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Liberal movements within Islam

In modern times there have been a number of liberal movements within Islam (sometimes called in Arabic: الإسلام الإجتهادية or 'interpretation-based Islam', also الإسلام المتقدمة or 'Progressive Islam'). These generally denote religious outlooks which depend mainly on ijtihad or re-interpretations of scriptures. Liberal Muslims interpret the Qur'an and Hadith from their personal perspective rather than the medievalist traditional Muslim point of view. Liberals generally claim that they are returning to the principles of the early Muslim community, arguing that the Medievalists have diverged from true Islam through their focus on the literal word rather than the ethical intent of scripture.


Reform, not schism

It should be noted that 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.

It should be further noted that 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.

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 and reapply many aspects of their religion, and re-examine their traditions. 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 medievalist and 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:

  • Most liberal Muslims consider Islam's notion of absolute equality of all humanity to be 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 Qur'anic story of Adam is sometimes interpreted to support human rights.
  • Feminism is likewise a major issue. For this reason, liberal Muslims are often critical of traditional Islamic laws which allow polygamy for men but not women. Most if not all liberal Muslims accept that a woman may lead group prayers, although this topic remains controversial. It is also accepted by many liberal Muslims that a woman may lead the state, and that women should not be segregated from men in society or in mosques, although the custom is for women to pray behind men. Some Muslim feminists are also opposed to the traditional requirements of the veil, claiming that any modest clothing is sufficiently Islamic for both men and women.
  • Many liberal Muslims favor the idea of modern democracy with separation of church and state, and thus support secular governments. The existence or applicability of Islamic law is thus questioned by 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.
  • 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. Most liberal Muslims reject claims of single literal interpretations of the Qur'an. For example, some liberals may tolerate homosexuality even though conservatives forbid it. However, this topic remains highly controversial even amongst Muslim liberals. (see Islamic views of homosexuality).
  • The reliability and applicability of Hadith literature is questioned by liberals, as much of traditional Islamic law derives from it.
  • Most liberal Muslims consequently do not believe in the authority of traditional scholars to issue a fatwa, since they generally favour the individual's ability to interpret Islamic sacred texts on their own.
  • Tolerance is another major issue. Liberal Muslims are generally open to interfaith dialogue and differences, particularly in the case of the Ahmadi and other controversies with Jews, Christians, Hindus, etc.
  • Liberal Muslims also tend to oppose the idea of jihad as armed struggle, and tend to prefer ideals such as non-violence. The Qur'anic figure of Abel seems to support the idea that anyone who dies as a result of refusing to commit violence is forgiven of their sins.
  • Liberal Muslims tend to be skeptical about the validity of Islamization of knowledge (including Islamic economics, Islamic science and Islamic philosophy) as separate from mainstream fields of enquiry. 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 some liberals view these as moral stories meant to reinforce the ethical message of Islam. Such liberals tend to accept scientific ideas such as evolution and secular history, and are generally opposed to the idea of Islamic history.

See also

External links


  • Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism by Omid Safi. ISBN 185168316X
  • American Muslims: Bridging Faith and Freedom by M. A. Muqtedar Khan.
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