Letters to Dr. Abou El Fadl: A Defining Moment 7.1.03

Dear Dr. Abou El Fadl,

I hope that this e-mail will find you and your respected family in good health. And I hope that it will not take too much of your precious time, because I personally would rather have you work on some of your courageous and inspiring writings than spend time reading my e-mail. It has been a long while since I wanted to send you these few words but I hesitated for many reasons. Today, I finally decided that it was time for me to do it. I want you to know that I am eternally grateful to God and to you for giving me a chance to find my true self. It was in January 2002 that I first had the honor to know about your work. One evening, while leaving the Supermarket, I accidentally took a glimpse at the Los Angeles Times newspaper (a paper I almost never read since I live in another part of California), and there it was: an article by Teresa Watanabe entitled “Battling Islamic Puritans”. The title intrigued me and so I decided to purchase the paper. After reading the piece, I recognized you from some Television appearances following the tragic events of September 2001. However, before this article, I never had a chance to know about your academic work or your ideas on the subject of contemporary Islam. This moment was a defining one, coming right after a changing event in my life. That changing event, you guessed it, was the cowardly and inhuman atrocities committed in the name of Islam on September 11th. In the days following that tragic event, I completely and literally lost sleep. I was glued to my Television set 24 hours a day. I couldn’t believe or understand how someone could commit such a heinous act against humanity in the name of any religion let alone one that presents itself as a mercy to humankind. But, while I was shocked by the immensity and the high visibility of the act, I was not a bit surprised that people like Bin Laden and Zawahiri could commit crime after crime against innocent people and that they would justify it with their own understanding of Islam. I also always thought that the kind of discourse that one hears in mosques around the world including the United States would lead some young Muslims to take a wrong turn in their lives.

It has been many years that I have dedicated myself to work with the youth of my community. My aim was to plant in them a sense of commitment to morality and good citizenship and to keep them away from drugs, alcohol and other social diseases. More importantly, I tried to keep the committed ones from becoming extreme in their thoughts or actions. I was well known in my community and the youngsters respected me and most of the time listened to me and appreciated the different but modest programs I tried to provide for them. Nevertheless, I constantly found myself caught in a struggle over many issues with those who espouse a puritan brand of Islam. It was, of course easier for me to communicate with those who consider themselves Muslim “moderates” from the followers (formal or otherwise) of the Muslim American Society (Muslim Brotherhood) and I tried to relate to them. This helped me, or at least I thought it did, counter the continuous pressure of the Wahhabis on the committed young Muslims. Unfortunately, and although I was an avid reader (of mostly books in Arabic about contemporary Islamic thought and works of Azhari scholars) and my knowledge was indeed very limited, I always felt that most of these “moderate” community leaders seemed to know even less than me. Even their so-called activism, but also sometimes their commitment to morality, seemed to be no more than lip-service. It was frustrating at points but I tried to convince myself that, at least, some of their scholars in Arab countries show a good awareness of the modern world and produce a more coherent and moderate thought (I later realized that it was also conservative, reactionary and apologetic). More importantly, being in the company of these people and listening to their different local imams made me become somewhat arrogant. In my mind, I came to believe that I had more knowledge than many of them and that I understood religion better than most including the Wahhabis but also of course Muslim liberals. I have to say that for me, “liberal” thought was not clearly defined; it just represented the bad people that are out there trying to corrupt Islam and compromise its teachings, and included people like the Hathout brothers for example. Of course, I never had a chance to engage any of their ideas, but that was not necessary because I knew better through the few books I had read, and the few lectures and MAYA conventions I had attended.

Nevertheless, after 9/11, I was so disillusioned by the weakness of the response by the so-called moderates. I thought that 9/11 would be a turning point for moderate Muslims, and that not only would they heavily protest these barbaric acts but that they would also firmly stand against the influence of the Wahhabi discourse within the Muslim communities. None of my predictions came true. I was confused and distressed.

