"Reading the Signs: The Moral Compass of Transcendent Engagement." In Herausforderungen an die islamische Theologie in Europa - Challenges for Islamic Theologie

Reading the Signs: The Moral Compass of Transcendent Engagement[1]

Khaled Abou El Fadl


God is too infinite, too grand, and too limitless for any human being to presume to know or to possess the one and only way of unlocking the secrets of our moral universe.  This is part of the objective of creation, and it is part of the very idea that, “We have made you nations and tribes.” (Q 49:13) It is in the very nature of things that each of us searches for a way, that each group of people that believes in an idea will search for a way, and what matters is that they become convinced or persuaded that their way is correct. As a Muslim, you can believe that your way is correct but you ultimately do not know what is in the realm of the ghayb (the unseen), and in the same way you do not know all the numerous ways in which the āyāt (the signs or manifestations of divinity; sing. āyat) manifest themselves.  For instance, if you are sitting in a library in Germany, you do not know the way in which the āyāt of God manifest in Tanzania or in Iceland, and you do not know the way they manifest with whales swimming near the North Pole.


In this way, your view and your knowledge are limited.  But the āyāt are infinite and limitless, and as limitless as the Creator of the āyāt is, so are His sharā’i‘ (ways, paths; sing. shar‘).  When God says that to each of you God made a way that will lead you to a good (shir‘atan wa minhājan; see, e.g., Q 5:48), as believers we must accept that God means what God says.  It is not an endorsement of moral relativism, but rather it means that for each of you God has made a way that will lead you to a good.  But as a Muslim, my obligation, my duty, is to search for a way within the realm of the āyāt that have been revealed to me as a Muslim and the āyāt that could be attainable to me as a Muslim.  I am not and cannot be responsible for anything else, and so in the same way a Muslim cannot presume to know or to seek the way to God by ignoring the āyāt that are revealed to him or her, as a Muslim one must work within that realm.  Of course, I am simplifying matters quite a bit because this is quite a vast subject.[2]


The Āyāt and Transcendental Engagement with the Divine


The āyāt (signs or manifestations of divinity, sing. āyat) of God are not exclusively located in the text, meaning in previous revelation and in the Qur’ān, but they also manifest in such a multitude of ways.  To begin with more obvious examples, the āyāt manifest in the life of the Prophet and in the lives of those who were close to the Prophet, in the lives of various generations of Muslims, and in the lives and history of human beings generally.  When God tells us, “…everything in creation praises your Lord but you do not understand,”  (See Q 17:44) this in itself is an invitation to reflect upon an āyat that could take a lifelong engagement.  Thus, the āyāt manifest in ways as numerous as God, and the key or the methodology is that one develops a way in which one can take in, reflect upon, and analyze as many of these āyāt as humanly possible—all within a specific moral and ethical compass.


Now, bear with me as I elaborate and provide some background because here is where I find myself in disagreement with a lot of contemporary reformers who, after all is said and done, make revelation unnecessary and in fact, make God unnecessary. When for instance, instead of tawḥīd (belief in monotheism, or the oneness of God), we say justice, to me that is disastrous. Or when one equates submitting to the authority of Hosni Mubarak with submitting to the authority of God, that is disastrous. Ultimately, rational atheism, the realm of empiricism, and the philosophy of empirical rationalism (as propounded by Benedict de Spinoza and those who came after him) cannot form the basis for a coherent, fundamental system of morality or ethics. Even the philosophers that have exhausted the journey of scientific rationalism are increasingly recognizing this.  And it seems to me mind-boggling that Muslim reformers, or so-called reformers, would basically, when all is said and done, try to reproduce the journey of the West.  These reformers say that in the West we have a theology of crisis, and that we can offer something.  The problem is, how does one offer anything in response to this theology of crisis if one is adopting the same methodologies that ultimately led to that very crisis?

