Your Framework’s Quite Possibly Problematic, Bro Pt 1: The Progressives

Okay. First off, disclaimer: I am not claiming any sort of expertise on this issue. Or even an abundance of knowledge. Or that what I am saying is like so totally like the truth. Or like even The Truth. I’m not claiming to know either of the “categories” discussed, in great detail or depth. This is purely the opinion of a layperson – nothing more or less. Well, maybe a little more because of my exposure to the debates, the discussed frameworks and whatnot. But other than that, I’m not trying to offer any sort of insightful, groundbreaking discussion. I just need to get this off my chest; these are just slightly informed observations. This disclaimer is here so I don’t get some ravenous Trads and Progs on my back calling me a fundo or liberal hippy. Also, my discussion will be limited, geographically, to North America because you cannot talk about this issue universally – at least in some respects. Also, when I talk about Progs and Trads, I don’t mean everyday Muslims but rather those engaged in the discourse at an intellectual, academic or legal level.

Also, this ended up being hella long. So, now in two parts. First a general intro and then my thoughts on the progs and then part two on the Traditionalists and quite possibly a critique of my own thoughts.

So, I’ve been thinking about Muslim Progressives, lately. And while thinking about them, I’ve been simultaneously thinking about Muslims Traditionalists. I would define Muslim Progressives as those who want to, more or less, re-engage with the texts to deal with contemporary problems that have arisen, in various respects, which the Tradition does not seem to really deal with it, explicitly. These include issues pertaining largely, but certainly not exclusively, to gender: women’s role, hijab, modesty, mixed-sex congregational prayer, female Imams, premarital relationships, gay marriage and so on and so forth. Obviously this is a complete reductionism of the general “Progressive” philosophy, but I wanted to point out some of the most publicly discussed points. Traditional Muslims are, I would say in many respects but not all since the worldwide Muslim community is so vast and different from nook to nook, also interested in re-engagement with texts to deal with emerging problems, however, remain unwavering in their unquestioned belief and reliance on old scholarship and ideas re: equality/equity, gender, practice, etc. All those issues I mentioned relating to Progressive Muslims also relate, very poignantly, to Traditional Muslims in North America. Hijab. Gay marriage. Or ..just being gay! Pre-marital relationships. All of these are also very central to many of the discussions had by the Traditionalists.

If you want examples of both, in the North American context, here’s who I’d give you. Progressives: Amina Wudud, Omid Safi. Traditionalists: Zaid Shakir. Yasir Qadhi.

Okay, again, super reductionist. I have issues with the discussed terms as for many people Progressive seems to be equated with “total reform, disregard for tradition” whereas Traditionalist seems to be equal to “strict, unquestioned adherence to the tradition, no questioning of sources.”

I don’t buy into these categories for the simple reason that the people I’ve given as examples are also examples of people who completely fall within the cross-section of these two arguably incompatible approaches to understanding and living Islam in contemporary times. I’m sure some of them would take not only great issue with my poor definition of their assigned category but also with the fact that I’ve assigned them a category. And, understandably so – these categories have come to take on pejorative meanings and completely isolate and render one’s flexibility and agency in thought and practice near-well useless. And they also don’t take into account the vast spectrum of people who fall under these debilitating labels.

So, I’m sorry. But, for the sake of getting some thoughts off my chest, let me carry on.

Anyway, so I’ve been thinking about these two unfortunately rigidly understood and defined groups which seem to go on tete-a-tete with one another in either discourse or in the public eye even sometimes. And I’ve come to the realization that despite the some of the “fundamental” differences they may see in their approaches and conclusions (i.e. female imams, hijab as an obligation or not, etc), they are ultimately the same product of the same culture that has produced their frameworks.

Let’s start with the Progs.

