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Listening to Islam
Dr. Abou El Fadl at a book-signing following his lecture. (Photo by Kevin Matthews)

Listening to Islam

Written in spite of death threats and illness, book by UCLA legal thinker Khaled Abou El Fadl takes aim at Muslim 'puritans.'

For some, nothing short of a self-hating Muslim counts as a moderate.

UCLA Professor of Law Khaled Abou El Fadl's latest book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, engages the high-stakes debate over what the radicals, extremists, Islamists, or—Abou El Fadl's preferred term—puritans really believe. It's an important question, he told a UCLA audience Nov. 17, "if we wish to stop being a part of the problem by destroying moderate assets in the Muslim world, for instance, by alienating Muslims by appearing bigoted and hateful, by pushing…Muslims into the arms of the puritans." The lecture and book-signing were sponsored by the UCLA School of Law.

Brought up in Kuwait and Egypt, Abou El Fadl has become one of the world's leading scholars of Islamic law since his appointment at UCLA in 1998, according to colleagues. He is an outspoken opponent of the Saudi-sponsored Wahhabi sect of Islam. Abou El Fadl's appointment to the law school was supported by the UCLA International Institute.

At the talk, Abou El Fadl identified a second debate, equally contentious and vexing, over who deserves the label of Islamic "moderate."

"For some," he said, "nothing short of a self-hating Muslim counts as a moderate." The self-interested search for moderates can lead westerners and Muslims alike to incoherent conclusions, according to Abou El Fadl. Those dubbed "Islamic moderates" sometimes turn out to be either self-described atheists or "people who see nothing remotely beautiful about the experience of Islam historically."

Times are troubled when religious and secular commentators seek to admit certain non-Muslims to the faith and to cast certain Muslims out of it, Abou El Fadl suggested. He objected to the gesture of professing that Muslims who kill indiscriminately "are not Muslims … that they represent nothing of Islam."

That assertion "is at best an apology. At worst, it repeats the very act which we condemn, that is, to declare some 'other' outside the faith, an infidel of sorts."

'Medically Impossible' Book

Discussing the genesis of his latest book, Abou El Fadl said that he had asked himself what book he would write if it were his last. This was no mere thought experiment. Abou El Fadl labored on the project in defiance not only of death threats but also of a brain tumor. His doctors called his work "medically impossible," according to his law school colleague and friend Stephen Gardbaum, who introduced Abou El Fadl.

The book will not be the last, Abou El Fadl all but promised the audience. He said that The Great Theft was indeed a first for him because of its relatively few allusions to the technical nature of Islamic jurisprudence, "one of the most complex and sophisticated legal systems humankind has ever produced." Aimed at a general audience, the project forced him to reassess "the necessity of technical jargon and linguistic shortcuts."

Gardbaum also explained that Abou El Fadl—whose personal library apparently contains a staggering 200,000 volumes—uses some of his time and ample book-buying budget to locate and rescue rare Islamic manuscripts also sought, though for destruction, by the puritans.

Abou El Fadl argued that the puritans' intellectual project depends upon the willful erasure of such texts and "about 12,000 years of Islamic legal thinking and practice." Given their belief that "the law is bound to find one correct position on most matters," they would be hard put to account for Islam's history of controversies.

A series of similar propositions characterize puritanical thinking, according to Abou El Fadl. He insists on distinguishing these propositions, each a separate part of one picture. In addition to the legal determinism just described, Abou El Fadl sees absolutism, utopianism, and literalism as puritanism's distinguishing features. The puritan believes, that is, that he can know the divine will perfectly and see it realized in the world. He thinks scripture has already revealed its contents, already rendered up what it can offer to privileged readers.

One consequence of the puritanical model is the "rejection of any aesthetic quest," not only music but poetry and painting, for fear of exciting imagination and religious doubt.

Abou El Fadl did not claim that puritanism led directly to acts of terrorism, but said that it was "often a prelude, a necessary step to the kind of moral abandonment that is required" of the terrorist.

"I'm not denying the role of sociology. I'm not denying the role of historical injustices. I'm not denying the role of the desire of people to defend themselves. I'm not denying the search for dignity. But you'll find there is a huge difference" between the responses of puritans and moderates to indignity and injustice.