The following is in the series of comments I wrote at Street Prophets (see the previous two posts); however, this one has an additional response by the original poster and my follow-up comment (inserted in the appropriate part of the thread). Once again, original comments are in italics:
"It does seem to me that most of the Muslims here in the States are progressive."
I think this depends upon how you define "progressive." There are some Muslims, primarily in North America, who describe themselves as being "progressive." One of the other Muslim diarists here, eteraz, characterizes himself as such.
I myself would say that I am orthodox in my thinking, probably more conservative (regarding Muslim issues) than eteraz or people like him.
If you define "progressive" as in liberal American political thinking, though, I think that many American Muslims will fit that definition, at least partially. There are a number of political issues where we support the Democratic party; likewise, there are some issues that we are more conservative about. However, over all, I'd say that most Muslims vote Democratic than Republican.
Progressive, in any sense of the word. I was thinking in terms of faith as walking with God in love, not fear.
The Qur'an often talks about how we should fear Allah (swt). But the "fear" is not the normal human emotion of fear; when a Muslim talks of fearing Allah (swt), we mean that we love Him so much that we fear to displease Him in any way.
"I wish I knew more about the rules of politeness (as a woman) for covering the head, etc."
Most Muslim women cover their heads with a scarf (often called a hijab or tudung) for purposes of modesty. There is a Qur'anic verse that reads:
"And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss." (24:31)
As you can see, according to the Qur'an, only certain men are allowed to see a woman's hair. For example, I am allowed to see my wife's hair, as is her father and brother, but not my brother-in-law. Likewise, I would not normally see my sister-in-law's hair. Elderly women are allowed, per the Qur'an (24:60), not to cover themselves, although the Qur'an also suggests that it would be better for them if they did. And, of course, there are many Muslim women (especially younger women) who ignore this injunction altogether.
BTW, my wife's decision to wear a tudung is entirely her own. :)
"It also seems that the Prophet himself had great respect for the intellectual talents of the women that were close to him."
I certainly think so.
"The restrictions on contact between men and women at prayer are a stumbling block for me, since I personally believe that the soul has no sex, and that the soul is the part of me that prays."
"The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" or something like that. ;) This is a contentious topic among the progressives, but I don't have any problem with it. There are two basic reasons why I support the separation of the sexes during prayer (salat).
First, prior to doing salat, everyone must do a ritual bathing called wudu. Under one school of thought, the Shafi'i (which I belong to), contact between any man and woman, no matter how coincidental, will nullify the wudu for each, which means of course that both have to do wudu once more before being allowed to pray. So the Shafi'i will not allow men and women to pray together if only to preserve a state of wudu during prayer.
Second, as I'm sure you're well aware, men worldwide are, uhm, visually distracted by women. :) The purpose of salat is worship. Salat is short and intense. The prayers last for, at most, five minutes, and all distractions from the mind need to be eliminated as best as possible in order to concentrate on the worship. A five-minute separation of the sexes certainly isn't that big a deal. :) Moreover, when doing salat at home, my wife and I will often pray together; we're just careful to avoid touching each other until after salat is over.