Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Progressive Muslims approach to the Islamic tradition and the Notion of the Late Modern Episteme

In this article progressive Muslim thought is defined in relation to what Moosa terms the “innovation, discontinuity and continuity”[i] of the accumulated Muslim tradition (Islamic tradition) and its approach to and the understanding of the notion of late[ii]modernity and its underlying worldview. In this context I am not interested in discussing the concept of late modernity and its episteme[iii] from a philosophical vantage point but define it by some of its most important  defining characteristics in relation to its social, cultural, political and religious elements including  the emphasis on critical thought, dynamism,[iv] rationality and epistemological/methodological pluralism.

The first point that needs to be made is that progressive Muslims’ concept and engagement with the Islamic tradition rejects the NTS assumption of the regressive character of history/time and the static nature of the Islamic tradition described in the second chapter. Apart from subscribing to the view of history and time as advocated by European Romantic Thinkers discussed above,[v] Progressive Muslims’ understanding of tradition, is based on its dynamism and ‘constructed-ness’. One of its fundamental premises is that the cncept of tradition, including its primary normative textual sources, are subject to humanly constructed interpretational processes and that a distinction between “religion and religious knowledge”[vi], “normative and historical Islam” (to use Rahman’s terminology[vii]) or, in the parlance of Islamic jurisprudence, between shari’ah (divine worldview) and fiqh (human understanding of it) ought to be made. Progressive Muslims approach makes a claim to recognise that “[B]etween scripture and the pronouncement of a legal ruling lies a complex interpretive and constructive process administered by the human agent.”[viii] Thus, the knowledge of the tradition is not confused with the tradition itself.[ix]Moreover, tradition and the knowledge of it are considered to be subject to “expansion and contraction” to use Soroush’s terminology.[x] Religion is seen as evolving alongside humanity’s reason, as such it cannot be frozen according to a single, authoritative and immutable understanding.[xi] In other words progressive Muslim thought emphasizes the role of human agency in the essentially humanly constructed and mediated processes of reading/understanding history and sacred texts. This is the reason why progressive Muslim thinkers primarily employ the phrase, Progressive Muslim and not Progressive Islamic thought. This interpretational awareness of progressive Muslim thought translates itself in the importance and emphasis given by it to examining the epistemological and methodological dimensions underlying and determining the validity and soundness of various inherited interpretational models of the overall Qur’an-Sunna teachings. This will form the subject matter of the next chapter.
The concept of tradition is apart from being conceptualized as operating on a human epistemological plane, also viewed as very complex and multi-faceted. Tradition is considered as consisting of a number of competing interpretations which, at times, can be mutually exclusive all of which, nonetheless, are regarded as being constitutive of it.[xii] Tradition, according to this view, is like a rich dense tapestry consisting of many interlacing or at times parallel running threads all of which put together give the tapestry its unique design. The progressive Muslim thought, therefore, considers the concept of the Islamic tradition as a result of a fluid exchange of ideas and  acknowledges a wide spectrum of interpretations which are inherent to it.[xiii] Thus, the nature of the concept of tradition is not seen as being static but something that is subject to vicissitudes of human history, something that is subject to interrogation, correction, and advancement.[xiv] Moosa uses an apt analogy from the science of biology to describe this nature of the concept of tradition in a following manner:
Tradition is unlike palingenesis where certain organisms only reproduce
their ancestral characters without modification. Rather tradition works more
like kenogenesis: it describes how in biology an organism derives features
from the immediate environment in order to modify the hereditary development
of a germ or organism.
 According to this view every tradition, Islam included, is viewed as a tradition-in-becoming.[xv] In other words Muslim thought is not conceptualized as a “pre-fabricated design of being”,[xvi] but as a dynamic construct, “manifesting itself in the relationship between the past which produced the Islamic tradition and the present in which the Islamic tradition still lives.[xvii] The question of authenticity (asala) of the Islamic tradition in progressive Muslim thought is constructed along the lines outlined in the Fourth Statement of the Final Declaration on the question of heritage and authenticity by the Arab Muslim intellectuals who convened in Kuwait in 1974. With its emphasis on values and the importance of creativity and criticality of the human spirit the statement asserts:

