The Progressive Imam

When I told my son that I was going to Cape Town, he told he had a friend there who belonged to a mosque committed to including women in worship, a community under the leadership of a progressive imam. It happened that my commitments to teach at Limmud, the South African version of the British festival of Jewish study, began late Friday afternoon. So I called Imam A. Rashied Omar and arranged to visit the Claremont Main Road Mosque for Friday prayers and an interview.

My new article on the mosque and the imam is now up at the American Prospect. A personal preface: The fact that I wrote about this particular community and its leader doesn’t mean they are unique. Indeed, friends who have already seen the article have already sent me names of other Islamic teachers working in similar veins. I’m writing about Omar because he’s the one I had the opportunity to meet.

I don’t know what portion of Muslims he or his community represent. But I don’t think that the essence of a faith is determined by majority vote. In 1665, the majority of Jews believed Shabtai Tzvi was messiah and that Nathan of Gaza was his prophet. The dissidents who understood that their community was in the midst of mass hysteria had a stronger grasp of Judaism. Today the majority of Orthodox Zionists in Israel are caught up in a warped version of Judaism, originally promoted by that latter-day Nathan of Gaza, Tzvi Yehudah Kook, that sanctifies land, power and Jewish exclusivism. I firmly believe that the majority is deeply mistaken.

This is a statement that can be made from within a tradition. Looking at Islam from the outside I can only note that there is a debate within it. Most writers from the outside who assert what Islam “really” is do so for polemic purposes. That most certainly includes Israeli polemicists, professional and amateur, who assert that Islam “really” is violent and incapable of reconciliation with Judaism – a reading that conveniently places the responsibility of unending conflict entirely on the opposing side.

For my part, I simply note that there are Muslims and Christians whose readings of their own faith I find inspiring, and others whose readings of their religion I find frightening. The lines that divide traditions from each other are not necessarily as important as the lines dividing them from within. And this biography offers hope:

Omar, 49, is an extraordinarily slim man with a small goatee and frameless glasses. His mother, he recounts, wanted him to attend a madrasseh, an Islamic institution, for high school. His father insisted on a secular school. He attended both each day. By 12th grade, he was jailed as a student activist against apartheid. Since then, he says, “My struggle has been how to build a bridge between my faith commitment and my participation in protest against racism and apartheid, which I believed is evil.” This biography hints at two factors that can shape a religious progressive: learning to value a complex education and having the opportunity to apply religious commitment to human equality, not just one’s own liberation.

In 1985, he went to Sudan “to see how Muslims in the mainland were struggling with religion and politics.” He was, he says intensely, “extremely disappointed” by the stream of political Islam that had turned an Islamic state into a “sixth pillar” of the religion, alongside belief, prayer, giving to the poor, fasting, and performing the hajj to Mecca. He rejected the “idolatry of the state.” As an imam in Cape Town, before and after the transition to democracy, he has insisted instead “on being part of civil society,” separate from the state, and on “speaking truth to power and not being part of any political party.” For that reason he’s critical of the mainstream South African clerical group, the Muslim Judicial Council. “During apartheid they didn’t speak out,” he says. “Now they are too close to the new government.”

One expression of his activism is addressing the HIV-AIDS pandemic overwhelming South Africa. “We were among the first … to invite someone HIV positive to Friday services, to speak, to get rid of stigma, to say that our first response should not be one of judgment but rather of compassion,” he says. “We tried to challenge theology of those who said is punishment, a curse of God for those who may not living chaste lives.” From that work sprung an activist group, Positive Muslims, that provides counseling and runs education programs.

Read the full article here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.

