Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Abou el Fadl, M, Khaled. ‘The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists’. 2005

Professor Khaled Abou el-Fadl’s book presents a piercing critic of authoritarian Islam. The book presents a binary account of diametrically opposed versions of the faith; the Islam of the moderates, and the Islam of the puritans. The author argues that the battle for Islam’s soul is currently being waged and won by the puritan creed. The influence of moderate Muslims the world over has been trumped by voices and actions of zealous puritans. In the process, Islam has erroneously become associated with this distorted puritan ideology. Abou el-Fadl’s book is a rallying cry for concerned Muslims to resist the epic challenge facing them and work together to reconnect Islam with its peaceful, rational, and sagacious past. Furthermore, the author speaks to non-Muslims who may be confused and shocked by what they see emanating out of some Muslim societies today.

The author begins with a caveat: Islam is a complex and amorphous entity that defies over-simplified and generalized analysis. However, a cross-spatial commonality today has been the negative conceptualization of Islam, especially in the West. Complexity coupled with generalization gives rise to a sensationalist, albeit misunderstood Islam. The author is distraught by the vile reputation modern Muslims must carry with them. In his view, “the legacy of modern Muslims seems to be a long sequence of morally repugnant acts”. He sets out on a twin-track effort to demystify the Islam that should be from the one non-Muslims hear about today, and at the same time qualifies moderate Muslim thinking to be fundamentally opposed and incompatible with the authoritarian ideology that dominates the news media.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is a historical briefing documenting the rise of modern puritan ideology. According to the author, a conglomeration of factors has contributed to the emergence of puritans today. Chief among them is what he describes as the disintegration of ‘the authoritative’ in the house of Islam (anywhere where Islam is practiced and preached). The effacing of a legitimate and traditional authoritative class of ‘ulama (learned men) has permitted unqualified, vengeful, and disillusioned individuals to speak on behalf of God by propagating religious doctrines fundamentally inconsistent with the morals and ethics underpinning the faith. The waning influence of browbeaten jurists and vanguards of moderate Islam has given way to architects of contemporary Puritanism such as Mohamed ‘Abd-el-Wahab, Abu al-A`la al-Mawdudi, and Sayyed Qutb. Funded and supported by the Saudi state, these individuals have provided spiritual guidance to their followers who in turn have exploited the vacuum of authority to become the illegitimate mouthpieces of contemporary Islam. In addition, the authoritarian political systems under which the majority of Muslims live today have fueled extremist tendencies. Perceived historical injustices committed by foreign powers, accentuated by unrepresentative and despotic governments have radicalized some Muslims and pushed them to fight evil with evil. The author argues that although many of their grievances are legitimate, these Muslims have chosen to deviate from the path of true Islam. The political and socio-economic difficulties in which many Muslims find themselves today leads a minority to recoil further into the shadows, tempted by the reactionary and confrontational nature of extremism as an avenue for expressing subdued anger and despair.

The second segment of the book contains the substantive weight of the author’s arguments. Here, the author highlights the visceral conundrum presented when attempting to marry the spiritual and the temporal; namely, how best to apply God’s Will on earth? Asking this question gets us to the core of the divide between moderates and puritans, and it is through a multifaceted inter-temporal analysis of these diametrically opposed viewpoints that the author structures his book. Both sides have mutually exclusive answers to this question that cannot be reconciled. Abou El Fadl argues that the way in which both camps understand one’s relation to the Creator is critical in determining issues such as Islam and human rights, warfare/terrorism and gender equality. Contrary to moderates, puritans view this relationship in the context of a master/slave nexus leaving little room for the faculty of human reasoning to operate beyond strictly defined parameters. Moderates require a delicate interpretative and applied balance between the primary religious sources, the role of the state, and the legal applicability of God’s Law (Shari’a). Puritans do not tire themselves trying to reach such equilibrium, when in their opinion all that is required is the willingness to obey God’s commands without questioning. Muslims should not attempt to engineer the relationship between the state, religion and the law beyond the narrow confines of a literal interpretation of God’s revelations. God’s commands are candidly elucidated to us through the Koran and Hadith, and interpretation is to remain as exoteric and literal as possible. Humanism, compassion and mercy are irrelevant to the puritanical credo. We do not have the right to question God’s Will. If He is Perfect and All-knowing than His laws are as well.

The book provides the reader with an informative introduction to the schism between humanist Islam and puritan demagoguery. Abou El Fadl succeeds in making his voice heard on behalf of all moderates, transcending religious, ethnic and national boundaries. He skillfully demonstrates the compatibility of Islam with modernity, and rebuffs both puritans and Islamophobes who argue otherwise. However, while the author’s descriptive and analytical talents as a modern Muslim jurist and American lawyer are unquestionable, his prescriptive solution to the puritan problem is slightly discoloured.

Abou El Fadl calls for a consolidated effort on the part of moderate Muslims and non-Muslims to confront the perversion of Islam from extremists. His book concludes by calling for a counter-jihad to liberate Islam. He does not call for violence however, and instead encourages all stakeholders to work collaboratively in restoring authoritative legitimacy to Islam by supporting its moderate legal jurists and ‘ulama.

It must be asked; Does Abou El Fadl exaggerate the degree to which puritans can redefine the collective Muslim conscience? While Abou el Fadl may view Puritanism as the sword of Democles hanging over Islam, others may not agree. Extremists have historically risen as fickle byproducts of difficult geopolitical and socio-economic times and do not usually succeed in deepening their roots in society. This does not imply that puritans must not be resisted, but simply means that giving puritans too much direct attention only serves to strengthen their position; after all, their modernist ideology feeds off simplistic resistant discourse of us vs. them, here vs. there, Islam vs. West etc… Furthermore, the solution is highly problematic for the lack of a political angle it embodies.

While the past has been for learning and guidance; the future about dreams, goals and visions; the present has traditional been about compromise, diligence, and activation of human faculties towards development of self and society. Muslims and non-Muslims must beware of sensationalist cries with essentialist undertones of existence and survival. Abou El Fadl is certainly meaning to serve Islam and Muslims well with his book and on the most part he does, but to a certain degree he falls into the trap of the puritan worldview by engaging in essentialist notions of survival. Instead, Muslims must remember who they once were without forgetting who they are now, and must visualize where they wish to be without forgetting where they stand at present. Nevertheless, the book remains a worthy stepping stone to those wishing to have a clearer picture of internal divisions within Islam.

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