Islam's Forgotten Heritage: An Interview with Khaled Abou El Fadl Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington DC

Event transcript from the the November 12, 2002 conference with UCLA School of Law Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl.

Hillel Fradkin: Today we are pleased to have as our guest Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl. Dr. Abou El Fadl is at the UCLA School of Law. He is a native of Egypt but a long-time resident of the United States. He received his B.A. from Yale, his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. from Princeton.

He is already, at a young age, a world-recognized authority on Islamic law and political thought. If I counted correctly, he is the author of five books in the past two years -- which is a very discouraging count -- two of which I have here, Speaking in Godís Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women published by Oneworld Press, and The Place of Tolerance in Islam, published by the Beacon Press. Other titles in most recent times are And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses; Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law; and The Conference of the Books.

He is famous as a thoughtful interpreter of Islamic tradition and its relationship with the contemporary condition of the Muslim world. Or perhaps I should say notorious, or infamous. Efforts on his part to give a thoughtful interpretation rather than present a merely moderate face to the current crisis have earned him the criticism of fellow Muslims. If you want a very good and absorbing account of that, I refer you to the article by Mr. Franklin Foer in this weekís New Republic ["Moral Hazard," November 18, 2002].

And itís relatively easy to see why he has come under criticism and worse. In speaking of the American Muslim communityís response to 9/11, he has complained that Muslim organizations have failed to provide leadership. He has written, "Muslim leadership has failed, and it has blamed everyone but itself for this failure." But there is more: Khaled has traced this failure to a failure of the Muslim community worldwide.

He, like many other Muslims, grew up with an unhealthy dose of highly opportunistic and belligerent rhetoric not only in the official media but also at popular cultural venues such as local mosques. "Despotic and exploitative regimes have taken power in nearly every Muslim country," he has written. But what has most alarmed him is that a dogmatic, puritanical and ethically oblivious form of Islam has predominated since the 1970s -- an Islamic theology "dismissive of the classical juristic tradition and ... of any notion of universal and innate moral virtues."

This contemporary orientation is anchored in profound feelings of defeatism, alienation, frustration and arrogance. But it is a theology that is alienated not only from the institutions of power in the modern world but also from its own heritage and tradition. And it is this that Khaled has been most eloquent in decrying. We are very happy to have him here today.

Khaled Abou El Fadl: Most of my comments will be on Islam and democracy, but I will focus particularly on American Muslims and participation in democracy, talking about the relation of the practices of American Muslims to interpretative communities of the past.

In my view, many of the discourses on Islam in the contemporary age are highly essentialized -- in fact, they are caricatures -- so that what emerges is something that does not come close to reflecting the full depth and complexity of the Islamic tradition itself. The Islamic tradition, like any other tradition, is determined by human agents and constructed in a variety of ways to mean a variety of things in a variety of contexts in various periods of history.

The real risk when one attempts to characterize a tradition is that you end up projecting upon that tradition your own highly specific individual context. In other words, whatever biases you happen to hold, whatever aspirations you happen to hold, you project them. Perhaps that is unavoidable in human interpretation in general, but what it does call for is caution. And it calls for the very healthy practice of trying to look for the nuances and the complexities.

The Islamic historical experience itself is bewilderingly complex. But today there is an obliviousness toward the pluralism of the Islamic tradition. This obliviousness is one of the most serious obstacles that confronts modern Muslims in developing what I call a "democratic commitment."

Another cautionary point: Democracy is not just a theory. It goes without saying that it is possible to acquire all the trappings of a democracy but to still lack the democratic ethic -- the intangible, indeterminable element that makes the difference between a democracy that works and a democracy that exists only on paper. What I mean by a democratic commitment is the type of social and political mores that permit a democracy to exist, to actually work and to produce tangible results. In terms of Islam and democracy, this is another major obstacle.

The typical initial question is this: Are there fundamental, irreconcilable differences between Islam and democratic systems? In fact, institutionally and doctrinally, Islam has generated concepts that are quite similar to the types of institutions and doctrines that we see in a functioning democracy. So for instance, in pre-modern discourses, Muslim jurists debated something akin to the Western debates on the original condition of man, long before Rousseau and Locke did. They debated whether human beings by their nature need government. They debated whether government is required by virtue of text -- in other words, God says have government, therefore you should have government -- or by virtue of our rational faculties. They debated whether human beings in their original condition are by nature fractious, or whether they tend towards cooperation.

In addition, some medieval Muslim jurists had a somewhat ahistorical three-part division of systems of government. The first was nearly a state of anarchy with no formal law, which they described as primitive and barbaric. The second was dynastic, where the law depended on the will of a king, which they called a despotic and illegitimate government. And the third depended on the divine law, which they considered superior to the other two forms because the ruler and ruled are bound by laws that emerged from outside of them.

