Liberal movements within Islam

Progressive Muslims have produced a considerable body of liberal thoughts within Islam (in Arabic: الإسلام الاجتهادي or "interpretation-based Islam", and الإسلام التقدمي or "progressive Islam"; but some consider progressive Islam and liberal Islam as two distinct movements ). These movements share a philosophy that depends largely on ijtihad. Liberal Muslims do not necessarily subscribe to the more culturally-based interpretations of the Qur'an and Hadith. They generally claim that they are returning to the principles of the early Ummah and to the ethical and pluralistic intent of their scripture. The reform movement uses monotheism (tawhid) "as an organizing principle for human society and the basis of religious knowledge, history, metaphysics, aesthetics, and ethics, as well as social, economic and world order.

Reform, not schism

These are movements within Islam, rather than an attempt at schism. As such, they 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. Their main difference with more conservative Islamic opinion is in differences of interpretation of how to apply the core Islamic values to modern life.

The liberal Muslim's focus on individual interpretation and ethics, rather than on the literal word of scripture, may have an antecedent in the Sufi tradition of Islamic mysticism.

However, this reformist approach has led liberal Muslims to adjust or qualify their criticism of various acts by extremist Muslims, including terrorism. Such faint or qualified criticisms have frequently been attacked by western critics, especially those who assert that there is a so called "clash of civilizations".

Central tenets

Several generally accepted tenets have emerged:

  • The autonomy of the individual in interpreting the Qur'an and Hadith.
  • 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.
  • The use of ijtihad (independent 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 their religion. This is particularly true of Muslims who now find themselves living in non-Muslim countries. Such people may describe themselves variously as liberal, progressive or reformist; 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:

Ijtihad (re-interpretation of scriptures)

  • This means that liberal Muslims often drop traditional interpretations of the Qur'an which they find too conservative, preferring instead readings which are more adaptable to modern society (see ijtihad). Most liberal Muslims reject derivation of Islamic laws from literal readings of single Qur'anic verses. They generally claim that a holistic view which takes into account the 7th century Arabian cultural context negates such literal interpretations.
  • The reliability and applicability of Hadith literature is questioned by liberals, as much of traditional Islamic law derives from it rather than Quranic text because there are immense gaps in legal and family issues.

Human rights

  • Most liberal Muslims believe that Islam promotes the notion of absolute equality of all humanity, and that it is one of its central concepts. Human rights is thus a major concern for most liberals. Many Muslim majority countries have signed international human rights treaties, but the impact of these largely remains to be seen in local legal systems.


  • The place of women in Islam, traditional gender roles in Islam and Islamic feminism are likewise major issues. For this reason, liberal Muslims are often critical of traditional Islamic law interpretations which allow polygamy 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 mosques. Some traditional Muslims also accept a woman as a leader of state so long as it does not conflict with her obligation to family. Some liberal Muslims accept that a woman may lead a mixed group in prayers, despite the 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. However, 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. Certain interpretations of traditional Islamic rules require women to cover all but the hands and the face, while men are only required to cover from the navel to the knee.


  • 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 many liberals. Their argument often involves variants of the Mu'tazili theory that the Qur'an is created by God for the particular circumstances of the early Muslim community, and reason must be used to apply it to new contexts.

Tolerance and non-violence

  • Tolerance is another key tenet of Liberal Muslims, who are generally more 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)

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
  • Liberals are also less likely to treat Qur'anic narratives of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jesus and other prophets of Islam as historical fact. Instead, liberals sometimes view these as moral stories (or mythology) meant to reinforce the ethical message of Islam. Such liberals accept scientific ideas such as evolution and the results of secular history and archaeology rather than stories from scripture.

Islam and Anarchism


In North America

See Progressive Muslim Union, Muslim Canadian Congress, Canadian Muslim Union and ProgressiveIslam.Org,

In Russia and CIS

See Jadidism, Ittifaq al-Muslimin.


  • Qur'an and Woman by Amina Wadud.
  • American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom by M. A. Muqtedar Khan.
  • Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook Edited by Charles Kurzman.
  • Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism edited by Omid Safi.
  • 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 05, 2004.

See also

Thinkers and Activists

Ideologies and Institutions

External links

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