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The Place of Tolerance in Islam
Mar 1, 2008

In the aftermath of September 11, Islam’s relation to violence and tolerance have been widely discussed. The critics have generally tried to produce a monolithic image of Islam, which is isolated from diverse and dynamic human experience. For them, Islam is responsible for terrorism conducted in its name. Scholars of Islam, both Muslims and non-Muslims, have challenged the promotion of this stereotype by emphasizing that a) Islam is not monolithic-there are many interpretations of Islam regarding time, geography and other conditions; b) the core values of Islam encourage tolerance, not violence; and c) even if violence is necessary for self-defense or resisting oppression, Islam places certain limits on the use of force. Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, is one of these scholars.

El Fadl’s The Place of Tolerance in Islam consists of three parts: the author’s essay on tolerance in Islam, rebuttals to the essay, and El Fadl’s reply. While emphasizing that Islam is a tolerant religion, El Fadl also acknowledges the existence of intolerant Muslims. For him, certain interpretations of Islam, particularly those of terrorists, imply a deviation from the true message of Islam. He stresses that the existence of problematic interpretations is not exclusively a characteristic of Islam. All religious texts provide rich “possibilities for meaning…[T]he text will morally enrich the reader, but only if the reader will morally enrich the text” (p. 15).

According to El Fadl, a major reason for the emergence and popularity of misleading interpretations of religions is the claim to be searching for the “pure” version of religions. Yet, by emptying the Qur’an both of its historical and moral context, the puritan trend ends up transforming the text into a long list of morally noncommittal legal commands” (p. 15). For El Fadl, the self-proclaimed Puritans, such as Osama bin Laden, who claim to “purify” Islam from traditional deviations, misunderstand and misrepresent Islam. For example, they misuse the term jihad. In Islam, war is never holy; it is justifiable or not. Contrary to what the Puritans claim, “the highest form of jihad is struggle waged to cleanse oneself from the vices of heart” (p. 19). Nevertheless, since there is a vacuum of religious authority in Islam, the marginal puritans, may find followers.

The puritan Muslims, El Fadl notes, are intolerant of other religions. That view is against the message of the Qur’an, which says,

“Those who believe, those who follow Jewish scriptures, the Christians, the Sabians, and any who believe in God and the Final Day, and do good, all shall have their reward with their Lord and they will not come to fear or grief” (5: 69, 2: 62).

El Fadl argues that the true message of Islam is open to diversity and tolerance. There is no compulsion in matters of faith in Islam. He refers again to the Quran:

“To each of you God has prescribed a Law and a Way. If God would have willed, He would have made you a single people. But God’s purpose is to test you in what he has given each of you, so strive in the pursuit of virtue, and know that you will all return to God, and He will resolve all the matters in which you disagree” (5: 49).

The rebuttals to El Fadl’s essay are written by several well-known scholars. Two of their critiques are worth mentioning. First, some critics argue that terror can only be explained by socio-economic reasons and El Fadl’s theological discussion is therefore pointless. Second, some other critics also find the theological debate irrelevant, since the real cause of terrorism in the Middle East is historically Western colonialism and currently Western domination in this region. In his “Reply,” El Fadl emphasizes that, although socio-economic conditions are also important, theology is crucial, since Islam “remains central to the dynamics of public legitimacy and cultural meaning” in many Muslim countries. In this regard, a critical view of theology is needed to search for solutions to the socio-political problems of Muslim societies. He also adds that simply blaming the West does not contribute anything to the solution. Muslims should preserve and respect the real message of Islam, even though they have been oppressed by colonizers. Muslims, El Fadl concludes, should avoid political myopia or losing the moral ground by embracing an intolerant interpretation of their religion. Instead, they must go back to the real message of Islam, which calls for tolerance and respects religious diversity.