Progressive Islam Really Does Exist
It had been exactly a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. The city continued to remain on edge and all were cautioned to stay aware, avoid large gatherings, and report any suspicious activity.
Although I wasn’t heading into metro rush hour, I was still a little nervous about going out to the banlieue (suburban area) of Saint-Denis that evening since there had been a shootout in that area only a couple days earlier between French police and terrorists who were linked to the November 13th attacks.
To make a long story short, I had connected with a progressive Muslim group, HM2F, and received an invitation to attend an inclusive jumu'ah (congregational prayer) that would be held at someone’s apartment in Saint-Denis. Once I arrived at the apartment my apprehensions disappeared, as around 15 other people who had already arrived kindly greeted me.
I sat down with them on the floor of the living room at a long table piled with plates of food. While about half of the attendees were Muslim, there were also Atheists and Christians from a diverse set of nationalities. A number of the attendees openly identified as LGBTQ+, but others explained that outside of the HM2F group they remained "in the closet".
After going around and introducing ourselves, we discussed the terrorist attacks, the importance of inclusivity, and progressive interpretations of religious texts. Imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, founder of HM2F and Musulman-es Progressistes de France, led the zikr (a type of recited prayer, where Allah's name is repeated numerous times) and afterwards, all who wished to participate lined up to make salat (evening Muslim prayer).
Women and men pray separately in most masjids (mosques). Women typically pray at the back of the room or, in some cases, in rooms completely separated from the men. As we gathered together for the prayer, I immediately noticed no one self-segregated.
There we were: a group of Muslim men and women, straight and LGBTQ+, some women wearing hijab and some not, standing together in a mix-gendered prayer led by an openly gay imam while facing Mecca.
It is hard to put into words how empowering it felt to come together in solidarity with people belonging to various religions (or no religion), nationalities and sexual orientations, especially at such a tenuous time.
I remain in contact with the friends I made that evening and I am immensely grateful for such a liberating experience. Although I typically do not feel comfortable openly using religious terminology, it was probably one of the most spiritual moments I have experienced and that night I truly felt close to Allah.
After my Paris study abroad term ended, I connected with progressive Muslim Facebook groups in the U.S. I was introduced to a Houston-based LGBTQ+ and ally group called Iftikhar Community of Texas, which is the first LGBTQ+ and progressive Muslim group in the southwestern region of the U.S.
We recently had an inclusive iftar (the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan) potluck dinner and prayed mixed-gender Maghrib (the prayer just after sunset) led by a woman.
Subjects like LGBTQ+ issues, progressive interpretations of Islam, gender segregation in masjids, and racism within the Ummah (global Muslim community) can be controversial subject matters. However, that doesn’t mean that we should shy away from addressing them.
Additionally, amidst a particularly politically tumultuous time, both on a national and international scale, I believe groups such as HM2F, Musulman-es Progressistes de la France, Muslims for Progressive Values and the Iftikhar Community of Texas are especially crucial.
Islam is not a monolith and the ways various communities practice Islam are not monolithic. This being said, while I hope I have not given the impression that progressive Islam (which is within itself an extremely diverse array of thought) is the one and only way to go, I do feel that it is important to amplify progressive Muslim voices and share experiences that may be considered as outside the ‘norm’, such as mixed-gendered prayers.
It is highly unlikely that 1.6 billion Muslims will unanimously agree on a single interpretation of the religion, which is why we must counter essentializing rhetoric that attempts to rigidly define Muslim identity and Islam.
Some Muslims are LGBTQ+. Some Muslims are feminist. Some Muslims are progressive. Some Muslims are conservative. Some Muslims are Ahmadiyya. Some Muslims wear the hijab, niqab, chador, or burqa. Some Muslims do not cover.
The list above could potentially go on forever. After the 2006 cartoon crisis in Denmark, Dr. Akmal Ahmed Safwat, an Egyptian-Danish physician who was active in the formation of the Democratic Muslims of Denmark, made several enlightening comments. At one point Dr. Safwat said, “You should understand that progressive Islam is a growing movement for many Muslims - diaspora and otherwise - who want an Islam for the twenty-first century.”
At the end of the day, respecting differences, upholding human rights and individual agency, and affirming each other’s humanity will make for a much more peaceful world. Unfortunately, the world is not perfect and it never will be. What we can and must do is continue the fight for justice on behalf of all people regardless of their religion, race, gender, and sexual orientation.
If you are interested in learning more about progressive Islam, please find helpful resources below.
Organizations Focusing on Progressive Islam:
- Muslims for Progressive Values
- Imam Ludovic-Mohammad Zahed
- Iftikhar Community of Texas
- Orbala (a blog written by a Muslim feminist; the blog also has a wealth of resources which address feminism and Islam, homosexuality and Islam, and all-things Pashtun)
- Feminist Islamic Troublemakers of North America
- Progressive Muslim Voices
- Agnostic Muslims and Friends
- Masjid El-Tawhid in Toronto
- The Women’s Mosque of America
Books Relating to Progressive Islam (in no specific order):
- Progressive Muslims edited by Omid Safi
- Homosexuality in Islam: Critical reflection on Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims by Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle
- Sublime Qur’an
- The Study Qur’an
- The Great Theft by Khalid Abou El Fadl (and other works by him)
- Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed
- Headscarves and Hymens by Mona Eltahaway
- Qur’an and Women, The Gender Jihad - both by Aminda Wadud (and other works by her)
- Standing Alone in Mecca by Asra Nomani
- The Veil and the Male Elite by Fatima Mernissi
- No God but God by Reza Aslan
- Allah, Liberty and Love by Irshad Manji
- The Faith Club by Ranya Idliby, Suzzane Oliver and Priscilla Warner
- Acts of Faith by Eboo Patel
- Impossible Man by Michael Muhammad Knight (and other works by him)
- American Islam by Paul Barret
- On Being Muslim by Farid Esack
Resources Concerning Progressive Islam for Ex-Muslims (because whether one theologically agrees or disagrees with Islam, it’s important to provide resources for those who are no longer followers of the religion or who might be considering leaving Islam; or any religion, for that matter):