Khaled Abou El Fadl

2 Books

Khaled Abou el-Fadl, one of the leading thinkers on Islamic law in the United States, is a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he teaches courses related to human rights and terrorism. He has authored several books, including Conference of the Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam (2001), and Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women (2001).

Here, he discusses Wahhabism, the puritan strain of Islam that Osama bin Laden practices, and its role in Sept. 11, and says that Muslims haven't done enough to counter the extremist currents in Islam.

El-Fadl, a devout Muslim who has written extensively and critically about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, also talks about the many death threats he has received since Sept. 11, and offers an unsparing assessment of the extremists who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in the winter of 2002.


INTERVIEW: Khaled Abou el-Fadl

[How did you experience Sept. 11?]

... I was completely frozen for the first hour or so. It's as if I refused to believe it. I didn't know how to believe it. ... One day before, I was there [in New York]. In fact, I was in the Borders that was destroyed, and I stayed in a hotel right across the street from the World Trade Center. ... That thought went through my head: "We were just there."

The second thought was a prayer, a wish, a plea: "Please, God, not Muslims. [Do not let it be] Muslims who have done this, or anyone who is calling themselves a Muslim." ...

Part of me felt that wishful thinking. Just one week before, I had written an article in the L.A. Times, saying I was very afraid that something tragic like this was going to happen, because of my reading of where the thinking in the Islamic reality was. And then to see it happen, I didn't want to talk about it. I actually walked away from the television set and went into my den, and pretty much didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to talk to [my wife] Grace. ... I went to my office at UCLA. I didn't want to check the email, I didn't want to answer the phone. I didn't want to see anyone.

Something in my heart just told me that I know it's going to turn out to be someone who believes himself a Muslim to have done this. I wept for a good hour. It was so much suffering. As a professor who teaches in this field, and as a Muslim who is committed to this religion, for it to all to come to this. It wasn't just that I was crying about the planes or the fear or the anxiety. ... I was crying over what has happened to Muslim civilization. Where are we now? I was crying over the fate of something that I love dearly, and that is Islam.

[You describe 9/11 as a challenge to Islam's relationship to God.]

... During 9/11, after 9/11, and before 9/11, I had gotten to the point where I was no longer angry at God when something tragic happened. I had seen much tragedy in my life, and I have reached the conviction that God helps us human beings. God gave us this remarkable blessing of life and a conscience and an intellect, and that evil is a product of what we do. It is entirely a product of our decisions. ...

For instance, it was not God's will for 9/11 to happen. But I knew that this was very controversial -- and in fact nearly heretical in my faith -- or at least in the way Muslims understood Islam at that day and age after 9/11. I was not willing to play politics and be diplomatic and sort of feel my way around what I firmly held to be the truth. I felt it's time for me to bring consistency between my conscience and what comes out of my mouth and what I actually write. The time for niceties and playing politics is over.

I was very angry, [but] not at God. I must confess I was very angry at our behavior -- meaning my fellow brethren and sisters, Muslims. Well before this, there was the destroying of the Buddha statues; there [was] the oppression of women in Afghanistan; there [was] the decision to have Christians and Jews wear distinctive marks in Afghanistan. It's ugliness after ugliness after ugliness. ...

“I don’t think you can have a sense of dignity about yourself if you can’t clearly confront the fact that this was committed in the name of the faith that you believe in.”

In many ways, 9/11 made me care far less about what my fellow human beings [thought] of me, and care much more about my accountability before God ultimately. God, I believe, is beautiful, and seeks beauty. It is my burden and privilege and virtue to go out and try to create beauty, as much beauty that is reflective of the beauty of God. ...

Sometimes, when you try to be beautiful and to create [beauty], not only is that personally difficult, but a lot of times you encounter people that say you're naïve, you're simplistic, you're idealistic, you're this, you're that. I think after 9/11, I felt that I really don't care what those quote, unquote "politically savvy" people think of me anymore. This is something that is going to go in history.

