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One Islamic Professor's Fall from Fundamentalism - 2002-07-23

An Islamic scholar says he is concerned about the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim world, but he understands its popularity. He is an Islamic legal expert who made the journey from teenaged fundamentalist to law professor.

Khaled Abou el Fadl can appreciate the appeal of a simple religious message. A professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern law at the UCLA law school, he was educated at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Princeton.

But as a young man growing up in Kuwait and Egypt, he fell under the spell of several fundamentalist preachers and embraced their religious vision. "I was told that the book that I must read is a book of selected collections of traditions by the Prophet," he said. "It was called 'The Gardens of the Righteous.' And there was a second book called 'The Life of the Companions.' And for pretty much a whole year, that was it."

He was told to avoid other books, even Islamic texts, that could open the door to independent thinking. Urged on by his teachers, the young man became an unrelenting critic of his family. "I was told by the mere fact that I attended these few lectures by these preachers, that I am now in a position to tell everyone else how un-Islamic their life is," he said.

He attacked parents and siblings, upbraiding his father, in one case, for wearing a Western tie, a prohibition he now finds nowhere in Islamic tradition. A fundamentalist preacher used a pair of scissors to cut a ragged hem on the young man's clothing, which the preacher said made it more "Islamic." The young man's mother was horrified.

Professor Abou el Fadl says his long suffering father finally made an offer. "He was sitting and reading in the living room, I still remember, and I was going on in a fit about something - I don't remember what it was," he recalled. "And he finally just closed the book and he looked up at me and he said, 'OK, fine, for the past six months or year you've been convinced that we've all been living in sin and that you know what's right. So I'll make a deal with you and I'll give you my word of honor.'"

Professor Abou el Fadl says his father suggested he visit a mosque. If the son could answer all of the questions of a respected sheik, his father and family would agree to obey him blindly. The young man confidently accepted, but the visit to the sheik's class was a disaster.

"Whatever I said paled in comparison to his knowledge and the knowledge of other students who attended," he said. "If I managed to think of a Quranic verse to cite in support of what I was saying, or some tradition of the Prophet, he managed to fire back about 10 or 20 different traditions or Quranic verses that seemed to challenge what I just said."

The humiliating experience became a turning point, as the young man discovered the richness of the Islamic tradition. Looking back on the experience, Professor Abou el Fadl believes that he, like other young people drawn to fundamentalism, was searching for his identity in a society with few avenues for expression.

"It leaves you with a considerable degree of frustration and anxiety, and the message of the fundamentalist groups becomes remarkably liberating, empowering," Mr. Abou el Fadl explained. "It gives you a dream."

Eventually, Professor Abou el Fadl discovered Islamic legal scholars who avoid authoritarian pronouncements. "They don't rely on demagoguery and slogans and rhetoric and so they're not as easily noticed," he said. "They actually read books, they actually use texts, they actually reflect much of the tradition of tolerance in Islam and diversity. They always speak in terms of 'in the opinion of such-and-such' and 'in my opinion,' and they always conclude with 'And God knows best.'"

Today Khaled Abou el Fadl devotes himself to mining the riches of Islamic scholarship, some of which survives only in manuscript form in libraries in Turkey and Egypt. Through the courses that he teaches at the UCLA law school, he brings these traditions to bear in the training of Western lawyers.