The role of revelation, then, is quite critical, in that revelation does not exhaust the space for reason.  Revelation anchors you within basic fundamental givens. It is akin to the idea of constitutionalist orders in political theory.  Constitutionalist orders presume certain fundamentals to be irrebuttable—to say, for instance, that there ought to be freedom of speech. The idea is that this principle is not open for discussion anymore. Or take, as another example, the principle that there ought to be governments of the people, for the people.  This principle is now established constitutionally, so that even—and this is significant—if the majority of the people desire to alter a fundamental constitutional principle, we have a mechanism that comes and says, “No, we will not respect your desire because it is so contrary to the fundamental transcendental primordial principles of our system.”  The entire realm of human rights is also established on this same very idea.  Whether from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to all of the other human rights instruments and conventions, there are aspects of human rights that nations negotiate.  However, the Human Rights Committee (the main body that implements the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) set one of the significant precedents in the human rights field in limiting this negotiative aspect.  When various nations wanted to place reservations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that ultimately would negate the protections afforded by the Covenant, the Human Rights Committee came back and said that although international law is generally predicated upon the consent of nations, in the field of human rights there is a special order.  When all is said and done, this special order means that international human rights law relies upon a natural law order of fundamental, transcendental, and primordial principles that even nations cannot negate.  In the international law context, we call these pre-emptory norms of international law.  Thus, all philosophies, at least all non-nihilistic philosophies, or not purely empiricist philosophies, develop some basic fundamentals, without which fundamentals I have discovered, you end up living an entire generation spinning your wheels. 


In Islam, we have the fundamentals, and to me it is irrelevant whether rational thought would end up confirming these fundamentals or not, because revelation has given them to me and part of the paradigm of īmān (faith) is that I accept that the Wisest of the wise has identified certain fundamental primordial transcendental principles. Among them is istikhlāf fi al-’ard (viceregency on the land/earth), whereby God has made us the viceroys and deputies on earth; among them is takrīm bani Ādam, or the dignifying of human beings; and among them is also the establishment of or emphasis on certain muhaymināt, or totalistic meta-concepts, such as raḥmat (mercy, compassion), iḥsān (the achievement of goodness and compassion), and ‘adl (justice). These are not merely ethical directives; but they form the moral and ethical compass I referred to earlier.


There is nothing that tells us not to use our rationality within the parameters of these principles, because ultimately these principles feed into this basic relationship of taqwā (piety), of the relationship that binds human beings with their God, as deputies and viceroys of God on earth.  The true wisdom, the true challenge, the ultimate search, is that, as God tells us repeatedly, in the same way that you cannot be held accountable for the action of another in the Hereafter, you cannot break the norms of your God without creating an imbalance for someone else—in other words, without creating a fundamental injustice. Committing an injustice does not only amount to an infraction against a command of God, but any injustice also ultimately leads to this imbalance and to the offsetting of the mīzān (balance).


Then, the true philosophical paradigm is one that attempts to systematically think about and explore, within these guiding principles, within these parameters, the nature of al-mīzān (the balance), the elements of this mīzān, and philosophically, what leads to the preservation of the mīzān.  I should emphasize that this intellectual engagement takes place within the guidelines of iḥsān (goodness), raḥmat (mercy, compassion), and ‘adl (justice), as this charge of viceroyship is no simple task and no one human being will accomplish it. 


The mīzān is an integral concept for goodness that comes from the Qur’ān itself, which states that God assigned the balance (wa waḍa‘a al-mīzān, see Q 55: 7). Repeatedly, God warns that if you cause an imbalance in this balance that God created, there will be many consequences, including your destroying yourself, your spreading corruption on earth, and your causing natural disasters.  The mīzān may be understood as the secret of creation, and it is a very striking concept, which is not only developed in the Qur’ān, but may also be traced to some passages in the Old and New Testaments.  In modern physics, we are learning things about creation that are challenging the assumptions we have made about many phenomena.  For instance, we have learned that for matter there is antimatter; that for every positive particle or every white particle there is dark matter, and there is also an anti-particle.  This is part of the unfolding of that mīzān, that secret that God used to create. 


