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June 22, 2015

A book review: Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari'ah in the modern age

Scott Stockdale

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A lasting impression among many lasting impressions after reading Reasoning With God: Reclaiming Shari'ah in the modern age, by Khaled Abou El Fadl, is that Islam and Shari'ah as explained by the author has little, if anything, to do with the way these concepts are portrayed not only in the western media, but also the teachings (and actions that follow) of many Muslim "intellectuals" throughout the world.

Dr. Abou El Fadl – an Egyptian native of Kuwait - is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor in Islamic Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law.

In the preface, he explains the purpose of his book:

“This book is to discharge a moral obligation I have as an intellectual and a Muslim to bear witness for God for the sake of justice and to justice for the sake of God ... Reasoning with God is a search for the path to God and from God to all that divinity incorporates and encapsulates, including goodness, well-being, and virtue. In a word this book is about the Shari'ah as the law of the Creator and the laws of creation, from their primordial and immutable essence to their contingent and temporal manifestations.”

On page 376, Dr. Abou El Fadl says the archetypal image of a person reasoning with God is powerfully portrayed in the Qur'an by the story of Joseph's father.

“When grappling with the great tragedies that have befallen him, Joseph's father Jacob supplicates: 'I only complain of my sorrows and agony to God.' “

Throughout the book, the author writes about the importance of reasonableness as a standard of judgement for most any issue. On page 53, he explains what he means by reasonableness:

“Classical Muslim jurists frequently argued that appropriate standards of judgement must be founded on knowledge of what counts as the norm or average human conduct in a particular time and place.

Something is reasonable when it appears to make sense and when it appears to be fair for the great majority of people existing within a specific context.

What is reasonable varies with time, place, and culture; but at every historical stage in human development there emerges a universal or internationally dominant way of perceiving fairness, the good, and the sensible.”

On page 380, Dr. Abou El Fadl defines Shari'ah:

 “Shari'ah is the divine potential fulfilled in the divine reality – Shari'ah is the ideal, immutable, and eternal laws of goodness, justice, beauty, and ultimately, divinity as conceived in God's mind.”

On page 299, where he says “I emphasize that the concept of Shari'ah was never a simple amalgamation of positive prescriptions or rules and was not simply based on a list of textual commands claiming to be rooted with varying degrees of credibility of divine revelation” the reader is left with some indication of why Shari'ah as we hear and read about it is in many ways the antithesis of Dr. Abou El Fadl's understanding of Shari'ah.

Dr. Abou El Fadl sheds some light on how politicizing Shari'ah has left so many people with a vastly different understanding of Shari'ah than he has. On page 73 he states:

“This politicized usage of Shari'ah places the traditional into an unreasonable role because it is forced to represent nonevaluative and nondeliberative functions. The forefathers of Shari'ah used to say that 90 percent of Shari'ah is tarjih (the produce of evaluating, deliberating, weighing, and balancing before reaching a determination). Dogma and symbolic constructs are useful in sustaining basic religious beliefs, theological precepts, and ideologies, but Shari'ah cannot perform its functions if it is reduced to a dogma.  The vast majority of Shari'ah, as an ethical and legal system, is deliberative – anchored in a methodology for balancing and weighing rights and duties and adjudicating conflicts. The problem is that puritanical Islam uses Shari'ah as if it is dogma or ideology, with the predictable result that it often ends up appearing unreasonable and the possibilities for reasoned debate are foreclosed.”

In other words, as Dr. Abou El Fadl says on page 333, “The state cannot be given the authority to give meaning to nebulous concepts such as Shari'ah in the modern age. There is a great deal of difference between a vague mention of Shari'ah in a state's constitution and actually working out what Shari'ah means in a particular context.”

Dr. Abou El Fadl credits the Saudi Arabian government for promulgating an understanding of Islam and Shari'ah which is in many ways diametrically opposed to his.  He adds that the Saudi government's unique and singular position as the custodian of the holy sites gives it a remarkable forum to influence the Islamic world and, with the discovery and exploitation of oil - especially after 1975 - Saudi Arabia aggressively promoted Wahhabi thought around the Muslim world.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, Saudi Arabia was coming under considerable pressure from republican and Arab nationalist regimes who tended to consider the Saudi system archaic and reactionary. In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia finally possessed the financial means to address its legitimacy concerns. The Wahhabis either had to alter their own system of belief to make it more consistent with the convictions of other Muslims, or they had to aggressively spread their convictions to the rest of the Muslim world. The first would have required the Saudi regime to reinvent itself, but, in many ways it was easier to attempt to reinvent the Muslim world, and that is the option they chose.”

In other words, the Saudi government engaged in historical revisionism, which Dr. Abou El Fadl says was aided by western scholars of Islam.  On page 248, he explains:

“By employing the literal text to cleanse and sterilize the lives of Muslims from heretical contaminations, Wahhabis sought to reclaim what they believed was the true and uncorrupted Shari'ah. What is truly remarkable is the extent to which the Orientalist and Wahhabi conceptions of Shari'ah coalesced in understanding and function. Both saw Shari'ah as a formalistic system of rules that are immutable and noncontingent and that are traced back to an imagined pristine period of true Islamicity. But since human societies are highly contingent and often nonformalistic, the historically negotiated solutions reached by Muslim societies in a wide spectrum of times, places and spaces were deemed at best to be deviations from the true path of Shari'ah.  Wedded to their stereotypical views of Shari'ah, both Wahhabis and their Orientalist admirers were forced to see Shari'ah as standing at the sidelines of Muslim societies and most of Islamic history. In Arabia, the Wahhabis sought to reclaim the role of Shari'ah by compelling people to abandon their deviant practices and to mold their ideas and behaviour according to immutable and noncontingent Shari'ah. This necessarily led to the funding of an absolutist and despotic state in Arabia as the state had to rely on coercion and violence to force Arabian society to mirror and mimic the uncorrupted Shari'ah.”

He adds that it has become a rather regular practice for high-ranking clerics in Saudi Arabia, during the pilgrimage seasons, to preach to a captive audience of more than two million Muslims, condemning as heretics all those who criticize the policies of the Saudi government or its clerics.

“It's typical for these clerics to brand Muslim scholars who call for greater rights for women or who advocate democracy as inciters to evil and promiscuity and to warn Muslims around the world against listening to them.”

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