Holding out the beauty and justice of Islam: How Muslim scholars and preachers can counteract Islamophobia

KoranThe way some Muslim celebrity preachers interpret the Qur’ān fuels Islamophobic sentiments in the West by perpetuating the perception that Islam is an inherently violent, patriarchal, and supremacist ideology. Here, Adis Duderija – member of the national executive of Religions for Peace Australia – shares that that one of the best ways within the control of Muslims to counter Islamophobia is the progressive Muslim approach to the Islamic tradition.

The rise of Islamophobia in the West poses a pressing challenge which requires a range of thoughtful and informed responses. As a progressive Muslim scholar, I firmly believe that embracing scholarly approaches to the study of Islam — particularly when rooted in progressive interpretations of the Islamic tradition — holds great promise when it comes to effectively reducing the perceptions that fuel Islamophobia.

By contrast, the approach to Islam adopted by some Muslim celebrity preachers may perpetuate misunderstandings, reinforce stereotypes, and hinder progress in building a more inclusive society.

Muslims in Western countries frequently face discrimination, prejudice, and even violence due to their religious identity. Islamophobic rhetoric and stereotypes perpetuated in some media, by certain political figures, and societal biases contribute to the marginalisation and othering of Muslims. Instances of hate crimes, mosque vandalisations, and employment discrimination are just a few examples of the real-life consequences of Islamophobia.

I am convinced that one of the best ways within the control of Muslims to counter Islamophobia is the progressive Muslim approach to the Islamic tradition. Why? Because this approach to Islam embodies a cosmopolitan, inclusivist, and ethically beautiful understanding of Islam that can provide an important corrective to Islamophobic sentiments — namely, that Islam is an inherently violent, patriarchal, and supremacist ideology.

Accordingly, I am also of the view that the approach some Muslim celebrity preachers take to the Islamic tradition can contribute to Islamophobic sentiments.

What is the progressive approach to Islam?

Progressive approaches to Islam emphasise the importance of contextual understanding of the Qur’ān and the importance of critical-historical analysis in the very genesis and formation of the Islamic tradition. Progressive scholars delve into the rich tapestry of Islamic history, examining the diverse interpretations, social dynamics, and cultural influences that have shaped the religion.

Progressive scholars scrutinise the complex, often highly contested and multifaceted development of Islamic thought — including the religious, social, political, and cultural factors that influenced the emergence and the interpretation of the normative texts, the Qur’ān and Hadith. This approach allows for a nuanced understanding of Islamic teachings, dispelling harmful misconceptions and addressing those Islamophobic narratives that flatten the Islamic intellectual tradition and ignore the broader context.

In contrast, celebrity Muslim preachers often adopt a reductionist approach to Islam, focusing on cherry-picked verses or ahistorical interpretations that reinforce patriarchal and supremacist beliefs. This reductionist approach ignores the complex historical and cultural factors that influenced the development of Islamic teachings, leading to an incomplete and distorted understanding of Islam.

Such an approach, wittingly or not, reinforces Islamophobic narratives that paint Islam as inherently oppressive, backward, and incompatible with Western liberal democratic values.

The place of critical thinking and intellectual rigor

Progressive Muslim scholars champion creative, critical thinking and intellectual rigor as essential tools in the study of Islam. By engaging in rigorous analysis, they bring forth diverse interpretations and challenge regressive readings that often fuel Islamophobia.

Progressive scholars emphasise the need for a holistic and nuanced understanding of Islamic texts. They recognise that the Qur’ān and Hadith-based texts contain a wide range of — and, at times, mutually opposing — messages that need to be interpreted holistically and in light of their historical context and overarching principles of justice, compassion, and equality. This approach allows for a more contextually sensitive understanding of Islam, one that transcends the kinds of simplistic and heavily textualist interpretations that contribute to Islamophobia.

Unfortunately, this is a far-cry from the approach taken by some celebrity Muslim preachers, who rely on overly emotional and often dogmatic interpretations that reinforce patriarchal and supremacist ideologies.

