Khaled Abou El Fadl, 2014, Reasoning With God: Reclaiming Shari'ah in the Modern Age

Publisher’s Synopsis

In light of recent concern over Shari’ah, such as proposed laws to prohibit it in the United States and conflict over the role it should play in the new Egyptian constitution, many people are confused about the meaning of Shari‘ah in Islam and its role in the world today. In Reasoning with God, renowned Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl explains not only what Shari‘ah really means, but also the way it can revitalize and reengage contemporary Islam. 

After a prologue that provides an essential overview of Shari‘ah, Abou El Fadl explores the moral trajectory of Islam in today’s world. Weaving powerful personal stories with broader global examples, he shows the ways that some interpretations of Islam today have undermined its potential in peace and love. Rather than simply outlining challenges, however, the author provides constructive suggestions about how Muslims can reengage the ethical tradition of their faith through Shari‘ah. 

As the world’s second largest religion, Islam remains an important force on the global stage. Reasoning with God takes readers—both Muslim and non-Muslim—beyond superficial understandings of Shari‘ah to a deeper understanding of its meaning and potential.


By Dr Philip Lewis, Consultant to the Bishop of Leeds on Islam


Fadl's detailed monograph has been aptly characterised as 'part memoir, part analysis and part message to the perplexed'. It is also, arguably, the most important work of constructive Islamic theology, ethics and law to have been penned by a western-based Muslim scholar in a generation.

It took him ten years to write and draws on more than a quarter of a century of legal scholarship quarrying the Islamic tradition for resources to orientate distracted and bewildered Muslims world-wide - exposed for half a century or more to the reductionist, dehumanising and destructive  impact of Islamist and Wahhabi/Salafi influences. The devastating impact of which - eroding the moral fabric of Islam – he has experienced himself both in America and across the Muslim world, where he travels and lectures.

The work is frequently anguished. After a helpful thirty page introduction  to the meaning, concepts and categories of the Shari'ah which includes a particularly  useful section distinguishing the Shari'ah from Islamic jurisprudence [fiqh], more than two thirds of its 420 pages of dense text is devoted to two of its three parts  which describe and then analyse the multiple crises in contemporary Islam . Part 1 is headed 'The Islamic dream and the chaos of the modern condition'; Part 2, 'The culture of ugliness and the plight of modern Islam'.  Fadl’s incisive analysis of the predicament of Islamic law today is the precondition to understand both the urgency to re-think it and the enormity of the obstacles that oppose such re-thinking.

Part 3 'Reclaiming Shari'ah in the modern age' offers his own constructive proposals to address such a predicament. Fadl has no patience with a Panglossian Islamist apologetic which he will argue, in part, rendered  the Muslim world vulnerable to the Wahhabi/Salafi escape from  moral and intellectual responsibility into a world of  imagined certainties of ‘rigid textualism and literalism’ (139).

Characteristic of his candour is a comment from his conclusion:

I have emphasized elements within the Islamic tradition that could inspire a movement toward beauty, goodness, and ultimately divinity... [elements] not marginal to the Islamic tradition but at the very heart and core of that religion…[Their] impact entirely depends on how modern Muslims choose to understand, develop, and assert them...Herein is the true travesty of modern Islam and agony of every Muslim intellectual: the prevailing social, economic, and political circumstances are not conducive or supportive to the realization of visions of beauty. Muslim realities are stark and ugly, often plagued by poverty, despotism, and underdevelopment. We Muslims are the children of a lost civilization – left as orphans in modernity. (416, italics mine).

One of the great strengths of this work is that it is enlivened by memorable anecdotes rooted in his experience whether seeking a hearing for his ideas in Muslim organisations in America – usually with limited success – or in the Arab world. Early on in the study he talks about a falling out with two friends in Egypt, a former mufti of Egypt and the current shaykh and rector of al-Azhar, because both supported the military coup against an elected civilian government. This latter, for Fadl, is indicative of the imperative 'to reclaim and restate our Islamic tradition so that it can no longer harbor despots and tyrants...The path of Shari'ah, to and from God, is righteous only if it protects the rights and dignities of human beings' (XV1-11). 

