I want to commend Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl for his insightful assessment of the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon and especially for his parallel historicization of those events and the work of Qur’anic interpretation. The tendency to de-contextualize September 11—to treat it as a single random act of violence—has been challenged by Muslim thinkers, activists, and political analysts since September 12. Many have been condemned as apologists for the heinous act, as if understanding implies forgiveness.
What is unusual here, and what draws my interest to this particular discussion is Abou El Fadl’s juxtaposition of the historical reading of political events with an interpretive imperative that calls for a similar historical reading of the Qur’an. Indeed, the absence of such an historical reading has provided, he argues, a partial catalyst for the intolerant, exclusivist and extremist rendition of Qur’anic meaning advanced by Muslim puritans, who proceed from that understanding to the most extreme Muslim practice and the perpetration of violent acts.
What Abou El Fadl does not point out is that such extremist interpretive modalities and their resulting social operations are as equally destructive within Muslim society as they are in non-Muslim communities. Within Muslim communities women are the primary victims. My own research on Qur’anic interpretation and implementation focuses on gender and the ways that exclusionary textual readings marginalize women’s full human agency within society. Not only are non-Muslims subjected to sub-human standards and victimized by violent acts, but Muslim women are as well, as an outcome of practices that stem from the authoritarian voice of puritanical interpretations.
In explaining the distinction between tolerant and intolerant readings of the Qur’an, Abou El Fadl emphasizes that “puritans construct their exclusionary and intolerant theology by reading Qur’anic verses in isolation, as if the meaning of the verses were transparent—as if moral ideas and historical context were irrelevant to their interpretation.” In contrast he asserts that it is “impossible to analyze these and other verses except in light of the overall moral thrust of the Qur’anic message” for certain general moral imperatives that, while not clearly defined, presume “a certain amount of moral probity on [the] part of the reader.” Thus, he continues, “the idea that Muslims must stand up for justice even against their own self-interests is predicated on the notion that human beings…achieve a level of moral conscientiousness, which they will bring to their relationship with God.…[T]he Qur’anic text assumes that readers will bring a pre-existing, innate moral sense to the text. Hence, the text will morally enrich the reader, but only if the reader will morally enrich the text.”
I agree that interpretation demands interaction between the text and reader on several different levels: intellectual, spiritual, linguistic, and moral. But I would locate the higher level of this exchange not between the reader and the text but within the text itself as part of the Divine origin of revelation. No matter how moral the reader is, he or she can only benefit maximally from this engagement with the text through surrender (islam) of the ego or of self-interest. Only then can the reader be witness to an unveiling of higher, deeper, and yet more subtle potentials of textual meaning for understanding and implementation.
This observation is fully consistent with Abou El Fadl’s account of the mutual enrichment of text and reader. It merely states that religious belief, while ineffable and immeasurable, has a certain degree of significance to the enrichment that comes through reading. It presumes that the one who reads will be enriched more than the text being read. Furthermore, self-interest is a barrier to this enrichment of individual or collective reading and results, as Abou El Fadl puts it, in “emptying the Qur’an both of its historical and moral context…[and] transforming the text into a long list of morally non-committal legal commands.”
Although textual meaning is not fixed, the actual utterances are immutable. Inevitably the reader has the greater flexibility and a greater potential for transformation than does the text. The Qur’an is an excellent catalyst in growth and transformation of moral consciousness but the manner of this enrichment remains part of the mystery of the Divine becoming known through the text. These observations about interpretation lead to my strongest note of caution about Abou El Fadl’s argument. He says both that “the Qur’anic discourse…can readily support an ethic of diversity and tolerance” and that it “would be disingenuous to deny that the Qur’an and other Islamic sources offer possibilities of intolerant interpretation…exploited by contemporary puritans and supremacists.” But this observation simply returns to our starting place. We are no closer to determining precisely how to sustain the moral trajectory, and cannot expect that contemporary Muslim interpreters will carry the entire substantial burden.
Taking all of Abou El Fadl’s insights into consideration, then, a more tenable proposal would be to enact a modern version of the “essential lesson taught by Islamic history…that extremist groups are ejected from the mainstream of Islam; they are marginalized, and eventually treated as heretical aberration to the Islamic message.” Along with contemporary liberatory interpretations of the text, this movement within the mainstream community would form a cohesive means of promoting the Qur’an’s tolerant, inclusive message. What is needed, in short, is not simply an intellectual, interpretive enterprise—a less literal way to read the texts—but a deeply forged cooperation between intellectuals and lay Muslims—who after all number well over one billion and have been scrambling to reclaim the integrity of Islam from the acts committed by extremists, whose numbers cannot even amount to a fraction of a percent of their population. In other words, it is time for an historical moral imperative to come alive in contemporary Islam.