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Visiting professor discusses progressive Islam


Farid Esack is a professor in the Study of Islam and Head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa and author of Quar’an, Liberation & Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression. Tuesday, he spoke in JRC 101 on “The Humanities for and Beyond the Human – Reflections of a Progressive Islamist. Esack sat down with the S&B’s Joe Engleman’ 14 to discuss the role of humans in environmental issues, avoiding over-consumption and liberal theology in relation to his own middle-class life.


Professor Esack spoke in JRC 101 on Tuesday. Photograph by Tela Ebersole.

During your talk on Tuesday, you rhetorically asked the audience whether the humanities were about human life or if they are about how “human beings interact with other sentient beings on Planet Earth.” How did you develop this view of the humanities? How does this tie in with your views on environmental justice?


I don’t know where it comes from, Joe.  But, I am obsessed with the question of who gets left behind. I can enjoy things. I can have fun. It’s not as if I am this kind of really tight-ass self-righteous character who is forever looking for causes, but it is, who is being left out?  Who is paying for this?  When I enjoy my stay at Grinnell, and talk about how nice it is that they brought me in. How nice it is that I am getting a decent honorarium for my speaking, I must ask, these students and the huge amount of student debt that they are facing afterwards. Is there a relationship between the expensive flight from South Africa to here and my honorarium and this student debt? That is in part why I kept raising the question of student debt [at lunch] because I can just see these nice kids—creative, intelligent, and bright—or I can also see the mess they are sitting with once they graduate.  I can choose to just see all the food that there is or I can choose to see at what cost is this.  I have this obsession with who is being left behind, and our companions on this Earth are being left behind.

… You can see the decimation of species.  You can see the signs in climate change. It’s quite simple, Joe, it’s very, very simple. We’re living in a limited Earth. We’re going on, we’re partying with this Earth, as if there is some kind of magic at the end of the day that’s going to bail us out. But the Earth can’t sustain. There’s nothing prophetic, there’s nothing particularly insightful about all of this—recognizing that we are all finite human beings; the Earth is finite, and therefore we can’t just run amok.


Do you have a message for American students?


It is to seriously grapple with the idea of having less. The idea that for the collective survival of human kind, we must have less, we must own less, we must be less. That there is integrity in small and less.  So that’s the big idea. Challenging the notion that our worth is located in greatness, in our size, in our power. It’s a deeply distractive idea.  It creates resentment. It creates bitterness. The question then doesn’t become, “Why do they hate us?” The question is a much more simple one, “Why don’t they hate us?” When you want to be the biggest, when you want to be the best, when you are the biggest bodybuilder on the block, and you strut your stuff, it creates resentment.  People may not have the capacity to fight against you, but they have the will to dislike you. I don’t think ordinary Americans want to be disliked, but this is in the inevitable price you must pay if you want to maintain that vision of who you are.

And then there is one small thing that always saddens me that each student can take on board. When you go to the dining room, can you only take the amount of food that you’re going to eat?  I am amazed at the wastage of food, and the complicity of different people in it. I’ve spoken to you about big things, but there’s this small thing that pains me a lot in the United States. It’s food and how people’s eyes are bigger than their stomachs, and this for me is a reflection of the larger problem. We consume too much; we take more than we can even consume.  So consuming too much is the problem, taking even more than what you consume is an even bigger problem, but that is a small thing I’d love to leave people with.


How do you approach liberation theology in either a practical or theological sense?


Liberation theology seeks to privilege the concerns of the marginalized… The central thing is a struggle to identify with the marginalized. The other thing about Liberation Theology is this preference that the Catholic theologians call “God’s preferential option for the poor,” but there is an element of tension in that. If God’s preferential option is for the poor, are you saying that God doesn’t care about the wealthy? If you say that God is really with black people in a Civil Rights or an anti-racist struggle, are you saying that God doesn’t care about whites?  So in Quranic language, I speak about God as the sustainer of the oppressed, he’s also the Lord of all people, and Lord of the universes. And God cares, but in a different way, God cares that the one person being liberated from the effects of another person’s racism, but God cares about a white racist (and I’m just using this as short-hand, blacks can also be racist) God cares about liberating that white person from that white person’s racism. There is a caring, but it’s a different kind of caring.

The second key thing about liberation theology, and where I fall very, very short, I’m very, very inadequate. Liberation theology insists that the terrain of theological thinking is not the academy.  It is not the seminary.  The terrain where theological thinking takes place is in the struggle for a better world… My primary terrain wherein I locate myself is the academy. I’m in a university. I speak, I teach, I deal with texts, I deal with students, I intellectualize, I write, I speak about all the right things, I write about all the right things, for my students I’m serious about the work of critical engagement.  In my class, I’m, most of the times, not a liberation theology. My students, most of the times, don’t know where I hang out on issues, because I’m academic. I have to throw different sides of arguments at them. My primary task is to make them think, not to get them to think the way I think.

So what I am saying is that an indispensible dimension to liberation theology is where are you located. I do good work. I serve on boards that do good development work. I serve on boards that work on environmental justice. I speak on these things around the world, but there is a major gap, and that gap, as I said, exposes my charlatanism. I live in a very middle-class area.


My mode of traveling is very, very middle-class. I, in fact, own two apartments. I have one in Cape Town and one in Johannesburg. I do good things with my money. I earn a good salary. I also earn honoraria for speaking engagements.  I do a good job with my money, I think. The way I spend my money fits in with my dreams, my vision, my ideals. But at the end of the day, Farid, you’re just another middle-class academic masquerading as a liberation theologian.


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    David Nathan '01Apr 9, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Really nice interview!