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Pleading the Fifth: Violence and Terrorism in Islamic Scholarship

In his article “The Modern Ugly and the Ugly Modern: Reclaiming the Beautiful in Islam” Khaled Abou El Fadl discusses violent and oppressive acts committed in the name of Islam, and the response of the Muslim community and scholars when these types of acts occur. Abou El Fadl, unlike many scholars, is not attempting to distance the religion of Islam from these acts committed in its name. Instead, he is calling upon the community (especially the intellectual community) to accept some amount of complicity for these actions and to critically assess them rather than deny their foundation within Islam. “When one finds that Islam is repeatedly and consistently being exploited to justify immoral behavior, this must be considered as a pattern of practice that ought to give Muslims cause for serious concern.”1 According to Abou El Fadl, it is not enough to simply claim that Islam is founded on, and stands for, universal human values such as compassion, mercy, and justice when acts that deny these values occur within communities that claim to be practicing Islam.

In his article, Abou El Fadl discusses how the Qur’an calls on Muslim to testify truthfully at all times for the cause of justice, even if one is testifying against oneself or his/her loved ones, and that this testimony is considered to be for God’s sake. With this in mind, when an injustice is committed in the name of Islam, Abou El Fadl considers silence from the Muslim community a further corruption of Islam above and beyond that act itself. “…the worst injustice, and the one most worthy of Muslim outrage, is that committed by Muslims, in Islam’s name, because that is more deprecating to God and God’s religion than any supposed heresy or legal infractions.”2 Abou El Fadl is calling on all Muslims to deal with injustices and corruptions committed in the name of Islam head on, while admitting that he believes the current prevailing attitude is to do exactly the opposite, if for nothing other than to do right by God and God’s will.

This is an interesting theological argument that is worthy of further exploration. If the Qur’an insists on truthful testimony in the name of justice, even if it requires admitting some amount of association and involvement on behalf of the individual (and by extension the religious community of Islam when an act is committed in its name), why then does the current Muslim intellectual climate shirk this responsibility? Abou El Fadl argues that “[i]t is difficult for a contemporary Muslim scholar to take a critical position on such matters of Islam and violence or Islam and women without becoming the subject of suspicion, and even accusations of his or her loyalties and commitments.”3 Further, he thinks that this tendency has developed in light of post-colonialist attitudes that involve “the West” projecting values such as violence and oppression onto Islam. Then, admitting some amount of fault, or at least involvement, within the religion of Islam when violent and oppressive acts are committed in its name, is perceived to be advancing these imposed values that the Muslim community as a whole is trying to combat.

Even though this tendency may have some legitimate foundations, Abou El Fadl argues that “[i]t is far to easy for contemporary Muslims to avoid taking responsibility for the extreme acts of ugliness committed by the zealots in our midst, and instead cast all the blame upon Western imperialism and colonialism.”4 These actions are occurring in the name of Islam and Abou El Fadl believes that Islam is responsible for accepting appropriate responsibility and critically analyzing their methodology in order to condemn it. However, is there reason beyond the Qur’anic injunction for self-incriminating truthful testimony in the name of justice to admit guilt, accept responsibility and mete out punishment on the accused? Can Muslim scholars be seen as acquiescing to “Western” ideology when they essentially plead the fifth when it comes to accepting blame for tangential involvement with violence and oppression carried out in the name of Islam? Should Muslim scholars be forced to critically analyze the actions of terrorists instead of producing material that confirms the universal human rights that can be gleaned from the Qur’an?

1Abou El Fadl, Khaled. “The Ugly Modern and the Modern Ugly: Reclaiming the Beautiful in Islam.” In Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, edited by Omid Safi, 39.

2Abou El Fadl. 40.

3Abou El Fadl. 40.

4Abou El Fadl, 42.

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