quest, which is principally non-violent, to overcome the temptation to sin and stray from Islam’s moral code. In this respect, progressive Islam could be considered a kind of Islamic de-colonial thought or a form of Islamic liberation theology.

Suggested Activity

Ask students to form groups of 4 to 5 to brainstorm what kind of ideas and values they associate with progressive and non–progressive approaches to religion (not politics) in general and why? How are they different or similar? Each group should present their key conclusions from their small group discussions in front of the class and compare and contrast their ideas.

Questions for Discussion

What are the main themes, values, and objectives characterising progressive Islam’s worldview? How do they compare to what was discussed in your groups about progressive approaches to religion in general?

Required Reading

Duderija, Adis. Constructing A Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 117-124.

Duderija, Adis. The Imperatives of Progressive Islam. New York: Routledge, 2017, pp. 1-6.

Safi, Omid, ed. Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003, pp. 3-18.

Safi, Omid. "Progressive Islam," Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

Progressive Islam and Classical Islamic Modernism

In this section students will be introduced to the idea that progressive Islam considers itself part of the broader modern revival and renewal movements that emerged in the Muslim-majority world beginning in the 18th century. However, it should be emphasized that progressive Islam departs from these movements in certain ways, including with respect to their very systematic approach to the Islamic tradition, which is based on rationalist approaches to Islamic theology and ethics. The emphasis in progressive Islam is on creative and critical thinking, epistemological openness, and methodological fluidity.

Suggested Activity

In pairs or small groups, student should be asked to draw a table and compare how progressive Islam is similar to and different from classical Islamic modernism and present the tables to the class.

Questions for Discussion

What are the continuities and discontinuities between the theory of progressive Islam and that of modernist revival and reform movements that emerged in the Muslim majority world beginning in the 18th century?

Required Reading

Duderija, Adis. Constructing A Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 117-138.

Duderija, Adis. The Imperatives of Progressive Islam. New York: Routledge, 2017, pp. 10-28.

Progressive Islam’s Approach to the Islamic Tradition and Modernity in the Contemporary Epistemological Context

In this section students will be introduced to the idea that progressive Islam, unlike mainstream approaches to Islam, rejects the idea that Islamic authenticity does not reside in bringing back or trying to imitate the sacred past. Instead, for the proponents of progressive Islam, authenticity emphasizes the importance of creativity, the human spirit, dynamism and human versus divine constructions and interpretations. Therefore, the knowledge of the tradition is not confused with the tradition itself. Religion, especially in terms of its ethical and epistemological foundation, is also considered an evolving organism, which changes and evolves alongside humanity’s changing reason. As such, Islam, according to progressive Islam, cannot be frozen according to a single, authoritative, and immutable understanding or interpretation. In other words, the theory of progressive Islam emphasizes the role of human agency and various assumptions in the essentially humanly constructed and mediated processes of reading and understanding the Islamic tradition, including its history and sacred texts.

Students will also be exposed to the idea that the theory of progressive Islam is also attentive to the philosophical and conceptual foundations of modernity and its profound effects on disrupting and challenging the neo-classical Islamic theological and ethical systems of thought. This understanding suggests that a serious rethinking of Islamic epistemology, theology, ethics, and politics is needed in the new epistemic condition brought about by modernity. The theory of progressive Islam, however, is also critical of both the meta-narratives underpinning classical modernity and the Age of Enlightenment, as well as radical forms of postmodern thought. The relationship between modernity and the theory of progressive Islam is based upon a cultural theory of modernity according to which modernity unfolds within a specific cultural (or civilizational) context, having different starting points and potentially leading to alternative understandings of modernity.

Suggested Activity

Ask students to individually write down what they understand the concept of authenticity to mean in the context of a religious tradition. Ask them why and how they came up with their answers.

Ask students to work in small groups or pairs and write down some keywords when thinking about the relationship between religion and modernity. Discuss the responses together as a class.

Questions for Discussion

How does the theory of progressive Islam approach the question of authenticity in the context of the Islamic tradition? Why does the theory of progressive Islam consider the idea of multiple modernities, including an Islamic modernity, as viable?

Required Reading

Duderija, Adis. Constructing A Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 117-138.

Duderija, Adis. The Imperatives of Progressive Islam. New York: Routledge, 2017, pp. 10-28.

The Defining Features of Progressive Islam’s Scriptural Hermeneutics

The theory of progressive Islam has highly systematic scriptural hermeneutics. In this section students will be introduced to the main features of this hermeneutic, which are based on comprehensive contextualization of the ethico-religious injunctions in the Qur'ān and Ḥadīth; their view of the nature and function of revelation; the nature of the process of deriving meaning; the role, legitimacy, and scope of reason in Qur'ānic interpretation; the nature of ethical value in the Qur'ān; the thematic approach to canonical texts; the scope and nature of Islamic legal philosophy; and the nature and scope of the concept of the Sunnah.

Suggested Activity

Students will read this short essay: "Traditional and Modern Qur'ānic Hermeneutics in Comparative Perspective." They will then draw a table that compares progressive scriptural hermeneutics with traditional interpretative styles.

Required Reading

Duderija, Adis. Constructing A Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam: Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp. 139-167.

Duderija, Adis. The Imperatives of Progressive Islam. New York: Routledge, 2017.

Further Reading

Abou El Fadl, Khaled. Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari’a in the Modern Age. New York: Rowmann and Littlefield, 2014.

al-Jabri, Mohammed Abed. Democracy, Human Rights and Law in Islamic Thought. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.

Duderija, Adis, ed. Maqasid al Shari’a and Contemporary Muslim Reformist Thought. New York: Palgrave, 2014.

Esack, Farid. Qur'ān, Liberation & Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1997.

Hidayatullah, Aysha. Feminist Edges of the Qurʾān. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Lamrabet, Asma. Men and Women in the Qur'ān. New York: Palgrave, 2018.

Rahemtulla, Shadaab. Quran of the Oppressed: Liberation Theology and Gender Justice in Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Sachedina, Abdulaziz. Islam and Challenge of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Saeed, Abdullah. Reading the Qur'ān in the Twenty-First Century: A Contextualist Approach. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Shaikh, Sa’diyya. Sufi Narratives of Intimacy: Ibn ‘Arabi, Gender and Sexuality. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Sharify-Funk, Meena. Encountering the Transnational: Women, Islam and the Politics of Interpretation. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008.

Soroush, Abdolkarim. The Expansion of Prophetic Experience: Essays on Historicity, Contingency and Plurality in Religion. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

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