"Calling for Islamic reformation" Scholar is critical of fellow Muslims Status of women needs examination

Nov. 23, 2002. 01:00 AM



Khaled Abou El Fadl, often called "defender of the faith," has become one of the most powerful and controversial voices of moderate Islam in North America.

A regular presence in the North American media, the UCLA law professor rarely speaks or writes without eliciting a strong reaction. His post-9/11 columns in major American newspapers were thought-provoking and critical of fellow Muslims.

Noted for his scholarly approach to Islam from a moral point of view, El Fadl stresses universal themes of humanity and morality, the notion of beauty as a moral value, and addresses the place of Muslim religious law in everyday life.

This is the question that poses problems for his adversaries. El Fadl believes Islamic jurisprudence is the heart of the Islamic faith but has been the victim of entrenched authoritarianism. He openly criticizes countries like Sudan and Pakistan, where many are calling for the restoration of Islamic law (sharia), but where, he says, "assertion of sharia is a political act which reduces women and minorities to second-class citizens."

Sharia, according to El Fadl, "is a moral vision larger than any single set of injunctions or prohibitions." Invited to Toronto recently as the keynote speaker for the 20th-anniversary celebration of the Canadian Council of Muslim women, El Fadl addressed the issue of reformation within Islam, focusing on women.

A world-renowned expert in Islamic law El Fadl is a distinguished fellow at the UCLA School of Law, where he teaches immigration, human rights and international law. He has an undergraduate degree from Yale, where he was elected "Scholar of the House," a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in Islamic law from Princeton.

"The love of knowledge is no different than love of God and necessitates originality of thought," says El Fadl, whose personal library exceeds 40,000 volumes on law, theology, literature, philosophy and history.

To hear him talk candidly and knowledgably about "dishonesty in discourse" within certain Muslim circles today is to appreciate his own courage of conviction and brutal honesty in exposing his less tolerant co-religionists.

"The Qur'an is a living text and inspires you to think," he explains.

"It's a living, vibrant and inspirational text that engages in moral teaching by example — it's tolerant and egalitarian in its approach."

So where has the understanding and implementation of the Qur'an gone awry? El Fadl expounds: "The creativity and diversity of our faith as expressed in the Qur'an has been demonized by powers of despotism who suppress voices of reason ..."

He refers to puritan Wahhabism, the strain of Islam that Osama bin Laden practises, in no uncertain terms: "We must take back our religion from the grip of those fascist-like patriarchs." El Fadl, an intense person who drinks endless cans of Diet Coke, talks passionately about the crucial need to have coherent discourse.

"It's imperative to speak clearly, rigorously and truthfully to testify about our contemporary problems, including the status of women."

The tradition of shahadah (testimony of faith) has been forgotten in the modern age, he points out. "There is a huge gap in the way we wield our religion and the way we handle life."

Critical of dogma and rigidity in faith, El Fadl's background gives him reason to say this with conviction: "I was once one of those puritan zealots myself." `I have no choice but to speak the truth even at the risk of confrontation'

Khaled Abou El Fadl, legal expert

Born in Kuwait in 1963 and growing up in Egypt, El Fadl was on the edge of becoming an ignorant extremist in his youth, a fate he narrowly escaped when he decided to pursue knowledge instead.

He learned about "cultural symbolism and tools of intellectual stupefaction" at an early age. He ran up against "Hadith hurlers" whom he cites as one reason Islamic intellectual thought and discourse have been stifled.

"I'm happiest when my blood is boiling and my mind is racing," confesses El Fadl, who prides himself on asking questions about everything. The challenges he faced only spurred him on the journey to master both traditional and modern learning.

He readily gives credit to his mother for influencing his life and thought as a jurist and modern thinker. "She was my first teacher in Islamic law," he says.

Beginning in middle school and continuing through his undergraduate years, El Fadl studied Islamic law with distinguished scholars in Kuwait and Egypt, accumulating ijazas (certificates) that would qualify him as a shaykh. During this time he witnessed the influence of Wahhabi doctrines that denounced teaching subjects such as speculative philosophy or mysticism.

"Looking back at our history, there were 135 schools of law in the first century and a half of Islam, and this is what gives Islam so much of its cultural dynamism," he explains. "It was Kalam (Islamic inquiry) in the field of theological disputes that preserved the Greek works. Today Wahhabis denounce Kalam as heresy so we are back in the dark ages of Islam."

It is this philosophy of El Fadl's, his persistent exposure of what he calls "the schizophrenia that has seeped into Islam," his denunciation of Wahhabism and self-appointed religious leaders that has led to the challenges and risks he faces today. He has received death threats from Muslim and non-Muslim fanatics alike and police warned him that his home was being staked out by "unknown and suspicious parties."

"I have no choice but to speak the truth even at the risk of confrontation because this is not the Islam practised by our Prophet. When Islam becomes associated with violence, we have to take a stand."

El Fadl has taken this stand with faith and conviction through his books, columns and media appearances. Sometimes called a male feminist, El Fadl has been known to encourage his wife, Grace, to lead him in prayer. His current book, Speaking in God's Name — Islamic Law, Authority and Women (Oneworld Press, Oxford, 2001), reviews the ethical foundations of the Islamic legal system. In it he argues there must be a reformation in Islam with emphasis on women's rights.

"There is a need to rethink the notion of gender," El Fadl says. Islamic jurists talked about women's rights long ago, "but we have been alienated from our religious tradition."

His book is also an exposé of how texts have been changed to suit political needs and how many books on Islamic law by female jurists have never been published. To say that El Fadl is concerned about the current status of Muslims would be an understatement. He is extremely troubled about the rise of Wahhabi Islam in the U.S., mainly because its followers dismiss knowledge and reason as unimportant. His critics are harsh and stoop to personal attacks.

"It's a lonely road and I feel sad because the worst persecution I've faced is by so-called liberal Muslim organizations. Their leaders feel they might lose control so they fight at a base level."

Flanked by his wife, a convert to Islam, and his 13-year-old son, Cherif, El Fadl says he finds hope and solace in his students, who have set up and monitor a Web site dedicated to him (http://www.scholarofthehouse.com). "What choice do I have but to keep fighting for truth and justice till the day I die?"

A solemn thought for one so young.

Raheel Raza is a media consultant and freelance writer.

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