The Frameworks of the Progressives

Frameworks of the so-called “Progressives” differ in many ways. There’s a mixture of Feminism with post-modernism (linked, again, to Feminism) and Sufism-lite which is this very North Americanized, Perrenialist-sorta, New-Age-ish Islamic spirituality. Again, it’s very North American. It’s a fun mixture of everything. And there are some great challenges to traditional ideas of Islamic practice that are legitimate. For instance, the idea of men discussing issues of menstruation in Islamic fiqh and female sexuality. These men were surely amazing scholars of their time, but human nevertheless and of their time. So to take their interpretations as a primary driving force is problematic because that adherence does not take into account, or at least supposedly, the societal-political-cultural biases which may have lent themselves to such scholars. This usually throws off many Traditionalists because of the high regard and respect for these scholars, many of whom were, in fact, very aware themselves of the possibility of their ability to err by virtue of their humanity. Many of the great scholars of Islam were some of the most humble characters – and we find this their writings and their traditions. Nevertheless, there’s definitely legitimacy in this particular critique in and of itself. Right? Can we put aside personal religious convictions for a second and just, you know, say yeah okay, sure totally.

And then there’s that strong adherence to the idea that not only are certain, if not many, things interpreted within the cultural framework of a given time and period but also that there’s a general capacity within Islam to constantly evolve and “adapt” to the changing world, it is, after all, seen as a faith for all times by all Muslims.

But, here’s where my problem comes in with the Progressives. So, let’s take a particular issue, which happens to be my favourite one only because I was introduced to Progressive Islam through this debate and it’s a debate I’ve had internally with myself for years on end not because of the actual content of the debate but its significance and its implications: Female imams and mixed-sex congregational prayer.

While the general argument for mixed-sex congregational prayer and female Imams makes sense in many ways, it’s ultimately relies on a framework of equality that is very particular to our time and region. Islam has general had this principle of equity in its practice and legal and historical tradition. All men and women are equal in faith before God – no man is a better Muslim than a woman by virtue of his manhood; individuals are judged by actions and deeds, not their sex.

Equity however seems to come in terms of the roles of men and women in society and in relation with one another. There are definitely, at least in my opinion and also several others, instances throughout the Qur’an and Ahadith that are very time-specific in regards to the role of men and women. For instance, many Traditionalist scholars in North America would not say that women should remain at home. They would agree and say that there is great blessing in this, and I certainly don’t have an issue with that and I think there’s nothing demeaning or unfortunate in that regard whatsoever, but that women are not obliged to stay at home and are encouraged to get out there and involved in the world, in the public. And you see this at play – with this increase of young Muslim women in the professional sector, academia and activism, amongst several other arenas and you see such mainstream Traditionalist scholars promoting this idea.

The problem I have with general Progressivism is not that it works within a particular framework in understanding equality and equity, but that it heralds this framework in an essentialist manner. My greatest problem with the focus on the Female Imam and mixed-congregation debate is that it works within a discussion of equality and female sexuality that is based within a very particular historical and social framework.

I wrote last year about my problem with the term “women of colour” and how I despised being referred to as one and being categorized as such. I discussed how the problem with the term was not the term in and of itself – although that is also extremely annoying – but rather that it signifies the relationship between Feminism, as an intellectual movement and academic discipline, and women who fit outside ..just being “women” enough:

Generally speaking, feminism, as a socio-political and intellectual movement, has been dominated by white women, along with a select few white transgendered individuals and white homosexual men.

Women of colour” beautifully illustrates the exact problem I discovered with feminism, as a woman who did not fit the mainstream criteria for being just a Woman. As a “woman of colour,” I am not just a Woman. I am a woman with a little something extra; there is a difference struck between women like me and white women. There is no Woman. There are no Women. There are two groups: women and “women of colour.” This tidily, and unfortunately, translates into the “us” and “them” categorization.

Because this distinction is made and has been proudly appropriated by “women of colour” without much criticism, this presumption that the white woman’s identity is a sort of “foundational” identity for all women is prevalent within feminism. As mentioned earlier, feminism was created and has been sustained on a very white – and North American – experience and history. This experience and this history have created the framework within which decades of feminist theory and thought have been constructed.

This paradigm was most aptly demonstrated when non-white feminists began to critique the very real ethnic power imbalances that existed in the discourse during the sixties and seventies. “Ethnicity,” including also faith and culture, was more or less fitted into the existing framework: the framework that was built on the white woman’s experience with and understanding of patriarchy. There was no real attempt to rethink the intellectual and historical foundations of the movement. Those thinkers, like Angela Y. Davis and bell hooks, who did attempt that reconceptualization, have gone into the shadows of academia, existing as mere footnotes at the end of feminist class syllabuses.

