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Liberal movements within Islam

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Liberal movements within Islam

World Muslim population by percentage (Pew Research Center, 2014).

Liberal movements within Islam involve professed Muslims who have produced a considerable body of liberal thought[1][2] on the re-interpretation and reform of Islamic understanding and practice. Their work is sometimes characterised as "progressive Islam" (Arabic: الإسلام التقدميal-Islām at-taqaddumī ), although some consider progressive Islam and liberal Islam to be two distinct movements.[3]

The methodologies of liberal or progressive Islam rest on the interpretation and re-interpretation of traditional Islamic scripture (the Qu'ran) and other texts (such as the Hadith), a process called ijtihad (see below).[4] This can vary from the slight to the most liberal, where only the meaning of the Qur'an is considered to be a revelation while its expression in words is the work of the Islamic prophet Muhammad at his particular time and context. As a consequence, verses from the Qur'an may then be interpreted allegorically or even set aside.

Among the most liberal Muslim intellectuals who have focused on religious reform are Muhammad Ali, Sayyid al-Qimni, Nasr Abu Zayd, Khalil Abdel-Karim, Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohammed Arkoun, Mohammed Shahrour, Ahmed Subhy Mansour, Edip Yuksel, Gamal al-Banna, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Ahmed Al-Gubbanchi, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, and Faraj Foda. Taha was executed for apostasy and Foda was assassinated by extremists, while most of the others have been criticised by more traditional Islamic scholars.

Some liberal Muslims claim that they are returning to the principles of the early [6]


The reform movements of Islam, like Reform Judaism, are movements within their parent religion, rather than an attempt at schism. They seek to adapt a traditional religion to more liberal, human-rights oriented values, like Reform Judaism does with Judaism.

Reform Muslims, like their more orthodox peers, believe in the basic tenets of Islam, such as the Six Elements of Belief and the Five Pillars of Islam. They consider their views to be fully compatible with the teachings of Islam, though many of the scholars of traditional Islam disagree. Their main differences with more conservative Islamic opinion are two, the first is, in differences of interpretation of how to apply the core Islamic values to modern life,[7] the second includes a more reactionary dialectic which criticizes traditional narratives or even rejects them, hence, denying any obligation to follow them while also allowing greater freedoms in interpreting Qur'an regardless of the hadith.[8]

Muslim liberals focus on individual autonomy in the interpretation of the Qur'an and ethics rather than focusing on the literal interpretation of the Qur'an. This thinking may have a precedent in the traditions of Sufi and Islamic mysticism[9] although different in many ways, including the purpose of interpretation. The reformists, however, are often criticized by more traditional scholars, as some of the beliefs are seen by the 4 traditional Islamic madhahabs as "kufr" or unbelief. As such, many Muslims believe this phenomenon to be the result of culture and individualistic philosophical ideas, rather than being based on the textual evidence of the Qu'ran and the Sahih Hadith. Those Muslims thus conclude that the Islamic reform movement has no place in the Islamic Shariah.

Central tenets

Several generally accepted tenets have emerged:

  • The autonomy of the individual in interpreting the Qur'an and Hadith.[10] More liberal trends include rejecting Hadiths completely (like Qur'an Alone Muslims) or partially (including hadiths considered authentic (Sahih) by traditionalists) like Gamal Al-Banna.
  • A more critical and diverse examination of religious texts, as well as traditional Islamic precedents.
  • Complete gender equality in all aspects, including ritual prayer and observance.
  • A more open view on modern culture in relation to customs, dress, and common practices. Certain rules on modesty amongst men and women are still self-enforced in response to the Qur'an's injunction against immodest dress.
  • The individual use of ijtihad (interpretation) and fitrah (natural sense of right and wrong) is advocated.

Contemporary and controversial issues

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, in accordance with their increasingly modern societies and outlooks, liberal Muslims have tended to reinterpret many aspects of the application of their religion in their life in an attempt to reconnect with the original message, untouched by harmful cultural influences. This is particularly true of Muslims who now find themselves living in non-Muslim countries.[11]

Such people may describe themselves variously as liberal, progressive, or reformist (in application but not in the tenets of the faith); but rather than implying a specific agenda, these terms tend to incorporate a broad spectrum of views which contest conservative, traditional interpretations of Islam in many different ways. Although there is no full consensus amongst liberal Muslims on their views, they tend to agree on some or all of the following beliefs:


Critical ijtihad is the questioning of traditional interpretations of the Qur'an which reformist Muslims found to be intellectually stifling in the light of modern wisdom and scientific knowledge. Most liberal Muslims reject the derivation of Islamic laws from absolute literal readings of single Qur'anic verses. They generally claim a holistic view which takes into account the 7th-century Arabian cultural context and then allows deeper insight into the manner in which the commands of God (Allah) are carried out. Some scholars, however, say that this is a veiled form of "biddah", or innovation, and reject critical evaluation as a whole.