Authenticity does not consist in literal clinging to the heritage but rather in setting out from it to what follows and from its values to  a new phase in which there is enrichment for it and development of its values. Real revivification of the heritage is possible only through a creative, historical ,critical comprehension of it; through transcending  it in a new process of creation; through letting the past remain past so that it may not compete with the present and the future; and through a new assimilation of it from the perspectives of the present and the future.[xviii]

Based upon this dialectical relationship between the past and the present, progressive Muslim thought “studies Islamic tradition in the light of the present, its problems, its questions and its needs.”[xix] Bamiyeh, who uses the term ‘hermeneutic Islam’ as the equivalent to progressive Muslims term employed in this study, argues that this approach to the Islamic tradition and its primary texts acknowledges that they could not be approached “selectively and defensively.”[xx] As shall be argued in more detail in the next chapter the proponents of the progressive Muslim manhaj consider that the Qur’an does not stand above the modern reader who would simply digest it passively. The process of understanding is considered, instead, to begin with the believer himself. The relationship between the believer and the tradition is conceived as a dialogue. This is so because progressive Muslim thought asserts that only in that sense could the Islamic tradition and its primary sources live on across vastly different epochs and speak to exceedingly diverse minds.[xxi]

In line with the genealogical approach to history described in the first section of this chapter the Islamic tradition is conceived as consisting of contending forces and ideas, not as a picture perfect and flawless entity. In particular, the ideologically vulnerable legal discourses embedded in the larger framework of culture, are seen as ideologically –laden and arenas where power relations are constantly (re)-negotiated.[xxii] Thus, in accordance with Asad, progressive Muslims consider tradition to be discursive in nature embedded in the broader framework of power relations, conflict and contestation of competing interpretations or sub-traditions each based on shared set of assumptions linking the Islamic past and the future to particular Islamic practice in the present.[xxiii]

Criticality is another delineating feature of how progressive Muslim thought approaches the concept of tradition.[xxiv] Unlike some tradition eschewing approaches[xxv] to the Islam, the progressive Muslim approach to tradition is that of serious engagement with the full spectrum of Islamic thought and practices.[xxvi] In the words of Safi

There can be no progressive Muslim movement that does not engage the very ‘stuff’ (textual and material sources) of the Islamic tradition …we [PM] believe that it is imperative to work through inherited traditions of thought and practice. In particular cases, we might conclude that certain pre-existing interpretations fail to offer us sufficient guidance today. However, we can fruitfully claim that position after-and not before-a serious engagement with tradition. To move beyond certain past interpretations of Islam, we have to go critically through them.[xxvii]

Serious engagement with the inherited Islamic tradition with a willingness to cast it in critical light is one important feature of how progressive Muslim thought situates itself in the dynamic between tradition and modernity. Progressive Muslims, therefore, consider themselves to be “critical traditionalists”. That is to mean that they “constantly interrogate tradition and strive to ask productive questions.”[xxviii]
Importantly, premised on the above described concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘tradition’  progressive Muslims , unlike some non-traditional approaches to Islam, do not claim an epistemological rupture and a clean break from the Islamic tradition.[xxix] Progressive Muslim approach, argues Safi, is based on a critique which derives its inspiration from within the heart of Islamic tradition. According to this view progressive Muslim thought is a graft that must ultimately grow in the soil of Islam and nowhere else.[xxx]Indeed, for progressive Muslims the Qur’an continues to assume a central position to the contemporary Muslim debates and is considered the ultimate legitimising text of the Islamic tradition.[xxxi] In the words of Jahanbakhsh who employs the term  “Neo-rationalists”, being the equivalent term for  what here are termed progressive Muslims , advocate an Islam that draws upon  “the rich religious ,ethical and intellectual heritage but is responsive  in appositive and serious sense  to the imperatives of modern human values.” It is a project characterized by a critical adoption of selected elements of the inherited tradition whose foundation is an epistemological principle of historicity of religion and the dynamic nature of religious knowledge.[xxxii]
Apart from embracing modernity’s emphasis on criticality and dynamism, rationality also features prominently in progressive Muslims approach to the conceptualization and interpretation of the Islamic tradition. In this context progressive Muslims call for a “rational authentication of Islamic tradition [as] a methodological tool for making Islamic tradition the product of a dynamic fertilization of textual assets by means of innovative hermeneutic activity…”[xxxiii] Progressive Muslims advocate a new rationalist theology especially in the realm of ethical theory and theology. This is so because rationalist theology  can serve as a basis for legal and jurisprudentic reform and as a hermeneutical springboard for employing modern methods on interpretation that are inclusive of rational and historical assumptions favoring a critical analysis of the inherited tradition including its sacred texts.[xxxiv]Progressive Muslim thought, therefore, welcomes critical rationalism as a way of empowering one’s faith and making it relevant to present and ever changing contexts.[xxxv]
Progressive Muslims’ view of the tradition-modernity dynamic is also based upon epistemological or methodological pluralism by subscribing to the view that different epistemological methodologies are necessary if one is to better approximate truth.[xxxvi] This is characterized by progressive Muslims’ willingness to adopt and incorporate sources of knowledge and methods outside of the traditional Islamic sciences and affirm their potentially normative status.  As such progressive Muslims’ cosmovision is inspired and in varying extents shared by other spiritual and political movements[xxxvii] including those associated with liberation theology, secular humanism and social and gender -justice based movements in Latin America, the United States and Europe and embodied in the works and philosophy of thinkers such as Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, M.L.King (jr.) ,Rebecca Chopp, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky to name but a few.

