God Is Law
The Place of Tolerance in Islam (2002) is a collection of essays edited by Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at the University of California at Los Angeles. Overall, it is Abou El Fadl's strong conviction that, yes, Muslims have the spiritual resources to create societies infused with diversity, inclusiveness and religious pluralism. However, he says, the theological importance of these ideas within Islam, historically, has been underdeveloped and underutilized.
Although The Marrakesh Declaration is a hope-filled sign of a future horizon, fourteen years after the publication of The Place of Tolerance in Islam the global-affairs landscape is more sharply characterized by Islamic extremism, including increasing violence. Below you'll find short glimpses into and brief interactions with a timely collection of essays. Comments and discussion are welcome!
Muslim puritans are fundamentally at odds not only with a Western way of life but also with the very idea of an international society or the notion of universal human values. They display an intolerant exclusiveness and a belligerent supremacy vis-a-vis the other.
Khaled Abou El Fadl (p. 4)
Besides the contemporary adopting of the Christian term "puritan"—to describe certain fundamentalist Muslims—of note is a really important distinction. Islam is not inevitably or irreconcilably opposed to democracy and human rights. (Many political observers and not a few Christians claim this as irrefutable fact.)
But, in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, it must be sociologically obvious by now: there is a theological stream among Muslims which is not simply opposed to democracy and human rights; it is violently opposed. Whatever labels we want to apply, the Muslim followers of this stream "aggressively seek to dis-empower, dominate, or destroy others."
According to their theologies, Islam is the only way of life, and must be pursued regardless of its impact on the rights and well-being of others. The straight path is fixed, they say, by a system of divine laws that trump any moral considerations or ethical values that are not fully codified in the law. God is manifested through a set of determinate legal commands that specify the right way to act in virtually all circumstances. The sole purpose of human life on earth is to realize the divine manifestation by dutifully and faithfully implementing God's law. Morality begins and ends in the mechanics and technicalities of Islamic law.
Khaled Abou El Fadl (p. 4)
I will readily admit: I carry with me a peacemaking inclination that wants to push toward the discovery of theological commonalities with Muslims as well as the clarification of theological differences. Waging peace on both fronts—commonalities and differences—takes more than a little courage, which I don't always have.
Here, I am especially appreciative of this Muslim scholar's courage to address the theological premises behind Islam-inspired extremist ideology. Before Paris and San Bernardino and Brussels, in the context of responding to the Islamic State, I wrote:
"What I sense well-meaning American evangelicals and other Christians are looking for is a growing, committed contingent of mainstream Muslims who are willing to drop the religious defenses for the sake of a more comprehensive engagement on this level of conversation. We are looking for Muslims who are willing to talk and to tackle the scriptural and theological underpinnings of extremist ideology—an ideology, as [George] Packer [at The New Yorker] says, that accounts for an 'astonishing surge in Islamist killing around the world.'"
At the center of things is this obsessively literal orientation toward Islamic law. It has thoroughly captured the vision of Muslim puritans. Any Christian worth his or her orthodox theology will notice how profound the differences are between basic Christianity and fundamentalist Islam.
Two examples: 1) "God is manifested through a set of determinate legal commands" versus God is primarily manifest in the person of Jesus the Christ; 2) the purpose of life is to obey God's fixed laws for everything under the sun versus the purpose of life is to love God and love neighbor (including our enemies) with everything under the sun.
For better or worse, Islamic texts are today ruled by [conventional] jurists who give them puritan meanings, who discourage reinterpretation, who use them to preserve the intellectual and political status quo. These jurists safeguard the values and practices that keep Islamic society from changing with the times...
Milton Viorst (p. 30)
Milton Viorst is making a killer point, and I am trying to wrap my mind around it. He asserts that the theological ideas which Muslim extremists tap into for their own purposes are not merely the result of some fringe school of thought.
In other words, conventional interpretation of the Quran and Hadith (reports or accounts describing the words and actions of Muhammad) are "not far different from that of the terrorists but without the justification of violence." Of course, this sounds like a somewhat damning indictment.
He has pivoted the conversation about Islamic theology away from the extremists and radicals, and back toward mainstream Muslims. After all, they are still the gatekeepers of Islamic interpretation. And as Viorst explains: it is "rarely an individual who imparts personal meaning to the text. Far more commonly, the texts speak through those who command them." Which is why he goes on to say: "The problems that Muslim society faces today, whether the focus is on terrorism or economic stagnation, are largely brought on by Muslims themselves."
Now there's a serious conversation-starter for your next dinner party.