Interview with Khaled Abou El Fadl

Jihad Gone Wrong

Khaled Abou El Fadl is a prominent Islamic scholar and intellectual. In this interview with Novriantoni and Ramy El-Dardiry, El Fadl talks about suicide bombings, misinterpretations of 'jihad' and the humanist tradition of Islam

Car, destroyed by suicide bomber, Balad, Iraq (photo: AP)
To El Fadl, suicide bombers are "lazy" as they shun the difficult task of using the intellectual power of reason

​​Dr. Khaled, suicide bombing seems to be a trend among Muslim radicals nowadays. Hashem Saleh, a Syrian intellectual, said that Muslims are focusing on 'kamikaze'. What is your opinion on suicide bombing in the name of Islam?

Khaled Abou El Fadl: First, I refuse to associate this trend with the concept of Jihad. The concept of Jihad is very much different to today's suicide bombings. Jihad also differs from the holy war in the Crusade period, which developed from the doctrine of self-purification through bloodsheds. In the idea of holy war, murder is regarded as a mechanism to approach God and war is regarded as sacred. Hence, any cruelty in war will not be seen as a form of barbarism.

On the contrary, Jihad always relies on the power of da'wah (missionary endeavour) and the absence of vengeance feeling. In Jihad, you should not assume yourself to be a killer, nor should you sacrifice the enemy because it is God's will. In the concept of Jihad, war is always regarded as something bad ('syarr), an inevitable evil ('syarrun dlarûrî), and we have to avoid it ('kurhun). War is only permitted to liberate Muslims from tyranny or to defend them from attacks. That is the concept of Jihad.

I think performing Jihad by suicide bombing is connected with modernity; it did not originate from Islamic moderate literature. Psychologically, the fantasy of eternal life in the hereafter endorses those bombers. My critique is that the bombers' concept of Jihad has neglected Quranic pre-requirements about the detailed preparation of war.

Their objective of Jihad is not to liberate (fath), but to ruin, in order to resist western domination. Here we can see differences between the concept of Jihad based on moral principles, and the strategy of offensive suicide bombings, which are influenced by revolutionary ideologies from the 1960s.

Thus, you deny the association between suicide-bombing and the concept of Jihad in Islam.

Khaled Abou El Fadl (photo: UCLA)
Khaled Abou El Fadl

​​El Fadl: It is not about the suicide bombing, but about murdering people without differentiating between the aggressor (muhârib) and the non-aggressor ('ghaira muharib). Fikh (Islamic jurisprudence) has prohibited this kind of random killing ('qatlul ghîlah). Qatlul ghîlah is a form of murder, where the object does not have any chance to defend himself or herself.

Ethics is very prominent in fikh literature, particularly in relation to war (hirâbah). We should not kill the incarcerated, children, women, and weak men. The suicide bombers' view infiltrates the ideology of Jihad. Those suicide bombers foresee resistance upon the West and therefore they declare other Muslims as apostate.

Clearly, we saw this with the murder on the Egyptian ambassador in Iraq and the repeating attacks on Shiites there. I think such actions are a consequence of Wahabism, which views Shiite to be outside Islam and who should hence be fought. Persons like Abou Musab al-Zarqawi called Muslims apostate and allowed killing them. I guess he never read about assimilation theory ('nazariyyat tatharrus) which deals with the question whether it is allowable to kill Muslims in order to reach the enemy, if the enemy and Muslims are mixed.

Do you agree on their effort to resist western hegemony?

El Fadl: I do not deny the problem of western hegemony. However, we have to raise the question: what is the core of this hegemony and how do countries like China, Japan, Iran, South Korea, North Korea, and Turkey escape from it? We forget that the most effective weapon and the symbol of today's glory are science and technology. Do not forget that we have to build an incorrupt and an anti-authoritarian state.

We have to choose between a despotic state and a welfare state. We need a system that opens the gate to science and culture, that manages the problem of environmental pollution, provides clean water, and reduces the spread of diseases. Technology is the only answer to those matters.

I think resisting western hegemony should start by fighting corrupted states. Preparing the khail (horse) to fight the enemy in the Qur'an nowadays means preparation of knowledge and technology. Anyone who masters knowledge and technology will control the world.

What do you think about the kind of religious reformation as proposed by Afghani and Abduh?

El Fadl: Yes, religious reformation is necessary besides reformation in other fields. In the religious discourse, fikh must not be used as an oppressing instrument. Religion should not support despotism. My book on authoritative and authoritarian fatwas criticizes the misuse of religion for such objectives. Religious reformation must be based on remembering God. This is not a simple point.

Many consider that progress will be achieved by increasing the number of legal restrictions and the enforcement of Islamic law or (precisely) part of the Islamic school of thought. To me, the foundation and the principle of religion are about remembering God, which is very personal and regarded with morality. We have to be accustomed to live with moral ideals. No civilization can be based on pragmatism. Every civilization is primarily established upon idealism or dreams. That moralist dream puts you in a noble position.

We also have to lead society towards the principle of gentleness ('al-hilm). It is impossible to build a civilization on the principle of violence. The suicide bomber is wrong when he believes that he will build civilization through destruction. I stress that there is not a single civilization built on destructiveness. All civilizations are built on a moral foundation, intellectual activities, and innovations.

What do you say to the fact that humanism is now absent from almost all regimes in the Muslim world?

