Khaled Abou El Fadl profiled "In the War Over Words" by Jay Tolson, U.S. News and World Report 4.7.2008

By Jay Tolson

To understand why Khaled Abou El Fadl has become a thorn in the side of reactionary Muslims, you might begin with this: He likes dogs. Abou El Fadl, a devout Muslim and a law professor at University of California-Los Angeles, not only likes dogs but has three as pets. Why does that matter? According to one Islamic tradition, the prophet Muhammad declared dogs "unclean" and therefore, many strict Muslims infer, fit only for strictly utilitarian uses, like guarding the house or protecting the flocks.

Related News Secrets of Islam Faith Matters Abou El Fadl's rejection of the kind of rigid legalism that declares man's best friend unfit for human companionship is no whim: It is based on a deep understanding of Islamic law. And it is precisely his advocacy of a broad-minded, critical approach that has earned the wrath of so many of his less tolerant coreligionists. Major Middle Eastern publishers have repeatedly balked at bringing out Arabic versions of his books. And throughout the 1990s, he endured verbal and physical attacks at American mosques.

Such controversy does not make life easy for Abou El Fadl, who grew up in Kuwait in the 1970s and studied in Cairo, where he was arrested without charges, imprisoned for two weeks, and beaten. His books go to the heart of the question facing modern Islam: What is the place of Muslim religious law in everyday life? As Harvard historian Roy Mottahedeh puts it, "Abou El Fadl is asking . . . how you can get from a divine Scripture to a principle that creates law according to the spirit of the Scripture rather than the literal legal meanings."

Take the critical matter of the veiling of women. In a widely distributed English translation of the Koran, the relevant verse reads, "O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks [veils] all over their bodies [i.e., screen themselves completely except the eyes]." But, according to Abou El Fadl, a stricter translation says nothing about cloaks or veils. The Koran, Abou El Fadl concludes, merely enjoins women to dress modestly.

Debates over literalist interpretations of holy words have roiled other religions, including Christianity. But the question is an urgent one in the Muslim world, where many are calling for the restoration of Islamic law, or sharia, as the basis of their national legal systems. What sharia means is not always clear. If it is an inflexible code that reduces women to second-class citizens, imposes draconian punishments, and violates human rights, then states based upon it will most likely end up resembling regimes like that of Saudi Arabia. But if sharia is a moral vision larger than any set of injunctions, then it can support something far more promising than crude attempts to impose primitive customs on modern societies.

In the matter of dogs, for instance, literalists consider the ban against canine pets to be clearly delineated in the hadith, the traditional accounts of the life and sayings of Muhammad. But determining which of the thousands of hadith are authoritative requires knowledge and critical analysis. In the case of dogs, Abou El Fadl could not believe that the same God who created such companions would consider them "unclean." He found that the hadith in question came from unreliable sources and reflected views more consistent with pre-Islamic Arab attitudes.

But Abou El Fadl knows how hard it is to argue with people who dismiss both knowledge and reason as sinful, irrelevant, and even an impediment to the faith. He understands the young puritans, though: "I was once one of those hadith-hurlers myself." In his youth, Abou El Fadl was well on his way to becoming a zealot. Enrolled in an American school, the westernized Arab boy found answers to his sense of alienation in the rigid pieties of puritanical Islam. "In those days," he writes, "my judgments were as quick as a gun." Railing against TV, trousers, and mixed gatherings, he destroyed his sister's Rod Stewart cassette tapes. He was later shocked when the sheik at a local sharia class dismantled his pious pronouncements on everything from the proper manner of dress to the sinfulness of all music and art.

His subsequent intellectual odyssey would blend western secular traditions with Islamic ones. But even in traditional schools, Abou El Fadl witnessed narrow-minded puritanism: Students influenced by Wahhabi fundamentalist doctrines denounced their teachers for teaching "forbidden" subjects such as speculative philosophy and mysticism and for using the Socratic method of instruction rather than rote memorization. Today, he says, "we are in the dark ages of Islam."

He considers clerics an even greater problem. The imams and prayer leaders of America's 1,400 mosques and Islamic centers tend to be self-appointed religious experts with little or no training. Many are professionals in such fields as engineering or medicine capable only of quoting a few lines from the Koran. Taha Alalwani, president of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Ashburn, Va., worries that many of these imams "are just Islamists," often backed by Saudi groups and more concerned with ideology than with complexities of the faith.

Some scholars argue that literal legalism has been the consensus view of most Muslims since the 19th century, not just the product of recent Wahhabi proselytizing. Abou El Fadl does not deny that traditional Islam began to suffer in the colonial period. But he says his greater concern is with the future. If Muslims do not recover the critical spirit of older traditions, sharia-based law, he believes, simply won't work. Even in Saudi Arabia, members of the royal family either privately ignore the law or observe the letter and flout the spirit. He believes that Iran is closer to developing a critical, adaptive notion of sharia than are Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Sudan. "I just hope the conservatives don't break that spirit," he says, "because if they do, then the hope of Islamic civilization is lost."

Scholar of the House is dedicated to providing a path to peace through education and understanding. Please join our cause!