Fadl’s personal experiences have coloured what is important to him. An Egyptian growing up in Kuwait and Egypt, at the same time as growing up with a largely secular education, he searches out scholarly, Islamic circles [halaqa]  independent of the state which are concerned with helping him ask the right questions rather than rote-learning. This 'informal halaqa system arose as a challenge to the official clergy system controlled and certified by state institutions' (p 23). Then he drops into the text the following aside:

Tragically, several of the students I studied with either were chased out of the country or perished in unlawful detention centers that function as slaughterhouses for the most dedicated and courageous members of society. The government seemed intent on dismantling this significant institution of civil society and also determined to suppress and dominate any autonomous expression of religious learning (23-24).

Unsurprisingly, the main themes of the book emerge from such intense experiences. First, he is clear that the modern Leviathan of the state with its intrusive and far ranging powers to dominate and control opinion, cannot be allowed to arrogate to itself the role of applying and defending Shari’ah. Yet Islamist and Salafi alike urge such a role for the state, conditional on their a-historic rendering of Islamic law being privileged. Fadl then considers how the sophisticated, historic, legal schools were hollowed out and weakened. This has proven disastrous because he contends that such schools ensured a pluralism of Islamic voices, generated some constraints on power and a refusal to conflate government legislation with Shari’ah. This thinning out of the tradition began with colonialism, then  accelerated  with  post-colonial, repressive regimes nationalising  the independent sources of financing Islamic educational institutions – auqaf – which frequently reduced the ‘ulama to paid and controlled state officials and codified and centralised  Islamic law on the model of  an alien, imported, western legal system.

Islamist ‘apologetics’ emerge as a critique of colonialism, orientalism, westernization and post-colonial, repressive regimes. Fadl documents the ‘addictive’ character of such self-congratulatory apologetics – anachronistic claims that Islam pioneered democracy, gender equality and Human Rights and so on. Such facile apologetics undercut the need to engage in intellectually rigorous and self-critical scholarship. Further, with traditional scholarship fatally weakened and discredited through government control – Fadl is particularly damning of what he dubs ‘court priests’ (209) - a space emerged for Wahhabism to fill the void. Its founder Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d.1792), ‘espoused a self-sufficient and closed system of belief that had no reason to engage or interact with the other except from a position of dominance’ (231). It is this expression of Islam that has been projected across the globe by massive injections of Saudi petrol dollars. One of the bleakest features of Fadl’s analysis is the extent to which petrol dollars have bought compliance or cowed opposition in Egypt and across much of the Muslim world to Wahhabi influence – at least until 9/11.

 Fadl, on a recent visit to Egypt, is shocked to find that the department at al-Azhar responsible for responding to requests from non-Muslim governments and organisations to clarify aspects of Islam, simply repeats the apologetics of the 1930s and 1940s. Unsurprisingly, a significant section of the book is devoted to analysing the character and reasons for the spread of Wahhabi Islam, as well as debunking its supremacist and insular mind-set, its literalism, rank intolerance of rationalism, Sufism, Shi’ite Islam – not to speak of antagonism to the non-Muslim other demeaned and derided. Some of the best sections of the book are spent on the deadly impact of such thinking on generating what he calls the ‘social death’ of Muslim women (271).

The intellectual task facing Muslim thinkers is summarised thus:

Whether in Muslim or non-Muslim countries, the reality of modern Islam is beset with a pathology of contradictions…demonstrative of the fact that a serious void exists between the lived experience of Muslims and contemporary Islamic theological, ethical, and legal thought. Confronting these contradictions and treating them requires an honesty and openness in discourse that is woefully absent in the contemporary Islamic context (27-8).

