Battling Islamic ‘Puritans’
The most incendiary Muslim in American academia knows a thing or two about Islamic fanatics. He says he used to be one as a seventh-grader in his native Kuwait.
UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl remembers beating up other kids, condemning his parents as unbelievers and destroying his sister’s Rod Stewart tape, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”
“I found it remarkably empowering to spew my hatred with the banner of God in my hand,” he says.
But challenged by his father to take up true religious scholarship, Abou El Fadl began a journey of Islamic learning that would transform him into a nemesis of the extremists he once endorsed. Today, at 38, he is a leading warrior in the intellectual struggle that exploded into America’s consciousness Sept. 11: Who speaks for Islam? Who defines it?
With breathtaking bluntness, Abou El Fadl attacks Muslims who promote a strict, literalist trend in Islam, most prominently the creed of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.
In his writings and through the electronic media, he accuses them of an “intolerant puritanism” that values ritual over morality. He blames them for oppressing millions of women, creating hostility toward non-Muslims and giving the likes of Osama bin Laden their theological justification for terrorism. He issues scathing critiques of Saudi legal rulings that permit everything from the mistreatment of dogs to the beating of women.
For tackling the puritans in high-profile forums, Abou El Fadl has received so many death threats that new security systems are going up around his office and home. His books are banned in Saudi Arabia and his visa applications denied in Egypt.
Before Sept. 11, his daily battles would have been dismissed by outsiders as esoteric doctrinal debates. Today they are better understood as critical insights into the fierce ideological tensions raging within Islam between the forces of puritanism and moderation. They shed light on how Islam can produce such chilling extremists as Bin Laden, who exults in the carnage of Sept. 11 as “blessed strikes.”
By devoting himself to a modern interpretation of the Koran, Abou El Fadl is perhaps the most articulate enemy of the Wahhabi creed that shaped Bin Laden’s brand of Islam.
“The supremacist creed of the puritan groups is distinctive and uniquely dangerous,” the scholar recently wrote in the influential Boston Review. “They do not merely seek self-empowerment, but aggressively seek to disempower, dominate or destroy others.”
To many muftis, ayatollahs, sheiks and their followers throughout the world, Abou El Fadl has become “America’s most dangerous corrupter of Islam,” as one foe put it.
One international network of students claims credit for successfully working to blacklist him from most Islamic conferences and publications under the banner of protecting “the one and only true Islam.”
Wahhabism’s founder, 18th century evangelist Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, was alarmed by what he viewed as corruptions to the faith. He advocated a strict, back-to-basics approach to keep Islam as pure as the day it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and practiced by his early companions nearly 1,400 years ago.
Wahhabism had long been a marginal force in Islam. Abou El Fadl asserts that it has risen in prominence in the last three decades because of the collapse of Islamic institutions after colonialism, creating a vacuum of authority that puritans, backed by Saudi petrodollars, rushed to fill.
Today’s puritans advocate strict gender roles and perpetual guarding against what they view as heretical innovations--be they new interpretations of the faith by scholars such as Abou El Fadl or other expressions of Islam, such as mystical Sufism or the Shiite branch of the faith.
Many followers of Wahhab describe their approach benevolently, merely as “monotheism without the frills,” as one member of the Saudi-financed King Fahd Mosque in Culver City put it.
Abou El Fadl, however, says extremists have used Wahhabism to justify sometimes violent intolerance--massacres of Sufis and Shiite, for instance--or hostility to non-Muslim “infidels” that has bred terrorist acts.
Many Muslims see an even more pervasive impact of puritanism--robbing Islam of its richness and flexibility. Howard University professor Sulayman Nyang calls it “the mummification, ossification and fossilization of Islam.”
“Most of these groups we call fundamentalists have a rigid idea that everything is sealed in concrete and there is no elasticity in reinterpretation,” says Nyang, an African-born professor of African and Islamic studies. “We need to inject life back into Islam and open it up in light of new realities.”
In that pursuit, Nyang says, Abou El Fadl “is blazing a new trail.”
Other Muslim intellectuals trying to reclaim their faith’s rich legacy of tolerance and compassion have also suffered for it.
Abdulaziz Sachedina at the University of Virginia says his liberal views on women and pluralism provoked a 1998 fatwa, or religious edict, from an Iraqi ayatollah that resulted in some Islamic centers in the United States banning his appearances.
Ebrahim Moosa, an associate professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, says his South African home was bombed by puritans in 1998 because of his activism promoting religious, racial and gender equality.
But it is Abou El Fadl who appears to pose the greatest threat to the puritanical view of Islam because he promotes his competing vision with an erudition and persuasive prose that even his foes grudgingly acknowledge.
