Between ‘Liberal Islam’ and ‘Liberation Islam’: Farid Esack on the need for Prophetic Mission

Faith And Its Expression

By Farish Noor

Prof Farid Esack is no stranger to scholars of contemporary Islam: Based at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge and author of ‘The Qur ‘an, Liberation and Pluralism’, he is known to many as one of the most ardent and consistent spokesperson for progressive Islam the world over. Recently Prof Esack was invited to Berlin for a conference focusing on how progressive ideas can and do develop within the context of contemporary Muslim societies, and in the course of his keynote speech he once again outlined the need for a progressive outlook in the interpretation and praxis of Islam that confronts the very real challenges faced by Muslims in today’s rapidly globalising world.

From the outset, he insisted on the distinction between what he labelled as ‘liberal’ Islam and ‘liberationist’ Islam. Speaking from his own experience as a Muslim activist who was directly involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, he noted that “for those of us coming from the left, there is and has always been a clear distinction between the meaning of ‘liberal’ and ‘liberation’.” The danger that so many Muslim activists face today is that the hegemonic outreach of international capital is so great that it is able to co-opt and domesticate all forces that oppose it.
One such example is the case of so many Muslim leaders, activists and intellectuals who have been absorbed by the power structure of global capital, reducing them to comprador elites who merely mouth sentiments accepted and valorised by economic liberalists, without actually addressing the very real power differentials that continue to divide the world between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless.

Faced with this very real problem, he noted that “progressive Muslims need to go beyond ad-hoc accommodation with power and need to address the reality of power differentials in the first place. So often those described as ‘moderate’ Muslims merely say what is sexy and acceptable to the powers that be, without challenging the logic of power per se. They therefore end up adjusting their theology to suit the needs and demands of power, and this is what I call the theology of accommodation, as opposed to the theology of liberation.”

“But in reality we need to ask more pressing questions that address the immediate needs of the environment around us, on a local level. For instance, in the context of Africa today where millions of people are dying of diseases like HIV/AIDS, should we not direct our theological understanding to address the fundamental root causes of these problems, such as the lack of health care and a proper medical system? Root causes and issues such as poverty, powerlessness among the people, the collapse of the state- these are the real issues to be addressed. We cannot isolate and distance ourselves from the core questions of power and politics in such instances.”

Where, then, should the progressive Islamist project locate itself? For years now the relationship between the Western and Muslim worlds has been defined by a consensus between Western and Muslim elites, who already operate on a shared understanding predicated on terms of a global capital-driven discourse. So much effort has been invested into conferences, meetings, research projects on issues like capital-driven development; yet the results have been paltry in comparison: African and other Muslim countries continue to be exploited by powerful multinationals whose only understanding of liberalism amounts to the opening up of domestic markets and the exploitation of the resources of poorer countries.

It is for this reason that Prof Esack insists that any progressive project begins from the premise of questioning the workings of power and highlighting its negative impact on the margins of society: “The progressive Islamist project, if it is to be truly progressive, has to be Prophetic by nature. What I mean by that is that we need to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad (s), and all the other Prophets such as Jesus who located themselves at the margins of society. They spoke for the poor and the downtrodden of society. Progressive Islam and progressive Muslims therefore have to identify themselves with the marginal constituencies of their respective societies, for progressive Islam is all about finding the voice of God at the margins of society: among the poor, the underprivileged, racial, ethnic and gender minorities, the politically weak and unrepresented.” To this end Prof Esack insisted that “to find the sacred in the marginal is to bring the marginal to the centre, to make important what was deemed negligible and unimportant, like the poor and the weak.”

This Prophetic mission is what Prof Esack identifies as the true transformative power of any progressive interpretation of religion. Following in the footsteps of liberation theologists who fought (and died) for the cause of the poor and the marginalised, he criticised those moderates and liberals whose political commitment stopped short at an auto-critique of their own attachment to wealth and power: “Prophetic religion is all about criticising the abuses and accumulation of power at the hands of economic and political elites. I do not know of a single prophet in the history of humankind who began his project with the question ‘How do I adapt myself to the workings of power’ but rather the opposite. Religion, if it is to have any transformative potential and impact, has to oppose the centralisation of power and always stand up for those who have been sidelined and even abused by it. And for progressive Muslims to be truly progressive they also have to be consistent. One cannot call oneself a progressive Muslim in political and economic terms, while being a racist or misogynist in one’s private life.”

Whether such progressive voices can emerge and be heard at all in these troubled times remains to be seen. What is evident, however, is the fact that in the wake of 11 September the struggle to define and re-define Islam and Muslim norms and praxis has been waged in earnest. With more and more underdeveloped Muslim countries being forced to undergo ‘regime change’ at the point of a gun it is unclear if the new ‘moderate’ elites being promoted by the West will take into consideration the needs of their own people. But what is clear is that the need for a truly transformative and critical progressive project in Islam is greater than ever.

Dr Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist


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