The scales of the universe shift with time. The very form of the Qur’ān is not constant. If you read the Qur’ān, and you read its music and its energy, it is constantly moving.  Part of studying the mīzān is understanding that God’s creation is such that life is in motion and death is in stagnation, or stagnation is in death. So there is a constant state of motion and we also know from reflecting upon the āyāt, that this motion means this state of change. What never changes is the critical role of viceroyship, the critical role of taqwā (piety), the critical role of iḥsān (beneficence, goodness), the critical role of ‘adl (justice), and the critical role of raḥmat (mercy, compassion).  And what never changes is that the number of lessons that can be derived from revelation and the āyāt of God is infinite.


But as the mīzān itself evolves, your ability to delve into these āyāt must evolve similarly.  So, for instance, if you take something as simplistic or straightforward as the life of the Prophet, if we read the life of the Prophet and draw the same lessons from it today as Muslims did one hundred years ago, my suspicion is that we would be in danger of violating al-mīzān.  This is because my īmān (faith) and my taqwā (piety) tell me that of the lessons of the Prophet, and the lessons that come from the Prophet, “Lā yubadilu al-na‘īm (God does not take away goodness)”; in other words, if we fail to learn from these lessons; if we fail to evolve in recognizing, reflecting upon, and analyzing the āyāt; and if we fail to achieve the goodness that comes from the mīzān, then the fault is on us.  For instance, recently I have been restudying a particular fact of the Prophet’s life, after having memorized it when I was six years old, and after having re-read it numerous times since.  It is something quite fascinating that will never cease teaching us and granting us of its āyāt.  This is the fact that the Prophet married Khadīja; he had four girls with her, Zaynab, Ruqayya, Umm Kulthūm, and Fāṭimat; and he had two boys according to most reports (some say three boys some say four, but most agree it is two), ‘Abdullah and ‘Umar.  The boys died and the girls survived, but none of them survived the Prophet except Fāṭimat.  If you study the history of Zaynab, Ruqayya, Umm Kulthūm, and Fāṭimat, you discover a boundless treasure of moral reflections.  Add to this the fact that he married eleven wives and they did not bear him children except for Māriya, the Egyptian, who at the end gave birth to Ibrahīm, who also died in infancy.  If one truly understands the significance of these reflections, he or she will know that this is a treasure trove of āyāt.


My capacity to comprehend these āyāt will shift over time, as the nature of what God allows me to understand as a human being shifts.  So earlier Muslims, for instance, looked at these examples and perhaps the most they took away from them was that this was a means to toughen up the Prophet, and to demonstrate his patience, and that he was a very strong believing Muslim. But, as I am restudying it now, I am seeing things that I have never seen before and I daresay that I have never read in any source before.  Likewise, if someone studies this same dynamic a hundred years from now, they will see things in turn that no one has seen before them.  When you take for example, something as simple as the fact that Zaynab married her maternal cousin, and that while Zaynab converted to Islam, her husband refused to convert for six years.  It is worth noting that she was in love with him and he was in love with her, because she did not remarry and he did not remarry.  Then finally, after he did convert, they were united for less than a year before she died.  I see in this an enormous āyat, but it requires transcendental reflection, it requires philosophical reflection, and it requires that you constantly have the notion of the mīzān of God and our role as viceroys in mind. 