My son is going to ask me, "How could this have happened in the name of the religion you follow?" How can I justify, not just to neighbors and friends, but how can I justify to my son that this happened in the name of the faith that [I am] committed to? ... In order to be able to respect myself before my son, I must be able to say, "Here is what I've done." ... Otherwise, I really don't think you can hold your head high and have a sense of dignity about yourself if you can't clearly confront the fact that this remarkable amount of ugliness was committed in the name of the faith that you believe in.

[What should Muslims be talking about?]

It sometimes helps enormously to think about things in very basic and simplistic terms. There's always a temptation to go to great, grand political theories and international conspiracies and so on. But you know, I could have been killed in this, and my father as well. As a Muslim, I think -- or I thought, and I continue to think -- that it's highly relevant, and it's something that I should be able to talk to my fellow Muslims about. If I was killed and my father was killed, and you went to someone like bin Laden and told him, "Here is this Muslim scholar who was killed ... in this event," bin Laden would have been happy about it, would have gloated about it.

The fact that we have an element in our religion, in the religion that I believe in, that would rejoice at my death and the death of other human beings and their suffering and their pain and think that there is some good, is something you have to take account of at an individual level before you jump to these great, grand theories.

The fact that my son rides an airplane ... and he often travels unaccompanied, alone, and God forbid if he was on a plane in which this happened; just the thought of the panic he would be going through and I am not there. To come in and say this is beautiful or acceptable, that God looks upon this and says, "I understand," because [there are] bigger political causes or higher political objectives. ... When I deal with it at that level, that's what motivated me since 9/11 to speak more, to lecture more, to sleep less, to be as if I am on fire. Because it is that personal element, that personal pain, that personal image is the one that I cannot bear. I cannot bear it happening to a Muslim or a non-Muslim. ...

[Help us understand the roots of Muslim fundamentalism.]

... I grew up in Egypt and Kuwait, mostly Egypt. But as a teenager growing in a context of an underdeveloped country, a despotic system where there's a lot of corruption and very, very few victories to speak of, there is a temptation to be extremely frustrated. That is already there as a teenager anyway, but is just exaggerated ... by the fact that you are in that context.

In my case, I felt a remarkable amount of anger -- a desire to feel a sense of self worth, to feel a sense of dignity -- but at the same time, an anger and an intensity of anger against those that come from the rich and influential families, against those that work in corrupt institutions, against the fact that there's nothing that could make me feel pride in terms of [my country], internationally and domestically.

Of course, then I didn't really understand it that well. But to go and have someone that comes in and basically gives you something that you can belong to, ... it's as if someone comes in and says, "You know what? I can give you a fictional card that says you belong to the elite of the elite. Let all these people think that they're great, they're wonderful and so on. But I can tell you, you are the very best. And you're the very best, why? Because God says so. And why does God say so? Because I know, because I have the secret of the book of God and the secret to the key to the will of God. If I say you're good, you must know that you're good." You come in, and it's being high on God, intoxicated. ...

All my angers and all my frustrations and everything, it was always so convenient to say, "I'm not angry for myself. I'm angry for God. I am not speaking because I want X or I want Y. No, no, no, no. It's because God wants [it]." ... You basically take your own emotions and you ... project these emotions upon God. You pretend as if God is basically a frustrated, highly angry teenager. That's how you start imagining God. ...

My father was a scholar already of religion, and I grew up in a very religious family. ... Looking back now, I realize what I felt is that I am a special soldier of God that belongs to the elite forces of God. ... Therefore, of course, if you think of yourself as one of the elite soldiers of God ... you expect immediate obedience and immediate compliance and so on. Thank God, through God's blessing, that phase didn't last long in my life. ...

It is when you're in that frame of mind and especially the way that you are exploited by those and manipulated by those who are always happy to sacrifice your life, my life, for whatever goals they have. ...

[What is your concept of God?]

I don't know how my fellow Muslims experience God. ... I know God by experiencing God. I've experienced God, and so this is why a matter of faith is not a question for me. How can I question what I've experienced at the most intimate of levels? ... God gave us the gift of life and intellect and conscience. God does intervene to save us from the evil consequences of our pettiness, our selfishness, our self-centeredness, all the ugliness, the ways that we abuse these gifts. ...

