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Amina Wadud responds to Khaled Abou El-Fadl's "The Place of Tolerance in Islam"

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  • The Muslim Chronicle
    Friends, Last year, renowned Muslim scholar and Fellow of Islamic Studies at UCLA, Khaled Abou El_Fadl wrote a soul uplifting piece about Islam in The Boston
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 28, 2002

      Last year, renowned Muslim scholar and Fellow of Islamic Studies at UCLA,
      Khaled Abou El_Fadl wrote a soul uplifting piece about Islam in The Boston
      Review http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR26.6/elfadl.html.

      In its current issue, The Boston Review has published responses to Professor
      El-Fadl's article. One such response is from Amina Wadud who is professor of
      Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the book,
      Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective.

      Here is Amina Wadud's response to Khaled Abou El-Fadl.

      Read and Reflect.

      Tarek Fatah
      Beyond Interpretation
      A Response to "The Place of Tolerance in Islam"

      By Amina Wadud

      I want to commend Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl for his insightful assessment of
      the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon and especially for his
      parallel historicization of those events and the work of Qur'anic
      interpretation. The tendency to de-contextualize September 11—to treat it as
      a single random act of violence—has been challenged by Muslim thinkers,
      activists, and political analysts since September 12. Many have been
      condemned as apologists for the heinous act, as if understanding implies

      What is unusual here, and what draws my interest to this particular
      discussion is Abou El Fadl's juxtaposition of the historical reading of
      political events with an interpretive imperative that calls for a similar
      historical reading of the Qur'an. Indeed, the absence of such an historical
      reading has provided, he argues, a partial catalyst for the intolerant,
      exclusivist and extremist rendition of Qur'anic meaning advanced by Muslim
      puritans, who proceed from that understanding to the most extreme Muslim
      practice and the perpetration of violent acts.

      What Abou El Fadl does not point out is that such extremist interpretive
      modalities and their resulting social operations are as equally destructive
      within Muslim society as they are in non-Muslim communities. Within Muslim
      communities women are the primary victims. My own research on Qur'anic
      interpretation and implementation focuses on gender and the ways that
      exclusionary textual readings marginalize women's full human agency within
      society. Not only are non-Muslims subjected to sub-human standards and
      victimized by violent acts, but Muslim women are as well, as an outcome of
      practices that stem from the authoritarian voice of puritanical

      In explaining the distinction between tolerant and intolerant readings of
      the Qur'an, Abou El Fadl emphasizes that "puritans construct their
      exclusionary and intolerant theology by reading Qur'anic verses in
      isolation, as if the meaning of the verses were transparent—as if moral
      ideas and historical context were irrelevant to their interpretation." In
      contrast he asserts that it is "impossible to analyze these and other verses
      except in light of the overall moral thrust of the Qur'anic message" for
      certain general moral imperatives that, while not clearly defined, presume
      "a certain amount of moral probity on [the] part of the reader." Thus, he
      continues, "the idea that Muslims must stand up for justice even against
      their own self-interests is predicated on the notion that human
      beings…achieve a level of moral conscientiousness, which they will bring to
      their relationship with God.…[T]he Qur'anic text assumes that readers will
      bring a pre-existing, innate moral sense to the text. Hence, the text will
      morally enrich the reader, but only if the reader will morally enrich the

      I agree that interpretation demands interaction between the text and reader
      on several different levels: intellectual, spiritual, linguistic, and moral.
      But I would locate the higher level of this exchange not between the reader
      and the text but within the text itself as part of the Divine origin of
      revelation. No matter how moral the reader is, he or she can only benefit
      maximally from this engagement with the text through surrender (islam) of
      the ego or of self-interest. Only then can the reader be witness to an
      unveiling of higher, deeper, and yet more subtle potentials of textual
      meaning for understanding and implementation.

      This observation is fully consistent with Abou El Fadl's account of the
      mutual enrichment of text and reader. It merely states that religious
      belief, while ineffable and immeasurable, has a certain degree of
      significance to the enrichment that comes through reading. It presumes that
      the one who reads will be enriched more than the text being read.
      Furthermore, self-interest is a barrier to this enrichment of individual or
      collective reading and results, as Abou El Fadl puts it, in "emptying the
      Qur'an both of its historical and moral context…[and] transforming the text
      into a long list of morally non-committal legal commands."

      Although textual meaning is not fixed, the actual utterances are immutable.
      Inevitably the reader has the greater flexibility and a greater potential
      for transformation than does the text. The Qur'an is an excellent catalyst
      in growth and transformation of moral consciousness but the manner of this
      enrichment remains part of the mystery of the Divine becoming known through
      the text. These observations about interpretation lead to my strongest note
      of caution about Abou El Fadl's argument. He says both that "the Qur'anic
      discourse…can readily support an ethic of diversity and tolerance" and that
      it "would be disingenuous to deny that the Qur'an and other Islamic sources
      offer possibilities of intolerant interpretation…exploited by contemporary
      puritans and supremacists." But this observation simply returns to our
      starting place. We are no closer to determining precisely how to sustain the
      moral trajectory, and cannot expect that contemporary Muslim interpreters
      will carry the entire substantial burden.

      Taking all of Abou El Fadl's insights into consideration, then, a more
      tenable proposal would be to enact a modern version of the "essential lesson
      taught by Islamic history…that extremist groups are ejected from the
      mainstream of Islam; they are marginalized, and eventually treated as
      heretical aberration to the Islamic message." Along with contemporary
      liberatory interpretations of the text, this movement within the mainstream
      community would form a cohesive means of promoting the Qur'an's tolerant,
      inclusive message. What is needed, in short, is not simply an intellectual,
      interpretive enterprise—a less literal way to read the texts—but a deeply
      forged cooperation between intellectuals and lay Muslims—who after all
      number well over one billion and have been scrambling to reclaim the
      integrity of Islam from the acts committed by extremists, whose numbers
      cannot even amount to a fraction of a percent of their population. In other
      words, it is time for an historical moral imperative to come alive in
      contemporary Islam.<

      Amina Wadud is professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth
      University and author of Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a
      Woman's Perspective.
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