El Fadl: Throughout the history of Islamic civilization, there have always been regimes that play with power, while ulema who wanted to be close with the financial sources did not carry out their controlling function. The ulema think that as long as the ruler defends the rights of God, it will guarantee them God's reward. They forget about the importance of stimulating the regime to increase human welfare. Yet, fikh manuscripts in the second, third and fourth century of hejra emphasized on the importance of maximizing human benefit.

Besides, modesty is becoming a marginalized value in Islam, and violence becomes dominant nowadays. People forget about the liberator aspect in Islam, which actually was the strength of Islam when it faced the preceding authoritarian civilizations.

Dr. Khaled, the leader of the attack on Ahmadiyah in Bogor denied his violation of human rights. To him, God's rights are above human rights. How do you see that?

El Fadl: I will compare our viewpoints with the viewpoints of previous ulema. Classical Muslim ulema asserted that violation of human rights would not be forgiven except by the concerned man, while violation of the rights of God will be taken care of by God himself. Humans should not claim to be the representative of God. In the concept of 'tawheed, Allah is very capable to protect His personal rights. Therefore, we have to be more careful not to violate human rights.

In Islam, God will not forgive violation of human rights, except if the man concerned forgives. A caliph or a ruler should not abolish anyone's rights, except if those individuals violated others' rights. The views of Ibn Araby, a jurist of the Hanafi school of thought who wrote 'Ahkâmul Qur'ân, are amazing in this aspect since it was available in the fourth century of Hejrah.

I say that people who argue that they have to prioritize God' rights over human rights, are ignorant about the classical fikh literature of the previous ulema. Those ulema stated that human rights must be prioritized over God's right ('haqqul insân muqaddam 'ala haqqil Ilâh ), because Allah is well capable of defending His rights in the hereafter, while humans have to defend their own rights. Referring on such an understanding, I will defend whoever oppressed, whether Muslim, Christian, Ahmadi, Bahai or Hind. Since every kind of oppression and occupation are forms of tyranny and no Muslim should be silent when seeing tyranny.

Is it any good to regard a sect as heretic and deviant from Islam?

El Fadl: To me, the heretic claim and stigmatization is no more important nowadays. Baha'i claimed to be Islamic once, but they left the five principles of Islam. Therefore, it is hard to categorize them as Muslim. When they finally established a new religion, it is their own business. They worship God with their Baha'i methods. Whether God accepts their religiosity or not, is not my concern.

Therefore, I would like to quote Ali bin Abi Talib's words in this case: "There are two kind of humans: your brother in religion and your brother in ethics (al-nâs shinfânî immâ ikhwânukum fid dîn aw ikhwânukum fil khuluq)." I would like to ask, where is that enlightened spirit of Ali in today's life? I think we neglect verses on tolerance and do not want to speak about it, nor do we want to disseminate it. Yet, this is the strength of Islamic morality.

You argued that we could find the basis of pluralism and tolerance from Islamic principles. Could you elaborate on that?

El Fadl: Yes. In fact, we do not need secularism as long as we can show and uphold the notions of tolerance and humanism within Islamic literature. However, it is problematic that we are facing many Muslims who left their intellectual culture. I read humanist literature of Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. I tried hard to learn Hebrew in order to read the Talmud in Hebrew language. I also tried to read the bible in Latin and studied Aramaic to read it in its original version. I concluded that humanism and inhumanism could be found in every holy book. This is God's way to test our maturity.

Human nature and reason have to differentiate between good and bad things, between what to take and what to leave. If we want to follow the devil's nature, we can use the bad sides of holy books, for example by glorifying murder by adopting the story of David in the Bible. To me, this story is sadistic. Nevertheless, did westerners build their civilization by adopting these kinds of stories? They could have done that but they did not. They choose the humanistic part of their tradition and lay their civilization on those humanistic principles.

Hence, today we must prioritize the humanist face of Islam.

El Fadl: The root of Islamic humanism has to be re-explored in order to build Islamic civilization. We should not be trapped in blindly following ('at-tab 'iyah al-'amyâ) the west or refusal ('al-rafdhiyyah al-'amyâ), which disables us to see the benefit of something like humanity, merely because it is western.

To me, the suicide bombers who resist the west have the fantasy of being accepted well before God since they have fed up of the world. This is a form of criminal frustrations (ya'sun ijrâmî). They do not want to learn, read, and make innovations. This are too difficult for them. What is easy though? Exploding one self, going to God and hoping for heaven.

Therefore, violence is a form of laziness to me. Those people do not want to use their reason, to learn, to analyze the matter carefully, to argue and to make a dialog. As Muslims, we have complained a lot. We complain since we are oppressed and do not know what to do. My question is this: what have you done in order to deserve honor from Allah? Do we love knowledge and therefore Allah honors our dignity, as He mentioned in Quran?

Interview conducted by Novriantoni and Ramy El-Dardiry.

© Khaled Abou El Fadl, Novriantoni and Ramy El-Dardiry 2005

This interview was previously published on Liberal Islam Network.

Khaled Abou el Fadl is a professor at the School of Law at the University of California and a prominent Islamic jurist and intellectual. He serves on the board of directors of Human Rights Watch. He trained in Islamic law in Egypt and Kuwait and is a high-ranking sheikh. Since openly attacking Wahabism, he has received regular death threats.

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