Live on line chat on Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept. 12, 2002

New Thinking in Islamic Studies

September 12, 2002

What is the significance of a new trend in Islamic studies led by scholars who call for more introspective criticism in Muslim intellectual life and for opening up Islamic societies to democratization, pluralism, and tolerance? Will the perspective of the dissident scholars take hold?

The Topic

Islamic studies is undergoing a significant shift, with a new generation of scholars challenging the focus and ideology that have dominated the field since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, in 1978. The new scholars -- some of them religious and others not -- talk frankly about intolerance, authoritarianism, and the lack of civil liberties in the Muslim world. They also believe that intellectuals have a responsibility to offer solutions to the problems and to challenge interpretations of the Koran and Islamic teachings that promote intolerance, oppression, and the subjugation of women.

The Guest

Khaled Abou El Fadl is a professor of law at the University of California at Los Angeles and a leader of the new current within Islamic studies. Mr. Abou El Fadl is the author of several books on Islam, including Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law, Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority, and Women, and And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses. Dr. Abou El Fadl responded to comments and questions online.

A transcript of the chat follows.

Danny Postel (Moderator): Welcome to The Chronicle's live chat with Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of law at UCLA and the author of numerous books on Islam, including Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law and the forthcoming The Place of Tolerance in Islam. Professor Abou El Fadl is a prominent figure in a group of Muslim scholars calling for a reformation in the Islamic world and critical introspection about its current state. He argues for the recovery of the tradition of humanism and tolerance once at the heart of Islamic civilization.

Khaled Abou El Fadl: It's great to be here. I thought that the Chronicle's article was an important contribution. In fact, I wished it was longer, and I think it could be developed into something more substantial because it addresses a very significant issue: Who speaks for Islam?

It's a privilege to be with you.

Question from Patrice Brodeur, Connecticut College, Small Liberal Arts College: Why should we call these scholars 'dissident'? What is your normative reference point from which these scholars supposedly 'dissent'?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: I think this raises a very good point about reference, authenticity, orthodoxy, who represents a tradition. I definitely do not consider myself dissident in the absolute, moral sense. I would say that I am truer, or more genuinely in line with Islamic ethics, morals, and the ultimate question of the divine purpose according to the Islamic message. I didn't choose the title of dissident, which belongs to the author of the article. But if I can speculate on the intent of the author, there is an empirical claim being presented: What is the empirically dominant voice in Islam, and what are the emprically minority voices in Islam. I think that the author of the article probably is trying to say that those liberal Muslims who are trying to come up with creative and original solutions to the unique problems of the modern age are not yet the dominant voice in Islam.

Question from Nader Hashemi, University of Toronto: Dr. Abou El Fadl, The field of Islamic Studies in the West is dominated by the writings of Bernard Lewis.

He argues that the very core of "Islamic law" has contributed to the persistence of Muslim despotism and prevented the emergence of liberal democracy.

Lewis writes: "Islamic law knows no corporate legal persons; Islamic history show no councils or communes, no synods or parliements, nor any other kind of elective or representative assembly. It is interesting that the jurists never accepted the principle of majority decision -- there was no point, since the need for a procedure of corporate collective decision never arose (Bernard Lewis, The Middle East and the West [New York, 1964], p. 48).

As a scholar of Islamic law, could you please comment on this statement?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: I would say Nader Hashemi is a good guy. I've never met him, but he seems to be an intellectually intense person.

He raises a really significant issue. It has two parts. First, Lewis' claims, are they historically accurate? Is he really describing a true state of affairs? The second question is: Let's assume that he's accurately descirbing the history. So what? Taking the second part first, why is this question significant? History does affect the way people act in the present. History does create potentialities and normitive possibilities. But, history does not absolutely or unequivocally determine what will happen in the future. Even assuming Muslims did not determine the idea of a corporate personality, can one then say that because they didn't in the past, they are prevented from doing so in the present? I don't think it follows. The real question is, even if they didn't develop it in the past, why haven't they developed it today?

From the methodological point of view, Lewis doesn't ask the right question. I can, and do, quibble with his generalizations about the role of institutions in Islamic history. Islam developed something known as the charitable trusts, waqf. There were participatory institutions in various parts of Islamic history which reflected a paradigm other than absolute state power. In other words, power was more diffused and more decentralized than Lewis would have us believe.

