Khaled Abou el Fadl is both a prominent Islamic jurist and an American lawyer. In his many books he has accused radical Islamists of ignorance concerning the Koran and Sharia law.
A portrait by Monika Jung-Mounib
Without an intellectual revolution that recollects the historic legacy of Islam, neither democracy in the Middle East, nor the integration of Muslim minorities in Western societies stand a chance. According to Khaled Abou el Fadl, a prominent Islamic jurist and American lawyer, this legacy is primarily about recognising the myriad of ways in which Islam can be interpreted and practiced.
In his modern interpretations of the Koran, Abou el Fadl shows exactly what this flexibility means: as far as he is concerned, divine sovereignty – in Islam, God is the only sovereign and the supreme source of legitimate law – does not exclude human intervention.
While the Koran does not prescribe any one specific form of government, it does define several fundamental social and political values: justice, mercy, tolerance, and non-autocratic, consultative methods of government. As he sees it, a constitutional democracy that protects the rights of the individual has therefore the greatest potential for promoting these values.
El Fadl's controversial theory concerning Sharia
The fact that a democracy would grant all humans the same political rights, would express the special status of humans in God's creation and would allow humankind to assume its responsibility. According to Abou el Fadl, there would be no room for subjection to human authority as required by an authoritarian regime.
The pivotal point of Abou el Fadl's theory – that the Scharia, the divine law, is not a moral code – is controversial. In his opinion, the Sharia is a divine guide containing methods and principles that attempt to turn the divine ideal into reality.
"We can debate God's will as much as we like. I encourage Muslims to do so in order to discover God's will," says Abou el Fadl. "If, however, we adopt a law and the state implements it, we cannot assume that it represents God's will. If, on the other hand, we give the state the power to represent God, that is not a democracy, but a form of ideology. This contradicts Islamic theology, because God does not have an equal partner."
This is why the divine law should only cover questions of faith and should not be subject to the state. It is not the job of the state to regulate the relationship between God and the faithful.
Besides influencing the theological discourse, Abou el Fadl is also considered one of the world's leading Muslim feminists; he rejects all puritanical requirements such as the wearing of veils by women.
"The Wahabis' claims about women reflect their preferences and are not based on classical sources. There are no textual sources that say that the government can force women to wear a veil," says Abou el Fadl. For example, the Wahabis expect women to obey their husbands blindly. "For me, that is idolatry; it makes demi-gods of men," says Abou el Fadl.
"Targeting civilians contradicts Islamic law"
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Wahabi theologians disagree with Abou el Fadl's criticism of suicide and terrorism that targets civilians. "Targeting civilians clearly contradicts Islamic law, even when it comes to the liberation of a Muslim's own country. This is an imperative of Islamic morality and it becomes even more relevant when this morality comes under pressure," explains Abou el Fadl.
It is obvious why Abou el Fadl's interpretations are such a thorn in the side of Islamic clerics and the puritanical Wahabi theologians that practice in Saudi Arabia: the Wahabis justify their autocratic rule with their monopoly on interpreting the Sharia and consequently consider Abou el Fadl's views to be a threat to their vision of Islam.
Instead of recognising the fact that Islam can be interpreted in a wealth of different ways, they reject all forms of democracy.
El Fadl: "Wahabis do not understand Islamic law"
In addition, Abou el Fadl's criticism of the Wahabis hinges on the fact that they claim to have a monopoly on interpreting the Sharia without following any particular methodology and without understanding Islamic law. The Wahabis, on the other hand, would appear to feel even more challenged by Abou el Fadl because he backs up his interpretations with classic Islamic sources and can refer to old traditions.
"What is happening in Saudi Arabia, where, for example, the opinions of three legal experts are considered to be God's law, is not in line with Islamic tradition. For the Wahabis, it is heresy to believe in or call for democracy. This is why they consider me a heretic," says Abou el Fadl.
Not only are all his works banned in Saudi Arabia, the professor of Islamic law has for years been receiving death threats from Wahabi activists.
"Wahabism is a harsh theology"
Be that as it may, it does not stop him criticising Wahabism: "Wahabism is despotism. There is never any mention of love; music, art, everything human, beautiful, and delicate is banned. Wahabism is a harsh theology; as hard, Arabic, and hostile as the desert itself."
Among other things, Abou el Fadl makes the widespread dissemination of Wahabism responsible for the difficulties encountered in integrating Muslim minorities into Western, secular societies. Wahabism has heavily infiltrated the USA, Europe, and the Egyptian clergy.
While it is not the dominant theology in either Egypt or Syria, the Saudis began spreading their variety of Islam in the 1970s with the help of their petrodollars. This was made possible because the puritans were able to use their money to fill the vacuum of authority created by the collapse of Islamic institutions at the end of the colonial era. However, this ability has been greatly limited by the attacks of 11 September 2001.
Wahabism has prevented Muslim integration in the West
Moreover, a large chunk of first generation migrants have resisted integration because of their loyalty to the Wahabi theology, which says that Muslims cannot be part of a non-Muslim community. "The Islamic knowledge of first generation migrants is usually abysmal," says Abou el Fadl. This is compounded by the fact that first generation migrants generally feel a close bond with the language and customs of their native country.
"They establish Islamic centres, which are more like cultural centres. Problems usually arise when the first generation considers the second or third generation to be too French, too British, or too German," says Abou el Fadl. This is why, he continues, it is above all cultural aspects that create problems when it comes to integration. He goes on to say that the fact that no clear differentiation is made between culture and religion can lead to conflicts between the generations, which in turn lead to conflicts of loyalty within families.
The Islamic intellectual does not see any theological reasons for the problems encountered in integrating Muslims. He says that the theology and jurisprudence of Islam show a great degree of flexibility when it comes to accommodating Muslims living in a minority.
In such cases, only a minimum of Sharia such as praying, fasting, and giving alms is required. If, however, Muslims would see that Islam can be interpreted in many different ways, he says, then Islam would give them room to manoeuvre within which they could feel French, German, or British while still feeling like an authentic Muslim.
German Muslims helping needy Germans?
Moreover, the wealth of interpretations would encourage them to play an active role in their new societies rather than withdrawing from them. This would mean, for example, that a German Muslim is obliged to help the needy in Germany and not the needy in his native land.
Abou el Fadl considers demands for a European Islam to be superfluous. "Islamic theology and Islamic law provide everything a Muslim needs to live in a secular, pluralist, and democratic society: tolerance, acceptance of pluralism, a rejection of coercion, participation in public life (as long as this is guided by moral principles), mercy, and love," he says. He instead sees it as the task of the Europeans to avoid making generalisations about Islam and instead learn more about Muslims and the humanist Islam and enter into dialogue with them.
Generalisations, he says, only create an atmosphere of fear towards Muslims in a society, which makes Muslims feel rejected by that society. After all, says Abou el Fadl, Europe's "Jewish question" also began with generalisations about the Jews.
© Qantara.de 2005
Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan
About Khaled Abou el Fadl
Khaled Abou el Fadl is a professor at the School of Law at the University of California and a prominent Islamic jurist and intellectual. He has been a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom since December 2003 and serves on the board of directors of Human Rights Watch. He trained in Islamic law in Egypt and Kuwait and is a high-ranking sheikh. Since openly attacking Wahabism, he has received regular death threats and is now protected by the FBI. All his books have been banned in Saudi Arabia.