To escape the suffocating and repressive environment for critical thinking in much of the Muslim world, Fadl took the opportunity to continue his studies in America. Whatever his criticisms later of American foreign policy exacerbating the problems of the Muslim world, as well as a corrosive and pervasive Islamophobia in America, his gratitude for the opportunity to study in the West remains undimmed. Thus, he is bewildered by the fact that many Muslim institutions in the USA and the West continue the pattern and ethos of mother organizations overseas i.e. plagued with nepotism, paying little more than lip service to freedom of thought and incapable of making space for dissenting voices. Moreover, the Islamist groups continue to be dominated by doctors, engineers and IT specialists who presume to declare what does or does not conform to Islamic law while lacking the requisite expertise and knowledge.

In all, he laments 'a near absence of serious [Muslim] educational institutions in the West'. In America and Britain he mentions only three, one of which is an Ismaili Institute in London and of another – the Zaytuna Institute in California – he concludes it is too early to assess whether it has moved 'beyond regurgitating traditional knowledge'.  Pointedly, he remarks that it is 'extremely difficult to get wealthy Muslims living in the West to donate money for anything that has to do with the production of thought' (83).

I have seldom read such a searing indictment of the contemporary Muslim world undergoing its own ‘dark ages’ (281). Fadl has no time for evasion and escapism. The ‘ulama and fuqaha’ are accused of ‘jealously guarding their position as the exclusive protectors of sacred knowledge but have little interest and very often lack the intellectual ability to adapt this knowledge to the epistemological understandings of the contemporary age or to the moral and ethical needs of people in postmodernity. This is exactly why …[they] have found it relatively easy to adapt to the modern authoritarian secular state. For the most part, the ‘ulama no longer see themselves as witnesses on behalf of God or the masses, and  they bear no compulsion to testify against privilege and power. ..[A]s long as the state suppresses all competitors …[whether] Muslim intellectual reformers or mass Islamist movements…[they] are content to make no ethical or moral demands in the name of Shari’ah on the state…[further] the generosity of oil-producing countries has most often earned their complacent silence’ (312).

Many Muslim intellectuals, for their part, ‘caught between the mummified showcasing of Shari’ah’ by the ‘ulama and the ‘ugly vulgarization of the Islamic tradition’ by Salafi and Islamist alike, are ‘tempted to resolve the problem by holding onto their Islamic faith but dogmatically denouncing everything in the classical sources, including the discourses on Shari’ah’ (312).  Fadl, in the final constructive part of the book, seeks to address these problems which the late Muslim scholar Mohammad Arkoun captured in the phrase ‘the unthought and unthinkable’ in the history of Muslims which prevented Muslim cultures ‘from accurately describing reality before proceeding to interpret it’. Fadl nuanced this analysis by reference to the need to retrieve ‘the forgotten’ in Islamic history or what was never learned in the first place (104).

One of Fadl’s major claims is that Salafis do not grapple with the importance of history in the development of Islamic law and in how revered texts were variously interpreted within the different interpretive communities. They ‘imagined a golden age within Islam; this entailed belief in a near historical utopia that would be entirely retrievable and reproducible in contemporary Islam…[T]o retain the utopian belief  in an ideal golden age…required a considerable degree of obliviousness in regard to Islamic history. ..[They] responded to the challenge of modernity by escaping to the secure haven of the text. And …[they] advocated a form of egalitarianism and anti-elitism to the point that they came to consider intellectualism and rational moral insight to be inaccessible and thus corruptions to the purity of the Islamic message…’ (255).

The Islamists, in the face of a collective feeling of powerlessness, allowed ‘political interests…to dominate public discourses to the point that moral and ethical investigations and thinking have become marginalized…They tend to define Islam as an ideology of nationalistic defiance to the [western] “other”…Therefore, instead of Islam being a moral vision given to humanity, it becomes constructed into a nationalistic cause that is often the antithesis to the West. This type of Islam…is akin to a perpetual state of emergency, where expedience trumps principle…’ (203-4).