11 thoughts on “The Progressive Imam”

  1. It is interesting how reports about “progressive imams” and other liberal Muslims have a sound of “man bites dog” about them. I haven’t done any scientific surveys, but people with their ears open like Tom Friedman and Michael Slackman in the New York Times have reported that the large majority of Muslims around the world believe Israel should be eradicated, believe Jews were behind 9/11, support suicide bombers and believe that Osama bin Laden is a big hero. Slackman reported recently that most Egyptians believe Jews are responsible for most of the problems they have.
    The question is whether this is do to Islam or some other cause. Well, we have a test case. The British ruled India for 300 years up to 1947. The country was then divided into a Muslim State (Pakistan) and what was essentially a Hindu state, although it is secular. India to this day has a large Muslim minority (it is actually one of the largest Muslim countries in the world), whereas it was made clear to Hindus in the areas that they were not welcome and so there are practically no Hindus in Pakistan. (This is similar to the fact that Jews are prepared to share their holy places like the Temple Mount and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hevron with the Muslims, who also view them as holy places, but Muslims when in control of them prohibit Jews from visiting them).
    Both countries inherited British institutions and concepts of democracy. How did it work out? India is a functioning democracy with rule of law and with a flourish economy. Pakistan is a backward state with a generally stagnant economy, there are elections but elected governments rarely complete their terms, they are usually overthrown by military coup. Dexter Filkins has reported at length in the New York Timest that the official Pakistani government and its secret service (IIRC it is called the ISS) set up the Taliban extremist organization and encouraged it to carry out attacks against Indian interests in Kashmir as well as in Afghanistan (Filkins reported that a recent terrorist attack by the Taliban on the Indian Embassy which killed over 50 people was directly ordered by the ISS). Pakistan is wracked by political violence and terrorism, some of it directed against the Shi’ite minority. (Yes, there is terrorism and political violence in India as well, but not to the same degree). Benazir Bhutto, who ordered the ISS to set up the Taliban as Prime Minister in the 1990s, was assassinated by them last year.

    Again, both Pakistan and India came out of the same roots. One state is a big success, it is not Muslim, there other is a failed state and is Muslim (of course, Pakistan itself was torn by a bloody civil war and its eastern part became Bangladesh, another failed state but one we hear less about in the media).

    I bring this example because when people look at the Arab world, the cradle of Islam, we see every single state is a dictatorship, some somewhat more liberal than others which can be extremely repressive. None are economically productive, the rich oil states survive basically by handing out some of the oil money to the population which is not productive, the real work in these oil states is done by foreign workers who have no rights. The industrial production of the entire Arab world (23 countries, IIRC) is about equal to that of Finland,( I saw this figure about 5 years ago). Many apologists say that this is not due to Islam, but rather local conditions, but, as I have pointed out, Pakistan has ended up the same way, even though they have very different background than the Arab states, having been under European colonial rule for centuries, unlike the Arab world).

    I believe one of the major problems with Islam is that a cardinal belief is that Islam is destined to rule the world religiously AND politically. Those who oppose this are viewed as the enemy. Now, many Muslims realize that this is not possible today and reconcile themselves to it, but I believe there is still a feeling of resentment against those who stand in the way (Jews, Christians, Israel, the United States, Hindus, etc.)
    In a Time Magazine article marking 60 years of independence for India and Pakistan, they quoted a professor in Pakistan as saying that the Muslims had the RIGHT to rule ALL OF INDIA, not just Pakistan, even though they are a minority and Britain, when it took India from the Moghul Empire had unfairly stolen a Muslim possession, so they should have given India back to them, not to its own people, the majority of which are not Muslims and had no desire to live under Muslim rule.
    Thus, many Muslims in the world have a feeling of great resentment and jealousy against the outside, dhimmi world. Many feel violence, at least under some circumstances, is justified, and a jihad in order to put the entire world under Muslim rule (and “jihad” can mean armed force) is a religous imperative, no matter how long it may take.
    It would be interesting to see what “progressive” Muslims think about the analysis I outlined here.

  2. Thanks for posting, Gershom, and bless the imam.

    As Holly Near wrote:
    I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh
    I ain’t afraid of your Allah
    I ain’t afraid of your Jesus
    I’m afraid of what you do
    In the name of your God.

  3. Y there is no hope for you .There should be a new class of permanent “nay sayers” as a classification ” it’s all the fault of those followers of the Quran. In my trips throughout the world including combat zones I have seen the results of the intolerance you spew out .I certainly would be dissappointed if I could only spit out the blatant narrow minded garbage you try to hand out as evidence that your so- called cause is justified. You don’t sound a hell of alot different than Joseph Goebbels.