Muslim jurists fairly early on agreed on the notion that government exists by contract, what they called `aqd al-khilafa, between the ruler and ruled. They all agreed that there is an actual contract -- some arguing that it should be an actual written signed contract, and some saying it was a contract to be presumed in law -- but what they disagreed about is the legal position of this contract. There were some very fascinating debates about whether the contract of khilafa, the contract of the Caliphate, was akin to a marriage contract, a sales contract, or an agency contract. And, rest assured, each theory actually made a difference in terms of how it worked out, at least in the vision of the jurist writing.

Similarly, we have the concept in medieval writings of a bay'ah, or a pledge of allegiance -- or in the language of some modernists, a vote -- being necessary to justify government. Jurists disagreed whether it was necessary that every person in society give that vote of allegiance, or if it was sufficient that a single person give the pledge. They also debated whether it could be obtained by coercion; some jurists in a very sanguine and calm fashion said you give it or die, while others saw things differently.

Also, the Koran talks at least in two occasions about the elusive but tantalizing notion of shura, government by consultation. In early Islamic rebellions we know that various rebels would rebel saying that their leaders destroyed the shura, destroyed the government by consultation. Now thatís very teasing and tantalizing. What was meant by that? What is that they thought that was lost and that justified the rebellion?

In the old days, I taught a class about Islamic political-theoretical concepts where I had graduate students sit and pore over these texts and understand them and analyze them. But the real question is, do these concepts matter? Or is it sufficient that we throw out these concepts and say that Islam is consistent with democracy and order?

If you notice the words of many Muslim apologists, that is exactly what they do. The task starts with demonstrating that that these concepts existed in one form or another without regard to predominant historical practices, or predominant intellectual orientations, or predominant doctrinal biases. They say, "There it is, problem solved. Islam is, of course, consistent with democracy."

The other camp tends to see these as basically irrelevant technicalities that donít matter because what really matters is that people are not sovereign, only God is sovereign. And therefore Islam is fundamentally inconsistent with democracy.

Iím going to focus on the first camp, but I want to first comment on the second camp and the idea of sovereignty. The matter of where sovereignty belongs -- with God, with the people, with the jurists, with the ruler, with the rich, with the poor -- was contested in the Islamic tradition. Some of the debates in the Islamic tradition about sovereignty would, by modern standards, be quite radical -- in fact bordering on the blasphemous. So for instance, it is not unusual to find jurists from the tenth century or the twelfth century saying that Godís sovereignty in the hereafter means nothing on this Earth. To be even more concrete, they divided rights into the rights of people and the rights of God. They said that, God can take care of the rights of God on the final day. Here on Earth, we are concerned about the rights of people.

There are problems with this methodology of throwing out medieval concepts -- such as government by consultation, the vote or the pledge, contract, original condition -- and attempting to solve the challenge on those terms. First is that in the modern age only a select few can access the medieval texts and debates; quite simply, most Muslims do not know about this doctrinal tension that exists in the Islamic tradition. It does have a potential: as always, a text can inspire something. But at this stage, it is not co-opted and analyzed and directed in the production of modern political systems other than in the most apologetic fashion -- other than with the sole purpose of proving the worthiness of Islam vis-ŗ-vis the other. So the typical thing among apologists is to say, "Well, look all these concepts, we invented them before the West, so that means Islam is wonderful and thatís that." There is no critical energy that then engages the various schools and walks with them to their various speculative potentials.

Second, even among those that are aware of this discourse, in talking about modern democratic systems, we are talking about a fairly sophisticated field of inquiry. In other words, we are no longer talking about the city-state of the prophet or the city-state-type Greek democracy. What does often end up happening is that those who do have access and read the texts and know of this debate do not have either the competence or the desire to know the democratic theoretical part or the practice in modernity. They make a choice to learn the medieval and stop there, and so for a large part their knowledge remains anachronistic.

Third, and perhaps most important, is this notion of the democratic commitment. At a minimum there has to exist some basic foundational elements, like tolerance of differences, or tolerance of another that is different. And here is where I find the biggest problem with American Muslim organizations. American Muslim organizations remain activist organizations with activist energies but without intellectual grounding in any particular tradition other than the reactive tradition of modernity. Many of us grew up basically either responding to the West -- England and the United States primarily -- or responding to the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc. It becomes fairly easy for Islamist intellectuals to maintain the mode of action that they learned growing up in many Muslim countries -- and that is, you define who you are basically in reaction to the other. So if you donít like the West, youíre everything thatís different than the West. If you donít like the Communists, then youíre everything that is different from them.