There's a difference between intervention that mitigates and intervention that completely denies autonomy. So my understanding, my feeling of God is that God intervenes to mitigate, so that instead of over 3,000 people perishing, that God intervened in many small different ways. ... The number could have been 6,000. ...

But can God negate and override and overcome our will entirely? To me, it's highly abstract and uninteresting whether God has the ability. The issue is whether it makes sense for God to do that, and it doesn't in my view. Because I insist on my autonomy, I insist on my right to defy God if I want. Part of autonomy is to enjoy and suffer the consequences of my acts, of my decisions. ...

[Describe the Muslim version of a God who pre-ordains, and your concept of God.]

The idea of destination or that everything is pre-ordained, decided by God, I know that it has its supporters in the Muslim community. I know that there are Muslims who believe that God has written it all out and that we just experience what God has decreed a long time ago. I think that is fundamentally inconsistent with my experience of God. I would even go further and say it's inconsistent with the holy book of Islam, the Quran, but that's another matter. ... It ends up making God responsible for all the good, and also all the evil. It means that God is actually responsible, the author of evil.

How can you believe in such a god? How can you kneel in submission to a god who authors evil? I follow a school within Islam ... [that] said God doesn't pre-ordain everything; God doesn't write everything somewhere, and God is not the creator of evil, is not the maker of evil, and also is not the creator of, maker of, all good. There is so much good that is the product of my decision, my consciousness, my will as a human being.

[What is your experience of evil?]

I don't think that evil is a social infraction or a violation of a norm. I know that evil has a feeling. It reminds me of the justices of the Supreme Court, when they were talking about pornography and they said, "Well, we know what it is when we see it, but we can't describe it."

In my experience [of] evil, it feels like a stillness, an emptiness, an absence of life. It has this nearly stale existence to it, that suddenly you get the feeling that nothing lives, nothing exists. That feeling then allows for the emergence of actively ugly and scary things. But evil, it's as if experiencing something where you just feel not only that life is absent, but that there [is] the deconstruction, the breaking down, the tearing apart of life.

The Quran, which I believe in as a Muslim, when it talks about evil at one point, it says [that it is] the undoing of what God has put together. The remarkable thing is that is consistent with my expression, my experience of evil. Evil, it breaks down your memories. Evil breaks down your will. Evil breaks down your ability to feel or to appreciate. ... I believe that demons do exist. I think their will is contingent upon ours. In other words, they exploit our own weakness. You can open the door for evil. You can open the door to evil by failing to affirmatively build beauty and undoing and breaking down things, whether it's breaking down, undoing a human being or undoing the product of what human beings built. ...

[Is bin Laden the face of evil?]

... When I look at that face, I see someone who has not engaged in any beauty, any building. I can't imagine that bin Laden has built the reflected divinity in building or constructing beauty. I can't imagine that he can appreciate beauty. ... I see evil, both in the sense of the inside evil, and in terms of internalizing the outside evil -- someone who has become taken over.

I remember when I was in Egypt, [bin Laden's lieutenant Ayman] al-Zawahari ... was a medical doctor and he had turned extremist. Al-Zawahari had a lot of students. ... I remember that al-Zawahiri and his students never spoke about building anything, creating anything. They never spoke about art, music, beauty. In fact, they considered music to be a sin, art and beauty to be unnecessary. They only spoke about one thing, and one thing only, and that's destruction. Breaking, destroying, maiming, undoing. That is evil. That is the heart of evil. ...

[What is your personal experience with evil?]

I have seen enough. I've seen enough. I've seen a considerable amount, whether it's in the realm of people getting killed in a raid, military raid, bombing. Or even more tragic situations where people die in extreme pain inflicted by other human beings, most of which it's too painful to even talk about.

I can share with you this part: that what you observe on the part of that who embodies the evil, that who is inflicting the pain [or] the agony, is a remarkable abandon. That's the only way I can describe it -- ... as if they detach themselves for that period of time, whether it's a minute, or an hour, or more or whatever. They detach themselves from life itself. It's as if they become breathing, functioning, moving, but not alive. And it is in this state that they engage in destruction of life, destruction of whatever is before them. ...