Islam, inclusivity, and gender equality

Scholarly approaches rooted in progressive Islam advocate for inclusivity and gender equality within the Islamic framework. Progressive scholars recognise that the Quranic principles of justice, compassion, and equality serve as the foundation for a more inclusive understanding of Islam. They challenge patriarchal interpretations and call for a re-examination of traditional norms that perpetuate gender inequality.

Progressive scholars argue that, when approached contextually and holistically, the Qur’ān and Hadith can provide a foundation for gender equality, by emphasising the equal worth and dignity of all individuals, no matter their gender. They highlight instances where women played influential roles in early Islamic history, including as scholars, entrepreneurs, and political leaders. By highlighting these examples, progressive scholars challenge the patriarchal interpretations that marginalise women and restrict their rights and freedoms.

In contrast, some Muslim celebrity preachers often propagate a patriarchal understanding of Islam that reinforces gender hierarchies and restricts the rights and freedoms of women. This approach not only marginalises Muslim women, but contributes to Islamophobia by confirming stereotypes of Islam as inherently oppressive and misogynistic.

Religious pluralism, interfaith dialogue, and the importance of building bridges

Progressive Muslim scholars affirm religious pluralism, actively engage in interfaith dialogue, and recognising the importance of building bridges of understanding and cooperation with people of different faiths as well as within the Islamic tradition. They seek common ground and emphasise shared values, working towards a society characterised by mutual respect and harmony. By fostering interfaith dialogue, progressive scholars humanise Muslims, dispel stereotypes, and challenge Islamophobic narratives rooted in ignorance and fear.

Progressive scholars approach interfaith dialogue as an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversations with individuals from diverse religious backgrounds. They not only recognise the inevitability of religious pluralism at multiple levels — metaphysical, philosophical, and hermeneutical; they are also acutely cognisant of the fact that religious diversity is a reality in today’s globalised world — and that fostering understanding and respect is essential for social cohesion.

By highlighting these shared values, progressive Muslim scholars challenge the notion that Islam is inherently supremacist vis-à-vis other religious traditions, thus countering Islamophobic narratives that perpetuate division and fear.

In contrast, Muslim celebrity preachers often adopt a supremacist and exclusivist approach to Islam, promoting a sense of religious superiority and alienation from people of other faiths. This approach reinforces Islamophobic narratives that depict Islam as intolerant and incompatible with religious diversity and coexistence. By failing to engage meaningfully in interfaith dialogue and promoting a reductionist and supremacist understanding of Islam, these preachers contribute to the marginalisation of Muslims and exacerbate the tendencies towards Islamophobia in Western liberal democratic countries.

The challenge for Muslims in the West

The disparity between the scholarly progressive approach to Islam and the version proffered by celebrity preachers highlights broader appeal the latter enjoys — particularly among young Muslim men. Why? Because these preachers often espouse powerful, emotion laden, God saturated rhetoric that directly speaks to their need for belonging, their sense of identity, and their grievances (perceived or real).

Speaking from the perspective of what Muslims can do from within the parameters of their own intellectual tradition to curb Islamophobia, I am convinced that a wider acceptance of progressive Muslim thought among Muslims in the West — both lay Muslims and clergy — is one of the most effective antidotes against the self-perpetuating cycle of grievance and prejudice.

For this to take place, however, Muslims in the West must adopt a more reflexive stance toward what counts as Islamic orthodoxy. And at the level of our educational institutions, we need to be able to develop robust mechanisms for intra-Muslim dialogue that truly welcome critical and innovative thought.

Adis Duderija is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Islam and Society in the School of Humanities, Languages and Social Science, and a Former  Senior Fellow in the Centre for Interfaith and Intercultural Dialogue, Griffith University. He has written extensively on the Islamic intellectual tradition, interfaith dialogue, gender issues in Islam, and Islam and Muslims in the West. He is the co-editor of Shame, Modesty, and Honor in Islam.






Image Credits: Mohamad Trilaksono / Pixabay