Featured: "Moral Hazard: The Life of a Liberal Muslim," The New Republic Magazine





November 18, 2002


The death threats began shortly after September 11, 2001. Every few days, for about four months, Khaled Abou El Fadl would receive an angry, anonymous phone call at either his San Fernando Valley home or his UCLA office. In his e-mail inbox, he found ominous messages from obscured sources with warnings such as, “You know what we’re capable of.” At first, the pudgy, 39-year-old professor of Islamic jurisprudence dismissed the calls as harmless outbursts at a tense moment. But, as the fall of 2001 progressed, Abou El Fadl began suspecting that the threats were more serious than he had initially assumed. Twice in November, he noticed a van that inexplicably lingered outside of his relatively isolated home but then disappeared after he called the police. A few months later, he found the windows of his family’s SUV smashed at a crowded movie theater parking lot. Neither the radio nor the cash in the car had been stolen; no other vehicle in the lot had been touched.



When he brought these incidents to the attention of police, they requested--and he granted--permission to tap his home phone. UCLA installed a red panic button next to his desk, ensuring that campus cops could respond within minutes to any crisis in his office. The FBI even assigned an agent to track down his tormenters. (To date, they have not been found.) All of this might sound like the prelude to a textbook hate crime, but the Abou El Fadl case has a twist: The callers weren’t angry white men accusing him of terrorist sympathies; they were fellow Muslim Americans accusing him of selling out the faith.


On September 14, 2001, Abou El Fadl had published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Many Muslim Americans had condemned the week’s attacks as un-Islamic. But Abou El Fadl felt this response amounted to an evasion. The attacks, he worried, didn’t represent a deviation from mainstream Islam; they reflected a crisis at the core of the faith, the logical conclusion of “a puritanical and ethically oblivious form of Islam [that] has predominated since the 1970s.” Centuries of Islamic intellectual development had been destroyed by the “rampant apologetics” of Muslim thinkers, which had “produced a culture that eschews self-critical and introspective insight and embraces projection of blame and a fantasy-like level of confidence and arrogance.”


The callers weren’t angry white men accusing him of terrorist sympathies; they were fellow Muslim Americans accusing him of selling out the faith.


Abou El Fadl had, for years, made essentially the same argument in his scholarly writings, particularly the books And God Knows the Soldiers (1997) and Speaking in God’s Name (2001). With imams justifying suicide bombings in Israel and elsewhere, Abou El Fadl had voiced concern that Islam had been “rendered subservient to political expedience and symbolic displays of power.” And he’d railed against the ascendance of Wahhabism, a rigidly puritanical brand of Islam exported and subsidized by the government of Saudi Arabia. The Wahhabis insist that Islam must recover the practices of the “golden age”--the decades that followed the prophet’s death--and dismiss subsequent centuries of interpretation and intellectual exploration as devilish sophistry. It is that thoughtful, pluralist tradition that Abou El Fadl wants to recover, an “ethos where the numerous traditions ... emphasiz[ed] that pursuit of knowledge is an act of permanent worship.”


Whereas the thrust of modern Christian history has been toward decentralization, Sunni Islam has undergone a rapid period of theological consolidation. In the faith’s first century and a half, Abou El Fadl estimates that 135 legal schools competed to influence the religion. Even up until the last part of this century, Greek-inspired rationalists (mu’tazila) argued against puritanical literalists (ahl-al-hadith) and strict constructionists (usulis). But with Saudi money, and in the guise of Wahhabism, the ahl-al-hadith have of late won the upper hand. And, unlike other traditions that accommodate dissenting views, the Wahhabis claim to possess an undebatable vision of “true Islam.” Abou El Fadl, by contrast, comes from the ever-shrinking usuli school. As he describes usulism, it is a conservative tradition. To protect the Koran’s integrity, usulis impose a stiff test for the derivation of God’s laws. For edicts to carry divine imprimatur, they must be unambiguously stated in the Koran or sunna (the body of literature that includes the sayings and biography of the prophet). “You have to be willing to bet your soul that law is God’s will,” he argues. “Otherwise you might be guilty of arrogance in the eyes of God.”