[Give us a compressed look at Muslim history.]

... There's no doubt that the Islamic civilization generated much beauty and much culture, much richness, much art and music. It is in fact one of the richest civilizations in terms of its intellectual product and so on. Of course, extremist organizations, intolerant extremists, have existed -- like any other context -- in Islamic civilization from hundreds of years ago. But the mainstream of Islam ... had always been very strong. It was always able to marginalize the extremists, and in fact relegate them to sort of a footnote in terms of their actual effect.

In the modern age in Islam ... what arose is a fairly puritan, extremist, highly intolerant school of thought within Islam which claimed to go back to the pure origins of Islam. But part of this movement, known as the Wahhabi Salafi ... was that it was very anti-intellectual, very anti-cultural, rejected the historical practice. ...

That school of thought, however -- because its approach to politics is quite authoritarian and quite despotic, and because the mainstream culture of Islam that in the past had marginalized extremists like that had crumbled in the modern age for a variety of factors -- ... had managed ... in the modern [age] to become significant, very significant, especially since the 1960s.

That doesn't mean that the majority of Muslims are extremists. It doesn't even mean that a sizeable minority are extremist. However, what it does mean is that certain of the attitudes of the school of thought have had a considerable amount of influence, particularly the attitudes that don't celebrate moral thinking, don't celebrate humanism, consider history to be unnecessary, an aberration, something that you don't really study or analyze. ... What it has done is that it created fertile grounds for the immersions of the type of extremism that bin Laden represents.

Put it differently. If you consider that there is an intellectual orientation within Islam, and there is a mystic orientation within Islam, like the Sufis, the intellectual orientation and the mystical orientation within Islam did not produce a single terrorist in this century. But this puritan orientation -- with its attitude towards non-Muslims, its attitudes towards heretical Muslims, its attitude towards women, its attitude towards history and intellect and so on -- has all the terrorists. ... That's really the historical background to it. ...

The issue is how marginal is bin Laden or what does bin Laden really represent. ... There are few that are as arrogant or self-righteous as bin Laden within the Muslim world -- but the most dangerous is a type of thinking that would allow a person to think they speak authoritatively and decisively for God. And that type of thinking is more widespread in contemporary Islam than bin Laden.

[Talk about the darkness at the heart of religion.]

After Sept. 11, I've read a good number of people who are talking about, "Well, this really is an example of the type of darkness and ugliness that the monotheistic religions are capable of producing." Some have even gone as far as to say religion itself is a problem. My feeling about this is that all worthwhile ideas, all ideas, are capable of producing much good and beauty, [and] are also dangerous. ...

If you look at the amount of ugliness that human beings have produced, among the most traumatic experiences in human life was not religion-based. It was either atheistic as in the case of Stalin in Russia, or the Chinese Cultural Revolution, or a nationalistic ideology as in the case of fascism and Nazism, and not so much grounded in religion. Does this now mean that all ideologies that sympathize with the poor are to be rejected as dangerous? Or does it mean that all forms of nationalisms, including patriotism for instance, the feeling of pride about your country, is to be rejected because they're evil? No, it doesn't.

In the same way, you must look at religion in the overall perspective. I'm not in the business of doing body counts, of how much did atheism versus religion kill? All I can say is, all matters of conviction could be dangerous whether religious or not, all matters of fervent conviction.

But I also know that all hedonisms, lack of conviction, are also deadly. So on the one hand, when you have no belief, it's deadly. It's sort of a hedonism, it's suicidal. If you have a belief it can yield a lot of good, but it's also dangerous. The trick is to know how to handle this, this beauty and this powerful instrument in your hand. ...

[Do you believe in an afterlife?]

