Islamic Moderates and The Great Theft
By Paco Pond
( Paco Pond a Blog Name teaches, and runs at
least one marathon a year, and has published poetry, reviews, and literary
Monday, October 30, 2006
I walked into the house after work today and turned on my radio to hear
National Public Radio interviewing Khaled Abou El Fadl. I've never heard the
man's voice, but intuitively I knew who I was hearing. I have been reading his
The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists. I quote from the
dust jacket, "Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl is one of the most important and
influential Islamic thinkers in the modern age. An accomplished Islamic jurist
and scholar, he is a professor at the UCLA School of Law, where he teaches
Islamic law, immigration law, human rights law, and international and national
security law. As the most critical and powerful voice against puritanical and
Wahhabi Islam today, he regularly appears on national and international
television and radio...."
Part one of his book, titled "The Battleground for Faith" depicts the
contemporary struggle between the forces within Islam that he characterizes as
moderation and puritanism. His account of the "Islamic Reformation" so closely
parallels the account I published a while back that it was a fascinating
experience to find my own speculations confirmed by an Islamic jurist and
contemporary legal scholar. Indeed, if one read El Fadl, one might suspect me of
academic kidnapping. But the truth is, I had only encountered this author once
or twice on the internet and in an excellent essay "The Ugly Modern and the
Modern Ugly" in Omid Safi's compilation, Progressive Muslims. The idea
of "Islamic Renaissance" is in the air elsewhere, but it is most clearly
articulated in The Great Theft.
Khaled Abou El Fadl emphasizes the moderate traditions of his faith. As a
religion without a hierarchy, structurally akin to Judaism in that its clergy
were lay scholars who won reputations for scholarship, piety, and good sense.
Muslims traditionally recognized that opinions on aspects of ritual and law
varied significantly, depending on the interpretation of the alim, (or mullah,
shaykh, or imam, all basically equivalent titles). A central text of Islam is
the Qur'anic statement "there is no compulsion in religion." Muslims, El Fadl
says, have for centuries lived among co-religionists whose practice of the faith
varied in significant ways. All this began to change with Muhammad bin "Abd al-Wahhab,
who died in 1792, the leader of an extremely puritannical, intolerant, zealous,
and violent strain of Islam, which by historical contingency allied itself with
the al Saud family that ultimately took control of most of the Arab Peninsula
(ironically, with the aid of British weapons) in the 1930s.
The story of the Wahabis in Arabia has been told many times before. El Fadl
believes that Wahabism might well have been gradually marginalized and minimized
as have been other militant Muslims sects in the past, such as the Assassins.
But a combination of the guardianship of the Holy Places and, starting in the
1970s, the deliberate and systematic Wahabi evangelism financed by petrodollars
and orchestrated by the Saudi state, has led to a radicalism of large points of
the Ummah, the Muslim community. The Saudis offered paid sabbaticals, teaching
positions, grants and financial aid, and subsidized book sales of scholars who
agreed with them. Even without resorting to declaring their Muslim opponents to
be apostates, the Saudi Wahabists have spread their austere and rigorous brand
of the faith.
El Fadl is concerned, as one might expect of a scholar, about words. In the
story linked above, he takes issue with the term "jihadi." In addition to the
military denotation of the term, he sees the word as meaning "struggling for the
way of God." Therefore, he sees his struggle against Wahabism as a jihadist one,
albeit a nonviolent jihad. He also calls his opponents puritans rather than
"fundamentalists," primarily because the latter word has highly positive
connotations in Arabic translation. Likewise, he refers to the humanistic type
of Islam that he espouses as "moderate" rather than "liberal" or "progressive."
Incidentally, one of the most interesting points he makes is that salafism, or
the turning back to the acts and decisions of the Prophet and the first two
generations of successors as a guide to what Islam should be, was originally a
liberal idea. Salafism tried to cut through the thicket of centuries of Islamic
jurisprudence, but eventually the movement merged with Wahabism to the extent
that there is no significant practical distinction between the two movements any
I have been reading about moderate Islam recently. El Fadl is a significant and
powerful voice opposing the murderous ideologies that countenance the killing of
Muslims who do not follow every detail of Wahabist custom, who believe that
Allah wants Muslims to kill the Jews, and who justify mass murder and terror in
the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Beneficent.
On my desk I also have a recently-secured copy of
Milestones, by Sayyid Qutb, the ideological font of both the Muslim
Brotherhoods and al Qaeda. I'll report on my readings soon.