Paradoxically, the usulis’ theological conservatism makes them quite liberal relative to much of the current Muslim world. While Wahhabis assert the necessity of veiling women, for example, Abou El Fadl and other usulis point to texts casting doubt on God’s intention that women’s faces be constantly covered. (The Koran urges the veil specifically to protect against molestation, notes Abou El Fadl; if there’s no threat of molestation, there’s no need for the veil.) Likewise, the usulis reject many of the Wahhabis’ other proscriptions--guidelines for sex, prohibitions against keeping pet dogs and women attending funerals--as passages plucked from context that ignore vast chunks of the holy books. But what bothers Abou El Fadl most about Wahhabism isn’t simply its textual distortions. It is the tradition’s denigration of morality, which the Wahhabis argue shouldn’t affect the implementation of Koranic law. Abou El Fadl insists that his usuli tradition naturally leads Islam to an et hical humanism--a set of ideas about justice and beauty that help to achieve God’s will. “If the intent and moral vision do not exist, then the rules become meaningless pedantry,” he argues. Indeed, he considers much of modern Islam to be a tyranny of the picayune. As he wrote in the introduction to his 2001 collection of essays Conference of the Books, “I pray that this is a passing phase in the history of Islam and that Muslims will regain their intellectual vigor and enlightened spark.”


Abou El Fadl is part of an international movement of Muslim intellectuals who oppose the extremism of the Wahhabis. It includes the Syrian theorist Mohammad Shahrour, the Italian imam Abdul Hadi Palazzi, and the Egyptian jurist Muhammad Imara. Abou El Fadl has his own informal cluster of American dissident scholars, which self-deprecatingly calls itself the “consolation club”--in e-mail and phone calls, they console each other. They trade stories of receiving death threats, being protested by their own radical students, and being constantly tempted by the enticements of Saudi emissaries who offer grants and endowed chairs in exchange for their theological conformity. Even in the West, dissident thinkers like Abou El Fadl have been shut out of mainstream Islamic institutions. To find an intellectual home, they reside in secular academia, where they grow even further removed from potential constituents. It’s a condition that breeds depression and deep cynicism. When I ask Abou El Fadl about his hope for the future of Islam, he pulls a Diet Coke from the mini-refrigerator next to his desk before lighting a cigarette and smoking it out his window. “The chances are that I would be appreciated by a rabbi interested in interfaith discussions far more than I will be by a leader of a Muslim organization,” he says. After a few puffs, he rubs the cigarette into the sill and throws it from the window. “It’s very disheartening and discouraging. The reason I’m speaking so openly is that I’m fed up to the core.”

For centuries, the Abou El Fadl family included jurists who studied in the schools affiliated with Cairo’s Al Azhar mosque, the venerable epicenter of Sunni Islamic thinking--Islam’s Oxbridge. But for the epicenter of Sunnism, it had a strange history: The mosque had been founded by Shia from Tunisia in the tenth century. Perhaps, because of this lineage, Al Azhar tolerated dissident sects long after the Shia vacated the mosque in the twelfth century. Proponents of nearly all varieties of Islamic legal thinking--mu’tazila, ahl-al-hadith, and usuli alike--found intellectual homes in Al Azhar. To be sure, Al Azhar shifted with the politics of the times. After Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, the mosque’s leaders made slandering the French occupiers a religious crime; during the Ottoman era, the school excelled at producing pliant scholars versed in the empire’s favored hanafi legal school. But, for the most part, Al Azhar’s acceptance of intellectual diversity continued regardless of fluctuations in Egypt’s political leadership.


At least up until the post-colonial era, that is. In 1961, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the school. Sheiks at Al Azhar became government-paid functionaries--and were expected to conduct themselves as such, promoting Nasser’s vision of a secular pan-Arab socialism. As Gilles Kepel, the French historian of political Islam, writes in his book Jihad, “By linking the reformed Azhar institution too directly to the state, Nasser’s regime deprived it of credibility. ... A vacuum had been created, to be filled by anyone ready to question the state and criticize governments in the name of Islam.”


