In the War Over Words

A scholar tests the spirit against the letter of islamic law.

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His subsequent intellectual odyssey would blend western secular traditions with Islamic ones. But even in traditional schools, Abou El Fadl witnessed narrow-minded puritanism: Students influenced by Wahhabi fundamentalist doctrines denounced their teachers for teaching "forbidden" subjects such as speculative philosophy and mysticism and for using the Socratic method of instruction rather than rote memorization. Today, he says, "we are in the dark ages of Islam."

He considers clerics an even greater problem. The imams and prayer leaders of America's 1,400 mosques and Islamic centers tend to be self-appointed religious experts with little or no training. Many are professionals in such fields as engineering or medicine capable only of quoting a few lines from the Koran. Taha Alalwani, president of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Ashburn, Va., worries that many of these imams "are just Islamists," often backed by Saudi groups and more concerned with ideology than with complexities of the faith.

Some scholars argue that literal legalism has been the consensus view of most Muslims since the 19th century, not just the product of recent Wahhabi proselytizing. Abou El Fadl does not deny that traditional Islam began to suffer in the colonial period. But he says his greater concern is with the future. If Muslims do not recover the critical spirit of older traditions, sharia-based law, he believes, simply won't work. Even in Saudi Arabia, members of the royal family either privately ignore the law or observe the letter and flout the spirit. He believes that Iran is closer to developing a critical, adaptive notion of sharia than are Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Sudan. "I just hope the conservatives don't break that spirit," he says, "because if they do, then the hope of Islamic civilization is lost."