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Should we be Liberal or Conservative? 21 August 2006

Posted by MOZAFFAR in Culture, MOZAFFAR, Philosophy, Politics.

Another area where I think too many Muslims make too many mistakes.

As the story goes, the Muslim masses are supposedly “conservative,” and those who are “liberal” tend to identify themselves as “liberal.” In some cases, we use this latter term to mean “intellectually enlightened” and in other cases, we use this term to mean “loose with certain rules of social conduct.”

And, commonly we use such terms — either term — in pejorative commentary against the other.

So, what is our reality, and what should our ideal be?

First, we must distinguish between the basic facets of life where we apply these terms: thinking, conduct, and politics.

Now, let us correct some misconceptions. The common, stereotypical Muslim immigrant, whom we commonly stereotype as “conservative” is commonly, stereotypically conservative in thinking. But, this same person is not consistently conservative in social conduct. The same person who commonly, stereotypically exercises gender segregation in the mosque and dinner parties and attempts to dictate the marriage choices of his/her children commonly watches hours upon hours upon hours of Bollywood or Egyptian movies. Those films are somehow ok.

Politically, however, it is a different type of inconsistency, but the spectrum of liberal/moderate/conservative does not apply. Rather, the politics of such a person are best labelled as “reactionary.”

On the flip side, the stereotypical “liberal” Muslim, who may be known for liberal social conduct tends to be no less intellectually closed-minded than the stereotypical person mentioned above. The content of the closed-mindedness may differ, but such persons are usually no less closed-minded than anyone else.

So, what is our ideal:

Intellectually: we should be liberal. Meaning, we should be willing to entertain and consider almost (almost) any idea, any possibility. There should be no shame in matters of learning, especially learning religion.

Socially: we should be conservative. We should be conservative in our conduct. The focus here is on modesty, privacy, humility, and manners.

Politically: we should be moderates.

Now, in between our liberal intellect and our social conservativeness sits one organ: the tongue. Which way should it go? The rules that govern the tongue are the rules of manners. Further, the manners implemented upon the tongue should vary according to the recipients. Some recipients need to hear liberal thinking, while others need to hear conservative social conduct.

That is my opinion. And, the emphasis here is on us judging ourselves. A person who outwardly appears to be contradicting any of the above only appears to be contradicting any of the above, and should be given his/her due: 70 excuses to justify his/her conduct.

May Allah bless you.



1. talib - 22 August 2006

jazakAllahuKhair Mozzafar for sharing deep thoughts as usual.

at first i thought this piece was going to be about doing away with the labels. does shuffling them around and redefining them to create an ‘ideal’ configuration for ourselves (or, inevitably, for judging others) stop the ‘pejorative commentary’? the problem that i see is that everything is relative, such that one joe ahmed’s social conservatism will be seen as another bob ali’s wild liberalism. similarly with intellect and politics. so what is the ideal based on? i am pretty sure you wouldn’t suggest relativism here i.e. there are as many ideals as there are hues in the rainbow or something happy like that. with such a philosophy, there would be no need for 70 excuses. everyone would be in the right all the time and God forbid it even crosses a person’s mind that someone else is doing something haram or ‘un-ideal’, let alone expressing it as us good enjoining, evil forbidding muslims are obliged to do (in the best way, of course).

so, let’s say that the ideal is based on the Prophet peace and blessings upon him (how else would we know about “modesty, privacy, humility, and manners” and “there should be no shame in matters of learning”?) if this is the case, then can we go so far as to call the Prophet salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam intellectually liberal? or politically moderate? or socially conservative? sounds tacky, to be honest, seeing as we’re talking about the last messenger from the Creator of the universe to mankind, peace upon him.

2. Irving - 22 August 2006

The Prophet (pbuh) would temper justice with mercy, and duty with love. A liberal might also. A conservative would not.

Ya Haqq!