Part of the āyāt of God is that God gave us a tradition of very mixed baggage.  God says raḥmat (mercy, compassion), iḥsān (beneficence, goodness), ‘adl (justice), gave us the parameters, and gave us a tradition.  Yet some of these reports in our tradition do not bespeak mercy, or beauty, or justice. Part of the āyāt and part of engagement with the mīzān is for one to recognize that a particular tradition does not bespeak these values.   Then the lesson is that it cannot belong; or one can say that it cannot be authentic; or one could say that it was an error in judgment, but it is an active engagement in the same way that we are actively engaged with our present.  So, we are constantly studying the results of our interactions with the other, and we are constantly studying the future in trying to empirically predict the consequences of our behavior.  And in the same way that we are in constant engagement with our nature, we are also in constant study of and engagement with history.  To abandon the tradition or discard history as the starting point is not a viable option.  Likewise, to start out by deifying this history, by rendering it sacred or simply reducing it to a mechanical issue of isnād (the chain of transmission), and nothing more than that, ignores the transcendental norms, and the basic guiding signposts that God gave us as conditions of our viceroyship.  The Qur’ān for instance admonishes us that we should not cause corruption on the earth (ifsād fi al-‘arḍ, see, e.g. Q 2:11; 28:77), and says that had God not interfered, and if He did not continue to interfere often to prevent human beings from committing aggression against and killing each other, that great corruption would have been caused on this earth.  (See Q 2:251) How can this not be an evolving, active, and moving āyat?  In this instance, one could reflect on the fact that, it is as if God is telling us, “I come in and I play referee because you keep going at each others’ throats and when you go at each others’ throats, you do a lot of corruption.”  As viceroys who take seriously our role of viceroyship, we must engage our intellects and our hearts in determining how we can maximize our role in preventing this process of ifsād (corruption), and of preventing this process of going at each others’ throats.


God tells us that He created the mīzān and made humans viceroys, but He has not given us detailed, pedantic rules.  Imagine if God, as in the Salafi paradigm, says, “I have created the mīzān, I have made you viceroys, and what I want you to do is make wuḍū’ (ritual ablutions) this way, perform prayer this way, or do this this way.”  That would be a complete mismatch.  In fact, prayer and the ‘ibādāt (worship) generally play a very critical role in the transcendental engagement with God and in understanding.  But indicators, the parameters, the guiding principles are set out through revelation in certain affirmative commands, such as the critical importance of iḥsān, i.e. doing the beautiful thing; of mercy, i.e. doing the merciful thing; or of patience, i.e. persevering in patience. God does not spell out for us all of the ways that we can be patient; He does not spell out for us all of the ways that we can be muḥsinīn, or truly good; and He does not spell out for us all of the ways that we can be merciful, but rather gives us, through the āyāt of creation and revelation, mainly hints and lessons as to how and how not.  As long as we know the moral and ethical compass, the guidelines, then this process of reflection on the āyāt enables us to attain a greater fulfillment. The thing that is critical in my view is not just reflection and thought (al-ta‘aqqul wa al-fikr), which of course are both very important, but also taqwā (piety), or the transcendental engagement with the Lord directly.  Without taqwā, you could search the āyāt, search the āyāt, search the āyāt and have an idea of what mercy is, but never really understand it.  That emotive feeling that comes into the heart is an act of grace, from the active involvement of God in our lives—not as a disinterested God or as a God who says, “Okay, now you’re here so go do whatever you want and come back on the Final Day; I’ll see you then…”  That is not the Islamic God at all.  Rather, the Islamic God says, “I am very close to you but if you extend your hand to me, I will take your hand and I will allow you insights, but do not claim that I will allow you insights when you break the basic rules.”  So for instance, if you violate the basic principles of mercy, then come and say, “God, I want a transcendental moment where you explain mercy to me.”  You have not observed the basic principles of mercy, so why should God grant you this transcendental moment?

If we study the life of the Prophet, and we observe the way he interacted with his daughters, the way he interacted with his wives, and the way he interacted with women generally, we do not have a single incident in which he raises his voice at a woman, anywhere. And in fact, I have tried to find a situation in which he raises his voice at a man, any man, and not even that.  So, would not a rational, thoughtful person realize that one of the elements of mercy is this ideal? What might allow one to reach that ideal is the transcendental engagement with the Divine that comes as a fatḥ (literally, opening)—as truly a moment of revelatory transcendence. It is as if, because you have tried repeatedly and persistently, God puts it in your heart and you have it in your heart.  As I have experienced so many times with my teachers and with so many good people who try and try repeatedly to understand what beauty is; finally you look at them and say, they are beautiful. God has answered their prayers and put that quality into their heart directly. That, in my view, is a theology that we can offer the whole world, not just the Western world.  But Muslims need this theology more than even non-Muslims because Muslims have largely forgotten it.