But the intellectual and moral grounding, not just in the Islamic text but in the pluralities of the Islamic tradition among American Muslim organizations, is woefully, woefully absent. If you notice, there has not been a serious movement among these organizations to create educational institutions to attempt a serious critical understanding of the old tradition, which they claim to represent. There are practically no institutions of education, or even mere preservation of knowledge in Islamic law. In any significant sense, they remain activists with a lot of energy but without direction.

Perhaps it is no surprise that we find that even the grounding in the democratic tradition itself is remarkably poor. I encourage you to do a survey and see how many of the leaders of the predominant Muslim organizations have read a single book about democratic theory. You will find that terms like "pluralism" are flaunted around basically in order to prove that they are hip and happening. But attempt to scratch beneath that to any extent and you find absolutely nothing. Even more, I would encourage you to do a survey on how many of those leaders have read a single book about American history, the debates of the early American democracy. It is true that lately Muslim organizations have gained knowledge of candidates, and they even produced what they call the "shame list" for candidates and the "honor list" for candidates. The honor list includes people they like, the shame list has people they donít like. If you had looked at them ten years ago, you would have found that they were not even aware of candidates.

Before one can speak of American Muslims engaging in a pluralistic democratic tradition in the Western world, first they must become convinced of the moral worthiness of pluralism or the pluralistic ethic within Islam itself. In my view, it is nonsensical to maintain a despotic and authoritarian position vis-ŗ-vis the Islamic tradition, but to claim to be a full participant in a democracy.

And that is in fact a prevailing paradigm that I have noticed among Muslims in the United States, England, Denmark and the Netherlands. It is as if the engagement with Western democracy amounts to the use of Western democracy in order to achieve political objectives that they find desirable. Not to engage in the ethic of democracy itself as a moral virtue in itself. And the proof of that can be seen when you observe the way that these organizations react to their own tradition. You find that the pluralistic tolerant ethic, the tolerance of the other, is woefully absent.

Here is where the real lost opportunity is. There is no doubt that Muslims in the West have a rare opportunity to perhaps conquer the overwhelmingly taxing circumstances of many Muslim countries. By this I mean, the circumstances of despotism, economic need, social turmoil. But instead, the prevailing paradigm remains that democracy is there as if it is a continuation of the logic of the market. You grab whatever interests you are able to achieve.

I will end with this. I do not believe that the Islamic tradition is fundamentally anti-democratic or even substantially anti-democratic. And I donít believe that it is pro-democratic either. Democracy was simply not in the moral universe of the medieval jurists that constructed what we call Islam today. Iím not saying this in order to say there is no Islam other than what they constructed. I am not among the followers of deconstructionism and I donít admire Foucault or Derrida, just in case you are wondering -- these are not my heroes. The point is, we must recognize the crucial role played by interpretative communities of the past. And for interpretative communities of the past, the notion of democracy and representation was not a part of their conceptual world. They had other issues that consumed them. Other debates that they took extremely seriously. Debates had clear implications for us as Muslims -- or at least for me as a Muslim -- in the modern age. And the key then is to recognize that but not deal with the tradition as if you are wearing kid gloves, but to engage that tradition critically, analytically and not merely as some type of decorative device to impress others or defend against the presumed angst or anger of others, but as a genuine legacy.

American Muslims at this point are far from that.


Hillel Fradkin: In a moment, I will invite questions and comments from you all. I wanted to make a just couple of observations. It does seem to me, up to this point, very disappointing that Muslim communities in the West, who have the most intimate experience of democratic life, have not been more productive of a tradition of thought which would both create the grounds for participation in non-Muslim democratic societies and also create the prospects for carrying back democracy to despotic Muslim countries. The reason for thinking so would be the force of just democratic experience itself, the experience of living in a genuinely democratic country in which there is liberty, and in which one can feel that the experience of liberty is terribly important. What is the biggest obstacle preventing a return to the resources that youíve described in the Muslim tradition?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: This is a very good argument for a liberal arts education.

There is a notion that we take from the West their science but not social or political ideas, and if you accept social and political ideas then you will be given the label "secular." So in other words, it is not very common that we find someone who identifies himself as an Islamist and at the same time talks about importation of ideas.

There continues to be a strong trend toward the physical sciences. There arenít many political scientists or anthropologists or sociologists or even lawyers leading many of these organizations. So youíll find that most of the education of these leaders are in medicine or engineering or whatnot. And if they were educated in the United States, they took the absolute minimum that was required in order to graduate under a liberal arts education.

