Thursday, November 26, 2009

"Speaking in God's Name"- Book Review

    Thursday, November 26, 2009   No comments
Khaled Abou El Fadl : "Speaking in God's Name". Oneworld. Oxford. 2001
By Adis Duderija

In his perpetual, compassionate search for and revival of the lost legacy of beauty (husn), the humane, the just and the moral in Islam (Islamic jurisprudence in particular) Abou El Fadl, an Egyptian born expert in Islamic jurisprudence residing and working in US (UCLA), writes this timely and much needed book. The book is calling for the return to the archetype ethico-moral premises governing early traditional Islamic juristic practice and resistance to and deconstruction of the dominant contemporary Wahhabi authoritarian approach towards interpreting God's signs/indicators ('adilla) .This search for the Beautiful and Ethical in Islam faithfully reflects El Fald's overall personal philosophy and approach to Islamic heritage as evident in his other works which ,among numerous others, include "Islamic Law of Rebellion " (1999) , "The Conference of the Books" ( 2001) , " Place of Tolerance in Islam" (2001) and his latest book "The great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists'( 2005).

"The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses : A Case Study", a book that was translated into Arabic but was subsequently banned in some "influential Muslim countries" and never published in the Arab world due to its wide-spread "demonisation" , was conceptually and content-wise the precursor of the book under review ( one fears that this effort might suffer similar response ).

As self -identified "intellectual refugee" working from within the Islamic tradition , often given epithets by the mainstream Sunni community in US of a CIA protégé , instrument of the Judeo-Christian propaganda "the big devil" and alike , a fate shared by other contemporary academics and intellectuals such as Farid Esack and Mohamed Arkoun, Abou El Fadl 's " Speaking in God's Name " aims to bring back the rich , complex and inherently moral dimensions of Islamic intellectual heritage into the foreground of contemporary Islamic discourses, especially to that of Islamic jurisprudence .

El Fadl is a strong critic of contemporary authoritarian , superficial, arrogant and intellectually dishonest juristic practices which "have corrupted the integrity of Islamic legal heritage " and which "threaten to disintegrate and abandon the traditional premises on which Islamic law was constructed".

Having defined the nature of and critically analysed primary textual sources of Islamic jurisprudence ( i.e. Qur'an and Sunnah) , El Fadl concludes that for numerous reasons ( which will be discussed subsequently) , a current authoritarian reading ( vs. authoritative-deeemed necessary for pragmatic reasons) of the sources is not warranted. To substantiate this claim El Fadl cites Qur'anic verses upholding the principle of God's Souverenity and Omnipotence and the ontological relationship between The Creator and the created, namely that of the Lord and His vicegerent. He claims that due to this very hierarchy in the natural order , the human representatives of God on Earth can never self-identify themselves with God's intent or profess to have grasped His Knowledge beyond any shadow of doubt or ambiguity, a practice that has, in his opinion, become quite wide-spread among present-day authorities on religious issues.

Their "authoritarian hermeneutics", oblivious to the intricate and subtle relationships existing between the author, text and the reader regulating "the determinacy of meaning" of God's indicators equates Author's intent with that of the reader , violating the principles inherent to the Qur'anic Weltanschauung and its ethico -moral foundation. . So instead of speaking FOR God they speak IN God's Name.

El Fadl, on the other hand, proposes a more balanced approach when engaging in the task of interpreting texts such as the Qur'an in which neither the Author's intent, nor the language nor the reader have the upper hand in determining its meaning. It is the balance between these three, which upholds the "inherent ambiguity", embedded in the textual sources, thus acting as an anti-authoritarian interpretative measure. Thus, El Fadl is an advocate of what Umero Eco terms as "an open " (versus closed) interpretation which is capable of sustaining "multiple interpretative strategies

Another element in his conceptual framework aiming to analyse " the theory of authority within Islamic tradition and its misinterpretation/misuse in contemporary setting" pertains to the notion of what El Fadl terms as "multiple authorship" and "authorial enterprise " inherent in the second most important source of Islamic jurisprudence, that of Ahadith literature (the word Hadith is used and not the word Sunnah as it is my belief that these two concepts are qualitatively and quantitatively different). The unsuitability of an authoritarian approach to Ahadith interpretation des not only rest on the premises established by the traditional ulum-ul-hadith (sciences pertaining to hadith interpretation such as isnad/ chain of transmitters criticism) but also on the notion that sayings attributed to the Prophet are result of "what a number of Companions have seen/heard, recollected, selected, transmitted and authenticated in a non-objective medium (multiple authorship) ". Thus, in each report a "personality of the transmitter is indelibly imprinted upon the report (authorial enterprise) ". To disregard the importance of socio-historical circumstances in which the genesis of many Prophetic reports took place, without scrutinizing the validity and reliability of processes pertaining to mechanisms inherent in evolution, shaping and forming of ahadith literature and in addition to lack of moral insight to guide this process when interpreting the same, the practice El Fadl accuses many contemporary ulama of , leads , in El Fadl's opinion, to a distorted picture of Prophetic message/intention.

Another way in which present-day authorities on Islam assert their authoritarianism is, argues El Fadl, by adopting methodologies and principles which are selective, are guilty of suppression or non-disclosure of evidence as well as basic underlying assumptions guiding their legal determinations, practices which clearly contradict practices of early Muslim jurists.

By ignoring and turning their backs to above mentioned anti -authoritarian measures which are, in El Fadl's view, at the heart of Islamic heritage and by adopting an unjustified "paralysing dogmatism" reflected in a literal, ahistorical and unethical interpretation and reading of ahadith literature , the present -day ulama, asserts El Fadl, are not only eroding the rich and complex intellectual legacy of Islamic jurisprudence but severely curtailing freedoms and rights of Muslim citizens in certain "Muslim "countries , who in vast majority of cases happen to be women.

Perhaps the most alarming characteristic of contemporary practices of some of the self-proclaimed custodians of Islamic knowledge, the traditional 'ulama, according to El Fadl, is the lack of their consideration to the moral and the ethical in Islam. El Fadl argues further that this "ugliness " and distorted picture of the Qur'anic God is particularly evident in fatawas (legal opinions) concerning women whose mere presence in public spaces /forums is to be considered a moral threat to their male counterparts. Here, El Fadl follows closely the views of and arguments put forward by Muslim female intellectuals/ scholars such as Prof. Mernissi (see her works " The Veil and the Male Elite " or " The Male-Female Dynamics in Traditional Muslim Societies") and Prof. Leila Ahmed (see her work "Women and Gender in Islam").

El Fadl's coherent and analytical conceptual framework does tremendously well to expose the "unislamicity" (in a normative sense of the word) of the authoritarian, unethical approach to interpretation of Islamic heritage but it does lack, as he himself concedes, a systematic ethico -moral theory which would give more credence to his philosophy of reviving the concepts of Beauty and Moral in Islam. One fears that his call for the use of reason and atextually or textually-based moral principles guiding interpretation of primary sources of Islamic jurisprudence, tools that have not always found acceptance among authorities on Islam in the past especially among conservative circles which dominate current Islamic discourses, will fall on deaf ears where they are needed most and be limited to more educated, academic spheres where they are needed less.


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