The vacuum was filled by proponents of radical Islamism--first by theorist Sayyid Qutb (who was hung by Nasser in 1966) and his comrades in the Muslim Brotherhood and then, more gradually, by Wahhabi clerics supported by Saudi Arabia. In 1962, Saudi Arabia founded the Muslim World League to fund the distribution of Korans, the production of Wahhabi scholarship, and the building of mosques throughout the globe. And, over the course of the next four decades, the Saudis steadily purchased the ideological direction of Al Azhar. It started subtly, with cushy Gulf sabbaticals for scholars. “In six months on sabbatical, they would earn twenty years’ salary,” says Abou El Fadl. As these contributions became more customary--and scholars became increasingly eager to supplement their $40-a-month salaries--the Saudis expanded their influence. Through the Muslim World League, they began endowing chairs for scholars and funding departments. By the late ‘90s, it was growing difficult to find an Azhari who hadn’t benefited from Saudi largesse--and who hadn’t returned the favor with pro-Wahhabi scholarship.


When Abou El Fadl began studying with the Azhari sheiks, in 1969 at the age of 6, the mosque was in the midst of this transition from religious diversity to Wahhabi predominance. Signs of moderation still existed: Following Abou El Fadl’s adolescent flirtation with Islamism--during which he destroyed his sister’s Rod Stewart tapes and fulminated against mixed gatherings--the sheiks persuaded him to adopt a more moderate path. But, over the years, Abou El Fadl noticed the increasing presence of Saudi money and of Wahhabism. For years, one of his most beloved teachers, Muhammad Jalal Kishk, had mocked the ignorance of Wahhabi Islam. But, in 1981, after Kishk received the $200,000 King Faisal Award and the $850,000 King Fahd Award from the Saudi government, he published a pro-Wahhabi tome called The Saudis and the Islamic Solution.


Today, the takeover of Al Azhar is largely complete. The highest-ranking sheik in the once-moderate institution, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, endorses suicide bombings. And Al Azhar has bullied the Egyptian government into granting it power to censor all books on Islam. As the university’s president told Al-Ahram Weekly last year, “Freedom is restricted by respect for God, his prophet and all religious values.” Many Azharis who refused to toe the Wahhabi line have been purged from the institution. Abou El Fadl tells the story of another of his teachers, Muhammad al-Ghazali. Even though al-Ghazali was among the more conservative Azharis, he grew impatient with the rising anti-intellectualism at the school. In 1989, he published a book called The Sunna of the Prophet: Between the Legists and Traditionalists, accusing the Wahhabi of justifying fanaticism and defiling Islam’s reputation. Within two years, the Saudis subsidized the publication of seven books trashing al-Ghazali. At three Muslim World League-sponsored conferences in Saudi Arabia, scholars lined up to dismiss his arguments. Even the Saudi newspaper, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, issued its own lengthy rebuttals. But, what most pained al-Ghazali, according to Abou El Fadl, was not the Saudi smear campaign but watching his old students--many of whom had received Saudi fellowships and book advances--remain silent amid the uproar. At the time, al-Ghazali told Abou El Fadl, “I never realized how bad it has become until this instance. I realize that the foreseeable future is lost.” After years of suffering polemics, Abou El Fadl told me, “al-Ghazali died of a broken heart.”


In May 1985, after Abou El Fadl completed his junior year at Yale, he returned home to Cairo for the summer. A few weeks earlier, Yale had named him “Scholar of the House,” an award that Al-Ahram celebrated in its pages. In addition to his academic work, Abou El Fadl had spent the year studying for certification in a top-level field of Islamic jurisprudence called hadith authentication. Now, at home with his Azhari teachers, he put the final touches on his preparation. One evening, as he left his study circle, however, two plainclothes Egyptian policemen approached him. Without explanation, they shoved him in a truck and blindfolded him. Abou El Fadl later discovered that they had taken him to the basement of a detention center called Lazoughli. “You think that you’re scholar of the house,” his interrogators declared sarcastically as they beat him. Next, the police transferred him to a notorious desert prison called Tora, rumored to be surrounded by the makeshift graves of tortu re victims. Abou El Fadl was suspended from the ceiling by his left arm for six-hour intervals; guards shocked him with electricity and pulled out his fingernails. After three weeks, and without a conviction, they released him.


This was not the first time Abou El Fadl had been targeted by police. As a teenager, he had published anti-regime poetry and stories in the opposition dailies and had twice been taken in for beatings. But, whereas many of Abou El Fadl’s contemporaries responded to such police-state tactics by embracing militant Islamism, the abuse only magnified his desire to find a community where he could speak his mind without fear of retribution from either secular or religious authorities. And so, after his 1985 visit, Abou El Fadl returned to the United States in self-imposed exile. He had high hopes for the Muslim community in the United States. Unlike the scholars at Al Azhar, they didn’t have to contend with government censorship and Wahhabi oppressiveness, he imagined. “Naively, I had assumed that the freedoms afforded in the United States, and the relative absence of political persecution, would allow for a Muslim intellectual rebirth,” he writes in the introduction to And God Knows the Soldiers. He even daydreamed that American Muslims might form a diaspora movement that would return to remake the Middle East.