And I know many will disagree with me, especially in regards to my comment about Davis and hooks – very influential women, no doubt, but I think infuential more so outside of Feminism and particularly amongst “women of colour.”

So, anyway, we already have this problem within the Feminist framework when it comes to looking at patriarchy, and thus also subsequently power-relations, engagement with these relations, agency, sexuality, the Self and other countless nouns. I personally often adhere to some if not many of these ideas but I am not foolish enough to see these as universal or as even truthful. They fit my understanding and sometimes my experience. But, not entirely. And I know many other women have their own experiences – especially beyond North America. Feminism developed, again, on the White woman’s experience – it’s about her history, her relationships, her sexuality and her agency. You can’t transfer elsewhere, even though those attempts have been made. You can’t go and try to make people realize that they need to be saved from their chains.

Anyway, sidetracked. The Feminist discussion on equality, is the same. I again, don’t necessarily disagree with it but I have a lot of problems with it and maybe it’s because I’m more of a closet relativist than I’d like to admit and really believe, but I think the conception of Western European/North American ideas of equality isn’t the only conception of equality and doesn’t take into enough consideration the weight and relevance of equity as well (unless in certain cases i.e. Affirmative action).

This specific debate appropriates a very particular and superficial manifestation of equality – that to be ahead of someone physically somehow connotes the presence of strong and unequal power relations. This in turn reminds me of the spatial crusades that would take place when standing first in line, waiting for the school bus only to further battle to sit in the back of the bus, where all the ‘cool’ kids sat. Cool because that’s where the 5th graders were at.

In essence, there’s a very simplified discussion of equality (and just barely of equity which is strongly a part of traditional Islamic ideas of equality) that frames this broader debate – and this is troubling, I think. The argument can certainly be made that praying behind men is, for women, a constant subconscious reminder of their inferiority – but, again, in what does this argument have its basis? How is ‘inferiority’ being defined and by which standards is it be judged? Simply in and by post-modern philosophical ideas of gender, sexuality and power? What does our history and intellectual tradition say? Additionally, is the act of praying behind men actually causing a mental violence upon women? Or is the violence upon Muslim women being perpetuated by not their ‘physical’ position in the mosque, solely, but by the social position they’ve been given – which is essentially, generally speaking, non-existent and/or demeaning and THIS social position goes onto to reflect itself, in the minds of those concerned, in the physical position – again, dictated by our current intellectual ideas of the manifestations of equality and power.
The masjid is supposed to be a community center for a Muslim community – it is where we are supposed to meet, where we are supposed to not only engage in ibadaat, but also socialize, help others, learn, etc. The masjid has been completely reduced to purely often metaphorical domes under which people run quickly to catch their prayers. It hs become highly politicized – not in the sense of khutbas and the discussion of politics. Rather, in the sense of ethnic exclusivity, position of women in the masjid, issues of prayer, etc. In addition to this, masjids have failed to be the centers of community/social work that they’re supposed to be as well (at least, historically have been). All of this is, of course, generally speaking – there are many, many exceptions to the aforementioned observations I’ve made.
Power imbalances between men and women in the Muslim community, particularly in North America, are far and vast and this cannot be ignored. But this issue of “mixed congregation” or whatever has taken on such an ideological mould it seems that it has politicized an act compulsory on Muslims; an act meant for a Muslim’s own good; prescribed to a Muslim to help him/herself and better as individuals and as a community of believers.
Thus, the problem is about how we frame our discussion on equality. The problem is not about where women pray in relation to men, but rather what this position says about their space in the community. Space speaks – space has meaning not in and of itself but because it is given meaning by those who create it and those who inhabit it. The space created for Muslim women in the masajid of North America says more about their position in the community in terms of religious engagement than about a centuries old, outdated position of prayer. Praying next to each other or having a female Imam lead a mixed-sex congregation doesn’t, still, get at the root cause of the problem. It takes a rather stark and “radical” action and imposes it immediately, without allowing for natural evolution. Spatial restructuring requires mentality restructuring. Change the position of these women in their community and then you will create changes in space. This is how it is done organically as opposed to through sensationalism.
It must also be seen as not outside the Traditional framework for it gain legitimacy. Many Progressive Muslims talk about reforming the intellectual system in place for determining legal rulings, but none can come up with an alternative. The Islamic legal system has weight for a reason – not because people blindly follow but also because it is a vast and deep intellectual tradition which is quite unique and outstandingly established. There are, without a doubt, problems (as I’ll discuss in part two) but the framework which is provided to Muslims through historical and intellectual evolution is solid and has persisted throughout time. It is very possible to mend this supposed disconnect by just simply going back to the earliest traditions. And again, I will discuss this in part two so don’t crucify me quite yet.

