Abrahamic faiths have provided philosophical ideals, ultimately building a secular multifaith society, and significantly improved conditions for humankind.
Progressive Western thought compliments progressive Islamic thought – they mirror each other in a dance of human growth and development. As much as Islamic medieval humanist scholarship played a direct linkage through which humanistic philosophies of ancient civilizations of India, Persia, China, and Greece culminated, as the Islamic world slipped into its intellectual slumber, within one hundred years the Western ideals of humanism via the separation of church and state came to the fore. Transferring this truth to the Islamic world today that secularism is the foundation through which human values supersede theistic faith, religiosity, pseudoscience and superstition. Muslims in the West have come to recognize the separation of mosque and state helped form a new American/Western Muslim philosophy grounded in secularism. An inclusive progressive Islamic theology is an extension – an alternative to Islamism – that revives, reforms, and reinvigorates the human spirit of the Muslim world today.
You may ask, “How is this so?” The interconnectedness of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaic, Christian and Islamic development, has long shared the histories of earlier civilizations. As it relates to the Western world, these histories have provided an ebb and flow, as well as, an undulation of religious mores and philosophical ideals, ultimately building a secular multifaith society, significantly improving over time conditions for humankind. Thankfully, there remains lots of room for improvement, and we cannot delay progress towards greater humanitarian good.
Historically, the Christian Church and its theology of cardinal sin led to European’s Dark Ages, closing the Western mind for nearly a millennium. The 7th century brought Islam into being a new Abrahamic theology and governmental system where freedom of worship and free speech were founding principles.
As Muslims entered their Golden Age, (800 CE), al-Hashimi, the cousin of Caliph al-Ma’mun, stated, “Bring forward all the arguments you wish and say whatever you please and speak your mind freely. Now that you are safe and free to say whatever you please appoint some arbitrator who will impartially judge between us and lean only towards the truth and be free from the empery of passion, and that arbitrator shall be reason, whereby God makes us responsible for our own rewards and punishments. Herein I have dealt justly with you and have given you full security and am ready to accept whatever decision Reason may give for me or against me. For “There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256) and I have only invited you to accept our faith willingly and of your own accord and have pointed out the hideousness of your present belief. Peace be with you and the blessings of God!
It was this kind of visionary understanding of the world that gave support in exploring all aspects of nature, human life and its diversity. Ongoing discoveries throughout that 500-year period promoted new ideas in philosophy, science, medicine and health care, education and academia. The transference of classical studies was the linkage European scholars used to spark their enlightenment.
In the mid-13th century, as Europeans awaken from their religious slumber, Muslims fell into their own Dark Ages. After Baghdad’s demise, a major revisionist movement led by Imams Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyyah, forced scholars of their time to halt open-minded Muslim philosophies and closed the intellectual “gates of ijtihad”. “Textual” conceptualization – immutable adherence of text-based custom and practices – dampened Muslim intellectual acumen mandated by the Quran. Luckily though, in more insular parts of the Islamic Empire far from Baghdad, Muslims did continue their ongoing intellectual development for some centuries to come. Ultimately, colonialism’s impact caused irreparable harms in Muslim lands. In response, dispirited Muslim minorities misled by the Hanbal madhhab sought a past “savior” image to return Muslims to their days of glory, but that was not a goal realized.
In the 20th century, Central Asian Muslims, under the secularization imposed through Communism, developed a Progressive Islam that took root based upon secular, humanitarian standards – a modern Islam. Yet as Gulf oil gave rise to unfathomable wealth, Gulf-state Muslims in the 1960s began migrating to the Western world. For nearly 60 years, Gulf Arabs have flooded Western lands with Islamism. Though Muslims have made America their home, often seeking freedom from the strictures of Islamic theocracy and Muslim despotism, many continue to promote Islamist religious and socio-cultural practices, with an expectation to practice them under Western secularism. However, younger Muslim generations see many of these practices detrimental, placing Muslims at odds with a secular multifaith society where human rights thrive. Women’s rights, children’s rights, anti-racism, civil and LGBT rights, ideals unheard of in their fore-parents’ native lands are frequently ignored. As a result, many Muslim migrants tend to cloister themselves in Gulf-state inspired Islamist mosques and schools providing them safe haven on Western shores.
Originating before there was an Islamic state, Quranic ethics requires full-inclusion and respect for non-Muslim governance and sovereignty. The importance of accepting cultural mores of non-Muslims, whether citizens have a right to their faith or to not have a faith, will reject shari’ah law as a foreign and incompatible “law”. In modern times, whether Muslims believe it or not, secular societies are best suited in helping Muslims understand the freedom of practicing the Islamic faith without the Salafist/Wahhabist one-size-fits-all world view. Muslims in the West can faithfully and fully immerse themselves in interfaith dialogues, participate in multifaith congregations working towards common causes for the good of humankind. When diverse coalitions work together, it challenges jihadist anti-western rhetoric, and reveals the hate-filled, unethical underpinnings of Islamism. Of course, much work must still to be done so that more Westerners understand Muslims as individuals, families and communities as a part of the fabric of this great land – it still takes Muslims to obey the law of the land.
Progressive Western thought promotes a multifaith society. It is important Western societies support Progressive Muslim efforts proffering alternative Islamic theological ethics that are fully inclusive of all types of people. When Muslims know their human rights are also connected to the human rights of others – regardless of their faith or lack thereof – Western humanism is the standard for our modern world.
Daayiee Abdullah is the Executive Director of MECCA Institute, a progressive Islamic institute with a think tank and a school.