The Liberalism and Unitarianism of Islam

The Liberalism and Unitarianism of Islam

Liberal Islam and liberal Unitarianism each affirm human rights—via two very distinct paths.

Myriam Renaud
Door, Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Morocco

Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, Meknes-Tafilalet, Morocco. (Christopher Rose CC BY-NC 2.0)

christopher rose (cc by-nc 2.0)


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What could girls from a rural village in twenty-first-century Egypt have in common with Khawla bint Tha’labah, a seventh-century woman from the Arabian Peninsula? Answer: each turned to the liberalism of Islam to secure their rights.

After adults objected to the Egyptian girls attending the village’s only school alongside boys, local representatives sought a ruling from a Muslim law expert; after Khawla’s husband placed a pox upon her (zihar) by declaring her to be as appealing as his mother’s backside, she sought a ruling from the Prophet Muhammed.

Islam, like other world religions, consists of many strands—Sunni, Shi‘ite, and Sufi, to name three. A principal concern of all forms of Islam is salvation and leading a moral and righteous life. Among Islam’s strands and sub-strands one finds concerns that resemble those of Unitarian Universalist liberalism, including guarantees for the rights of women.

Liberal Muslims are, not surprisingly, resentful that their religious approach has largely been ignored by the Western media. Liberal Muslims are also mystified by post-liberal Western intellectuals (including some Unitarian Universalists), who reject liberalism. These intellectuals associate liberalism with colonialism, a human-centered view that places nature in the service of human wants, a universalism that ignores community-specific norms, and a failure to live up to ideals of equality and liberty for all.

Charles Kurzman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert on Islam, refuses to abandon the label “liberal” and the core values of liberalism. In his Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, Kurzman explains that the central commitments of liberal Islam are opposition to theocracy, support for democracy, guarantees of rights for women, guarantees of the rights of non-Muslims in Islamic countries, defense of freedom of thought, and belief in people’s potential to progress. He acknowledges that in parts of the Muslim world, the term “liberal” is negatively associated with accommodating modernity at the expense of Islam. Also, not all Muslims whom he considers to be liberal call themselves liberal, and they may not embrace every aspect of liberalism.

Liberalism in Islam has roots within Islam itself, rather than from an outside influence, Kurzman explains. The origin of Sunni Islam’s liberalism can be traced to the Indian Shah Wali-Allah (1703–1762) who held that “Islamic law—while divinely inspired—must be adapted for the needs of different peoples and eras.” Wali-Allah emphasized the importance of human reasoning and of ijtihad, independent judgment, when deliberating on traditional sources of authority. He constrained the range of this judgment, however, by emphasizing a traditional Islamic education, which, in his view, was sufficient. A similar development occurred in Shi‘a Islam in Iran. Aqa Muhammad Baqir Behbahani (1705–1790) emphasized ijtihad with one caveat—independent judgment was restricted to religious scholars.

A notable difference between the liberalism of Islam and that of Unitarian Universalism is this: regardless of strand, liberal Islam maintains a vital relationship to three traditional sources of authority: the Qur’an (God’s words recited to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel), hadiths (teachings of the Prophet, which provide guidance on practical matters not addressed in the Qur’an), and shari‘a (jurisprudence based on the Qur’an and hadiths).

Once one is aware of the relationship between liberal Islam and these sources of authority, it becomes possible to understand the resolution of the case of the Egyptian schoolgirls. To secure the girls’ right to an education alongside boys, the jurisconsult based his decision on a hadith. “Did the Messenger of God . . . not say,” he told the village representatives, ‘Do not prevent the female servants of God from the mosques of God’?”

The most influential strand of liberal Islam, which Kurzman labels “liberal shari‘a,” draws on the divine commands found in the Qur’an and on the Prophet’s teachings found in collections of hadiths. (A contemporary Muslim who practices this approach is the Pakistani theologian, Qur’an scholar, and exegete Javed Ahmad Ghamidi.) This strand does not favor the kind of individual interpretation that Unitarian Universalists encourage, because to do so is to speculate about God’s will and put one’s salvation at risk. Kurzman compares the logic of liberal shari‘a’s approach to one he finds at work when non-Muslims turn to divine authority to uphold liberal values—for example, when a person defends women’s rights by describing them as God-given.

Another strand of liberal Islam, which Kurzman labels “interpreted shar‘ia,” supports interpretation of traditional sources of authority. (A contemporary Muslim who practices this approach is the Iranian-German theologian Navid Kermani.) This strand justifies its approach by highlighting several hadiths—sayings of the Prophet—that suggest divergences of opinion are a sign of God’s favor and also suggest that God intentionally recited the Qur’an in such a way that it requires believers to exercise independent judgment. The approach to authoritative sources by interpreted shar‘ia is close to that of Unitarian Universalist liberalism. However, Kurzman notes that in the Muslim world interpreted shar‘ia is the least influential strand of liberalism.

One trait that Islam shares with Unitarian Universalism is its emphasis on tawhid, the oneness of God. Foundational to Unitarianism is the claim that Jesus was an important spiritual leader, but Jesus was not God; foundational to Islam is the belief that Muhammad was God’s messenger, but Muhammad was not God. A thread in the history of Unitarian thought is a struggle to understand who Jesus was. Was he a miracle worker? A role model? More-than-human? A prophet? A thread in the history of Muslim thought is a struggle to understand who and what Muhammad was. Was he capable of intercession? The Perfect Man? A perfect human being? A prophet?

Still, differences between Unitarian Universalist and Muslim liberalism should not be overlooked or discounted even when motivated by a desire to conceive of all religions as one. A hadith-based judgment gave Egyptian girls equal access to school, and Khawla’s marital troubles were resolved, to her great relief, when God spoke and the Prophet recited, according to the Qur’an, “Those of you who shun their wives by zihar . . . they utter words that are unjust and false . . .” Both cases illustrate core commitments of liberal Islam.

For Islam, the Qur’an, hadiths, and shar‘ia remain front and center. Unitarian Universalists usually turn to the language and ideas of human rights to argue for the protection of women’s rights; liberal Muslims turn to their traditional authoritative sources to justify similar protections. Same result; two distinct paths.