"Religious Authority in the 21st Century," in the conference publication for “Speaking in God's Name: Re-examining Gender in Islam,” hosted by Inspire,

Keynote Lecture, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl

Inspire Conference

London, June 4, 2011


The Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam[1] is very dear to my heart.  I often tell my students that this is the one book that I want buried with me so that I can hold it in my defense in the Hereafter.  The Conference of the Books invites the reader to share with me what can only be described as truly intimate and metaphysical and transcendental moments that scholars are often not honest enough to invite anyone to share with them.  My discourse in this paper focuses on the integration of these metaphysical transcendental moments of insight into the larger causes to which we devote ourselves.  These causes fundamentally challenge who we are as human beings, leave alone who we are as Muslims, and they also fundamentally challenge what defines us as a people and what ought to define us as a people. 


I remember reading one of the book reviews of The Conference of the Books in the Islamic publication, Islamica.  The reviewer believed that my writings in The Conference of the Books reveal my disappointment with Muslims and concluded that I have “almost given up on Muslims.”[2]   Everyone is entitled to her own conclusions and opinions, and perhaps this is simply how the reviewer experienced the book. Nevertheless my perceived disappointment in Muslims or giving up is far from the point; rather, the issue is understanding the interconnectedness of our historical experience as Muslims and as human beings, and the extent to which we play an active moral agency in constructing the experience, whether that experience is oriented towards the temporal or the non-temporal, the physical or the metaphysical, or towards gender or power dynamics.  


I will begin in a slightly unusual fashion by reflecting on a historical passage, because history, like poetry for those who truly delve into it, has the ability to surprise and to give the reader frequent moments of pause and reflection.  One such passage from the historical sources that has captured my imagination is cited in a history of the Byzantine Empire, in the context of the phenomenon of Musta‘ribun or what at a later date become known as the Mozarabs.  The Musta‘ribun were Western Christians, primarily in what is today Portugal and Spain but also in areas of France, who were heavily influenced by Islamic culture.  Musta‘rab means “he who is Arabized,” and eventually Musta‘rab through corruption in translation became mozarab.  There are differences between the Musta‘ribs and the Mozarabs, but I will not delve into those here.  The following is from a ninth century C.E. sermon written and delivered by the bishop of Cordoba, Alvaro:


Many of my coreligionists read verses and fairy tales of the Arabs, study the works of Muhammedan philosophers and theologians not in order to refute them but to learn to express themselves properly in the Arab language more correctly and more elegantly.  Who among them studied the Gospels, and Prophets and Apostles? Alas! All talented Christian young men know only the language and literature of the Arabs, read and assiduously study the Arab books... If somebody speaks of Christian books they contemptuously answer that they deserve no attention whatever (quasi vilissima contemnentes).  Woe! The Christians have forgotten their own language, and there is hardly one among a thousand to be found who can write to a friend a decent greeting letter in Latin.  But there is a numberless multitude who express themselves most elegantly in Arabic, and make poetry in this language with more beauty and more art than the Arabs themselves.[3]


This historical anecdote is interesting because it provides a moment of pause from the overwhelming momentum and pressure of our current historical moment.  The bishop speaks from a completely different perspective that is difficult for us to imagine today.  There are numerous historical sources speaking to similar phenomena in other contexts.  For example, in the 16th and 17th centuries several writers mention the Arabists in Oxford, who were infamous for doing well only in classes of Islamic philosophy and theology, but who boasted about flunking all of their other courses. 


It is not too farfetched to venture that today a Muslim who is truly honest with herself could reverse the terms of the Bishop of Cordoba’s speech and make the opposite complaint—that Muslims learn English or French better than Arabic.  Most Muslims learn to articulate, write, and read in English and French better than they will ever learn the language of the Qur’an.  She could complain that Muslims have become alienated from their own traditions and that they approach these traditions from a relationship not of familiarity and privity, but rather from a relationship of distance in which they either attempt to overcome the tradition to make it unnecessary or irrelevant to what really matters or to bridge the tradition to make it somewhat relevant to the modern context. 


What do these historical anecdotes suggest to us, and what does it mean that we experience the opposite situation in the modern age—that today, what the Bishop of Cordoba said about the Christian tradition any Muslim imam could say about the Islamic tradition?  One possible position, which I will call the exclusionary approach, views this as a form of competition or game in which Muslims were ahead at one point and behind at another point.  This approach is broadly shared by Samuel Huntington, many strategy theorists in Washington D.C., Donald Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, Tony Blair, and others.  Adherents to this approach, very much like the Kissinger school of diplomacy, see this fluctuation as a story of which civilization is ahead and which civilization is behind, which civilization is dominant or successful and which is dominated or trailing.  They would tend to explain a quote like this as further evidence that the game of power and competition is a brutal one and that Muslims should never be allowed to be in a position of power.  This perception relies purely on pragmatic functionalist standards and a materialist historical methodology of interpretation.  It sees power in everything, permeating everything, infiltrating everything, defining everything, and ultimately being the purpose of everything.  Thus, even when the exclusionary methodology approaches religion it does so from this same perspective of power, and when it examines gender it also approaches it from the perspective of power. 