3. ABD - 23 August 2006

this was a really thought-provoking post for me. i think MOZAFFAR is doing more than swapping labels, because (insofar as liberals and conservatives are tapping into different traditions) the differences are not merely relative but rather attitudinal and philosophical. the problems with liberals can be demonstrated, for example, by an intelligent analysis of liberalism (or the vulgarized version of liberalism that is prevalent in political rhetoric today).

of course, talib is right that the labels we adopt or throw onto others are inevitably subjective. a progressive muslim, for example, or a moderate muslim (as MOZAFFAR recently posted about), can be very different things to different people. it seems to me that talib is saying “can’t we just look at the sunnah?”–the problem which this raises, in my view, is that applying the sunnah to new circumstances relies in many cases on understanding what the fundamental attitude or posture of the prophet (saw) was.

irving, for example, suggests that it was more liberal than conservative. as much as i am sympathetic to conservatives, i think irving’s onto something here. the problem is that in the absence of the prophet (saw), we inevitably err on the side of caution. we can try to imitate his actions, but we cannot afford to imitate his imagination and inventiveness. hence the leaning toward conservative positions…

i think i’ve talked myself in a circle.

4. The Turk - 23 August 2006

The problem I feel conversative or liberal; we both have a dogmatic nonsencial defenders who are blinded by their pride, knowledge and power the forget thier way and become corruptted version of idealistic selves. Some are just pure evil… though…

5. talib - 30 August 2006

Abd, perhaps you can think your way out of the circle by considering the possibility that the fundamental ‘attitude or posture’ of the Prophet peace upon him is not a big question mark. why do you feel otherwise? the fact that there are a plurality of opinions is not conclusive evidence that the Prophet peace be upon him did not see things in a very specific, intentional way nor evidence that we are justified in adopting whatever perspective we fancy when new circumstances arise. the question then becomes, which posture or attitude is more likely? we would be mistaken to think that there are a pack of legitimate contenders, though many would have us so believe.

and the words ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ and ‘extremist’ are relative terms used to describe the absolute domain of the Prophet’s sunnah. like i said, using such terms in spinning one’s conception of the sunnah or the Prophet to one’s liking is tacky and misplaced.
actually, i’ll go one step further in saying that the fact that these terms exist in this context have played some role in confusing muslims as to their duty towards the sunnah. as a trite example, there are muslims who think wearing a beard is simply for the ‘conservative’. or muslims who think only flaming ‘liberals’ kiss, joke around, and play with their wives. i hypothesize that, if we truly plugged ourselves into the sunnah, rather than placed ourselves, others, and the sunnah on some ad hoc gradient of our own creation, we wouldn’t have these problems. simplistic? yes. but Islam (and our salvation) isn’t meant to be an intractable riddle. as simple as sem’enaa, wa at’anaa.

6. under|progress - 8 September 2006

[This blog post has been featured in The Carnival of Islam in the West I]

7. Too Much Cookies Network » Carnival of Islam in the West - 16 September 2006

[…] Ganz interessant und für deutsche Muslime immer mehr eine Frage der politischen Entscheidung: “Should we be Liberal or Conservative?”. […]

8. Geography, Telecast » Blog to Watch: Other|Matters - 25 October 2006

[…] Through a comment on the previous post, I came upon the thought-provoking post entitle Should [Muslims] be Liberal or Conservative? It’s a really interesting exploration of both stereotypes and a notion of an ideal. It’s a monolithic ideal, which is my first reaction, and so I doubt some of the assumptions. But read it because it’s very, very interesting and inshallah I will come up with some more sophisticated notions than “eek monolith” after reading it through a few more times. […]

9. talib - 4 November 2006

Abd, i see your point a little more clearly now. of course, i think we have wandered some bit of distance from Mozaffar’s original post. but i think what you’re saying is that the Prophet salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam did, by definition of his prophethood, what was right and sometimes he did what we might now consider intellectually, socially, or politically liberal.

i agree that that might have happened and that we may interpret things as such. however, i don’t think that it was the Prophet’s intention, peace upon him, that his non-prophet followers throughout time adopt the methodology of choosing the liberal options in decisions. in fact, i think there are many ahadith to indicate that the Prophet peace upon him normalized and commended his community’s tendency to be on the safe side of things.

of course, the implication is that if we did adopt this ‘better safe than sorry’ outlook in our affairs, we might not get as good a result at times than if we had taken the risky path. but in the end, that’s ok in a paradigm emphasizing intention and means rather than ends, one that considers the ends as decreed and outside the control of the human actors.

and, as i tried to express before, i do not think that the ‘conservative’ and ‘better safe than sorry’ stances are necessarily the same thing because the latter is sunnah-centric (and in the absolute domain) and the former is contemporary-context-centric (and in the relative domain). we need to be sunnah-centric.

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