But, instead of tolerance, Abou El Fadl found a community that wasn’t significantly more open than the one he’d left behind. Where he expected vibrant intellectual debate, he found rigid conformity to Wahhabi-like practices. “As I move from mosque to mosque, I encounter Muslims who seem to think that the harsher and the more perverse the law, the more it’s Islamic,” he says. He noticed that American imams often lacked even the rudiments of Islamic education. And he noticed that community leaders worried more about combating criticism of their organizations than about building educational institutions. “Despots,” he calls them.


After finishing graduate school at Princeton in 1995, Abou El Fadl began publicly criticizing mainstream Islam, and it was not long before it got him in trouble. In 1997, while teaching at the University of Texas, he was driven from his mosque, the Islamic Center of Greater Austin. Finishing Friday supplications, he was interrupted by a man who “kindly invited” him into the building’s boardroom. Entering the room, he found 15 men sitting around a long table. They took turns condemning his scholarship as heretical. A board member stood up and pronounced him “the great Satan.” Abou El Fadl left the room. But congregants began to trail him on the street. One took off his shoe and began swinging it at him. The attack only stopped after the intervention of a passing graduate student.


The criticism that followed his Los Angeles Times op-ed was not limited to anonymous threats; it came from good friends, too.


But the post-September 11 backlash was much greater. The criticism that followed his Los Angeles Times op-ed was not limited to anonymous threats; it came from good friends, too. This past summer, he was banned from The Minaret magazine, a publication to which he had contributed a monthly column for nearly 20 years. “Good luck with your career that is based on self-promotion and self-aggrandizement,” the magazine’s editor wrote in an e-mail. The Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) posted condemnations of Abou El Fadl on the American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism (AMILA) Internet site. And, several days after he published another contentious op-ed this summer, a lawyer with ties to MPAC began representing Abou El Fadl’s ex-wife of ten years in a custody battle. “My son has been living with me for the past ten years. Suddenly, their lawyer is representing her in her lawsuit filed against me,” he says. “They’ve made it personal.” In an e-mail to Abou El Fadl, MPAC denied all involvement in the custody suit.


Last month, Abou El Fadl had been scheduled to lecture at the University of Kuwait on the subject of Islam and democracy. He’d been looking forward to the talk, a rare opportunity to address Islamic intellectuals in the Middle East. But, a week before the lecture, he caught wind of a disturbing rumor. A dissident within the Saudi government told a friend of his that the Saudis planned to pick him up and make him disappear. “The Kuwaitis would say, `We don’t know what happened,’” he explains. “Everyone would be interested for a while; then, it would be forgotten like everyone else.” Abou El Fadl canceled the trip.


Even within the confines of Western academia, the Saudis have attempted to impose their Wahhabist interpretation of Islam, to re-create their takeover of Al Azhar. And, just as with the Azharis, their primary inducement has been monetary. There’s no better way to gauge the Saudi effort than by reading off the names of prominent Middle Eastern studies departments and the gifts they have received from the Saudi royal family. Five years ago, King Fahd gave Oxford University more than $30 million to its Islamic Studies Center. In 1994, the University of Arkansas received a $20 million grant to begin the King Fahd Program for Middle East Studies. Thanks to a $5 million gift, U.C. Berkeley now houses the Sultan Bin Abdel Aziz Program in Arab Studies. Even Harvard has a chair, currently occupied by legal scholar Frank Vogel, called the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Adjunct Professor of Islamic Legal Studies--and subsidized by at least $5 million from the Saudis.


Ever since Abou El Fadl’s days as a graduate student at Princeton, the Saudis have plied him with similar offers of wealth. In 1991, before he’d finished his dissertation, the Muslim World League offered him $100,000 to write a book on Islam; in return, however, it demanded “final editorial control.” Abou El Fadl rejected the offer. Seven years later, the Saudis offered to nominate him for the $200,000 King Faisal award. After a preliminary phone call, Abou El Fadl stopped returning the Saudis’ messages; they’d made him uncomfortable with too many leading questions about the “enemies of Islam.” But, despite his past rejections, the Saudis have kept trying. Last year, they offered Abou El Fadl and his “guests” an all-expenses-paid “VIP” trip to Mecca for Hajj.