  4. George-I frankly resent being called a Nazi. I challenge you to point out what I said that is incorrect.. Give me facts, not just you “discomfort with my attitude”. You say I am a Nazi? Where have I called for genocide against anybody? That fact that you have to resort to vile characterizations just proves you have nothing really to say…just your “progressive” gut feelings.

  5. Y your a facist to the core, but you are to be forgiven in that you live in a cocoon of self – absorption. In other words you can’t see the woods for the trees but there is a saving grace ,G-d loves you without condition as he loves us all.” Grace is what G-d gives us all without pre-condition usually when we least expect it and that which can never be paid back ” C .S.Lewis. I’m not quite ready to accept Hitchen ‘s cynical views on religion but they have some merit when observed in the “us versus them” colloquy we hear from your pulpit.

  6. George-
    I am still waiting for you to refute what I wrote. Name-calling (“fascist, Goebbels, self-absorbed”) simply proves you really have nothing to say at all.

  7. My take from your post, Haim, is that religion can be grounds for just about any view one wants to take. Who is to say who is the messiah? Who is to say what Jesus meant when he said such-and-such? Can’t bin Laden make a religiously plausible claim to legitimacy for his views?

    Is religion anything if not interpretation with no guide beyond what interpreters have said in the past (including those who put down the words in the canon of the religion).

    I’d be the first to say that what has been said by some of the interpreters of the different religions can be worthwhile…but only on the merit of being able to stand apart as a prescription for behavior apart from any reference to religion.

    Once God gets into the mix of interpretation, absolutism is sure to follow, no matter what the religion. Absolutism brings intransigence, intransigence brings pledges of death before change in belief and soon there are two sides that meet with the same iron-willed certainty and we know what follows. What has history shown if not that schism within a faith can bring the cruelest, most prolonged and most difficult to resolve conflicts?

    The word God and the word kill have gone together like a horse and carriage throughout human history and this is not surprising since the word -God- signifies a claim to transcendence over all things physical in which the second word -kill- dwells. God is something that can make the killing of another person seem insignificant in a fantastical larger scene.

    Fortunately, in modern times, Jews are quite reluctant to kill each other no matter how deeply they may differ. For the Arabs, differences can much more easily bring death. Christians have killed each other with gusto right along. I can’t understand how any can claim a superior position.

    A secular world would not be free of conflict but one great source of absolutism would be eliminated.

    So, when it comes to religion – some pray to toe-MAY-toe, some pray to toe-MAH-toe, let’s call the whole thing off.

  8. Cliff,

    I, as a secular person, understand where you are coming from. But you need to understand that religion is also a force for greatness.
    Back before the American Civil War, it was in fact the Church that led the abolitionist movement. During these times, Scientists were under the impression that those of African descent were inferior to those of European descent – which gave a great source of justification for those who believed in slavery.
    Also, one of our greatest leaders in US history, Martin Luther King Jr., became who he was because of the Church. Many of those who organized against Jim Crow utilized the church to do so.
    Even today, advocacy groups are partnering with religious communities to fight for noble causes, such as Darfur, the environment or poverty.

    Now, I know that slavery, Jim Crow and other odious causes have been furthered or justified by religious movements, but in most instances there are along for the ride. Image a world with no religion – no MLK Jr., no abolitionist movement or no partners for worthy causes with the ability to move people like no secular non-profit can.

    That, my friend, is not a world that this secular Jew wants to live in.

  9. Clif, the problem is the “absolutism” you mention. Any ideology can have this, not just the various religions. People have killed in the name of animal rights, Nazism, Communism, Jim Jonesism (Jonestown), etc, etc.
    A truly religious person doesn’t say “I have the absolute truth”, but rather “the absolute truth is with G-d, and I, being imperfect, am not in a position to go against the commandment of against killing others because I don’t know what is in G-d’s mind”. People of various religions have been able to live together in tolerance for millenia, so religions have been proven able to teach such tolerance to their followers.

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