Liberal Muslims: The Term Sounds like an Oxymoron, Both to Muslims And Non Muslims

Liberal muslims

What It Means To Be a Liberal Muslim

“Liberal Muslims” the term sounds oxymoron, both to Muslims and non Muslims. For Muslims, Liberal or Liberated Muslim means a Muslim who has given up practicing Islam, its tenants and does not bother much about the lawful and forbidden in Islam. He continues to be legally a Muslim but his opinion about Islam and Muslims is not acceptable despite being valid. For Non Muslims, Liberal Muslim is one who does not demand reservation, drinks, dines with them, does not inhabit the Muslim ghettoes and never decries about the discrimination against Muslims in India. So a liberal Muslim is on his own with little support from his community and even in general from the society. The Muslim Ulema and community do not consider them Muslim enough to be trusted while Non Muslims accuse them of not being liberal enough. So liberal Muslims are always decried and labelled as stooges of West by their own community while for others, they remain ‘communal’ Muslims. These fault lines have never been negotiated or redrawn.

With the advent of colonialism the Muslim community responded to the socio-political and educational system of the colonizers through three broad reactions. First there were those who were for the wholesome adoption and imitation of the western colonial model.

Second class was completely hostile and opposed to the model.

The other third class was of those who accepted the model with exceptions and tried to incorporate changes in it to make it compatible with Islam.

So there was a division between Traditional and Liberal Muslims. The divide continued in the free India too. The madrasas are giving birth to a traditional, backward looking leadership while the secular education is shaping a different leadership. The division is complete and compartmentalized. Each section respects the invisible contract of not breeching into the territory of the other. Madrasa educated Ulema with sectarian outlook always express opinions about Islam even if sectarian and hold sway over the masses. Whenever they find their position and status is being threatened, they initiate a movement decrying “Islam in danger”. They threaten the liberal opinionated Muslim with Fatwas and community boycott. The political parties of all hues need these madrasas trained mullahs, Maulvis and Ulema for consolidating the Muslim vote bank as they can influence the opinion of voters. This group certainly needs to be appeased as their power cannot be undermined. Plus over the centuries they have adorned, developed and evolved a certain type of dress code including the beards coupled with the reinforcement of that image by media that even Muslims cannot accept anyone as Islamic scholar and community leader who does not possess these features. So liberal Muslims here again prove dwarfs as they don not possess these features. The community cannot recognize them as leaders.

A liberal Muslim is one who believes in the principle of Sulh-I-Kul (peace with all). He upholds the fact that his is not the only source of truth but there are various versions of truth that are available in different ideologies, religions and viewpoints. A liberal Muslim even if he does not observe the rituals of Islam, implements and practices its universal values like egalitarianism, social justice, charity, supporting the destitute and contributing to the movements aiming at the empowerment of downtrodden. A liberal Muslim is tolerant when it comes to the interpretation of Islam and forging unity both intra and inter-faith. Liberal Muslim is a crusader for the cause of women rights, empowerment through education and democracy. Liberal Muslims uphold the postulates of non violence. Unlike traditional Ulema he does not indulge in mudslinging, false allegations and issuing legal decrees.

Among the liberal Muslims we lack those few who can authoritatively write, speak and interpret Islam according to the dictum of current academic debates. The door of Ijtihad that has been closed by the traditional Ulema needs to be opened up. Only liberal Muslims can have the courage to undertake the same. They should prepare themselves for this job and it will take some time to develop the requisite expertise among the liberal Muslims who then can indulge in Ijtihad. The traditional Ulema have created a false aura around themselves that they are the epitome and zenith of piety, with huge following and when they do not dare to undertake Ijtihad how can liberal Muslims do it? But as the time and necessity demands, Ijtihad, hence despite their opposition, the Ijtihad will be acceptable if undertaken by liberal Muslims.

Being a liberal Muslim brings with it plethora of accusations and allegations. One of the commonly used allegations to browbeat the liberal Muslims is they being stooges of West, working at the behest of West and trying to Westernize Islam. West and its ideologies have been the most misunderstood by the Islamic Revivalists. When the Ulema do not have a logical or Islamic answer to an interpretation of Islam that is different than theirs, the simple escapism is to label it as Western whereas the reality is that West is most happy with traditional Ulema as it helps reinforce the Islamophobic and violent image of Islam. Liberal Muslims question the legitimacy of West and have the acumen to understand the capitalistic and imperialistic model of Global powers. The West in fact has been successful in exploiting and using these traditional Ulema and their interpretation of Islam for its own imperialistic goals whether be it the balkanization of USSR or retrograding the Arab Spring to bloody and bleak Arab Winter. The Western powers in fact do help and patronize the autocratic, authoritarian, sectarian and violent regimes like Saudi Arabia to survive. The survival is at the cost of denial of basic human rights and liberal values like freedom of speech, right to form associations and rule of law. So this allegation is wrong, infact traditional mullahs are patronized by West so that a retrogressive, redundant and regressive image of Islam is presented before the world.

The lack of liberal Muslim leadership is because most of them are afraid or in awe of the traditional Ulema. They shy away from the new interpretation of Islam because of community and Ulema backlash. Most of them suppress their inner call and lack courage to stand for the liberal values. The political parties too do not want to associate with any liberal Muslim faces that are controversial for their opinions because that will cut the vote share for them. Thus the liberal Muslims who are articulate and opinionated are marginalized even by the secular political parties. At last the liberal Muslims have failed to convince the Muslim masses and Ulema that they can be selfless and dedicated defenders of their community interests. Liberal Muslims have the task of bridging the divide between the traditional Ulema and themselves and initiate a dialogue process. They need to become role models by having strong personality and values that can inspire the masses to believe and follow them. It will take some time for the Indian liberal Muslim to take and secure the mantle of leadership, till then they need to occupy the spaces of social activism and interpretation of Islam.

M.H.A. Sikander is Writer-Activist based in Srinagar, Kashmir and can be reached at




Related Articles