At this point, I want to relate to you some information about my background. I am a young Muslim in his late twenties, born and raised in an Arab country. After attending a European elementary and secondary school (which by the way taught me a lot about critical thinking at an early age and made me somewhat familiar with Western cultural and intellectual paradigms), I went on to graduate from high school and attend Law school at a local university. A couple of years later, partly due to the not very healthy atmosphere of my country’s college campuses where constant and sometimes physical conflicts arise between the government, the leftists and the Islamists -a situation that rarely lets you focus on school- but also and mainly because of family problems, I decided to leave my country and try my luck elsewhere. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts due to a lack of financial support, I was granted a student Visa to the United States. I was a religious individual and I promised God and myself that if I had a chance to reach the USA, I would work hard to be a successful and moral person, and that I will commit myself to improve the situation of those around me wherever I am. I came to the land of opportunity with big hopes for myself but also for the Muslim community (something I apparently share in common with you). Although I barely spoke any English when I arrived, I was determined to pursue my goals. I started going to school and also started getting involved with the Muslim community. At first, as far as school was concerned, it was going well. As for the involvement with the community, it was the beginning of a long, and in some instances painful, learning process. At a personal level, things started to be rough when my sponsor from back home decided to cancel his financial support to me. From that point on, I had to do it all by myself. An almost impossible task when one knows that the school tuition for a foreign student is very expensive. I had to find an under-the-table job, since the INS did not grant me a work permit. I got different jobs, from dishwashing to lunch deliveries on my bicycle, to carpet cleaning… I tried to balance between the full-time jobs and the full-time school but I failed miserably. There was nobody willing to help me. I was frustrated and I had to stop attending school. This also meant that my visa would become out-of-status but I had no choice. Leaving the USA was not even an option. Such a decision would have jeopardized my chances of pursuing my college studies, and it would definitely have led me become a heavy burden on my family for the rest of my life. Many of the community members advised me to get married to any non-Muslim American woman in order to get my papers fixed and then to divorce her after I reached my goal. According to them, everybody else does it. For me, it was out of question. It was never in my character to take advantage of anyone; this was a matter of principle. Instead, I thought, I will try to find a good Muslim wife from within my community. At the time, I was in my early twenties, I was very ambitious and everybody in the community knew about my character. Why would it be hard to find a good spouse? I told myself. After all, aren’t we all brothers? Don’t we always hear the saying attributed to the Prophet that if someone with good “deen” and character asks you for your daughter’s hand, it’s your duty to accept the offer or else you will cause mischief on earth?

The first problem I faced was to actually have a chance to meet a Muslim girl and to get to know her. But, because of the total seclusion of women in the Muslim community, this task seemed to be more difficult than finding the $20,000 a year for school. Of course, at the time, I saw this situation as genuinely Islamic and so I decided to follow the traditional course of action. I started to ask about certain Muslim girls in the community. Unfortunately, no father was interested in giving me a chance to know his daughter or even to open a discussion about this subject with him. Apparently, everyone was looking for a doctor or an engineer with a fat bank account and an expensive car. As far as I was concerned, the community leaders had some interesting propositions for me. One of them suggested that I marry this 45 years old lady, whose four kids are already married and who owns her own business. “You will get the wife and the business, it’s a good deal”, he said. Another community leader, whose young daughter actually married a doctor a year after this incident, told me to be realistic and to go find myself a “non-Muslim” wife. According to him, I should “look at myself” and realize that nobody will ever give me his daughter’s hand. I suppose he meant that I did not meet the standards set by the pious parents of our dear community. A third leader, a well-respected local Imam tried to convince me to marry a fifteen-year old. He told me that the girl’s parents home-schooled her because they didn’t want her to go to the “kuffar” schools. Now, it was time for her to get married. “She is also a good cook” is what our beloved Imam said. After all these experiences, I continued to be stubborn in my own way, and I convinced myself that the right girl would come along.