The Hermeneutics of Ḥusn and Qubḥ


Of crucial importance in understanding the process of searching the āyāt and undertaking transcendental engagement with the Divine are the concepts of beauty and ugliness.  Let us first distinguish between two situations of the hermeneutics of ḥusn, or beauty, and qubḥ, which could mean ugliness or the lack of beauty (at this point in the discussion, the distinction is not critical).  There is a difference between these two situations, which is often confused in contemporary discourse.  The first of these situations is the more narrow context of the administration of justice, or in other words, in a legal system.   Within the discourses on law and its function and instrumentalities, what developed very quickly among Muslim jurists is that speaking of ḥusn and qubḥ is too imprecise for the purposes of the application of law and adjudication. And then, what followed was the debate about whether, instead of these questions of ḥusn and qubḥ, we can discuss maqāṣid (ideals, purposes, or objectives), or in other words, whether the law achieves certain objectives.


The discussions of maqāṣid were partly comprised of debates about the rights of God (ḥuqūq Allāh) and the rights of humans (ḥuqūq al-‘ibād).  Their main concern in this discussion of rights was whether jurists in an absolute fashion would pursue something they deemed to be a moral good, and in doing so, potentially override rights completely, whether the rights of God or the rights of people. For instance, there is a debate documented in al-Bayān wa al-Taḥṣīl by Ibn Rushd the grandfather (d. 1126), about a judge who, on the issue of separating a slave girl from her mother, decided that one cannot separate a slave girl from her mother because it would be qabīḥ, that is, it would be ugly.  The debate that takes place is not whether the ultimate decision is right, but whether the methodology used for that decision was correct. So for instance, some saw this as a dangerous precedent of whimsical or discretionary legislation by a judge.  And proponents of this position argued that the judge should have analyzed this question in terms of rights, so that the judge, instead of saying that separating the slave girl from her mother is ugly, should have said that the slave mother has a right to have the company of her slave daughter and the slave girl has a right to have the company of her slave mother, and that these rights trump the financial right of the slave owner.  It is a subtle discussion and that is why often those who are reading these texts do not seem to capture the issues involved. In sum, one can reach the same position—that it is improper or that it is unlawful—without speaking in terms of these ultimate principles, and maqāṣid (purposes or objectives) is one way of specifying or disciplining this broad discourse on ḥusn and qubḥ.


The second situation of the hermeneutics of ḥusn (beauty) and qubḥ (ugliness), in which these principles played a different role in law and philosophy, is in identifying the source of the taklīf (obligation). This is really the context in which one finds the greatest development of the discourses of ḥusn and qubḥ, not as instruments for adjudication on specific issues, but as discussions on the source of obligation, the source of the taklīf (obligation) itself. The consistent debate that we see is whether the obligation, the “do” or the “do not,” arises because God commands such or because of the very nature of God’s beauty, which then makes all that is beautiful also obligatory.


Many theorists in the natural law tradition and also in Islamic tradition asked, supposing we can identify and discuss what is good and what is bad, what is the source of the duty to do what is good? The reason that the place of ḥusn and qubḥ was prominently discussed in Islamic jurisprudence, is that, unlike for instance al-Fārābī or Ibn Sīnā who very much were caught in the philosophical paradigms, many Muslim jurists thought that it is possible for legal obligation to come from the very goodness of God rather than from something just being good in and of itself. So, to put it differently, they said that the question is not whether something is good because God commands it or God commands it because it is good—that is more the natural law question. Rather, they said that the issue is, do we do something because God commands it, or do we do it because God is good and everything that flows from that goodness, we must do.  By posing the question in that fashion they shifted the focus from this eternal question of what comes first, the egg or the chicken, or whether something is good because God commands it or God commands it because it is good, to a deeper theological question of what does the goodness of God entail. This is the discourse that I find quite fascinating. The jurists would pose the question in this way.  First, let us assume a merciful God.  Is it possible that there is a merciful God that would not expect people to do what is merciful? So here, whether God commands it or not, is not the issue. Rather, the issue is, what sort of the obligation is created by the very fact of the nature of Divinity. 