Abou El Fadl has rejected the offers because he’s seen what Saudi patronage has done to the scholarship of his colleagues. He calls Vogel’s book on Saudi law, Islamic Law and Legal System: Studies of Saudi Arabia, “an embarrassment.” (Vogel says he has no qualms about accepting Saudi money. “I saw it as something very much in the greater good of the Muslim world and particularly of Saudi Arabia,” he told NPR in 1993.) In Abou El Fadl’s view, the Saudi contributions have exacerbated the shift in Middle Eastern studies away from critical, secular analyses of modernization toward celebrations of Islamist “civil society.” As the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Martin Kramer puts it, “The last places to look for anything critical are Berkeley and Harvard. There’s nothing out there on opposition trends in Saudi Arabia. Because even if you aren’t getting money, you’re trying to get in the game.”


To give me a sense of the Saudi advantage on the intellectual battlefield, Abou El Fadl took me on a tour of his massive home library. First, he showed me a Saudi-published five-volume set listing Islamic texts that good Muslims should never read. According to Abou El Fadl, the Saudis have even banned some of the works of their most important ahl-al-hadith jurist, the thirteenth-century Syrian Ibn Taymiyyah. Next, he pulled several books from the shelves. One, a volume from Riyadh, is leather-bound with a gold-leaf pattern on the spine that, when lined up with other books on the shelf, makes up a lovely mosaic. Next, he showed me the work of an important moderate jurist from Cairo. The pages have a quality a bit higher than toilet paper, and the printing looks like it was run off a mimeograph machine. Only 100 copies of the book exist, and, despite its low quality, it is expensive. The Wahhabi texts, by contrast, are not only beautiful, they’re cheap, thanks to heavy subsidies from the Saudis.


“Islam is about the subjective engagement,” Abou El Fadl told me, neatly encapsulating how his theological vision differs from the strident absolutism of Wahhabism. But, because he believes the true meaning of Islam should be continually debated, hashed out in arguments between jurists, he finds himself rhetorically disadvantaged when facing opponents who lay claim to ultimate truth. This asymmetrical warfare was on display last month, when Abou El Fadl went to Qatar to debate the morality of suicide bombings with Islamist Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi, who preaches on the TV network Al Jazeera. (Al-Qaradawi had previously announced that those who shook hands with Shimon Peres should wash their hands “seven times, one time with dirt.”) Abou El Fadl only agreed to the trip because the State Department had helped organize it and guaranteed his safety. Bodyguards maintained a constant watch over his hotel room.


In a conference room at the Doha Ritz Carlton, Abou El Fadl pointed out the logical inconsistencies in al-Qaradawi’s defense of suicide bombing and cited pre-modern Islamic jurists on the ethics of revenge. But such details were of no interest to al-Qaradawi. According to Abou El Fadl, al-Qaradawi told the crowd of Muslim intellectuals and foreign journalists, “I don’t know why brother Abou El Fadl keeps needlessly complicating things; Islam is against such complications,” before going on to cite statistics about the murders of Palestinian children. By the end of the debate, Abou El Fadl felt that he’d been mocked, ignored, and rhetorically run over. Al-Qaradawi stopped addressing him by his proper title--sheik--and, as he left the stage, refused to shake hands. “It wasn’t a fair fight,” one participant told me later.


Two weeks after he returned from Qatar, Abou El Fadl got a visit from the FBI. The State Department, the agents told him, had asked them to set up a meeting: It wanted to ensure that his criticism of al-Qaradawi didn’t result in any physical harm. Already, al-Qaradawi had mentioned their debate on his website, and it had unleashed a torrent of response. A group of social scientists in Egypt had e-mailed Abou El Fadl to tell him that they “prayed God would return him to a straight path.” And he received similar messages from Jordan and elsewhere. A few days before the FBI visited, we had discussed the debate and the consequences of challenging popular imams. As he spoke, he stroked his blind terrier, Lulu. With a resigned tone, he told me, “There may need to be sacrificial lambs. I’m going to play this role and speak my conscience.”


Franklin Foer is the former editor of The New Republic.