For Sunni Muslims, authority to speak on behalf of the religion, and to command from it the obedience of the religion’s adherents, is not derived from a divinely established religious hierarchy. Rather, authority is derived from a divinely revealed text- the Qur’ān- and the authenticated sayings and actions of a divinely influenced messenger- the Sunnah. In The Authoritative and the Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses: A Contemporary Case Study Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl argues that Islamic scholars who, while citing the Qur’ān and Sunnah believe only their interpretation to be authoritative, are diminishing the complex approaches classical Islamic jurists have developed in interpreting these texts and, in doing so, are making themselves out to be authoritarian. El Fadl’s education makes his perspective on this issue a unique one, having received an education in law at Yale, Pennsylvania Law School, and Princeton University and formal training in Islamic Jurisprudence both in Egypt and Kuwait.

Though his work has received a wide readership among non-Muslim and Muslim academics, including those who are students of classical Islamic jurisprudence, he has remained a controversial figure among traditional and reformist Sunni scholars. None-the-less his arguments against a rising authoritarian and puritanical Islam has earned him sympathy, if not respect, from those who feel that Sunni Islam is being threatened by this same anti-scholastic trend. In this Contemporary Case Study El Fadl analyzes a fatwa (religious edict) said to “illustrate the tension between the authoritative and the authoritarian and the process by which the authoritative is used to produce the authoritarian” (20). Through this analysis El Fadl contrasts with portions of the fatwa classical Islamic legal approaches that do not seem to have been followed by the fatwa’s original author and discusses possible damage to Islamic scholarship if one follows the author’s approach.

Abou El Fadl opens his work with highlights of early diversity in Islamic scholarship and the refrain scholars such as the Imam, Malik b. Anas (d. 179/796), had in obligating one’s own legal opinions upon the Muslim community since no scholar possessed an exclusive claim over the Divine truth (2). El Fadl also recognizes that out of this diversity of opinion is “born complexity and a pluralist reality” (4). And, the further one rejects these concepts, the further one rejects the “very notion of culture and civilization” (4).El Fadl is also careful to make sure that this does not lead to an overemphasis upon human agency for, in their many interpretations, it can also run the risk of negating the authority of the source. As authority is derived from the source, and too must be derived by a human agent, a balance must be struck between the two with recognition of that which is divine and that which is divinely inspired yet fallible.

As Islamic jurists are looked to as the most qualified human agents to derive answers from authoritative texts, they also run the risk of betraying the trust placed in them by abusing their position; if they do so they in turn become authoritarianists. El Fadl believes that authoritarianism has unfortunately filled a vacuum left open by Muslims living in the United States who have been severed from their classical Islamic heritage. In this vacuum authoritarian agents have arisen who “proclaimed the death of discourse” and due to its fatality (or, rather to their authoritarianism) they offer in their “humble service” an “[imposition] of suffocating silence” (13). Their interpretation of the legal text thus becomes singular, making their conclusions as authoritative as the text itself. To illustrate the error in this El Fadl then begins to analyze a contemporary fatwa; which is the Case Study aspect of the book after which it is titled.

The fatwa was issued by the “Society for the Adherence to the Sunnah” (SAS) following an incident in March 1996 where Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, a Muslim and professional basketball player, was reprimanded by the basketball league for not standing up while the national anthem was being played. The incident sparked a large debate among Muslim scholars as to whether his actions were in line with Islamic teachings which the SAS sought to finally resolve “based on Allah’s book, and the Sunnah of His Messenger” (text SAS’s fatwa, 63). El Fadl’s decision to analyze this fatwa is not so much that he disagrees with SAS, or with their verdict (although from reading we can see that he does not accept at all their conclusions), rather he has selected it due to it being “an apt example of the transformation of the authoritative into the authoritarian” (18). He then begins to dissect each of their evidences in light of his own legal training and opinions; a presentation that is not so much to assert his own opinions as authoritative but rather to disengage SAS’s evidences from the singular interpretation that they limit them to.

Through citation of classical scholars and use of his own knowledge of hadith criticism, El Fadl is quite successful in widening the narrow conclusion that SAS propose. I was particularly impressed with his analysis of the first hadith (known as the “Anas Ḥadīth on Standing”) cited as evidence by SAS which, through citation of earlier scholars and legal reasoning, El Fadl exposes SAS’s limited reasoning for what it is; authoritarian. By also presenting these diverse opinions he also causes what may have been their greatest evidence for their verdict to actually be evidence opposing their singular interpretation. Citing both Ibn ‘Abd al-Salām and Ibn Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī, El Fadl illustrates that “the regulations as to standing up are [even] low-order priorities in Sharī’ah and they may not be indulged if doing so will violate a higher Sharī’ah value” (33). Higher priorities may include care for the one who may be insulted if one does not stand, and also the contract that bounds one to fulfill particular duties. These issues were not even addressed in SAS’s fatwa.

El Fadl’s analysis exemplifies the training the human agent needs to possess before attempting to derive verdicts from the legal sources, and his presentation of diverse opinions and approaches amidst SAS’s oversimplified conclusion illustrates his stark outlook of contemporary Muslim discourse. This is that “it has become [too] common for one to read a few ḥadīth and declare oneself qualified to render judgment on an issue that has engaged Islamic thinking for centuries. This is hardly a methodology; rather, it is an authoritarian construction based on [caprice]” (36). I agree with the reality of Abou El Fadl’s assessment, and find his analysis to be enlightening. Having also read his book The Great Theft (2005) I appreciate how he has taken a stand against this authoritarianism in more than one of his books. Though scholars find him controversial, and even some who I personally follow have stated so, I believe his work has positively impacted our community.

One does not have to accept all that he has concluded, in fact that is not what I believe his intention is to achieve. One merely has to either agree or disagree with his assessment of contemporary Islamic legal discourse and then try their best to refrain from limiting Islamic law to a few scholars when in actuality authority is only in the text and the approaches may be both complex and diverse.

Copyright © Ibrahim J. Long 2010

One thought on “A Struggle For Authority

  1. Interesting. I also find some of the ways that certain laws are interpreted as being kind of authoritarian. Sounds like a good book.

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