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Law Prof Reaffirms Islam's Moral Message
Photo by Reed Hutchinson for UCLA Today

Law Prof Reaffirms Islam's Moral Message

In Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt and Turkey, audiences of up to 1,000 people recently turned up to listen to him speak. In the United States, Abou El Fadl's views have made him unpopular among fellow Arab Americans.

Students who stubbornly insist they know what Islam is invariably get Fs.

This article was first published in UCLA Today.

By Ajay Singh, UCLA Today staff writer

For Law Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, it all goes back to the summer of 1985, when he returned to his native Egypt after winning a prestigious undergraduate honor at Yale University. It was the first time that a non-U.S. citizen was picked for the program, and "Yale thought the Egyptian government would be very proud of me," Abou El Fadl recalled.

Instead, he was arrested in Cairo and brutalized for 10 days — punishment for criticizing authoritarian governments in short stories and poems that he wrote for the Arab media before leaving Egypt to study at Yale.

"For many years, I could not even acknowledge what had happened — a process of systematic dehumanization and degradation, a process of murdering your soul," the professor said. "I still suffer from physical problems - minute rips on my muscles show up as I get older."

Many who are abused in this manner end up as alcoholics, drug addicts or utter failures in life, Abou El Fadl explained. "The rest are propelled by their trauma to fight the type of social institutions that allowed these things to happen."

Abou El Fadl clearly belongs in the second category. One of the world's leading scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, or "shariat," and an outspoken critic of human rights violations, he has authored nine books on subjects ranging from religion to aesthetics. In his most recent book, "The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists," he examines the broad schisms that have divided Islam and stresses the importance of opposing Muslim fanatics by reaffirming Islam's moral message.

Abou El Fadl believes Islam is poorly understood because its laws have been corrupted by the sordid politics of the Muslim world, especially in Saudi Arabia, where a state-sponsored movement led by ill-trained propagandists has long exported a narrow, repressive view of Islamic law.

Even at UCLA, where Abou El Fadl teaches Islamic law, he routinely comes across students who have stereotypical views of Islam. "In my lectures, I start out by warning my students, who are mostly Muslim, that if they expect to hear a discourse about dogmatic assertions, they're going to be disappointed," he said, adding: "Students who stubbornly insist they know what Islam is invariably get Fs."

The problem has been exacerbated since 9/11, partly because Muslim leaders in the United States failed to express "pure unmitigated outrage" for the terrorist attacks and lacked the courage to denounce Saudi Arabia, he said.

Not surprisingly, Abou El Fadl is something of a celebrity overseas, where he lectures widely on human rights and Islamic law. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt and Turkey, audiences of up to 1,000 people recently turned up to listen to him speak.

Just about every day, he receives letters of support and requests from lawyers and jurists who want to become his students. In fact, so swamped is this scholar with correspondence from his admirers that he has developed form letters to respond.

In the United States, however, Abou El Fadl's views have made him unpopular among fellow Arab Americans. No longer welcome at his local mosque, the Islamic Center for Southern California, he worships elsewhere.

Yet he doesn't feel isolated — even though he's been suffering from cancer for the past few years.

"My problem is not isolation but my desire to isolate myself so I can read and write," he said one recent afternoon in his book-lined office at the law school. "If I open my doors, I will be socially busy 24 hours, seven days a week."

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