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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 criticism.)

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 book 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 more.
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.




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