Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Place of Tolerance in Islam

(Boston: Beacon Press, 2002), Joshua Cohen and Ian Lague eds., ix + 117 pp., $15.00)

Khaled Abou El Fadl is the rising star in the contemporary search for a moderate Muslim intellectual who will reassure liberal Americans of the essentially unthreatening nature of Islam. Currently the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Fellow in Islamic Law at UCLA, he is also the author of And God Knows the Soldiers (2001), Speaking in God’s Name (2001), Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law (2002), Reasoning With God (2002), and other works on Islamic law, theology, and politics. Given the events of 9/11 and their aftermath, and given his views, El Fadl has attracted a good deal of media attention, getting favorable coverage in The New Republic, National Review, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, and having also been featured in the PBS Frontline Documentary, “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.” (The most detailed journalistic account is Franklin Foer, “Moral Hazard,” The New Republic, Nov. 7, 2002).  

The Place of Tolerance in Islam (TPTI) is a book-length reprinting of an extended discussion between El Fadl and eleven commentators for the magazine Boston Review. The book begins with a short Preface by the Editors, followed by a twenty-page title essay by El Fadl, defending the compatibility of Islam with a virtue of tolerance; the eleven commentaries, totaling 65 pages and averaging about six, constitute the bulk of the book, and are followed by a short Reply by El Fadl. Six of the commentators are believing Muslims (Sohail Hashmi, Abid Ullah Jan, Amina Wadud, Akeel Bilgrami, Mashood Rizvi, and Qamar-ul Huda), although in one case, Bilgrami’s, the commentator’s beliefs are enigmatic enough to raise “Straussian” questions about what it is that he really believes. A seventh commentator, Tariq Ali, is an Anglo-Pakistani “apostate” of Marxist sympathies (“apostate” in scare quotes because it’s not clear he ever was a genuine believer); the rest are outsiders to the faith, invited to comment in virtue of their academic expertise (Milton Viorst, Stanley Kurtz, John L. Esposito, and R. Scott Appleby).   

As far as I can see, TPTI is a failure with respect to virtually every goal it sets for itself. El Fadl’s opening essay is unconvincing, and the commentaries responding to it are of a pretty low caliber. Having successfully rebutted his critics in the Reply at the end of the book, the fact remains that El Fadl establishes nothing of philosophical or political significance in the book, and ultimately does nothing to respond to the real questions an intelligent layperson might have about the connections between Islam, terrorism, and theocracy. The book is about nine parts hype to perhaps one part substance. 

Part of the problem here is structural. Whatever one thinks of his views, El Fadl is an able and morally-sensitive theoretician with substantial expertise in the subject at hand. Given the opportunity, I’m sure he would have been able to offer a respectable defense of the thesis he defends in this book. But he isn’t given the opportunity: there is no way to defend the thesis he wants to defend in the twenty pages allotted to him here. Unsurprisingly, little that he says in those pages convinces the skeptical reader. The commentaries confront the same problem, but more acutely. What sense does it make to invite eleven commentators to write six pages a piece on a twenty page essay? None that I can think of, and it’s no surprise that given these constraints, none of the commentators says anything of substance in the few pages at his or her disposal. 

A more sensible volume would have given El Fadl at least sixty pages for his opening essay, cut the number of commentators down to two or three, and then given El Fadl another thirty or forty pages for a proper rebuttal. That would have made the book longer and more expensive, but it would also have made it worth reading. 

Structure, however, cannot by itself account for the deficiencies of the book. The problem with its content is precisely its content, and the problems begin with El Fadl’s opening essay. El Fadl begins with a ten-page historical sketch that takes up about half of his space, and spends the remaining ten pages or so on his direct argument, which discuss the necessary preconditions of a proper interpretation of the Quran. The first of these is the possession of a “moral sense” cultivated prior to and independently of any contact with the Quran, which serves to regulate one’s interpretation of its text. The second is a historically-informed sense of context, so that one knows what is essential to the message of a given Quranic verse and what is not. With these two interpretive tools in hand, El Fadl claims that we discern an “ethic of diversity and tolerance” in the Quran, a defensive and proportional conception of jihad, and a means of explaining away the otherwise troublesome ethico-political prescriptions one finds in the Quranic text. Limitations of space preclude an extended discussion of El Fadl’s argument, but the problems with it are easily enumerated. 