Fajrul Din, a student in Saudi Arabia who belongs to the international student group that opposes Abou El Fadl, ticks off the scholar’s sins: defending infidels against Muslims in court; befriending Shiite, Jews and Bahais; embracing music; owning devilish black dogs; and sheltering wives fleeing from the “discipline” of husbands.
What makes Abou El Fadl such a master of pandering to Western liberal sensitivities, Din wrote in an e-mail, is that “with each of these heretical views, he weaves sweet words like a serpent, and misleads the naive and simple. His sin is greater than any other. He studied and saw the light, but chose to turn away from it. We will not dirty our hands by touching him, but let him perish like a dog among the heathens he loves so much.”
Dogs and Books as Symbols of His Effort
The man at the center of this ideological furor is physically unimposing, with a short, stocky frame, light brown eyes and olive skin. His home is dominated by two elements that symbolize much about Islam’s ideological tensions today: dogs and books.
Abou El Fadl loves to use dogs to illustrate what he regards as the puritans’ willful ignorance of Islamic tradition and an oppressive emphasis on law over morality.
In much of the Muslim world, dogs are decidedly not man’s best friend. Abou El Fadl says he was taught that they were impure and that black dogs in particular were evil.
Religious traditions hold that if a dog--or woman--passes in front of you as you prepare to pray, it pollutes your purity and negates your prayer. Dogs are permissible as watchdogs or for other utilitarian purposes, but not simply for companionship. Abou El Fadl says this zealous adherence to doctrine led one religious authority to advise a Muslim that his pet dog was evil and should be driven away by cutting off its food and water.
Many Muslims say this caution toward dogs is fundamentally a matter of hygiene. Many devout Muslims follow such rules without question, for submission to God is Islam’s highest call whether the reasons for divine law are apparent or not, according to Sheik Tajuddin B. Shuaib of the King Fahd Mosque.
But Abou El Fadl prides himself on questioning just about everything. He could not fathom a God who would condemn such loving, loyal creatures. So about five years ago he set out to investigate.
After a lengthy process of textual research and prayer for divine guidance, he concluded that reports against dogs were passed on through questionable chains of transmissions, or contradicted by more favorable reports--for instance, one story of Muhammad praying with his dogs playing nearby.
Some reports against dogs bear uncanny similarities to Arab folklore, Abou El Fadl says, leading him to suspect that someone took the tales and attributed them to the prophet.
As Abou El Fadl speaks, Honey snoozes near his side. The yellow cocker spaniel mix was abandoned by its owners and was cowering in the corner of an animal shelter, dirty and racked by seizures, when the scholar and his wife rescued him.
They also rescued Baby, a black shepherd a day away from being killed, and Calbee, an abused dog who smelled of garbage for a year and still feels secure only when curled up inside a plastic laundry basket.
“Dogs represent my rebellion against ignorance about the basis of actual historical law,” Abou El Fadl says. “They are a symbol of the irrationality of our tradition, the privileging of law over humaneness.”
How, he asks, pointing to Honey, who constantly follows him and nestles at his side, does God “create animals with these natural tendencies and then condemn them as thoroughly reprehensible?”
A Male Feminist Who Cites Tradition
In the same audacious manner, he is a leading Muslim feminist, challenging puritanical positions that women must be fully veiled and obey their husbands without question or submit to beatings for disobedience. He even urges his wife, Grace, to lead him in prayer, challenging prevailing Muslim practice of all-male religious leadership.
Most troubling to his ideological enemies, Abou El Fadl cannot be written off as a Westernized “Uncle Tom,” a term puritans use to dismiss American Muslims with similar open views. His work is painstakingly grounded in classical Islamic sources, they acknowledge, giving him the ability to defend his modern interpretations with a dizzying command of ancient traditions.
For example, in a book published this year challenging Saudi legal rulings on women--barring them from freely wearing bras or high heels, for instance--Abou El Fadl read 350 sources, some of them ancient Islamic texts that are virtually impenetrable to the untrained Muslim.
His book, “Speaking in God’s Name,” has outraged puritans, prompting Din’s international student group to declare that it will organize demonstrations against the work in London and elsewhere.
But to fans such as Asma Gull Hasan, author of “American Muslims: The New Generation,” Abou El Fadl gives feminists like her the courage and intellectual firepower to resist what she calls the growing influence of puritans in mosques and on college campuses.
“They are making Islam a religion of shame, guilt and oppression,” says Hasan, 25, bemoaning puritan exhortations to avoid non-Muslims, MTV and, for women, uncovered heads. “Without someone of Khaled’s caliber to speak out against them, many more Muslims would feel we have to accept their positions, and we might turn away from the religion.”
