In my brief address, I wish to draw parallels between the ideas of MLK Jr. as a proponent of (black) liberation theology and the theory of progressive Islam (something I have been theorizing for over a decade) as a form of Islamic liberation theology.
I start by defining liberation theology and explain why liberation theology should not be considered as purely “Christian” making reference to the many affinities between Christian and Islamic liberation theologies. Next, I provide snippets from the writings of MLK JR that position him as an important proponent of liberation theology. Finally, I discuss how Islamic liberation theology, as a major component underpinning the worldview of progressive Islam, has been influenced by Christian liberation theologians and what its relevance is today for Muslims living in the 21st century.
WHAT IS LIBERATION THELOGY?
Liberation theology is a theory, having originated amongst certain Roman Catholic theologians in Latin America in the middle of the 20th century, which interprets liberation from social, political, and economic oppression as anticipating the historical process of eschatological salvation. Its advocates believe that the Christian Gospel demands “a preferential option for the poor”, and that the church should be involved in the struggle for economic and political justice in the contemporary world – particularly in the Third World. Gustavo Gutiérrez (1988, 13), one of the major theoreticians behind liberation theology, defines it as a “critical reflection on praxis in the light of the word of God”.
In other words, liberation theology aims at exploring the relationship between religion, theology, and political activism, particularly in the areas of social justice, poverty, and human rights. In this context, it seeks to re-examine the very purpose of revelation and tradition in order to engender the social and liberating dimensions implicit in both sources. Liberation theology opposes more dominant forms of what we could term ‘acccommodationist’ theology in that the latter often emerges from a position of privilege and affluence. Hence, it is elitist in nature and thought oriented. The former, on the contrary, surfaces among the oppressed, is non-elitist, this worldly and action-oriented. It aims to bring about political, social, and economic change in order to undo what it considers to be an unjust status quo. It works to dismantle the existing structures which prevent the oppressed from being liberated and being fully human.
MLK as a proponent of liberation theology:
Anyone even remotely familiar with the life and the legacy of MLK Jr. would instantly recognize a great deal of affinity between his worldview and the principles of liberation theology, especially black liberation theology that is committed to nonviolent forms of resistance.
Let us remind ourselves of some of the prophetic words of wisdom in which MLK jr. draws our attention to the importance of praxis-oriented, compassionate theology:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (written while imprisoned in Birmingham city jail)
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” ("Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution" Commencement Address for Oberlin College, June 1965, Oberlin Ohio)
“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” (speech at the Park-Sheraton Hotel in New York City in 1962 to commemorate the centennial of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation-issued by President Lincoln during the American Civil War )
“Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”(written while at Crozer Theological Seminary)
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.’(Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967.
Hence, with his unflinching commitment to and activism in relation to the eradication of structural and systematic forms of racial injustice, poverty, and inequality MLK Jr. can rightly be considered as one of the most important embodiments of (pacifist form) of liberation theology.
Islamic liberation theology
Given the earlier mentioned definition of liberation theology embodied in the idea of God’s preference for the poor, marginalised and the oppressed, it is not surprising that non- Catholic/Christian forms of liberation theology could and do exist.
One of the leading scholars of liberation theology movements, Robert McAfee writing in the early 1990s argues that there is nothing uniquely Christian about liberation theology. In his words:
liberation theology exists wherever there is oppression, and there are few parts of the globe, as a consequence, where movements for liberation are not this very day growing in size and intensity.
(McAfee, 1993, ix)
Indeed, scholars of liberation theology, both Muslim and Christian, have identified a number of affinities between Christian and Islamic liberation theologies including their agreement on “the need to reinterpret their own religions from the perspective of the poor; the interrelated emphases on action, orthopraxy and the agency of the oppressed; and a rejection of excessive other-worldliness”.
In fact, the emergence of Islamic liberation theology as conceptualized by progressive Muslim scholars such as the Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi and the South African liberation theologian, Farid Esack, has been inspired in significant part through their intellectual engagements with the pioneers of liberation theology in the Christian majority world context such as G. Gutiérrez, Camilo.Torres, L. Boeff and MLK jr., to name but the most prominent few.
Shabbir Akhtar (1991), one of the pioneers of Islamic liberation theology, and a professor of comparative religion at Oxford University, goes as far as to suggest that Islamic liberation theology is an actual fact an Islamization of Christianity. This makes sense since progressive Islam considers it entirely legitimate to draw inspiration in schools of thought and ‘ideas’ that are not necessarily part of Islam’s concrete historical trajectory but which are considered as being in accordance with its overall ideals, values and objectives. Indeed, this aspect of progressive Muslim thought that I have termed ‘epistemological promiscuity’, is, perhaps, nowhere better exemplified than in the case of borrowing from the ideas underpinning Catholic liberation theology and the legacy left by personalities such as like MLK Jr.
The imperative for an Islamic liberation theology for Muslims living in the twenty-first century
Let me conclude by briefly examining why, from the perspective of progressive Muslim thought, Islamic liberation theology is imperative for Muslims living in the 21st century
The proponents of progressive Muslim thought find a plethora of reasons as to why the development of an Islamic liberation theology is sorely needed for Muslims living in the twenty-first century. These include the traumatic legacy of colonialism; the growing gap between the rich and poor in general and between rich and poor Muslims in particular; the aggressive spread of forms of Islamic puritanism/fundamentalism and their alliance with imperialistic neo-liberal capitalism whose epicentre is in the West (and more specifically in the United States of America); and the political, economic, and social impotence of various secular/liberal/modernist as well as conservative mainstream forms of political Islam.
For these reasons, the imperative for reviving an Islamic liberation theology becomes ever so pertinent for the proponents of progressive Muslim thought. The imperative is based on progressive Muslims’ ‘multiple critique’, which simultaneously resists the hegemonies of imperialism, corporate globalization, and forms of Islam which are its bedfellows. Progressive Muslims as proponents of Islamic liberation theology, instead, seek to construct alternative alliances with the spiritual progressives like those who follow in the path of MLK JR in order to resist these hegemonic forces.
Finally, for the proponents of progressive Muslim thought, reviving Islamic liberation theology necessitates a radical reform of the traditionalist understanding of Islamic law (Shari’a) in the interest of protecting the marginalized, weak, and underprivileged. This could involve issues as diverse as reformulation of the concepts, aims, and objectives of Islamic theology, ethics, and law (especially Muslim family laws); the transformation of Islamic finance and economics for the purposes of real economic justice; and the recasting of Islamic politics in order to align them with the values, ideals, and objectives of Islamic liberation theology. And, it is my argument that all these, in turn, have strong affinity with the life and legacy of MLK jr. that we are celebrating this evening.