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The Place of Tolerance in Islam

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2003

    Is there a place for tolerance in Islam?

    What a refreshing departure from the largely vacuous and incredibly simplistic discussions about Islam in Western media! In this remarkable collection of biting, pithy essays, a number of prominent academics and intellectuals conduct a lively debate on the question tolerance in Islam, in light of the horrifying, sobering events of September 11, 2001. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a theorist of Islamic law at UCLA, presents and defends his case for tolerance in Islam. Contributing essayists include Tariq Ali (an atheist and Trotskyite), Abid Ullah Jan (a rigidly conservative Muslim), Amina Wadud (a Muslim feminist), Stanley Kurtz (a rightwing American), Qamar-ul Huda (a partisan of Sufism), as well as such scholars as John Esposito, Milton Viorst, R. Scott Appleby, and others.---- Abou El Fadl opens with a moving essay on the place of tolerance in Islam. He is resolute in his opinion that Islam is inherently tolerant and that fanaticism, of the sort propagated by such monsters as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, are only possible by subjecting Islam¿s sacred texts to totally ahistorical, decontextualized readings. He argues that extremist groups have always existed in the history of Islam, beginning with the Khawarij, who were responsible for the assassination of the fourth Caliph, Ali ibn Ali Talib. However, extremists had always been marginalized by the mainstream of Islamic legal thinkers, not a few of whom considered holier-than-thou vigilantism an outright criminal offense against Islam. If only Muslim scholars today collectively applied such thinking to the likes of Osama and Co.!---- Furthermore, classical Islam thrived on an astonishing diversity of opinions, largely made possible because legal thinkers were free of state control. ¿The reality,¿ says Abou El Fadl, ¿is that when compared to the puritans of modern Islam, classical Muslim scholars look like raving liberals.¿ It is only after the colonization of the Muslim world that traditional institutions of law were dismantled and that Islam¿s doctors of the law were absorbed into the power structure of the recently imposed nation-state system. Such an alliance between the state and Islam¿s religious establishment effectively ruled out divergent legal opinions and unilaterally imposed from above an obdurately conservative and narrow interpretation of Islam. Abou El Fadl naturally attributes the contemporary suffocation in Islamic legal thinking to this unholy alliance of religion and power. Furthermore, he reserves decidedly acerbic criticism for Saudi Arabia¿s notorious brand of puritan Islam ¿ Wahhabism. The interbreeding between the Wahhabis and the Al-Sauds have made for a dangerous combination of fanaticism, bankrolled by petrodollars and exported to other Muslim countries.---- Abou El Fadl introduces some startling facts about Islamic history, such as the classical debate concerning Islamic imperial expansionism and the poll tax. Apparently, the Prophet did not impose a universal system of poll taxes on non-Muslims and `Umar ibn al-Khattab made an agreement with Arab Christians for them to pay the zakat (charitable tax) like Muslims.---- The responses to Abou El Fadl¿s essay are all heated and engaging, but I only want to note here the more significant of these. Tariq Ali naturally relegates the role of religion to an inferior place, exuberantly foretelling the rise of agnosticism and atheism in Muslim countries, and instead focuses on geopolitics to explain the rise of Muslim fanaticism. Stanley Kurtz, of the (neo-) conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford University, seeks to blame the population explosion and economic failure of Muslim societies for the rise of extremism (an argument that conspicuously avoids addressing the disastrous US role in supporting fundamentalist regimes, like Saudi Arabia). John Esposito presents a perfectly sober analysis of the struggle between conservatives and reformers in contemporary Islam, and observes the pressing need for Mu

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