Abou El Fadl has also worked with international human rights groups, blowing the whistle on such practices as the widespread rape of Southeast Asian maids in Muslim countries throughout the Persian Gulf.
He has helped document abuses in Sudan, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Israel, Algeria, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As a result, he says, he can no longer travel to Egypt, even as his relatives are aging and asking to see him to say a last goodbye.
As a lawyer in the United States, he has taken on highly sensitive cases, such as a suit against an American Muslim leader’s son for leaving a woman pregnant and in debt in apparent violation of an oral marriage contract. And he frequently serves as an expert witness to help victims of religious persecution obtain political asylum here.
On a recent afternoon, he took the witness stand in the Los Angeles courtroom of federal immigration-law Judge Richard D. Walton. Wagih Wadie, an Egyptian bank teller and member of the Coptic Christian church, was seeking political asylum, telling the judge he was tortured by Egyptian security police on trumped-up charges of defaming Islam and causing fitna, or national disunity, last year. His only crime, Wadie asserted, was offending an influential Muslim by refusing to cash his check.
When Abou El Fadl took the stand, he testified about the Egyptian government’s record of torture and the plausibility of the petitioner’s fears of persecution. Walton granted asylum.
“I don’t know any other Muslim who sticks his neck out like he does,” says Wadie’s attorney, Roni Deutsch. He says Abou El Fadl’s testimony is so authoritative that it nearly always clinches court victories, yet comes either free or at just a fraction of the $500 hourly going rate.
“I don’t know anybody who does what he does in any religion. He doesn’t have an agenda. He does this because he believes it is right.”
Abou El Fadl says he does this, in part, because he has been on the other side. He says he was persecuted by security forces in the Mideast in the 1980s after writing pro-democracy articles and poems. (He asks that the name of the country not be printed for fear of retribution against relatives.) Advised to flee, he stood in line at the U.S. Embassy praying for a student visa.
“I made a promise to God that if you allow me to be where I can speak without fear, I will never shut up,” he says. “Now it’s been 20 years, and I’ve kept my bargain.”
A Cocky Boy Learns to Overcome Arrogance
Abou El Fadl is physically frail, popping 36 pills a day for maladies ranging from osteoporosis to asthma. He speaks in a soft voice and sometimes avoids direct eye contact. He can boyishly haul his family to video arcades to shoot down zombies in “House of the Dead.” He is the quintessential absent-minded professor who doesn’t drive, can’t remember his address, took two years to learn his phone number and once wore his son’s pint-sized tie to class, vaguely wondering why students kept grinning.
All this belies an extravagant overachiever.
He memorized the Koran at age 12, but says his real learning began after his rebellion against his parents as a seventh-grader.
His father, a lawyer from a family with a long tradition of Islamic learning, challenged his cocky son to test his expertise in a religion class at a local mosque. The class was on shariah, Islamic law, taught Socratic-style, and Abou El Fadl says the other students--both girls and boys--demolished him. Crushed, he ran home, dived under his bed and cried.
“Is the solution for you to cry? Or learn?” his father admonished him. “If anyone can learn it is you. Your only stupidity is your arrogance.”
For the next decade, Abou El Fadl spent four hours each day after school, all weekend and every summer in Egypt learning the Islamic classics at the feet of such celebrated sheiks as Muhammad Al-Ghazali, a world-renowned proponent of moderate Islamic revivalism.
He spoke broken English when he arrived at Yale in 1982. Four years later, he graduated magna cum laude and won the prestigious Scholar of the House award for exceptionally gifted students.
Next was a law degree in 1989 from the University of Pennsylvania and a first-place award in the national Jessup Moot Court Competition. He clerked for the Arizona Supreme Court and worked in commercial and immigration law. He became a naturalized American citizen.
In 1998, he completed his doctorate in Islamic law at Princeton, where he earned a perfect grade point average, nabbed a prestigious writing award and won Best Dissertation for a paper on “Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law.”
Abou El Fadl was teaching at the University of Texas in Austin when Irene Bierman of UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies went to scout him out in 1998 for a new chair in Islamic law. Bierman says his chief attraction was his rare combination of a doctorate and a law degree, Western and Islamic training, legal experience and prolific academic scholarship.
To Muslim philanthropists Omar and Esmeralda Alfi, who have pledged a $1-million endowment to finance the chair, Abou El Fadl presented the perfect candidate.
“People say there is a conflict between modernity and tradition, but Khaled is able to get the most liberal thoughts from a very old tradition because of his deep knowledge and the awesome amount of reading he does,” Esmeralda Alfi says.