I would be quite remiss if I didnít add quickly a couple of other factors. We cannot deny the extremely powerful impact of the puritan orientation in the contemporary politics in the Islamic world. That puritanism, particularly the wahabi or salafi, insists that Islam is simple and straightforward and that complexity in social thinking is the door to the devil -- thus encouraging the unwillingness to gain a civic education. I canít tell you how many times, the minute you start getting a little bit complicated, you are confronted with the accusation, "Okay thatís heretical," simply because not every idiot can understand. The minute that you reached the point of more than basic literacy you become heretical.

Also, there is the fact that most Muslim organizations have had the luxury and the curse of relying on easy cash, i.e. oil money -- like a spoiled child who never gets the benefit of a good beating in life and a real social education. Someone who is spoiled can exist in an oblivious world that theyíve constructed for themselves from beginning to end. And often when I deal with the leaders of Muslim organizations, that is exactly the feeling I have. Easy money produces easy constructive worlds in which people comfortably live and do not have to worry about things such as their persuasiveness to the grassroots or whether they actually have any support at all among their constituency.

Nir Boms: Is what we do, is what you do, and some of us who are working on the issues of Islam and democracy trying to bridge the gaps, trying to create pluralism, trying to generate debates, scholarship, et cetera -- is this really futile?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: As to whether thereís a sense of hope, itís like saying whether thereís life. If I believe itís just completely futile then what is the point of lecturing or the point of articles or the point of wasting time educating and training students? But I think that part of being morally responsible is to not be optimistic when circumstances donít warrant it and not to be pessimistic when circumstances donít warrant it.

And Iíll tell you what exactly Iím reacting to. Growing up in the Middle East, one of the statements that I would hear constantly, consistently, is, "God promised to take care of Islam. So regardless of whatís going on, donít worry, brother, Islam will be taken care of. God will protect Islam." And this was a prescription for what I experience as much cowardly, morally evasive behavior.

I was in Canada, debating the head of major Muslim organization, and he just got fed up with me. And he said, "You count five pieces of good news right now or Iím not going to accept anything you say." And I told him Iím not a cheerleader. My job as a scholar is to critique and to err on the side of the necessity of action. The minute I tell people "It looks good, donít worry," Iíve failed. Itís not my task. And I do think, as I told this guy, itís actually quite depressing.

In the Seventies, early in the wahabi movement, I would hear constantly from my family and from my teachers in Egypt, "You know, Egypt is the mother of the world, we are not going to be affected." And I continued to observe this sort of unjustified confidence as things kept getting worse, as the whole world was crumbling around us. Professors who used to teach philosophy are fired, professors who used to teach Kalam are fired, the position in Shiite law in al-Azhar University in Cairo is terminated -- and yet people are constantly saying, "Well, focus on optimism."

According to Nasser, Egypt was not defeated in '67. According to Sadat and Mubarak, '73 was a clear-cut and unequivocal victory. And so there emerges a pattern of not optimism but delusion. And thatís what I have become allergic to. I canít stand it.

Jeanne Heffernan: Of the concepts that you alluded to within Islam, which best dovetail with the democratic ethic?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: The best way to think of them is as untapped, undeveloped intellectual potentials within the tradition.

So for instance, it is fact that when the prophet was going to leave Mecca to go to Medina, he took a pledge of allegiance -- which later on was called bay'ah, which some modernists have argued is a vote -- from key individuals. When he entered Medina he went around doing what we, in our modern language, would call soliciting votes. He wanted to know that people wanted him. Muslim jurists transformed this historical experience, which could be interpreted in different ways, into the notion that if a ruler comes to power, ideally that ruler should receive the support of the people who have power in society, or those people whose consent represents the consent of society.

Or for instance shura, government by consultation, itís mentioned twice in the Koran. And just to know how fascinating the theological debates are, in the classical tradition there used to be a debate whether shura ghayr mulzima or shura mulzima, meaning: Youíre the ruler, you took consultation; are you bound by the results, or is the consultation merely a recommendation and you can do whatever you want? It all depends on where you believe the Koranic revelation about government by consultation occurs.

But other than bookish people and people who spend all their money on books, these have not been co-opted and transferred into intellectual concepts of empowerment. And can it happen? Well, I sure hope that my graduate students will play a role. Do I believe itís going to happen in my lifetime? No. Do I believe that it could happen in their lifetime? Well, in many ways it depends on the quality of their students. If they are not good teachers, then itís spent force and itís intellectual energy that is going to have be reinvented all over again. But if they are good teachers, then there will be incremental progress.


Khaled Abou El Fadl, UCLA School of Law Nir Boms, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Hillel Fradkin, Ethics and Public Policy Center Jeanne Heffernan, Ethics and Public Policy Center

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