Further, the notion of the corporation as a legal personality is a technical concept developed in Roman law and the common law. But it was not easily transferable to the idea of parliamentary or democratic institutions. Just becuase a legal system developed the notion of a corporate personality does not mean that it would necessarily develop that into a democracy or parliamentary structure.

I think that Lewis asks the wrong type of question. People change, mutate, develop, reinvent themselves. I worry that Lewis' view of Muslim history is static and mummified.

I think that Lewis essentializes what is a very complex civilizational experience. He simplifies quite grossly the subtleties and complexities of institutional practices at various periods and localities of Islamic history.

Question from Antonion Chaves, U. of Houston: The Koran is not only a spiritual guide, it is also a detailed code of law. This makes the concept of "separation of church and state" much more remote. This being the case, is it possible for Islam to experience a reformation similar to that which took place in Western Christianity 500 years ago?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: The premise of this question is wrong. The Koran is not a detailed code of law. In fact, regardless of whatever slogans and rhetoric some people in the modern age repeat, the Koran actually has very little law compared to the Old Testament, for instance. The Koran is not a very legal book. Part of the problem is that Muslim apologists have tended to want the Koran to be everything all at the same time and thus often rendering it into nothing. So they've wanted the Koran to be legal code, a constitutional document, a historical text, an ethical treatise. That is an important clarification. The way the Koran deals with law is quite sophisticated. It does have parts where it tells people what to do or not to do in precise terms, but for the most part, it has very general moral exhortations that would not qualify as a code of law by any figment of the imagination. As to the question of the reformation, we know that the occurance of the Reformation in Europe was not merely an issue of the nature of the Christian text. It did not happen because the New or Old Testament has a certain character. The Reformation happened in Europe because of social, economic, and political conditions in which people were tired of suffering various forms of this empowerment. It would be an anachronism, a historical fallacy, to assume that the reformation is possible in Islam along the exact same lines as what took place in Europe. But I would say that for Muslims to reform the way they think about tolerance, power, authority, and the absoluteness of truth, certain fundamental, intellectual adjustments are necessary. For instance, if Muslims believe that the law is out there, in the Koran or somewhere else, absolute and uncompromising and immutable and unchangable, then an equitable distribution of power in society will be very difficult to obtain.

Question from Richard, journalist: I was struck particularly by Martin Kramer's remarks in the article -- the notion that confining a critique of the current paradigm of Middle Eastern studies to academia is not particularly useful. Of course, this a broad criticism that can be pointed at just about any ivory tower. So I'll sharpen my question a bit: What is the present state of academic exchange programs between U.S. universities and their Middle Estern counterparts -- and can increasing such exchanges help disseminate new modes of thought in the Arab world and the United States?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: Promoting exchange programs would be extremely helpful. It would be a very powerful venue. Unfortunately, the state of exchange programs that exist today are extremely poor. Much more of that is needed. Funding must be increased for it, and it needs to take a far more serious form than it currently has.

Question from Robert, New England university: Why do some people insist that the word "Islam" means "peace" when others claim it means "submission" (e.g. the web site, the "best source for ISLAM (SUBMISSION) on the WWW)? What are the implications for holding to one interpretation of the word (peace) versus the other interpretation (submission)?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: Very good question, and a very tough question. The reason you hear some people say submission and others say peace is because Islam is derived from a root word which, depending on the context, the root word salam could mean submission or peace. Medieval Muslim theologians said that Islam means peace through submission, meaning that if one truly submits to God and accepts God as their only legitimate master, then one will be able to attain inner peace as well as achieve peace with others. You respect yourself and the rights of others as well. In the modern age, there is a lot of confusion about the nature of submission and how it relates to peace. This confusion does contribute to a unstable intellectual environment because it does make a considerable difference whether a person believes that peace with others is a true form of submitting to God by honoring the lives and welfare of other human beings. Among puritans and radicals, they de-emphasize the notions of Islam as peace and emphasize the notion of Islam as ritual submission. Among moderates, the opposite is true.

Question from Richard DeLaurell, Ph. D., J.D.: I have a two part question: (1) It seems clear that this new Islamic studies trend could easily be used in apology for continuing the status quo of international relations, even in those troubled areas of the world where muslims are concentrated--eastern Europe, the middle east, Africa, Indonesia, etc.; do the practioners of this sort of work see any inconsistency in seeking to promote democracy, tolerance, and pluralism by asserting critical analyses which may only lead to contrary outcomes?