This is important and relevant because some Muslim reformers say dismissively that the above are just archaic debates about the attributes of God and the nature of God. But, they were not metaphysical debates about nothing, and there were more debates about what follows from the above, and that is why they were so important. For instance, those in the conservative school as we will call them, to which all the ahl al-ḥadīth[3] belong, say that it is possible that although God is merciful, God is just, etc., this in itself does not create an obligation. Instead, what creates the obligation is that this merciful God commands you to be merciful. If the merciful God does not tell you to be merciful then you need not be merciful.  On the other hand, various jurists of the more naturalistic orientation, particularly jurists of the Uṣūlī orientation and also the Māturīdiyya[4] or pseudo-Mu‘tazila[5] orientations, argued against this position of the conservative school. Their basic position was that the minute we establish that God is merciful, it becomes imperative by its very nature, that we do what is merciful, either out of obedience or a sense of obligation, or out of love (imma jabran am ḥubban).


On the one hand are the people of the conservative school who say that it is possible for God to be merciful but God has to tell you to be merciful before it is an obligation. It is as if it is possible that God creates the world in motion, but unless God tells you to move, you do not move.  The Uṣūlī or naturalist position holds that you can understand by the very nature of things that there is an imperative to act in a certain manner, and that God communicates imperatives through a variety of ways.  One of the ways that God communicates these imperatives is by the essence of God’s Self. In fact, in the Uṣūlī orientation, there is a debate about whether is it enough to satisfy an obligation out of obedience or a sense of obligation (jabran), or if it must be out of love (ḥubban)—that if you do not do it then you truly have not manifested love.


In my work I have often written about how Muslims do not know their tradition anymore.  Of course, part of the reason why the tradition is ignored is that modern Arabic-speaking Muslims have lost the ability to read these texts.  Nevertheless, in terms of reform, it would be far more interesting for a Muslim to reengage this daring discourse, and then to suggest whatever theological reformation she wants to suggest having utilized this.  But to me, it is completely baffling that we would ignore or fail to engage these discourses in our scholarship and our attempts at reform.  This basic, fundamental discourse is what orients us and enables us to position everything else. 


The Challenge to Contemporary Muslims


It is remarkable how often the Qur’ān warns Muslims to uphold their viceroyship. God has revealed to them the elements of their salvation—salvation in the broader sense that I have described above, not salvation meaning simply being admitted into heaven—and the elements of their enlightenment. In the Qur’ān, God tells us repeatedly that He has done this great favor, He has made us the best community (kuntum khaira ummatin ukhrijat lil-nnāsi, see Q 3:110), but not because of our genes, biology, physiology, or race, but rather, at the heart of this whole paradigm is enjoining what is good and resisting what is not good (ta’murūna bi al-ma‘rūfi wa tanhawna ‘an al-munkari, see Q 3:110). Of course, in order to enjoin the good, you must first recognize it; and to resist what is not good, you must first recognize what is not good.  If you fail to do this, then God will punish you in numerous ways.  This is my belief, and this belief started out as a rational inquiry, which went through a moment of transcendence, and now it has become the belief placed in my heart. Now, this does not mean that because it is placed in my heart, you must accept it; it just means that this is what God has shown me and what I must believe in.  Thus, Muslims, in relation to your crime is your punishment, and when you have betrayed, the more your betrayal is serious, the more the compromise in your soul is serious.  When I look at the state of so much of the Muslim world, and of course there are many good people, but there is also a remarkable pathology that needs explanation. For instance, how many Muslims will pray and observe various rituals, but yet feel completely at ease to lie and cheat?


