LITERATURE THE SEARCH FOR BEAUTY IN ISLAM: A CONFERENCE OF THE BOOKS KHALED ABOU EL FADL [Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 238 pages, 2005]
IT’S RARE for academics to decide to write using their own voice, offering readers a glimpse into their private life and thoughts. Having already written a good number of purely academic books, Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books is refreshing and invigorating, serious at times and sardonic at others, offering a rich intellectual journey to its readers.
The book, which comprises 85 chapters, includes his juristic views on controversial legal issues, fatwas he has issued, dialogues and counseling sessions, responses to criticism, intimate conversations with God, glimpses of his childhood, adolescence, student years and professorial stages of life, and a good measure of Wahabi bashing, among other topics. Without a definitive beginning or end, the chapters, which are connected by the underlying theme of the search for beauty in Islam, as the title suggests, can be read at random or the order in which they are laid out.
Abou El Fadl is a distinguished scholar of Islamic law and a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Educated at Yale University, the Pennsylvania Law School and Princeton University in addition to having studied with prominent scholars of Islamic jurisprudence in Kuwait and Egypt, Abou El Fadl is always at the center of controversy. To date, he has written eight books, mainly academic works that deal with issues in contemporary Islamic law.
The book starts out with a young and optimistic Abou El Fadl. Yet, as he grows older and encounters increasing hostility toward his ideas, his writing becomes more vicious in attacking his critics. By the end, his tone nearly matches that of his latest book, The Great Theft: rVrestling Islam from the Extremists, which, in an attempt to simplify Islam for the lay audience, approaches the religion as a black-andwhite affair, erroneously grouping all Muslims as “Wahhabis,” “Sufis” or “moderates,” and condemning any group that deviates from his point of view.
Abou El Fadl claims to represent “the academic voice of the world’s majoritymoderate Muslims,” although I still haven’t figured out who they are. Considering that Sufis and Wahhabis are excluded, these “moderates” are supposed to represent all Muslims. Labeling different groups of people has never solved anything as there are always grey areas, in addition, a label might include those who may not agree with it or exclude those who do.
It’s been years since I have picked up a book and devoured each and every word, praying that I never reach the last page, hoping that it will miraculously expand as I read. “Conference” was just this, and while I, as a reader, may or may not have agreed with all of Abou El Fadl’s arguments, methodology and ideology, I cannot deny that his style and skill in writing is superb and that his use of intertwining narrative, history and dialogue is strongly appealing.
In the mind of Abou EI Fadl, the Conference of the books represents beauty in Islam as seen by past Islamic scholars, especially jurists, throughout history. Assigning himself the title of “Keeper of the Conference,” Abou El Fadl identifies with these scholars, such as Ibn AI-‘Arabi, IbnTaymiyya and Ibn ‘Aqil, many of whom were ostracized and marginalized by their communities during their lifetime only to receive mass acceptance and authority in later periods.
Ultimately, Abou El Fadl sees himself as the inheritor of his predecessors’ rich scholarly output and rational and critical methodologies. As they were, he is often demonized and condemned by members of his own Muslim community in addition to those from outside, such as Daniel Pipes, the infamous, self-appointed “specialist” on the Middle East and Islam and historical revisionist. In response to the latter’s criticism, Abou EI Fadl sarcastically writes, “Thank God for Pipes who, like his colonial predecessors, guides us to the truth of history, the falsity of our piety, and the fact that the objectivism of science is the cure for our superstitious souls.” (p. 134) In this light, he views himself as an intellectual martyr, sacrificing his standing to out the truth. “All those who testify against the ugliness are expelled and become intellectual refugees.” (p. 189)
By constructing imagined dialogues with scholars of the past, Abou El Fadl seeks to identify the beautiful and positive aspects of Islam’s rich intellectual heritage. He also encourages Muslims to recognize the beauty of the world through the lenses of Islamic teachings and to understand their religion in reference to its past to help them figure out how to live their lives in the modern world. Abou El Fadl believes that the Muslim community is in the midst of a crisis. “We are not defined by law, principle, theology or morality. We are not defined by our relationship to God or by truth or beauty. We are defined by a ferocious sense of insecurity. We are not an innovative synchronism – we are a scary deformity.” (p. 1 89) He believes that only by embracing the scholarship of enlightened Muslim thinkers of the past and adopting their methodology and outof-the-box thinking can Muslims pull together and form a cohesive and tolerant community.
By the end of the book, Abou El Fadl seems to have almost given up on the Muslim American community. One of his former teachers, an Egyptian sheikha, remarked to him, “The spark is touched by exhaustion, perhaps touched by pain, perhaps sadness, perhaps disappointment – my son, your eyes are full of battle scars.” (p. 284) He is obviously frustrated and lashes out at those who have attacked him. Is he forgetting the good and beauty that he observes in his early pages? If we concentrate on the ugly, will we ever find the beautiful? In the same vein, if we always search for the ugly, isn’t that what we will always find?