By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam
17 February 2020
Given the recent increase in Muslim sectarianism, especially in the Middle East, one would be forgiven if one was to ask if the idea of Muslims transcending the historical religio-doctrinal Sunni-Shi’i divide would ever be possible even if one is of the view that it is highly desirable.
The numerous recent events of ‘sectarian’ or religiously inspired/justified violence and ongoing repression of many Muslim communities by other Muslims both within and across sectarian divides in many parts of Muslim majority world, which have resulted in, among other things, a large number of lost lives, justify scepticism and lack of optimism in this respect.
However, in my view, this rather grim picture ought not deter us from efforts to trying to make the situation, as problematic as it is, better. Put differently, the alternative of upholding the status quo is for many a Muslim today no longer acceptable on both moral and religious/theological grounds.
The increased ecumenical spirit among various religious traditions (inter-religious) and recognition of irreducible religious pluralism has come a long way recently, at least in theory. I say this as someone who has been active in inter-faith dialogue (predominantly between the Abrahamic religions) for over 20 years at the grassroots level as well as someone who has an academic interest in the topic. However, the ecumenical spirit at intra-Muslim level has not kept pace with these and with few exceptions such as the Aman Message (2006) there are hardly any formal institutional efforts that have this aim.
Why is this case? This is a fascinating question that requires serious academic research and is of course beyond the pale of this short text. Nevertheless, in my view, many socio-political and economic challenges that contribute to sectarianism in the Muslim World are at least in part rooted in failures of Muslims to thinking about Islam and the Islamic intellectual tradition in new ways, ways that have the potential to transcend the historical (religio-doctrinal) divides and associated animosities that have existed between Sunnis and Shi’is since the very inception of Islam. As such, I believe, currently, there is a great need for Muslims to first develop a scholarly discourse around alternative approaches to conceptualising Islam that has the capacity to dislodge the dominant sectarian narratives that have historically lead to and produced the current Sunni-Shi’i divide. And this is where the theory and practice of progressive Islam /progressive Muslim thought comes into the picture. I am of the firm view that Progressive Muslim thought is uniquely positioned to overcome these divides because of the very nature in which it defines itself on normative grounds. Namely, the theory of progressive Islam that draws upon both Sunni and Shi’i scholars, as theorised in my work is based on the following delaminating features:
1. Creative, Critical and Innovative Thought Based On Epistemological Openness And Methodological Fluidity,
2. Islamic Liberation Theology,
3. Contemporary Approaches to Gender Justice,
4. A Human Rights Based Approach to Islamic Tradition,
5. Rationalist and Contextualist Approaches To Islamic Theology And Ethics,
6. Affirmation of Religious Pluralism And
7. Islamic Process Theology
In this respect it is very important to draw attention to the fact that none of these “pillars’ of progressive Islam are tied to the issues and doctrines on which traditional divides between Sunnis and Shi’is rest, namely that of the nature and location of religious authority , the views on the (collective) probity of Prophet Muhammad’s Companions and the subsequent political theologies (e.g. imamate and caliphate) that have developed in both their Sunni and Shi’i versions . Furthermore, none of the specifically Sunni and Shi’i doctrines and beliefs mentioned above that are constitutive of and fundamental to each of these traditions within Islam are normative from the perspective of the theory of progressive Islam. In other words, progressive Islam does not view any of these doctrines and beliefs as normative but purely historical. Therefore, it can transcend them without compromising on any of its fundamental premises outlined above.
Beyond theory, I also believe that now there is out there a critical mass of well-informed Muslims, especially those who are progressive minded (we could perhaps place some of the so called Su-shi Muslims into this category), for whom the historical process that have led to what today is known as Sunni and Shi’i Islam are not fundamental to how they view or relate to themselves as Muslims. Instead their sense of Muslimness is underpinned by the kind of approaches to the faith I outlined earlier that characterise progressive Islam which is less about (political) theology and more about developing a cosmopolitan, social justice oriented Islam that has a strong ecumenical spirit not just within the boundaries of reified Islam but across religious difference. And it is my firm conviction that validating and supporting such an approach to Islam is sorely needed today for a host of reasons for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike that includes but goes well beyond the issue of Muslim sectarianism.
Dr Adis Duderija is a Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and Society, School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science ; Senior Fellow Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue. Griffith University | Nathan | QLD 4111 | Macrossan (N16) Room 2.27
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