A second possible view, which I will call the Qur’anic approach (but this does not mean that it is exclusively Qur’anic), is an approach that looks at history from a decidedly different perspective; from a perspective in which human beings are not in competition for who possesses the highest score and when in the progression of history, but rather utilizes the Qur’anic concept of tadawul, or tadawul al-umam.  Tadawul literally means to go around, and it comes from the word duwal or dawwala, meaning to exchange for something or to rotate.  The Qur’an tells us that it is part of the Sunna of God in creation that al-yam duwal bynakum, or that no state, whether an inferior state or a superior state, whether a state of poverty or a state of wealth, can remain permanently with one party or another, and that tadawul, this constantly active process of the shifting and moving of resources and powers and values, is as natural a state of creation as diversity (ikhtilaf), whether the diversity of human beings, diversity of languages, diversity in beliefs, or diversity in tastes.  But furthermore, the concept of tadawa and mudawala means transition of power, and we say that truly useful knowledge is constantly in a state of dynamic action, moving from one party to the other, or mudawalat al-‘ilm.   These concepts cannot be separated in Qur’anic theology from the central concept of khilafat al-‘ard, the deputizing of human beings and the viceroyship of human beings over the earth, and ta‘mir al-‘ard, the civilizing of the earth or utilizing the creation of God in order to reach ultimate values and objectives that God deems acceptable or praiseworthy. 


The Qur’anic concept of viceroyship, khilafa, is directed to human beings generally.  The Qur’an states that there is a moral khilafa, a moral viceroyship or a moral agency, in which all human beings share a responsibility in taking care of what God has created, and in fact in being the inheritors and the duly delegated agents or authorized actors on behalf of the Divine on this earth.  Here I emphasize again that in the Qur’an Muslims are not exclusively charged with these duties; rather, all human beings are given this responsibility, khilafat bani adam, khilafat al-insan.  The Qur’an in a very direct fashion tells Muslims that as a Muslim you do not reserve a permanent position in this process of agency vis-a-vis God.  More bluntly, as the Qur’an talks about the process of mudawala, the constant dynamic of shift and movement in the fates of people and the constant process of the circulation of the resources and the values that God has created, it states that Muslims do not have a special status and that they are not God’s chosen people in any sense.  Rather, God has created some basic moral laws, which Muslims and non-Muslims are told they must live by.  Those who observe certain principles will have their assets rise.  However, this rise is only temporary, and while they will become the forbearers and the inheritors of civilization and the leaders of humankind for a period of time, inevitably, no matter who or what they are, they will eventually come down and be replaced by another civilization or people.  The Qur’an calls this a process of tadawul or mudawala and Muslims are certainly not exempt from this process of mudawala. 


There is a very fundamental link between mudawala, this relationship of the circulation of values and honor and prestige and wealth, and the obligation of viceroyship, and ultimately in the fate of a people, and that is the critical Qur’anic concept of takrim bani adam, the dignity or the dignifying of human beings.  The Qur’an tells us that God ordained dignity for all human beings, not for Muslims or non-Muslims alone, and the entitlement to dignity is not limited to men or to women or to what the Muslim jurists sometimes used to call the third sex.  This reality of takrim bani adam, dignifying human beings or ordaining dignity to human beings, is fundamentally intertwined with basic primordial values that the Qur’an explains quite clearly.  Muslims memorize these primordial values and repeat them ad nauseam but often do not reflect on them.  These values include ’adl, justice or being in a state of justice, and ihsan, the very essence of goodness.   The constant obligation of viceroyship on the earth is ‘adl, to establish justice, and to establish a state of ihsan, to manifest the goodness of God in God’s creation, and the Qur’an in a very blunt fashion tells Muslims that if Muslims fail to uphold this moral obligation, they are not an exception.  Whatever privilege God has extended to Muslims, God will cause it to be taken away and Muslims will crumble; they will fall down as a civilization and be replaced by another, and that other civilization is quite often not Muslim or not even comprised of believers at all. 


The quote that I started with emphasizes the point of moral choice, a choice in narrative.  All of us, as we look at our past, our present, and our future, whether we examine issues of civilizations or nations or gender, we have a choice in narrative.  This is a narrative in which we imagine each other, we invent each other, we construct and reconstruct each other, and most importantly, we invent, we imagine, and we construct ourselves.  The moral choice is one in which you could see a constant competition between human beings in a harsh, unfeeling environment, or alternatively, you could see a very different possible narrative.  This alternative is the narrative of continuity and the interconnectedness of human affairs.  The clear subtext of the Bishop of Cordoba’s statement is that when the vulgar politics, the power dynamics, and the petty competitions are stripped away, we find that the culture that existed in Europe is fundamentally integrated with the values of Muslims, just as the values of Muslims are fundamentally integrated with those of the Greeks, Jews, Romans, and all those that preceded them.  And just as Muslims’ values today are integrated and fundamentally penetrated and permeated with the values of the former colonizers in a complete relationship of disempowerment and subjugation, today, the former colonizers find that their values are clearly influenced by the presence of Muslims who live in secular societies. 