(2) You seem ready to acknowledge that there are external forces working in those parts of the world where muslims are concentrated, perhaps even acting to promote extremist interpretations of the Koran; what positive effects will be felt in the lives of the muslim populations in those places, as a result of your work?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: I am not entirely sure that I understand the first part of the question except to say that critical approaches have, of course, the natural effect of complicating things. When things get complicated, it becomes more difficult to espouse absolute moral principles like tolerance, democracy, or human rights. But I think that as an intellectual matter, it is possible to be critical while accepting certain precepts as fundamentally good or moral. I am not very happy with the state of Islamic studies as it exists now because I think the practitioners of this field tend to be esoteric in much of what they do. But that is more an issue of the academic culture that prevails than a fault with Islamic studies as a field.

As to the second part, what I can say is that my work is read very widely in the field of Islamic studies and that some people have even suggested that it revolutionizes the field by demonstrating the possibility of employing critical methodoligies of analysis while remaining relevant to the rest of the world.

Danny Postel (Moderator): OK, we're about half way into the chat at this point. Please send in more questions for Professor Abou El Fadl.

Question from Lisa Clark Diller, Southern Adventist University: Please forgive a non-specialist's question, but to what extent must these scholars "calling for more introspective criticism in Muslim intellectual life" come from inside the Muslim community?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: I'm not going to speculate about other scholars. As to myself, my call for introspection arises from my understanding of Islamic morality and ethics. When I call for introspection I don't do so because I have been influenced by Christian, Jewish, or secular paradigms. I do so because as a Muslim I believe this is what God demands of me. I also believe that these calls for introspection have in fact had an impact upon the Muslim community. In other words, they tapped into something that is already existing in the Muslim conscience.

Question from John Orr, large community college: What are the best ways for the United States government to support and encourage the development of views such as yours? What can the people do?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: Two things. First, to be very blunt. Muslim thinkers of integrity do not, as a matter of principle, sell themselves to any foreign government, so they tend to be financially weak. So the first thing to do is transcend these individuals financially by establishing fellowships, scholarships, research grants, etc., or even by dedicating money to making their books profitable for publishers. The second thing to do is to keep in mind that any time the common or the average American supports Islam-hating publications or lectures, they have become a part of the problem because the popularity of bigotry about Islam ultimately undercuts the credibility of moderate Muslims and makes them look naive and stupid. Hateful speech supports the radical worldview of extremists. To put it in a straightoforward fashion: buy a book by an Islamic moderate, and don't buy a book by an Islam-hater, and you have helped a lot.

Question from Frank Forman, U.S. Department of Education: It is my understanding that the order of revelation from Allah to Mohammed is not the same as the order of verses in the Koran and that no one knows whether one verse that contradicts the other came later and overrides the other or not. This means that you can pick and choose which ever verse you like. For each verse there is an equal and opposite verse. And so the Koran is every bit as much a "living document" as the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. Is there any limit on what can be read into the Koran that a good theologian or lawyer can't uncover? And if so, then it makes no sense to say that certain Muslims did so and so, since the Koran says such and such. So sociological explanations are needed, not religious ones. Is this right?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: Smart question. The question is whether the text of the Koran has determinacy. The response is that it is not entirely true that we have no idea about the order of revelation. While it is not possible to do, as some puritans try to do, a strict and unwavering chronology of the Koran, Muslim scholars who are specialized in the field do in fact find considerable evidence that a particular set of verses were revealed earlier, middle of the time, or late, or right before the death of the Prophet. The Koran is in fact a living text. It is rich, nuanced, complex. Importantly, it enriches the reader morally. If the reader reads the Koran trying to read it as a legal code, it will not enrich the reader. It will give nothing to the reader. If they read it as a moral commentary, there is much morality that comes from this text. Experience has shown that the text is important in shaping sociology. Sociology is also important in shaping how we understand a text. What is correct is the middle of the road, not the absolutism of puritans who say that all reality exists in the text, or the absolutism of materialist historians who believe that all reality exists in sociology. Both are extreme and both are wrong.