For one, El Fadl seems unaware of the way in which his appeal to a “moral sense” subordinates the Quran to a humanistic ethic not found within it. Consequently, he neither accounts for this moral sense nor explains what is distinctively Islamic about it. Nor does he have a good answer to the Islamic fundamentalist insists that Islam be treated as a self-contained normative system divorced from humanism. 

Second, to the extent that El Fadl seeks textual warrant for his claim of an “ethic of diversity and tolerance” in the Quran, his readings are simply implausible (15-16); the Quran recognizes diversity, but contrary to El Fadl, does not in the least “endorse” or “sanction” it. 

Third, with respect to jihad, even if we accept the thesis that the Quranic conception of jihad is defensive and involves a principle of proportionality (a generally but not wholly convincing thesis on textual grounds), I don’t see what El Fadl has to say to the Islamist terrorist or fellow-traveler who claims that such terrorism is defensive and proportional, as they often do. Such a person may wrongly be applying the criteria of self-defense and proportionality, but neither the right reasons nor the right criteria are to be found in the text of the Quran. 

Fourth, El Fadl himself concedes that his reading of the texts is not the only legitimate one; others are possible. But if so, it’s hard to see why his reading should carry the day except insofar as it coheres with his “moral sense”—which leads us right back to the initial problem. 

If El Fadl’s essay fails to convince, the commentaries do less. John L. Esposito and R. Scott Appleby function as cheerleaders for El Fadl, wasting about fifteen pages to congratulate him for the sheer act of having put pen to paper. There isn’t, to use a Quranic phrase, an atom’s weight of substance in these essays, nor is there any point in reading them—except perhaps as documentary evidence of the sad fate of secular criticism in the American academy. 

Tariq Ali, Stanley Kurtz, Amina Wadud and Mashood Rizvi seem frankly uninterested in what El Fadl actually says in the book, devoting the space allotted to them to unrelated topics that they found more interesting:  that’s another twenty pages down the drain. Milton Viorst and Qamar-ul Huda produce tangentially-relevant commentaries that discuss logistical problems involved in implementing El Fadl’s prescriptions; though interesting, neither essay deals with El Fadl’s central interpretive claims, and so neither really addresses the main issues. Finally, Sohail Hashmi’s essay serves to confuse as many issues in as little space as possible—making it, in a way, the most efficient piece of writing in the book. 

That leaves two on-topic essays from widely-divergent perspectives, one by Abid Ullah Jan, the other by Akeel Bilgrami. The first author, a Pakistani policy analyst with open ties to the most reactionary elements of the Pakistani military and secret service, faults El Fadl’s interpretation for being insufficiently friendly to terrorism.  The second, a left-wing professor of philosophy at Columbia, suggests that we might arrive at a more humanist-friendly interpretation of Islam by convincing Muslims to abrogate all of the Medinian suras, treating the Meccan suras as uplifting poetry. Reading these suggestions, I found myself wondering whether to laugh or to cry. I ended up laughing. 

TPTI is, in short, a feel-good volume intended for those raised in the Church of Multicultural Neutrality—eager to be absolved of the need to grapple with fundamental theological or philosophical questions, eager to think well of “the Other,” and incapable of imagining that Islam as such might figure in a causal explanation of the current travails of the Islamic world. It functions principally as a document of what has gone wrong with contemporary English-speaking scholarship on Islam, and only secondarily, if that, as a guide to “the place of tolerance in Islam”—or for that matter, to anything else about Islam, terrorism, war, or theocracy.  It will not convince orthodox Muslims or hard-core secularists of its claims, and I doubt it will convince anyone else. But then, I doubt it was meant to. The task of persuasion requires an effort at argumentation, and that is precisely what is missing from this book. For what it’s worth, that is also probably the key to understanding the book’s content, its purpose, and its intended audience. 


Khaled Abu El Fadl, The Place of Tolerance in Islam via Amazon:

Boston Review: 

Franklin Foer, “Moral Hazard,” The New Republic, (Nov. 7, 2002): 

Interviews with Khaled Abou El Fadl, Kanan Makiya and others (“Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero”); I should add, in fairness, that I found El Fadl’s remarks here both moving and insightful: 

Abid Ullah Jan’s think tank (ICSSA); note the reference to Gen. Hamid Gul, at bottom-right corner in the advertisement for A War Against Islam?: 

Irfan Khawaja is adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey and Mercer County College, and lecturer in politics at Princeton University. This is an abridged version of a review about twice its length, forthcoming in Reason Papers, vol. 27 (Spring-Summer 2004). For ordering information, go to