Then, when I observe this consistent pattern of failure recurring repeatedly, I start to think, truly, it is like if I have a child, and I have taught this child everything and invested an enormous amount in him, but then this child took everything that I taught him, and was extremely ungrateful, extremely spoiled.  Part of the justice is that my punishment towards this child must be in proportion to the blessings I have given him so that he will change his life—and that is what I believe about Muslims. The reason you see all of this ugliness is because they have either completely lost the essence of viceroyship, completely corrupted the nature of this relationship with God, completely emptied the meanings of the moral examples in the various āyāt that God has revealed to them, or they have completely forgotten what they are—like those who say, instead of īmān (faith, belief), I have justice. One of my teachers used to say that, if you visit Muslim countries, you see on the one hand the merciful hand of God in that logically, they should be suffering much more than they are.  Take Egypt for example, where they should be suffering a natural disaster every day given the way things are, but at the same time you see the merciful hand of God; you see a parent who is angry at their children and who has left them swimming in this darkness until they wake up. 


When I was younger, I would feel an enormous amount of anger when I would observe this dynamic, because I would say, have not you read the Qur’ān, have not you studied your Prophet? I have never heard among contemporary Muslims this simple story about the Prophet which was repeated in the classical sources frequently: When he went on the pilgrimage on the seventh year of the hijrat, which the Meccans refused to let him perform, he married a woman who had proposed to him, Maymūna bint al-Ḥārith. The Meccans had turned the Prophet and his followers away and told them that they could not enter.  Everyone was hurt.  What did the Prophet tell the Meccans? He told them, “Allow me to get married among you and we will make a feast and we will invite you to it.”  And they said to him, “No, we do not want you, we do not want your feast, leave.”  Reflect upon that character, that mental and spiritual attitude, as opposed to what you see in a lot of Islamic centers—the rancor, the anger, the exaggeration, and enmity.


Now, instead of anger I feel a great deal of sorrow, in that we are sitting upon a treasure, the elixir of life, the key to all that is good.  But what do you do when people have blinded themselves and they cannot see that they are sitting right there on the key? But also I always think, and this is part of what the mīzān teaches me, that you must always critically look at yourself in the mirror and ask whether you have discharged your obligation to change the situation. There are a lot of Muslims who see what is wrong but they simply turn away without saying anything. They share in the responsibility; they share in the crime. They must be a part of the remedy.


I could not have imagined that I would attend a conference with so many Muslims so eager to cancel out God from the equation of reform. Maybe part of why I participated in this conference was simply to say this, because sitting in Los Angeles this was such an obvious point to me that I would not have bothered to say it. The Search for Beauty in Islam is an attempt to manifest the theology I have described in this paper.  I believe that when we talk about needing a new theology, it is not a theology to propose that we discard īmān, and replace it with justice. If God tells us that His hand is with us; if God tells us that He is closer to us than our jugular vein; if God tells us that He is with those who are with Him; how can we then respond to this by saying that we do not need revelation and that we do not need God? A theology that does not take God and God’s revelation seriously is not a theology.  Rather, the theology that Muslims can offer the entire world is that of striving repeatedly and persistently, through reflection, searching, and transcendental engagement with God directly, to attain greater fulfillment of the ideal.  What might allow one to reach that ideal is the transcendental engagement with the Divine that comes as a fatḥa—as truly a moment of revelatory transcendence. 





[1] This written contribution is based upon the transcript of a question and answer session I held with students apart from my lecture at the conference, “Challenges for Islamic Theology in Europe,” hosted by Paderborn University and the University of Münster in Münster, Germany on June 11, 2011.


[2] In fact, these questions are what inspired the writing of my book, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006).


[3] The ahl al-hadīth, as distinguished from the ahl al-ra’y, favored a literalist approach and de-emphasized the role of reason in the analysis of source texts.  See Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001, 2008) 49-50, 298.


[4] The Māturīdiyya were one of the two principle Sunni theological schools.  They affirmed the rational basis of good and evil.  See id. at 304.


[5] The Mu‘tazila School was a rationalist school of Islamic theology that emphasized the role of reason as well as the necessity of God’s justice and human free will.  See id. at 305.