Progressive Muslims’ also have developed a particular understanding of and attitude towards the concept of (late) modernity. Moosa ,for example, assert that progressive Muslims’ approach and attitude towards modernity is characterised by an acute, contrapuntal awareness that the modernity they are facing now is radically different to what their Muslim forerunners experienced.[xxxviii] Progressive Muslims are fully cognizant of the epistemological ruptures modernity brought about. They are attentive to the philosophical and conceptual foundations of modernity and its profound affects on disrupting and challenging the pre-modern theological and ethical systems of thought.[xxxix] However, they do not wish to conflate these modern systems of thinking and being with their actual outward manifestations in the western societies known as modernization.[xl] Additionally, progressive Muslims do not consider “culturo –intellectual assimilation of western modernity as the basis for [Islamic] reform.”[xli] As such unlike many of the classical modernist Muslim thinkers progressive Muslims no longer “look to the prevalent notion of Western modernity as something to be imitated and duplicated in toto”.[xlii]Progressive Muslims’ approach to and engagement with modernity is rather characterised by an attempt to problematise the history of debate between Islam and modernity or Islam and the West by critical and selective adoption and adaption of modern ideas and concepts in contemporary Muslim discourses.

As such it is important to note that progressive Muslims are critical of the meta-narratives underpinning classical modernity and the Age of Enlightenment characterized by the notions of a universal legislative, secular and objective reason, and objective truth.[xliii] Instead, they advocate what Benhabib would describe as a form of moderate post-modernism[xliv] where truth is sought in a dialectical relationship between revelation, reason and the socio-historical context in which both are embedded. According to this view,
    [r]ationality and belief, human rights and divine obligation, individual and social justice, collective reason and religious morality, human mind and divine revelation are living peacefully together.[xlv]

Furthermore, progressive Muslims’ understanding of the historical processes leading to modernity considers them a result of transcultural and trans-political inter-civilisational processes thereby de-monopolising the often made claim that modernity is a pure, universal and monopolar western civilisational product.
In this context the words of Esack are instructive:
Here we[progressive Muslims] are not merely attempting to break the monopoly of the west in the production of the discourses of modernity. We also attempt to reclaim modernist discourses of feminism, socio-economic justice and restating them in Islamic terms. We are simultaneously engaged in the task of articulating interpretative traditions within Islam that embody these values thus challenging the notion that modernity is distinctly a Western project.[xlvi]
Progressive Muslims’ understanding of modernity is therefore based upon a cultural theory of modernity according to which modernity unfolds within a specific cultural (or civilisational) context having different starting points and leading to potentially different, multiple alternative ‘modernities’.[xlvii] Progressive Muslims, thus, subscribe to the view that the socio-political and cultural processes which have brought about epistemological and ontological changes in the western worldview and resulted in the advent of modernity as we know it today are considered a result of a dynamic process of civilisational interaction and mutual construction through transcultural, trans-political and trans-social spaces. Additionally, Progressive Muslims believe that this late modern episteme could be also applied within the framework of the socio-cultural context of the Muslim majority societies resulting in the genesis of another distinct type of modernity.

taken from chapter five of this book of mine ( free PDF).

