Beyond the large majority of more moderate Muslims is a growing progressive Muslim movement as well. Omid Safi, a famous progressive Muslim and author, describes progressive Islam as “striving to realize a just and pluralistic society through a critical engagement with Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, and a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism.” Thinkers outside the Islamic tradition, including Latin American liberation theologians, nonviolent resistance leaders, and secular humanists also influence these progressive Muslims. Some progressive Muslims, such as the famous scholar of religion Reza Aslan, even believe that Islam is currently in the midst of a reformation towards more broadly progressive ideals, analogous to the Protestant Reformation: “…the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are already living in it.”
Similar to the way in which progressive Christians have recently emphasized the anti-imperial, egalitarian social agenda of the historical Jesus, Aslan has made strong and convincing arguments in favor of looking at the origins of Islam and the earliest stages of Muhammad’s career in this way as well. Aslan argues that Muhammad was largely reacting against the economic corruption in Mecca, as wealth had become heavily concentrated in the hands of a small number of powerful families and the social egalitarian ideals of the tribes were abandoned. Muhammad’s primary concerns were to restore the tribal ethic, care for the orphans, free the slaves, and to assist those in need. Before Muhammad established a new religion, “he was calling for sweeping social reform. He was not yet preaching monotheism; he was demanding economic justice.” However, even after the birth of Islam as a religion, key practices such as zakat (paying of the alms for the care and protection of the poor) and the fast of Ramadan (which involves both remembrance of the poor and the feeding of the hungry) keep social justice at the center of this tradition, whether in progressive or traditional forms. As such, Aslan makes a very strong case that Islam is rooted in strong commitments to justice.
On the other hand, Aslan’s vigorous attempt to argue that Islam is rooted in firm principles of religious pluralism is certainly up for debate. While this perspective may convince some, it is a hard sell for other scholars who point out that the Quran is not clear on this issue. As Jane Dammen McAuliffe writes, “there is no single quranic attitude towards members of other religions.” Although a number of passages in the Quran do seem to provide grounds for religious pluralism, others seem to state that one is not obedient to God without explicit recognition of his messenger Muhammad (among other requirements). Although Jews and Christians are called “People of the Book” and should usually be protected as minorities, they are still not of the same high status as Muslims, according to the Quran. When living in Muslim lands, they are generally considered to be second-class citizens. The attitude of the Quran towards Jews and Christians seems to fluctuate, depending on the political and social situations at the time of a passage’s composition. While the overall attitude of the Quran towards other religions seems to be essentially negative, it does not in general permit religious violence or aggression towards those of other faiths. Most exegetes throughout Muslim history have not read the text in a way that justifies forcible conversion to Islam, as they seem to have accepted the fact that many would not convert and so needed to be tolerated as religious minorities.