Human rights

Moderate Islamic political thought contends that the nurturing of the Muslim identity and the propagation of values such as democracy and Human rights are not mutually exclusive, but rather should be promoted together.[12]

Most liberal Muslims believe that Islam promotes the notion of absolute equality of all humanity, and that it is one of its central concepts. Therefore, a breach of human rights has become a source of great concern to most liberal Muslims.[13] Though Human Rights is perceived to be of the utmost concern of all devoted adherents to the Islamic faith, liberal Muslims differ with their culturally conservative counterparts in that they believe that all humanity is represented under the umbrella of Human Rights. Many Muslim majority countries have signed international human rights treaties, but the impact of these largely remains to be seen in local legal systems – a point highlighted by the fact that most countries which impose conservative interpretations of Shariah law are amongst the most repressive countries in the world, while secular states are often the most open and tolerant.[14]

Muslim liberals often reject traditional interpretations of Islamic law, which allows Ma malakat aymanukum and Slavery. They say that Slavery opposed Islamic principles which they believe to be based on justice and equality and some say that verses relating to slavery or "Ma malakat aymanukum" now can not be applied due to the fact that the world has changed, while others say that those verses are totally misinterpreted and twisted to legitimize slavery.[15][15][16]

Within the framework of justice and equality for all, Muslim liberals include gay rights as a human right.


Islamic feminism symbol.

The place of women in Islam, traditional gender roles in Islam and Islamic feminism are likewise major issues.[17] For this reason, liberal Muslims are often critical of traditional Islamic law interpretations which allow polygyny for men but not polyandry for women, as well as the traditional Islamic law of inheritance under which daughters receive less than sons. Traditional Muslims believe this is balanced by the right of a wife to her husband's money, whereas the husband does not have a right to his wife's money.

It is also accepted by most liberal Muslims that a woman may lead the state, and that women should not be segregated from men in society or in masjids. These views are generally rejected by traditional Muslim scholars, including scholars from the four schools of Islamic thought, as they have been in the past. Some liberal Muslims accept that a woman may lead a mixed group in prayers, despite the established custom for women to pray behind or in a separate space. However, this issue remains controversial; see women as imams. Some Muslim feminists are also opposed to the traditional dress requirements for women (commonly called hijab), claiming that any modest clothing is sufficiently Islamic for both men and women. Some of the groups, particularly the Quranists, reject hadiths if they do not agree with their views on the religion.

Other Muslim feminists embrace hijab, pointing out its tendency to de-sexualize women and therefore assist them in being treated less as an object and more as a person. Furthermore, some Muslim feminists prefer to wear the hijab as an obvious sign that they are indeed Muslim, while also feminists. The four schools of Islamic law require women to cover all but the hands and the face, following several ahadith to this effect, while men are only required to cover from the navel to the knee. Traditional reports of Muhammad, called hadith, are used to support the idea of covering everything on a woman except her face and hands.

According to one hadith, Muhammad saw Asma clothed in a thin garment, at which he proclaimed: "when a woman reaches the age of menstruation, she should cover everything but" – and he then pointed to his face and hands. The Qur'an itself requires men and women to dress modestly (see: Qur'an 24:30–31). The words "bosom/chest" and "modest" are found in 24:31, however the word "hair" is absent. In the same verse women are advised to not "strike their feet" as to draw attention to their hidden adornment. Also absent in the verse are other parts of the body that even non Muslims tend to cover, such as the genitals. This being the case, many Muslims look to the hadith for further elaboration on the matter. As such, all the 4 schools of thought and even the companions of Muhammad followed this principle of covering everything but the hands and the face and there is very little dispute regarding this in traditional Islam.


Some liberal Muslims favor the idea of modern secular democracy with separation of church and state, and thus oppose Islam as a political movement.

The existence or applicability of Islamic law is questioned by some liberals. Their argument often involves variants of the Mu'tazili theory that the Qur'an was created by God for the particular circumstances of the early Muslim community and that reason must be used to apply it in other contexts.

Tolerance and non-violence

Tolerance is another key tenet of liberal Muslims, who are generally open to interfaith dialogue and conflict resolution with such communities as Jews, Christians, Hindus and the numerous factions within Islam.

