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John Esposito aptly raises perhaps the most important question confronting Muslims today: What Islam? Which of the many manifestations of Islam throughout history is to help shape the moral import and meaning of this grand religious tradition? Extrapolating upon Esposito's theme, the question is: what will Muslims do with their past, and how will they impact upon the present? I am in complete agreement with Amina Wadud that extremists are equally as destructive within Muslim societies as they are toward non-Muslim communities. The trauma that extremists inflict upon half the population of Islam, namely women, is unconscionable. But the plight of extremism is that it defines Islam in such a way that the very construct associated with this religion becomes thoroughly ugly.
Islam is not simply a national or social identity; it is one of the primary monotheistic world religions. The very raison d'être of the Islamic religion is that it is a universal message that not only speaks to humanity, but that must also construct a way of including humanity in a moral conversation. However, what Amina Wadud describes as "extremist interpretive modalities" frustrate the universalistic and humanistic message of Islam. When the average person in the world today associates the very word "Islam" with images of harshness, suffering, oppression, and violence, Islam becomes an idiosyncrasy—a moral and social oddity that is incapable of finding common ground with modern societies. As such, the real danger is that extremist interpretive modalities transform Islam into an outcast or an 'other' that perhaps may be explained or interpreted, but not seriously engaged.
I do agree with Wadud's insight that the text, especially that of the Qur'an, can enrich the reader far more than the reader can enrich the text. In many ways, the moral compass and final line of defense against extremism is the text of the Qur'an itself. However, as Sohail Hashmi appropriately points out, interpretive communities do form around texts, and at times, they may hold the moral insights of the text hostage. Interpretive communities could stultify and imprison the text in an extremist paradigm that becomes very difficult to disentangle or dismantle, and as a result, it becomes very difficult to restore to the text its integrity. However, to the extent that Hashmi suggests that the juristic interpretive communities of the past were necessarily conservative, intolerant, or extremist, I disagree with him. The one truly remarkable thing about classical Islamic scholarship is that, for its age and time, it was dynamic, diverse, complex, and constantly evolving. For every dogmatic and intolerant voice found in the classical tradition, one will be able to locate a contemporaneous voice that challenged and refuted it. The reality is that compared to the puritans of modern Islam, classical Muslim scholars look like raving liberals. Nevertheless, Hashmi makes a very important point. I think that as Muslim intellectuals we must admit that the morality of the Qur'an exceeded the morality of its interpreters. In many ways, the Qur'anic text set moral trajectories that could not be adequately realized or even understood by the interpretive communities of the past. At times, the interpreters of the past completely missed the moral point of the Qur'anic message, and generated determinations that locked the Qur'an in short-sighted and inadequate modalities. But I think Wadud makes an important point here. As Muslims, we must emphasize the religious conviction that the morality of the Qur'an will always exceed the morality of its interpreters. In other words, I do not believe that human beings can claim to have understood the message of the Qur'an perfectly and completely. Falling short of the moral message of the Qur'an is inevitable, but it is also an impetus to engage in a never-ending dynamic of moral exploration and interpretation. As far as the interpretations of the past are concerned, the difficult challenge confronting Muslim intellectuals is how to critically engage the interpretive traditions of the past without falling in the intellectually arrogant and historically myopic view that anything produced in modernity is necessarily morally superior to anything produced in the past. In addition, part of the difficult challenge is to articulate coherent and systematic moral theories that could be utilized in sifting through the accumulations of past interpretations, and in constructing new interpretations of the text.
One of the core related issues that Muslim intellectuals must confront is: Do the bin Ladens of the Muslim world actually find justification for the ugliness that they perpetuate in any interpretive tradition in Islam? Does this level of intolerance and criminality find support, however flimsy or absurd, in some of the interpretations of the past? I think that, unfortunately, the answer must be yes—it would be dishonest to say otherwise. But fortunately, Muslims have the power to deconstruct and reject those interpretations. Put differently, God relegated to Muslims a moral trust. At no point in history can Muslims ignore their unending obligations to appropriately discharge this moral trust. The basic and invariable point is that Muslims and non-Muslims must understand that it is within the power, and is in fact the duty, of Muslims of every generation to answer the question: What Islam? The response must not be left in the hands of the bin Ladens of the world.
Khaled Abou El Fadl is Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at UCLA and a 2005 Carnegie Scholar. He is author of The Great Theft: Wresting Islam from the Extremists and the Boston Review book The Place of Tolerance in Islam.
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