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Book Review: Khaled Abou El Fadl - The Place of Tolerance in Islam

The Place of Tolerance in Islam is composed of three parts: Khaled Abou El Fadl’s title-essay, eleven responses by commentators for the magazine Boston Review and a final reply by Abou El Fadl, in which his main argumentation is resumed and integrated.

In the opening dissertation, the author recognizes that, in the aftermath of 9/11, Western critics have created a monolithic image about Islam, based on the “intellectual trap” of a clash between the free and pluralistic Judeo-Christian civilization and a despotic and intolerant Islam. In response, he presents examples from the Qur’anic text and the history of Islamic peoples – focusing on concepts as “diversity”, “difference”, but also jihad and qital – to conclude that what he calls the “theology of intolerance” is just the outcome of a literal (and uncritical) interpretation of the Qur’an guided by the will to “purify” Islam from its degenerative aspects.

Interpretation is the key-word of his essay: “The text will morally enrich the reader, but only if the reader will morally enrich the text”, because “the Qur’an, or any text, speaks through its reader”. Without a moral construction by the reader, through a critical approach linked to the historical reality, it can only become what the Islamic puritans promote, that is, a “long list of morally noncommittal legal commands”, actually the basis for intolerance and terrorism. However, Abou El Fadl asserts, such an interpretation is a dramatic deviation from the true message of Islam, characterized by a long “tradition of tolerance”.

The majority of the respondents agree with Abou El Fadl’s basic points about radical Islamists. However, the disagreement about certain arguments shows a lively debate on the place of tolerance in Islam. Some critics argue that Abou El Fadl’s theological discussion is pointless because terrorism should be explained referring to elements such as the conception of the role of the individual in Islam (Milton Viorst), the historical routes of radical Islamism (Tariq Ali), the need for a deep change in the social system (Stanley Kurtz) or the nature of al-Qaeda and other Wahhabi Jihad groups, “politically motivated reform movements with an injection of reductive religious slogans” (Qamar-Ul Huda). Others also find the theological debate irrelevant, since the roots of modern terrorism could be found in the “oppressive” action of Western countries in the Middle East, that forced Muslims “into greater subservience” (Abid Ullah Jan), in the “legacy of colonial rule” (Akeel Bilgrami), or in the “prolonged oppression and subjugation” to the West (Mashhood Rizvi).
Abou El Fadl replies that socio-economic problems are also important, but they could be solved with a critical approach to theology, that therefore remains crucial. It would lead Muslims to preserve and respect the tolerant tradition of Islam, avoiding “political myopia” (especially regarding war) to construct “a way of engaging humanity in a moral conversation and in a collective enterprise of moral goodness”. Islamic tradition should not lose its moral integrity, legitimating the interpretation of the Qur’an that led to 9/11: it would mean the complete victory of terrorism. Abou El Fadl writes that “God relegated to Muslims a moral trust”: this ought to be the light in the dark of the interpreting process.

The Place of Tolerance in Islam was written in 2002, in the immediate post-9/11 period: at that time, the discussion about tolerance was deeply influenced by a global misunderstanding of the real message of Islam and by a common sense of fear, partly exploited by commentators who tried to develop an insincere image of this religion. Nine years later, the reasoning presented is still alive since ignorance about the “real” Islam has never come to an end: the prejudices that often lead the debates on the role of Muslim countries (think about Turkey in the European Union, for instance) represent one of the main obstacles to a mutual recognition and acceptance. Khaled Abou El Fadl tries to change this trend from the inside, focusing on theological aspects rather than on socio-political issues. However, he does not develop his interesting arguments in details (especially when he deals with the contrast between the command to “fight unbelievers” and the concurrent Qur’anic provisions about tolerance and the condemnation of a permanent warfare). Abou El Fadl and his respondents face the same problem: they  raise many questions, but they are not always able to give an exhaustive answer. The result is a book that leaves many doubts to the reader. For example, how is it possible to perfectly distinguish the “correct” approach to the Qur’an from the “puritan” one? How far can the interpretation run, before becoming “supremacist”? Is it possible to make people aware of the risks of the search for a “pure Islam” in countries where radicalism has become the general rule instead of a deviant exception? Of course, answering this question would imply a deeper and more detailed analysis, both for arguing in favour of a theological approach and for contesting this choice.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Khaled Abou El Fadl was born in 1963 in Kuwait but received university education in the U.S., and now he is a professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law in California. He is a theorist of Islamic Law and a prominent critic of Islamic Puritanism. He belongs to the Board of Directors of Human Rights Watch and was appointed by G.W. Bush as a commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

di Luca Porcella
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