Many Islamists and Salafis come to the West ‘to learn the Western physical sciences while hoping to insulate themselves from the influence of Western culture by, for example, refusing to study the humanities or social sciences. ..[They assume] it is possible to borrow the modern sciences…and to become advanced and industrialized while maintaining full cultural and intellectual autonomy…based on the Qur’an and Sunna. This…has proved to be much harder in practice than in theory. As they searched Islam for black-and-white, definitive answers to all their socio-political problems these Muslim activists superimposed the logic of empirical precision and the determinism of Western scientific methods on the Islamic intellectual, and particularly the juristic, tradition. This is clear…in very popular slogans such as “Islam is the solution” and “The Qur’an is our constitution.” If considered from a historical perspective, both these slogans, which betray an unmistakable determinism and empiricism, are entire anachronisms’ (213).

The results are, of course devastating:

Puritan orientations, such as Wahhabis, imagine that God’s perfection and immutability are fully attainable by human beings in this lifetime. It is as if God’s perfection has been deposited in the divine law, and by giving effect to this law, it is possible to create a social order that mirrors the divine truth. But by associating themselves with the Supreme Being in this fashion, puritan groups are able to claim a self-righteous perfectionism that easily slips into a pretense of supremacy…based on a legalism that is utterly essentializing towards the diversity and richness of life, and is rabidly hostile to any sense of individualism and to manifestations of aesthetics (213).

Fadl has little trouble critiquing such stances, not least in his repeated insistence on the need to distinguish Shari’ah from fiqh, where the latter – Islamic law – historically  made space for fallible human agents who do not share God’s perfection but developed hermeneutics  to reach a variety of determinations that at best approximated to God’s will. However, to re-enact this Islamic legal tradition today requires both a detailed engagement with the complexity of the Islamic legal traditions, patiently retrieved, while in conversation with the best of contemporary knowledge. One final example will indicate the boldness and freshness of Fadl’s suggestions.

He insists that the role and function of Islamic law in the modern age has changed dramatically:

In the age of the nation-state, the interpreters of the Shari’ah play a fundamentally different role – they are no longer the maintainers of law and order and functionaries of a living sociologically viable legal system…The jurists of Isamic law …ought to be far closer to being theologians and moral philosophers than lawyers. They no longer bear the burden of representing the law of the land, but they do bear the far more onerous and grave burden of being advocates for the law of God. In other words, they cannot hide behind the functionalities and technicalities of legalism, but they must rise to the challenge of being the voice of conscience reminding people of the primordial, transcendental, and divine. This is nothing short of a complete shift of paradigm and total restructuring of the juristic culture in Islam. This is dictated by the fact that Islamic law in the contemporary democratic state cannot be enforced by the state.  By definition, political sovereignty in the nation-state belongs to the citizenry of the state and not to God. The role of the faqih, or of the Shari’ah expert, is critical – as the Qur’an describes it, [their] role …is to act as teachers and reminders to people of the call of conscience and the indicators…that point to God’s will. This necessarily means that the only method available to them is persuasion, by appealing to people’s hearts and minds….I  believe…that the function of those who take on the responsibility of witnessing to God is very different from the role played by those who are practitioners of a legal system. For those who witness on God’s behalf, testifying in terms of ethics, virtue, and also the aesthetics of beauty and transcendence is critical (365).

For Fadl this builds on what for him is ‘the centrality of the ethic of noncoercion in Islam. The Qur’an is straightforward enough about this – it clearly informs the Prophet that his role is to remind people of God’s message and that he, as God’s messenger, was not sent to control or dominate human beings. His most basic and quintessential function is to remind, teach and advocate’ (399). This is undoubtedly an attractive vision. However, it remains to be seen whether he can convince those many Muslims for whom the Prophet at Madina is also statesman, warrior and legislator.