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The Great Theft : Khaled Abou El Fadl


  01:03:58 pm, by Nimble   , 1594 words  
Categories: Reviews, Books, Politics, Religion

The Great Theft : Khaled Abou El Fadl

The tagline for the book, "Wrestling Islam from the Extremists", caught my eye, as did a quick flip through the book. We don't tend to hear a lot from moderate Muslims in the public square here, so there are a lot of questions that run through our minds. I was quite frankly curious as to how "legitimate" the extremists are: what makes them think they're espousing a "truer" Islam?

When I think moderate Islam, I think of portrayals of the wise, unassuming Egyptian, ready with wisdom, but not with force. I have heard tell that Muslims preserved science and writings during the European Dark Ages and were purveyors of the best human rights for women at the time.

This book goes a long way to helping describe what the extremists, which he refers to in the book as "puritans", are on about and how they "legitimize" themselves, and how the Islam world, in a way, lost the power of moderation.

More like the Jewish traditions instead of the Christian tradition, Islam is split into schools of thought, not churches.

State entanglement with religion in the Muslim world was thus: the state would protect the religion, but would not claim to represent it or make pronouncements on it. The 'protection' certainly extended a little further than we in the modern-day West would figure: building mosques, enforcing 'public decency' and the like, but there did not exist what we would consider a theocracy.

There was a class of jurists, a near-equivalent of Jewish rabbis, which were learned scholars in Islamic law and its tenets, who would study the law, administer weddings and funereal rites, and make pronouncements. It was a public sphere of reputability. The jurists would issue fatwas, not quite like the fatwas we hear of today. They were non-binding opinions, and Muslims would take heed of the opinions based on the credibility of the jurist in question.

Jurists enjoyed high social status, and the mentoring system helped ensure quality of new jurists.

Jurists lost their prestige and standing in a series of blows over the past few centuries. Military defeats, import of a Western legal system (making those schooled in Islamic law less relevant) and nationalization of many of the jurist school endowments pulled jurists down in importance. This left a public vacuum as to who would speak for Islam.

Many of the fatwas issued today are issued by those schooled as doctors, engineers and computer programmers. I found that particularly interesting, since in the creationism/evolution debacles of recent history in North America, doctors and engineers in particular are over-represented compared to other professions on the creationist side... do those professions attract a disproportionate amount of rigid or literalistic thinkers? Those particular careers are also (according to Khaled) ones that the puritans believe are the professions from which to import knowledge from the West, but not science itself, and certainly not humanities.

The major source of the puritanical tradition appears to be Wahhabism, which grew up in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabis will not call themselves this - the term they will use is Salafi - but the entire flavour of the puritanical movement seems to have come from this source. It might have been a school of thought that died out, but the Saudis have helped promote the view of faith by way of money and support.

(Mind you, Saudi Arabia has certainly made a devil's bargain that has come back to haunt them. The monarchy will never be "good enough" for the puritans, and they're already "bad enough" by world standards.)

For those of you who do not know this, two of the holiest cities in the Muslim world, Mecca and Medina, are in Saudi territory. Given that a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is one of the five holy pillars of Islam, that gives Wahhabism even more undue clout. Being denied entry into Saudi Arabia for the Hajj would be terrible, and many an incident has occurred in Mecca. The Sauds have seemed to take the puritans' side each time for seeming fear of not seeming Islamic enough. (See, for example, the key Mecca incident in 1979 where crushing rules were imposed by the Sauds)

The puritans seem compelled to "start from scratch", erasing any precedent of interpretation (think what the U.S. would be like with ultra-conservative judges if they erased all preceding cases). They do not stop there, though. There are a few other things that guide them:

  • How people lived in the Prophet's time is taken as the ideal, as opposed to the first step in improvements of peoples' lives after pre-Islam Arabia
  • Their prejudices seep into every interpretation
  • There is a body of non-authoritative literature of sayings and stories attributed to Mohammed - they pick and choose the ones that conform to their views
  • Abrogation, in which later verses counteract earlier verses, and later verses tend to be more violent, given what was happening to Mohammed at the time

The biggest difference between the puritans and moderates seems to be that for puritans, the whole purpose of life is adhering to specific laws, and for moderates, it is to espouse the principles and to use the powers of reason which God gave them. In simply adhering to specific laws, there is no room for poetry, for love, for improving the human condition, or in many ways, even manifestations of free will.

Mohammed was by many rights an emancipator of women at the time. He ended or altered some pretty nasty laws at the time, such as the practice of a man repeatedly divorcing a woman but re-marrying her right near the end of the "waiting period".

The way puritans view women is, quite frankly, vile. It paints men as poor, helpless creatures - in the sense of not being able to prevent themselves from raping a woman. From The Age on one controversial mufti:

The interview, in Arabic, was about the furore he created last year with a Ramadan sermon in which he compared scantily clad women with "uncovered meat", suggesting that they were responsible for rape, called women Satan's messengers to deceive men, and said thieves often stole because they were pressured by greedy women.

One booklet that Khaled picked up in Lebanon by a 'scholar' contains all sorts of misogynistic tripe, such as:

  • A bride seated with her groom in a car driven by a relative must make sure not to wear perfume because she may seduce the relative driver
  • A man who marries a woman with the intention of divorcing her after having his pleasure with her, but fails to inform her of his intention, does not commit a sin, and the marriage is valid
  • Women may not chew gum because it is seductive

When it comes to terrorism, and not all puritans are terrorists, of course, the justification requires some cherry-picking. When conquering, the three options to give those being conquered are: convert to Islam, pay the tax, or fight. This is considered a "defensive war" by terrorists, so the option does not have to be given.

Still, there are clear precedents in Islamic law about fighting a just war, where those who attack noncombatants, who wage war against society were termed muharibun (one who wages war against society) and this crime was deemed so serious that muharibun were not to be given quarter or sanctuary anywhere. Of course, as we have seen, Islamic law precedence means nothing to puritans (although exceptions are made for old jurists who happen to say something that espouses the puritan line, even if that jurist would have disagreed about the context).

According to Khaled, sometimes, puritans are simply doing things just to contradict the West, or to avoid something simply because it was a "Western invention".

The book concludes on some interesting appeals. He appeals to moderate Muslims to take back Islam. Firstly, by getting as educated on Islam and its traditions as possible, to gain an equal claim to legitimacy, then by countering the puritans' creed and exposing their nonsense.

He appeals to non-Muslims not to help spread anti-Islamic hate, mostly in that doing things like buying anti-Islamic books helps promote a market of books that puritans use as recruitment tools. He also makes one more odd appeal: stop helping countries that promote torture (though he leaves the U.S. off the list), in that torture in particular is one of the most sure-fire ways of generating radicals (this harks back to earlier stories in his book about the effects that torture used by the Egyptian government had)

All in all, a very interesting book, and I recommend it highly for those who want better insight into the current culture conflict and wonder "why?" with more answers than which government did what. He describes moderate Islam a lot more than I do in this summary - I focus here on the puritans because it is indeed the more "interesting" phenomenon to understand. Despite some repetition, there is a lot packed into this book, as I realize now that I am faced with trying to summarize it and noting that I still haven't covered the half of it. It's no huge tome, either, coming in at just about 300 pages.

Sidebar: The Five Pillars of Islam that Muslims all agree on:

  • Testament of faith: believe and profess that there is no God but God and that Mohammed is his prophet
  • Prayer: five ritual prayers a day
  • Fasting: during the Islamic month of Ramadan
  • Alms-giving: set percentage of wealth (varies from 2.5 to 20% based on sect) given to the poor
  • Pilgrimage: to Mecca, now in Saudi territory

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