As time went by, my situation got worse. My driver’s license had expired and the DMV refused to renew it if I did not provide them with a proof of the correct status of my visa. Since then, I could not even drive in a state where it is almost impossible to move without a car. And then the atrocities of September 11th took place and you can imagine the rest. With the measures taken by the American administration, I basically had to keep a very low profile. But more importantly, the attacks by the fanatics on America immediately led me to a necessary process of soul searching. For a few months, I almost lost hope in everything around me. It is true that, in the past, I suffered financially to the point that I collected change to buy food, but it was nothing near the mental suffering that I had to deal with at this point of my life. And this is why the Los Angeles Times article I mentioned earlier, was a turning point. All of sudden, I saw light. There was hope after all. There exist in this world people like you to whom I could relate; I was not alone. I immediately ordered “The Conference of the Books”, “Speaking in God’s Name”, and “And God Knows the Soldiers” from Amazon. And this was the beginning of my new journey. Since that time, I dedicated myself to study for I realized how ignorant I really was. I decided to improve my English and reserved part of my very limited budget to buy books. I was addicted. I started spending most of my free time at the library. In a sense, this was my only escape from reality. The books became my friends. I don’t know if psychologists would find my behavior healthy, but I found solace in the minds of the different authors whose books I read. I, for example, never met you, but it feels as if I have known you for a long time. By interacting with your ideas, you became my friend. Whenever I miss you, I pick up one of your books or articles and communicate with your intellect.

Nevertheless, I still had to deal with reality and part of this reality was to deal with Muslims. As I mentioned before, I was always involved with the youth of the community. Today, most of them are in college and some even graduated. I remember the first thing I told a group of them after September 11th. I stressed that this barbaric acts symbolize the beginning of a new era where there was no room for compromising with the hateful and fanatical discourses within the Muslim community. It was the time to choose who you want to be and what you want to represent: the universal, peaceful and just understanding of Islam or the narrow, exclusivist and puritan interpretation of it. Apparently, most of them listened. However, and this is the sad part, most chose the wrong side under the increasing influence of Wahhabi elements in the community and the absence or paucity of any positive influence of any moderate elements. I personally tried to stay in contact with the young people who were the closest to me during the time I spent working with the community’s youth. I encouraged them to read more progressive and liberal works. Every once in a while, I delivered Friday khutbas for the MSA of the local university. I also pushed them to organize intellectually-oriented events on campus with liberal and progressive guest-speakers. I unfortunately cannot voice my opinions openly or even provide a different perspective on the issues that are constantly raised between the college students. In other words, my situation does not allow me to have a more public role. I just wish I could have a direct contact with all the youth of my community. I know that they have no access to the scholarly works of thinkers like you. And even when they do and they are not bashed for it, they get discouraged for not being able to fully understand these works. I wish I could be the link in some way by trying to introduce these works in a more simplified manner. But the fight is much bigger than these youngsters or myself. The Wahhabis are very active and are taking advantage of the ignorance and the naivety of the young Muslims. Today, their presence is stronger in the local mosques, Islamic centers and MSA’s. This increasing presence feeds on the repercussions of the “War on Terror” and the onslaught on the civil rights of Muslims. The Wahhabi attitude of “us” versus “them” fits well with the defensive attitude of Muslim individuals and groups in the difficult times we live. Mere words cannot describe my frustration especially that many people in the community know about my situation and I have no doubt in my mind that if I am seen as a threat to the “pure Islam”, some elements would be glad to call the INS in order to get rid of me and save Islam from my “corruption”. Isn’t this the mother of all ironies? The individual who actually hates American society and what it represents, lives here in peace and prosperity spreading his hatred everywhere. And the one who, with his very limited abilities, is struggling for the well-being of the American people, the one who believes in building bridges and who appreciates America for the universal values its constitution and intellectual paradigms represent, lives in fear that the hateful individual may get rid of him with a phone call. “hasbya Allah wa niima al-Wakeel”. On the other hand, I must say that I have some wonderful friends whose affection and help keep me going. I am very thankful to them for supporting me in these hard times both financially and mentally. I don’t know if I will ever be able to repay them but I know that God will.

Dear beloved brother, I ask you to pray for me, and I want you to know that I continuously pray for you. May God bless your efforts and may He reward you for the chance you gave me to find myself through your books and articles. I have hope in God. He never let me down and I know that things will ultimately get better. “Whoever fears God and is watchful of Him, God will find a way out for him/her”. Thank you for taking the time to read this lengthy e-mail.


From: a brother who loves you.

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