I do believe in the afterlife. I mean, I do believe that I will be resurrected. I will be resurrected, and I will be ... held accountable for my behavior and my actions. But a lot of the kids that have joined bin Laden and so on, they conceive of the afterlife in purely materialistic and physical ways, as if [it's] the greatest bliss. The irony of it is you find them saying that we're going to be drinking wine, and frolicking with virgins, as if that is the highest joy. [In] my view, the highest joy is bliss, peace.

That tells me how materialistic their conceptions are which they project upon the visions of the afterlife. It also tells me that they are in their vision of the afterlife as enjoying virgins and so on, so forth, that they are expressing more their frustrations of the male ego than anything that has to do with God.

My understanding of the Quran, my experience of the Quran, my experience of God, is that in the afterlife, the greatest bliss is the company of my beloved, is to actually unite with my beloved again, God. To feel the tranquility, the friendship, the joy of union after I have shown that I am worthy of this union. The greatest punishment is to be distanced from my beloved and to be removed from that union so I can't enjoy that bliss. Wine and virgins and things like that, I have no need for that. As a Muslim, [I] don't want it and don't care about it. ...

The heart of it is that bin Laden, he is, and him and his followers are, very materialistic in the sense of how they understand the world and how they understand the hereafter. So when he thinks of evil, he can't conceptualize of evil as a transcendental or a metaphysical concept, something abstract. He has to contextualize it into something material, something physical. United States is the biggest and the most powerful, and so it then becomes embodiment of the evil.

In many ways, it's sort of like ... when you deal with children. Often the intellectual capacity in the psychology of the bin Ladens of the world has not really developed or matured. You deal with children, and children think in polarized terms most of the time. You either love me or you hate me. You're either one of us or you're not one of us, and an outsider.

As they grow up and they become more nuanced, that's maturity, and their judgment also becomes more nuanced and so on. But part of it is that children often need to think in very material terms, concrete, specific terms. So abstractions is something they gain as they get older.

Bin Laden is the same thing. He needs evil to become embodied in a material entity, physical entity, and the United States has the fortune and the misfortune of being the biggest and the most powerful. ...

[Talk about the death threats that you've received.]

... It all really started with an article that I wrote about 9/11 and the necessity of introspection within the Islamic context. After the article, and ongoing with the many appearances on television and response to my books and articles and lectures and so on, there has been these various threatening phone calls. ...

I think the humility that was ingrained in me, the humility that I learned from my relationship with God, makes me resist acknowledging or admitting the role that I play. ... I'm sort of the nightmare of the puritans and the extremists that won't go away, won't vanish. The reason that I am that nightmare is because I have been trained in the sources of Islam. I've studied and memorized the Quran. I've studied and memorized the traditions of the prophet. I am entirely comfortable with these heuristic traditions of Islam, and what I take from them and what I communicate to people is a very different message.

What I communicate is a message of tolerance, of a conception of God as beauty, the embodiment of beauty, and the insistence on the autonomy of the individual and the importance of conscience and the acceptance that the law does not necessarily embody morality, that morality must always examine the law and shape the law.

In the paradigm that I pose and I've advocated, within all the works published and otherwise, I am fighting for the soul and identity of Islam itself. There's no question that the extremists and puritans want to be the only representatives of Islam. They want to be the ones with the 800-number to God, who can tell you what God wants and what Islam is and that's the beginning and the end.

I believe that they are already at a disadvantage, because they have not engaged in the experience of debate and in the process of interacting with the other and having to contend with the ideas of the other. The only thing they have, the only recourse they have when they confront people like me is to threaten, is violence, because they can't win the logical textual argument. They can't win the argument that relies on evidence in the Quran in the traditions of the prophet that relies upon the evidence found in the texts of Islam.

So they are cowards. I say it with much defiance, because I know that they dare not appear face to face and attempt to prove what they claim is the truth. But as long as I am breathing, they might want to die and go enjoy virgins and wine and heaven. But in my case, death is an opportunity. I welcome the blessing of life and I enjoy it as long as God makes it possible for me. But death for me is an opportunity to join my beloved, to go back to the divine origin that I am, to unify with the divine that is in me. So they threaten what I do not fear. ... Ultimately, they are cowards, and they don't know how to do deal with a human being who is brave.

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