Library Illustrates Vast Traditions
Abou El Fadl’s most important weapon is books. They line the walls of his home, fill an entire room on the second floor and spill out into another detached room outside. His annual book budget is more than $60,000. His entire collection surpasses 40,000 volumes on law, theology, sociology, philosophy, history, literature.
His mother, Afaf El Nimr, says her eldest son was drawn to the written word from the time he was 3, every day spreading out the newspaper and studying it in deep concentration.
By the time he was 9, he had begun reading his father’s tomes on Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Indian nationalist leader Jawaharlal Nehru. Young Khaled would sell off his underwear to raise money for more books, according to his mother.
The 10,000 volumes in his Islamic law library illustrate the vastness of the faith’s traditions--and some of its problems. The collection, some of its items eight centuries old, includes writings from every school of thought in the majority Sunni and minority Shiite traditions, some extinct. They run the gamut from works by Muslims whom Abou El Fadl reveres, such as the 11th century Baghdad jurist Ibn ‘Aqil, to those by writers he abhors, such as Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheik serving a life sentence in connection with the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
“Imagine how many intellects are deposited in here,” he says, “how many glimpses of perception.”
He agonizes over a rising tide of censorship. He blames it directly on the 1970s rise in oil prices that gave Saudi Arabia the financial resources to control the Islamic book market and propagate the nation’s puritan creed.
During a recent trip to an Arabic bookstore in Anaheim, he pointed out numerous books banned in the Mideast, including such classics as “1001 Nights” and other books on theories of human rights, homosexuality and Islam, and a treatise on Sufism.
Abou El Fadl’s own books--he published four in just the last year--are banned in Saudi Arabia, although Din of the opposition student group says bootleg translations are making the rounds in Medina and scandalizing devout Muslims there.
Recently, Abou El Fadl says, puritan Muslims have even begun cleansing the sacred texts of passages they deem offensive. He exposes the practice in an essay, “Corrupting God’s Book,” citing as one example a popular English translation of the Koran, widely distributed in the United States, that he says skews the Arabic text to claim women must cover their entire body except for one or both eyes.
“The agony of the Muslim plight in the modern world cannot be expressed either in words or tears,” Abou El Fadl writes in the piece, published this year in a collection of critical essays titled “Conference of the Books.” “What can one say about those people who, in their utter ignorance and maniacal arrogance, subjugate even the word of God to ugliness and deformities?”
Some Muslims are offended by such searing self-criticism, believing that it only aids enemies of Islam. Others, such as University of Michigan Islamic studies professor S. Abdal-Hakim Jackson, say Abou El Fadl’s boldness is needed, but they worry that it alienates the very audience the scholar is trying to reform. Still others embrace the candor as a sign of the Muslim community’s maturity.
“You have to be confident in your place in society to begin airing your dirty laundry,” says Rick St. John, a Muslim convert and Los Angeles attorney who believes that Abou El Fadl is “trying to improve the religion and return it to something better and beautiful.”
On his good days, such comments encourage Abou El Fadl to believe that he is making a difference. On his bad days, when he encounters death threats, back-stabbing, censorship or indifference from his fellow Muslims, he is plaintive in his pain.
“I am so lonely,” he blurted out one night. “God gave me this affliction of law. I learned all of it, and there is nothing I can do with it, and if I don’t preserve it, it will die.”
He needs to pray. It is 1:25 a.m. In the darkened silence, for more than an hour, he offers supplication to his creator, moving his lips in silent worship. Then he rises. He kisses the Koran, touches it to his forehead and lets out a soft whisper.
“And everything looks beautiful again.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Sunni Muslim: A follower of the main branch of Islam, which accepts the legitimacy of the four “rightly guided” caliphs who were the companions and immediate successors of the Prophet Muhammad: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib.
Shiite Muslim: Historically, a follower of those who called for the rulership of Ali ibn Abi Talib, the prophet’s cousin, after the prophet’s death. Today, the Shiites constitutes the second-largest branch of Islam after the Sunnis.
Sufi Muslim: Those who seek to achieve higher degrees of spiritual excellence or pursue Islamic mysticism.
Wahhabi: A follower of the strict teachings of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Adherents, who object to the terms Wahhabism and Wahhabi, say they observe the “one true Islam.” They are hostile to the intercession of saints, visiting tombs of saints, Sufism, Shiite Muslims and rational methods of deducing law. The creed dominates in Saudi Arabia.
Source: “Islam: A Short History,” by Karen Armstrong; “Conference of the Books,” by Khaled Abou El Fadl.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.