This isn’t also to attack the piety or sincerity of self-identifying progressive Muslims. Of course not, rather it is to question the framework in which they are operating. This I’ll continue on in my pretty lowkey critique of the Traditionalists, because there are several examples around the world within various Muslim communities where we see precisely what progressive Muslims would like to see – but being done very organically and very non-sensationally and also very within the Traditionalist framework, even though many Traditionalists would be all “say what” about practices elsewhere.


Stay tuned for my thoughts on the Trads soon.

I feel horrid for generalizing my language and ideas as I have, Father of intellectual honesty please forgive me.

Update: When I discuss ‘equity’ I understand it in terms of various ‘socio-legal’ benefits distributed to populations in an attempt to ensure greater overall equality. In other words, everyone’s equal before the law, as citizens etc, but have different realities as per their social position within that society, thus are awarded differing and discriminatory, on purpose, benefits which work to better their position in society and safeguard against injustice. That’s how I think of it in my head. Durr.

6 thoughts on “Your Framework’s Quite Possibly Problematic, Bro Pt 1: The Progressives

  1. Sana Ive seen your work and id like to get in touch with you ASAP , If your interested you can write in our magazine.
    looking forward for your reply.

  2. Pingback: Hijab and Space | The Almas Tree

  3. I apologize for what is going to be a long and vaguely incoherent response:

    This is a very eloquent way of dancing around answering important questions that I’d really like to read your opinion on. Yes, too often we Muslim women submit ourselves to western, oftentimes ‘white’ ideas of equality and justice, and yes, that problematizes feminism for us. Our minds are, perhaps inevitably, colonized. Agreed completely.

    Agreed also that restructuring minds is important for restructuring space. But I don’t agree that mental restructuring precedes spatial structuring. Why doesn’t spatial structuring precede mental structuring, why don’t the two go hand in hand? And isn’t this an admission that something isn’t right with our current spatial arrangements?

    Also, I’d say that spatial structures as entities in and of themselves are important. Even if we are only looking at the symbolic significance of standing behind a man in prayer, or two steps behind your husband in prayer, symbolism is important. I’d even go as far to argue that that symbolism is what reinforces social/mental spaces for women –why men are STILL by and large the default decision makers in families, why women can’t lead congregations (something I really hoped you’d comment on in this piece). There’s no telling how this in turn affects gender relations. If women were allowed these maybe-only-purely-symbolic victories through the mosque, maybe that would strengthen their social positions. I know it’s not a solution, but I don’t buy that it couldn’t and shouldn’t be part of it.

    And yes, this framing of society, equality, is very much rooted in a particular historical and social context. Of course it is, we are products of our time and society. Even if that time and society were shaped by problematic forces, these are the times we live in, we have precious little choice of ways to deal with sexism. We could rally for a more just social framework that could theoretically be an Islamic one, classical, modern, whatever, but I don’t really see what that is.

    Which leads me to my last point. I see critique but not a solution; this framework is essentialist, reductive, yes, but pointing out a problem with a movement doesn’t solve the problem. Maybe you didn’t intend to point out a solution, but this makes this piece limitedly interesting. We are colonized, we shouldn’t subject ourselves to western conceptions of justice, equality, etc. But where does that leave us on the question of women in mosques? Why do so many of us still feel so uncomfortable with standing behind men in prayer and listening to sermons that, honestly, are insulting to my intelligence when I know that I (and, really, you) could do a much better job? That it’d be far better for my community to hear someone like you give a khutbah than someone chosen on the basis of their gender? Why stand behind men when in today’s world we work, drive, eat, and shop alongside them?

    I don’t identify as a progressive muslim. I’m from a traditional background and struggle deeply, constantly with many aspects of my faith, and it helps to see intelligent women engage with the same issues. So when I read you struggled with the idea of a female imam (the ultimate question), I was hoping for a better answer. I know this is from years ago, but I hope you read and respond to this.

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