[i] Phrase borrowed from Moosa, see ‘The debts and Burdens’
[ii] As defined by A. Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, Stanford: Stanford University Press(1990).
[iii] Here used as developed by M.Foucault in his Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Science,(1966) to mean the historical a priori that grounds knowledge and its discourses and thus represents the ‘condition of their possibility’ within a particular epoch.
[iv] In sense of  its emphasis on human agency and possibility of change.
[v] See Moosa, ‘Transitions’, 124-126
[vi] Phrase borrowed from Soroush in his Reason.
[vii] Rahman, Islam, op.cit.
[viii]Emon,A.N.’Towards a Natural Law Theory in Islamic Law: Muslim Juristic Debates on Reason as a Source of Obligation’,JINEL, vol.3.pt1,2003,pp.1-51,p.3.
[ix] Moosa, ‘Transitions’, p.124.
[x] Soroush, Reason, op.cit..
[xi] Bamyeh, Hermeneutics, 573.
[xii]Sh.Jackson,On the Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam , Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali’s Faysal al-Tafriqa Bayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa, Oxford University Press,Karachi, 2002. ,Introduction.
[xiii] Safi, Progressive Muslims,p.7.
[xiv] Moosa, ‘Transitions’, p.123.
[xv] Safi, Progressive Muslims,p.6.
[xvi]  Moosa, ‘Transitions’, p.125.
[xvii] M. Gaebels, Das philosophische, 5-45
[xviii] Cited in I.J.Boulatta , Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought, State University of New York Press,1990,p.16.
[xix] Mansoor, The Unpredictability, p.59.
[xx] Bamyeh, Hermeneutics,573.
[xxii] H. Azam, Sexual Violence, p.8
[xxiii] T.Asad, The Idea of Anthropology of Islam, Occasional Paper Series, Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, March 1986. cf. Moosa, Transitions,123-126.
[xxiv] Moosa, ‘Transitions’,123-126.
[xxv] I.e. Approaches in whose worldview the primary sources of the Islamic Weltanschauung and the derivative body of knowledge comprising the cumulative Islamic tradition are considered of no value, have no authority or normativeness and are not used as points of reference at all.
[xxvi] Safi, Progressive Muslims, p.7.
[xxvii] Ibid.
[xxviii] Moosa, ‘Transitions’,pp.118-126.
[xxix] Safi, Progressive Muslims,pp.7-9.
[xxx] O.Safi  (Ed.) Progressive Muslims,  p.2,8 ,16.
[xxxi]S.Taji-Farouki, Modern, ,pp.12-16.
[xxxii] Soroush , The Expansion,  xv,xii.
[xxxiii] A. Salvatore, ‘The Rational Authentication of Islamic tradition in Contemporary Arab Thought: Muhammad Al-Jabiri and Hassan Hanafi’, The Muslim World,Vol.85,1995,Issues 3-4 ,pp.191-214,p.195.
[xxxiv]Soroush , The Expansion xxiii
[xxxv] Ibid., xxii.
[xxxvi] Esack, ‘Contemporary Democracy’,p.127.
[xxxvii]On this see Esack, Qur'an, Liberation and Pluralism.
[xxxviii] Moosa, ‘Transitions’.
[xxxix] Moosa, The Debts and Burdens.
[xl] Moosa, ‘Transitions’, p.117.
[xli] Taji-Farouki, Modern,p.10.
[xlii] Ibid,p.4.
[xliii] Johnstone,D.L. ‘Maqasid al-Shari’ah: Epistemology and Hermeneutics of Muslim Theologies of Human Rights”, Die Welt des Islams,47,2,2007,pp.149-187.
[xliv] S.Benhabib, Situating the Self-Gender, Community and Post-Modernism in Contemporary Ethics,Routledge, New York,1992.
[xlv] M. Kadivar, ‘The Principles of Compatibility of Islam and Modernity’,
[xlvi] Esack, ‘Contemporary Democracy’,.p.127
[xlvii] A.Sajoo, Muslim Modernities: Expressions of the Civil Imagination, Macmillan,2008.

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