Question from Ali Hassan Zaidi, York University, Toronto: One of the weaknesses of contemporary Muslim publics that you've identified is our lack of self-criticism and introspection. How do you trace the origins of this? How do you envision the prospects of getting Muslims to ask critical questions about our own societies?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: Historically speaking, like other societies in the world, Muslims have tended to reject introspection when they experienced challenging political or economic conditions. When people feel threatened, they tend to close up and become very defensive. We saw this during the Mongol invasions, during the Crusades. We also saw it in Muslim Spain after it had started crumbling. The modern failure to engage in introspection is rooted in the feeling of being under siege experienced by Muslims during the age of colonialism and post-colonialism. During these modern periods, Muslims became primarily defensive about their religion and engaged in apologetics. This apologetic orientation in modern Islam destroyed the tradition of critical and introspective thinking. It's really as if it is apologists versus non-apologists. As to how to emerge out of that, Muslims must become convinced that the failures they experience in the contemporary age are their own. To stop trying to find a scapegoat. Only then will they rid themselves of the siege mentality. And if they do rid themselved of the siege mentality, they will no longer find apologetic leaders, writers, or activists satisfying or acceptable. In my opinion, that's the only way out of the dark ages of Islam which we are living through.

Question from Ausma Khan, York University: If a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention - or military intervention for human protection purposes - were to be formalized in international law, what is the likelihood of an organization such as the Organization of Islamic Conference choosing to intervene (with Security Council authorization) where egregious human rights abuses are taking place in the Muslim world? I'm thinking, obviously, of the failure to intervene or mobilize action for intervention in Bosnia.

Khaled Abou El Fadl: The chances are slim to nonexistent because the organization is economically weak, politically weak, and has gotten into the habit of not taking itself very seriously. In the past 30 years, various Muslim organizations including this one have gotten into the habit of generating and consuming rhetoric. There is no accountability to the public or to anyone else. Because of this culture of rhetoric and weakness this has become a very ineffective organization. This was clear when the Muslim World Conference met most recently over the Palestinian issue in Qatar. Their discussions and actions were a joke. Either this organization needs to be completely overhauled or it must be replaced by a completely different entity.

Question from Danny Postel: In the article, Nader Hashemi and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im appraise the perspective in Middle East studies associated with Edward Said and his critique of Orientalism. Do you agree with them that the anti-Orientalist position is limited with respect to the internal transformation of the Muslim world that you're calling for? Some would even argue that Said's position is an obstruction to the reform project insofar as it is focused on external critique. What's your take on this? How do you view the Saidian paradigm?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: Very good question. I do think that Edward Said of course made a very valuable contribution when he basically allowed the colonized to return the gaze upon the colonizer, so to speak. It is important that we understand the largely destructive impact that Orientalism has had even on Muslim intellectuals who were educated in the West and then returned home. However, Said's thesis becomes a dangerous one if it allows scholars to get into the habit of scapegoating older discourse failures upon the mighty Orientalists. In many ways, if one is not careful, Said's thesis could become the myth of the indestructible monster who is responsible for all misfortunes. But it is important to understand that Said wrote his critique not from the perspective of a Muslim intellectual. He himself is not Muslim. He does not seem to be interested in issues of Islamic reform. He is interested in a certain type of power dynamic between the colonizer and colonized. In my opinion, Muslim reformers have no choice but to go beyond the Said paradigm, to understand that Said points to an important historical process, but not to fall into the trap of seeing all of Muslim history through the Said lens. If they do so, there will be no real possiblility for reform or change.

Question from Gary Johnson, University of Maine at Fort Kent: To what degree does the tension between today's Muslim "dissidents" and "orthodoxy" parallel the historical conflict of the Hellenic-influenced Mu'tazilite "heresy" with the nascent Sunni theology?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: Of course intellectually there are clear parallels. In fact, it is rather telling that literalists in modern Islam are extremely hostile to what I'll call the rationalist orientation in Islamic history. The main difference, in my opinion, is that the institutions of Islamic civilization in the period to which you are referring were far more powerful, autonomous, and stable. What makes the current situation particularly difficult is the weakness and dependency of the religious institutions in modern Islam. That of course then makes the clash between the literalists and rationalists far less rich and far more vulgar.

