Book Review: The Search for Beauty in Islam: The Conference of the Books (Khaled Abou El Fadl)
I started reading Khaled Abou El Fadl’s book,“The Search for Beauty in Islam: The Conference of the Books” last night.
The essays are so short that I was initially left with a sense that he didn’t go deep enough nor, oddly, did he necessarily state his opinion as baldly or boldly as is the practice in many books and lectures of the clerisy today.
We’re so used to being told what to think that it’s striking when we are not.
As I read on, I realized that his technique of succinctly sharing a diversity of juridical and historical positions gently undermined the widely-held view of Islam (among Muslims and non-Muslims) as a monolith. Instead, he was encouraging readers to use the essays as a springboard into the vast library of knowledge that is Islam’s forgotten treasure to the world, to draw their own conclusions instead of blindly following others.
He calls Muslims a people who have forgotten both their Book and books, encompassing the historical truths and legacies of over a millennium.
In many ways this divorce from our rich intellectual tradition has contributed to the rise of literalistic interpretations and narrow readings of religious texts that require absolute conformity and deem informed reasoning as invalid or even dangerous.
In the whirlwind of our modern lives, reading has become a luxury, but it is part of our first revelation: “Read! In the name of your Lord and Cherisher, Who created- created humans from a germ-cell. Read, and your Lord is Most Generous, He who taught humans the use of the pen - taught them that which they did not know.” (96:1-5).And yet, the average lay believer within all three Abrahamic faiths has often not read their revelation thoroughly (if at all) and depends upon the interpretation of others to understand it.
I recall a Sunni shaykh (teacher) saying that there is broad consensus on the implementation of Islam’s five definitive beliefs (faith, prayer, charitable giving, fasting, and religious pilgrimage) but beyond that (into family, financial, or international law for example) there is a great diversity of opinions.
This creates a lot of fuel for debate and dialogue, and the old Jewish adage “two Jews, three opinions” could just as well have been said of Muslims.
How could it be otherwise when Muslims have lived in all sorts of different countries, cultures, governments, and contexts, as majorities and minorities, for the past 1,400 years?
How could it be otherwise when the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, and other revered spiritual leaders would give different people different answers to the same questions depending on their circumstances, needs, spirituality, and intellect? For example, when a Muslim sought to marry or to make pilgrimage, each person’s specific context was taken into account before giving advice, instead of merely relying on the letter of the law.
Wouldn’t we rather have a nuanced religion and spirituality than otherwise?
And yet, nuance and diversity are among the hardest values to uphold no matter where you are and in what age you live, even in the West today. There seems to be something that appeals to our lowest traits about wanting to make someone who disagrees with you shut up.
The idea of actually learning something from them, and civilly disagreeing if one must, is a value that is being lost as angry rhetoric threatens to drown out dialogue everywhere.
To me one of the most beautiful aspects of Islam has always been its diversity of opinion, which the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, called a mercy to his community.
And it troubles me that some people want to take that mercy away, whether it is some Western commentators telling me that Islam is and can only be one thing or their counterparts among Muslims who do the same.
So many people just want to be given the textbook version of religion: a + b + c = salvation. The idea of having to exercise one’s intellect, to read holistically and widely, to make informed choices, or to take responsibility for the community around us can actually be quite overwhelming and even frightening.
It’s so much easier to cite a verse from the Hebrew or Christian Testaments or the Qur’an out of context in order to end conversations or silence questions instead of encouraging them; or to look down upon another person by conveniently painting them with the broad, undifferentiating brush of the (unsaved) Other.
It’s much harder to accept the fact that the text cannot be taken out of its context, that the spirit and letter of law are sometimes two different things (which are, anyway, always evolving), and that there is always the possibility that we as individuals are wrong because we are limited beings.
In the end, God alone knows best.
As people of faith, we believe that God created a code of conduct. As Abou El Fadl says:
“From that single divine Book [was] created a civilization. From an inspiration, an idea, then a thought, then a system, then roads and signs. Why do Muslims insist on reinventing the wheel on every journey?...Are there any people who dare limit God’s manifestations to a single Golden Age and then live enslaved to the illusion of a re-created history as much as we do? Can’t we see that every age is God’s age and that every age is to be honored, studied, and absorbed but never reproduced?”
It seems to me that one of our responsibilities is also, not to recreate the code, but to learn deeply so that we are capable of finding that code again within and for every age and circumstance.
The people of the Books (the Abrahamic religions) each look at themselves as “chosen” in some way - Jews as the Chosen people, Christians as the saved, Muslims as those given the perfected religion.
What’s strange to me is how so many of us take this to mean that we can rest on our laurels - or rather, the laurels of those in the past - and stop exercising our intellect or seeking to excel in serving humanity.
I look at being “chosen” as something not to instill a sense of superiority in myself over others, co-religionists or not, but rather as a deeply humbling awareness imbued with great responsibility to God and humanity.
If one is chosen then one has the highest ethical and moral standards of behavior to live up to - and much to answer for to God.
We are each chosen to serve in our own capacity - and that’s a very great, and possibly beautiful, responsibility indeed.
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