Amina Wadud responds to Khaled Abou El-Fadl's "The Place of Tolerance in Islam"
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
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.
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 11to treat it as
a single random act of violencehas 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 transparentas 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 enterprisea less literal way to read the textsbut a deeply
forged cooperation between intellectuals and lay Muslimswho 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
Amina Wadud is professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth
University and author of Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a