Religion plays a critical role in processes of continuity and in the process of competition and exclusion.  Religion plays a fundamental role because it anchors human beings; it roots human beings.  For example, something that affected me very deeply recently was the story of Hamza Al-Khatib, the Syrian boy who was tortured to death at the hands of government officials.[4]  It is the existence of religion that allows many people, including myself, to be somewhat at peace with humanity in thinking that there is consolation, and that there is something else beyond this temporal human justice for Hamza.  Religion gives us the potential for believing in goodness and beauty and the possibility of goodness and beauty.  At the same time, religion provides us with something else that is critical for the choice of moral narrative—it is the joy, the privilege, the grace that I wrote The Conference of the Books about, and that is the indispensability of the transcendental moment of huda, true guidance. 


I once read an article in an Israeli publication that discussed contemporary Muslim reformers and argued that the problem of modern Muslim reformers, unlike Jewish reformers and unlike Christian reformers, is that modern Muslims reformers lack piety.  This troubled me and I thought about it deeply for quite a long time.  There is an important point in that article, and that is, anyone engaging in this process of continuity, anyone that engages Islamic history or Islamic texts, if they have the privilege of being a believer, they have also the obligation to seek that transcendental moment that allows them to see that human beings are but all of one indivisible reality.  We are all created by one God, we are all dignified by the same God, we all have inherited the earth in equal measure and we are all guided by primordial principles of justice, and these primordial principles do not shift from one place to another, or one context to another, or one gender to another.  I have spent my whole life studying Islamic texts, memorizing thousands of hadiths, memorizing the isnads, memorizing which are the best classes of transmission, memorizing when a hadith is ahad versus mutawatir, learning the various rules of how to recognize a grammatical inconsistency in the substance, matn, of hadith, and so on and so forth.  But as I reach this point in life, which I daresay is the point in which I prefer myself to leave this world, I look back and see that there is a level of utter nonsense in all of that.  The utter nonsense is that before I can approach all of these texts, before I have committed to memory the entire Qur’an, before I have delved into the various schools of tafsir and commentary, before I have learned the difference between the Hanafi usul al-fiqh, and the Shafi’i usul al-fiqh, before I have read philosophy and sat as a student of the students of Samuel Huntington as a political science major at Yale, before I was impressed by this theory or that theory, before the Kantian phase and the Nietzschen phase and the Marxist phase and the liberal Robert Dahlian phase, there is something very basic.  It is all in a moment of taqwa (piety), in a moment of huda (true guidance), in this transcendental moment in which all blurs before your eyes and you see that we are but one in the eyes of God. 


If a women has inherited the earth as much as I have as a man, and if she has an equal obligation in achieving the divine purposes of God on this earth, and even more than that, if the principles of primordial justice do not differentiate between whether one has the physiology of a woman or the physiology of a man, and most importantly, if the dignity with which God has endowed human beings is not hinged in any way on being a man or a woman, then that moral compass, that fundamental moral engagement, that fundamental moral anchoring, should guide every engagement in something lower, such as any text in any place or any historical moment.  These are the fundamental basics of existence and all else are details, nothing else. 


In conclusion, as Muslims, like that bishop in Cordoba, like many of our imams today, we constantly and repeatedly come back to the same fundamental issue of whether the existence of a text, a religious text, a divine text, a text of contested historicity or not contested historicity, vitiates the responsibility of the individual moral agent.  Put differently, the question is whether the reader in engaging that text has an excuse to suspend his or her moral conscience, and whether the text occupies space so thoroughly that it cannot accommodate an individual conscientious moral existence.  In my view, such a text would be fundamentally at odds with the primordial principles of justice, with the obligation of active viceroyship and the notion of responsibility and accountability, and with the very idea of entitlement to dignity equally Muslim and non-Muslim, men and women, that we all share as human beings. 




[1] Also titled The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books, as there are two editions.  See, Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006); idem, Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2001).


[2] Rose Aslan, “The Search for Beauty in Islam: The Conference of the Books,” Islamica, Issue 19, available at http://islamicamagazine.com/?p=736, 117.


[3] A.A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1952), vol. 1, 216.


[4] See “Hamza Al-Khatib, Syria [sic] Boy, Brutally Killed in Custody,” Huffington Post, (May 31, 2011) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/31/hamza-al-khatib-syria-boy-killed_n_869314.html; Liam Stack, “Video of Tortured Boy’s Corpse Deepens Anger in Syria,” New York Times, (May 30, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/world/middleeast/31syria.html.