Three Paradigms for an Emerging Islamic Process Theology

As I currently see things, there seems to be three major paradigms for an emerging Islamic process theology.

The first (in no particular order), is the project initiated by Muhammad Iqbal and continued by contemporary Iqbal scholars such as Farhan Shah. Here we have a contemporary Islamic philosopher-theologian who draws inspiration from process thinkers like Whitehead and Bergson to articulate a new vision of Islamic theology which is deeply grounded in the Qur’an itself and somewhat skeptical of various historical developments and articulations of Islamic theology. The continuation of this paradigm in contemporary times looks like a continued exegesis of Iqbal’s ideas in conversation with Whitehead and other major process thinkers, especially as these perspectives can be applied to current issues. This paradigm is semi-critical of the received Islamic traditions but, in the style of Iqbal, strives for a deep engagement with this material even as some of it is rejected or reinterpreted/recontextualized.

The second paradigm is the approach of progressive Islam as exemplified by Adis Duderija. Here process theology is taken as an ally to a vision of Islam which seeks to provide more creative and dynamic responses to contemporary issues, particularly those issues relating to justice and rights for historically marginalized groups. Here the methods of modern religious scholarship (such as historical-critical perspectives) are brought to bear on the Islamic tradition, giving new interpretations which can be developed into Islamic perspectives that follow the path of Christian and Jewish process thinkers from the past century, along with progressive religious voices from a variety of backgrounds. This perspective is the most critical of the received Islamic traditions, seeing much of contemporary Islam and the broadly backward-looking traditionalism of Muslims as fundamentally ill-suited to addressing the demands of the current moment (such as religious pluralism, women’s rights, etc), and as such a substantial re-imagining of Islam is required — process thought being taken as an important contributor to this project.

The third paradigm, so far less developed than the previous two, is a creative synthesis between process theology and traditional Islamic mystical theology from Sufi and Shi’i masters. Here, one may retrace the common Neoplatonic roots of both Whitehead’s philosophy of organism and, for example, the mystical thought of Ibn ‘Arabi to find pre-existent commonalities that may be taken as a basis for a more explicit development of an Islamic process theology. This paradigm is the most friendly to the established Islamic traditions, although it is partisan in taking the mystical perspectives of the tradition as more normative and essential than certain other forms of Islamic theology. Once an Islamic process theology can be articulated from the standpoint of an essentially Sufi and/or Shi’i perspective, however, deeper and more open dialogue with the schools of ‘aqīdah is likely possible than would likely be the case if this new theology is perceived as being essentially foreign to Islam. Not that the challenges here would not still be significant considering the rampant Salafi-fueled sectarianism that readily labels Sufis and Shi’is as disbelievers. But, it’s nonetheless a promising approach, and one to which I would like to contribute, inshallah.

A potential fourth paradigm, which perhaps overlaps in some ways with the previous perspectives, is a Neo-Mu’tazilite perspective. Certainly contemporary scholarship has revealed much about this historical school of Islamic thought, and there are a number of points where process theology and the Mu’tazilites strike an agreement. However, I find it unlikely that this approach would gain any momentum on its own, considering the significant negative sentiment about the Mu’tazilites amongst contemporary Muslims — and there are certainly some valid reasons for this. As such, while there is some promise to this approach, I don’t believe that the climate is right or the resonances significant enough for this to become its own paradigm able to stand on its own. Incorporating this approach into any of the above paradigms is potentially promising.

Of course, these paradigms are not mutually exclusive, and each of their unique methods and emphases provides something of value, while conversation across these different approaches helps to ameliorate their shortcomings.

It’s very exciting to find myself in the midst of these developments. I pray that any contributions I make may allow for a deeper and healthier interface between Islam and contemporary issues while also more readily opening up the existential and pragmatic riches of the religion — and likewise with regard to the work of my fellow-travelers in this venture.

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Jared Morningstar

Independent academic specializing in 20th century religious philosophy, Islamic studies, and interfaith dialogue based out of Madison, WI. Founder @alifreview