Liberal Muslims are more likely to reflect the idea of jihad in terms of the widely accepted "internal spiritual struggle" rather than an "armed struggle." The ideals of non-violence are prevalent in Liberal Muslim ideology and backed by Qu'ranic text; "permission to fight is given only to those who have been oppressed... who have been driven from their homes for saying, 'God is our Lord'" (22:39). This idea is however not exclusive to liberal Muslims but is also followed in traditional Islam. Most following Islam, liberal or otherwise, accept that jihad is more of the heart than with the sword. According to traditional Islamic scholars, the sword is only drawn under circumstances which oppress the Muslim community and even in those circumstances, the strict Islamic guidelines for war have to be followed. This includes not engaging in violence with non combatants, women, children and not to destroy even the crops of the enemy lands and not to attack the people engaged in combat within places of worship unless they attack first.

Reliance on secular scholarship

Liberal Muslims tend to be skeptical about the validity of Islamization of knowledge (including Islamic economics, Islamic science, Islamic history and Islamic philosophy) as separate from mainstream fields of inquiry. This is usually due to the often secular outlook of Muslim liberals, which makes them more disposed to trust mainstream secular scholarship. They may also regard the propagation of these fields as merely a propaganda move by Muslim conservatives.[18]




Quranists reject the hadith and follow the Quran only.

North America


In Russia and CIS, Sufi orders movements within Islam (so-called "Social Islam").

In Europe overall, there are associations of progressive Muslims.


PPP is the party with Liberal stance and Islam was official religion in Indonesia that established in 1973.


  1. ^ Finally: Muslims Speak Out Against Jihad
  2. ^ Safi, O: "Progressive Muslims", One World: Oxford, 2003.
  3. ^ Averroes Foundation
  4. ^ Aslan, R: "No god but God", Random House, 2005.
  5. ^ Muslim Council of Britain
  6. ^ From the article on Tawhid in Oxford Islamic Studies Online
  7. ^ Islam in the modern world
  8. ^ From the article Where We Went Wrong: A Hard Look at Hadith by Jamal Khawaja
  9. ^ "Sufis and anti-Sufis"
  10. ^ About Liberal Islam
  11. ^ Being a Muslim in the U.S.ا
  12. ^ The Fundamentalist City?: Religiosity and the Remaking of Urban Space, Nezar Alsayyad (ed.), Chapter 7: "Hamas in Gaza Refugee camps: The Construction of Trapped Spaces for the Survival of Fundamentalism", Francesca Giovannini. Taylor & Francis, 2010. ISBN 978-0-415-77936-4."
  13. ^ Hassan Mahmoud Khalil: "Islam's position on violence and violation of human rights", Dar Al-Shaeb, 1994.
  14. ^ The Soft Power for the Islamic Movement
  15. ^ a b Writer and Islamic thinker "Gamal al-Banna": The Muslim Brotherhood is not fit to rule (2-2)
  16. ^ [1]
  17. ^ A History of Women in Islam, by Jamal Khawaja
  18. ^ S. Irfan Habib: "The Viability of Islamic Science", Economic and Political Weekly, June 5, 2004.

Further reading

  • Safi, Omid, Progressive Islam, in Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God (2 vols.), Edited by C. Fitzpatrick and A. Walker, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, 2014, Vol. II, pp. 486–490. ISBN 1610691776
  • Qur'an and Woman by Amina Wadud.
  • American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom by M. A. Muqtedar Khan.
  • Charles Kurzman, ed. (1998). Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 0-19-511622-4.
  • Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, edited by Omid Safi.
  • "Debating Moderate Islam", edited by M. A. Muqtedar Khan.
  • Qur'an, Liberation and Pluralism by Farid Esack.
  • Revival and Reform in Islam by Fazlur Rahman Malik.
  • The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought by Mohammed Arkoun.
  • Unveiling Traditions: Postcolonial Islam in a Polycentric World by Anouar Majid.
  • Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality by Pervez Hoodbhoy.
  • The Viability of Islamic Science by S. Irfan Habib, Economic and Political Weekly, June 5, 2004.
  • The Reformist Islamic Thinker Muhammad Shahrur: In the Footsteps of Averroes
  • A Liberal Muslim Blog
  • Vanessa Karam, Olivia Samad and Ani Zonneveld, eds. (2011). Progressive Muslim Identities. Oracle Releasing. ISNB 978-0-9837161-0-5.
  • Charles Kurzman's Liberal Islam links, compiled by the author of Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook.
  • Mustafa Akyol (2011). Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 978-0-393-07086-6.
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