Question from Neil Waters, Middlebury College: Is this new trend confined to U.S.-based Islamicists? Is it orthodoxy or heterodoxy at the major Middle Eastern Studies centers in the US?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: I don't think that it is confined to U.S.-based Islamicists. The obvious examples are Abu Zayd and Tariq Ramadan who are in Europe. There are some who are also in the Middle East or Indonesia and Malaysia. There is a very strong movement in South Africa among South African Muslims. It is not solely U.S., although because of the resources available in the U.S., that's where most of it takes place. In terms of Middle Eastern studies, whether it's orthodoxy or heterodoxy, my sense is that is still remains heterodoxy. Middle Eastern studies remains dominated by conservative voices that continue to deal with Islamic studies as an esoteric, marginalized field. What has happened is that in some situations you find, in certain university contexts, that there are progressive forces that see the value of these dissenting voices, as Danny called them. Then they adopt them and embrace them. But it's still not orthodoxy.

Question from Anonymous: I live and teach in Pakistan. I have what can be considered radical/feminist views on different aspects of Islam, and am finishing a manuscript on the subject. I know that if i publish it --here or anywhere--my life would be in danger... Do you advise publishing under a pen name?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: I would say the problem for contemporary Islam is that there have been a lot of people who are willing to martyr themselves for the sake of evil. Not as many have been willing to martyr themselves for the sake of good. But I completely understand because I say this and I live in the United States after it had been impossible for me to live in my native country. I sympathize with someone who lives in Pakistan and finds themself in a very different situation. I would recommend publishing it under a pen name; it's better than not publishing it at all. If you wish, you can send me the manuscript. I would be willing to read it, and if I think it's good, I can help him publish it in one of the mainstream presses in the West.

Question from Danny Postel: Do you support immediate democratization in Arab and Muslin countries? Some argue that holding elections right away would spell victory for Islamists in several countries, which would lead to widespread Taliban-style tyranny and the cancellation of any future elections. Others hold that this is the price one pays for democracy, and that if the will of the people is to have the Islamists in power, so be it. There is the argument that for democracy to be meaningful, the institutions of civil society have to develop first (human rights groups, an independent press, civic organizations), and that the emphasis in the short term should be on this process rather than elections. What's your view?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: I think it's impossible for the institutions of civil society to develop under the current authoritarian regimes. We have seen such institutions attempt to grown in Egypt, in Syria, in Indonesia, only to be quashed by the government. The problem is that it's a bit of a catch-22: How do you develop the institutions of a civil society when the governments in power have a remarkably absolute ability to inflict oppression? I think that the current state of affairs is a dead end. The despotic governments in power are simply a one-way ticket to disaster. Even the experience we have had with Saddam Hussein in Iraq clearly demonstrates this. We are going to continue to develop people like Qaddafi in Lybia and of course Saddam in Iraq. I tend to be more towards the second point of view of democratize now and at least create space for the possibility of progress because as it stands, it's been disaster after disaster and we simply must try a different way. I think that despite President Bush's unhelpful rhetoric, from the perspective of the United States, Saddam has been far more disastrous to us than Iran's government. Iran in fact contains a variety of complex potentials. We are now in a position where we talk about invading Iraq, which is quite a different situation than what we have in Iran. I don't see how continuing on the logic of same old, same old, is going to get us anywhere. In fact, it keeps getting us into terrible pickles.

Question from Jason Small Community College: Atrocities have been committed among followers of many religions, so none are without blame. But my question is: Wasn't the founder of Islam a conqueror of nations and not a peace-loving man? Does this foundation foster the current non-peaceful sentiments among Muslims?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: The founder of Islam was a historical figure who can be understood in many different ways. To say someone is peace-loving is simply a rhetorical point. What does peace-loving mean? Is there someone who is in love with peace as an objective category as opposed to someone who hates peace as an objective category? The life of the Prophet can in fact be read, and in my opinion should be read, as the life of someone who tried every possible avenue to exist peacefully with others. When he needed to engage in revolution on behalf of the oppressed, he did so. Once he vindicated the rights of the oppressed he returned to peace again and then died. You could read it as a heroic saga, like the best of Greek mythology. The problem is that in the same way that there are non-Muslims who convinced themselves that this was a man who was thirsty for blood, there are also Muslims who convinced themelves of the same, like bin Laden. In my view, they only reach such conclusions by ignoring so much evidence to the contrary.

Danny Postel (Moderator): Thanks to Professor Abou El Fadl for his time, and to everyone who submitted questions for him. Would you like to make a closing statement before we sign off, Professor?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: These questions have been extremely interesting. They have been the best intellectual questions that I've had to answer in a media forum. I feel privileged that I was able to engage in this discussion with you. Thank you.

Copyright 2003 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

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