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Book Review: The Place of Tolerance in Islam

The Book “The Place of Tolerance in Islam” by Khaled Abou El Fadl

The book The Place of Tolerance in Islam by Khaled Abou El Fadl is an attempt to break the stereotype about Islam as a religion that encourages violence and terrorism. Hence, this brief book consists of short, but at the same time informative essays, which analyze various aspects of tolerance in Islam. They include El Fadl’s opening essays and other 11 scholarly essays as a response to his position. In this regard, hermeneutic context is most important, because, in fact, many stereotypes about Islam start from one’s misinterpretation that leads to conflict and prejudice. Therefore, the authors try to understand why Islam is associated with intolerance, namely in the context of puritans. Further, they analyze both Quranic and Muslim positions on tolerance, illustrating them with their specific arguments and historical episodes. Finally, their main task is to show that misinterpretation of tolerance leads to the opposite effect, for example, the West becomes intolerant of Islam. On this ground, the basic idea of the book review is to prove the idea that accurate and consistent interpretation of the Qur’an shows that Islam promotes peace and tolerance, but individual Muslims, as well as terrorists, interpret the sacred text (eisegesis) unjustifiably, thus encouraging intolerance against non-Muslims.

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The objective of the book is to break the stereotype that Islam promotes violence and forms the basis for terrorism. Although its six authors are faithful Muslims, they are balanced by academic writers and outsiders to the faith. This strategy is significant for this book, since it demonstrates different and even opposite views and interpretations, thus not defending a single position. El Fadl wrote a major essay in this book, indicating the place of tolerance in Muslim theology. He starts with the fact that most Americans do not believe that Islam promotes tolerance and peace, particularly after terrorist attacks conducted by its followers. However, the author shows the place of religious extremism not only in Islam, but also in other religions. As regards Islam, he shows that its extremism was before the current situation, but it does not mean that Islam tolerates and supports terrorists. El Fadl associates the issue of intolerance with such Islamist movements as Wahhabis, al-Qaeda, and Jihad, which caused anti-Muslim policy among Western countries, including the government of the United States. Nevertheless, Islamic puritans continue using the Qur’an as the main source for their actions, mostly referring to the following Quranic verse: “You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies” (El Fadl 8). He pays special attention to the Wahhabis and Salafi puritan interpretation of Islam during the past century.

In general, the Saudi regime financed and supported the emergence of extremist Islamic groups, which were a powerful weapon against its political enemies and the whole Western world. However, El Fadl states that “despite its tolerance and rigidity however, Wahhabism itself does not bear primary responsibility for the existence of terrorist groups in Islam today” (12). Wahhabism insists on a normative particularism, which is focused on correct interpretation of the Qur’an. Therefore, Wahhabism rejects the idea of universal human values, which mostly exists as an internal movement, which “although focused on power it primary asserts power over other Muslims” (El Fadl 14). It means that this movement is not interested in total destruction of infidels, but rather proposes orthodoxy and correct ritualistic practice among Muslims.

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The main problem seems to be the fact that these and other puritan movements propose a literal explanation of the Qur’an, ignoring its symbolic aspects. Nevertheless, they represent a small part of Muslims, thus their radical interpretation of Islam does not describe the entire religion. Moreover, mainstream Muslims condemn such interpretation of the Qur’an, because they understand that radical Islamists provoke prejudice of all religious and secular communities against them. In contrast to their radical interpretation, El Fadl proposes secondary sources that denote al-Tasamuh (tolerance), al-Ma’ruf (good), and al-Ihsan (kindness), proving that the Qur’an contains passages about tolerance. Furthermore, the Qur’an also respects the right of Christians and Jews, not criticizing them for their religious views (El Fadl 25). Therefore, the actual cause of geopolitical conflict between the West and the East was wrong interpretation of the Qur’an by Muslim extremists, which has resulted in the September 11 attacks.

This conclusion both explains and raises doubts about El Fadl’s idea, since it is difficult to believe that incorrect understanding of the Qur’an was the only reason of such a global conflict, ignoring the existing social, cultural, and historical pretexts, which also influenced the formation of tolerance among Muslims. Islamic puritanism proposes other practices to distinguish Muslims from non-Muslims, but El Fadl does not explain why certain actions are different from those stated in the Qur’an. In other words, the author does not distinguish between religious or political Islamist movements and Quranian, so the reader can often become confused by his interpretation. In general, he argues that the problem of intolerant interpretations in Islamic theology is related to the presence of mixed messages from the Qur’an, which are debated in the next short critical essays.

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If El Fadl wants to prove that the problem of tolerance in Islam may be explained by incorrect interpretation of the Qur’an, then the task of his opponents is to support or refute this idea. Milton Viorst, for example, shows a clear difference between Muslim extremists and humanists, proving that the first group is absolutely unrelated to tolerance. He also raises one more important issue that constantly appears in this book, namely the misinterpretation and generalized perception of Muslims by Western media. His idea is that Western politicians and media have had a great influence on the formation of a negative image of Muslims. Abid Ullah Jan claims the same idea, proving that acts of intolerance against Muslims are happening more frequently in many Western countries, which have labeled Islamists as “supremacists” (El Fadl 43). Moreover, Amina Wadud demonstrates that reporting of the September 11 attacks by the US media created the opposite effect, when it seemed as the apologist of terrorism. However, no author pays attention to the fact that Western media also gives more importance to the passages about Jihad in the Qur’an, ignoring the principle of tolerance. Hence, it means that the Qur’an is the subject of manipulation and convenient interpretations for both Western media and radical Islamists.

Although it is difficult to deny this idea, I think, it does not explain the specific terrorist attacks. In this reference, I mean that reaction of Western media was not a prerequisite for the September 11 attacks, but rather their consequence. However, the logic of Viorst, as well as El Fadl, proposes to distinguish between central ideas about tolerance in the Qur’an, its interpretation by radical Muslim extremists, and colonial Western discourse (El Fadl 28). The problem is the fact that all these approaches are mixed together, thus creating false interpretations for ordinary people. Therefore, although El Fadl’s liberal view of the Qur’an can be welcomed in the West, it may be ignored in the East (El Fadl 29). Stanley Kurtz proposes the same idea, insisting that El Fadl’s idea can be easily manipulated by the Muslim world to meet their political strategy. For Kurtz, the question of intolerance is rooted in Muslim societies that contrast with Western culture. Hence, the conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims does not only apply to the Palestinian conflict or other cross-cultural and global issues, but also has historical contradiction between different ontologies. Probably, these arguments indicate the main weaknesses of El Fadl’s essay, because his interpretation of Islam is more idealistic than realistic and fails to understand various socio-cultural aspects. It explains why the majority of Muslims perceive Western policy negatively or even aggressively, especially towards Iraq and Palestinians.

Despite Viorst’s criticism, Sohail Hashmi continues El Fadl’s liberal position towards the Qur’an and its idea of tolerance. He encourages Muslims to abandon literal interpretation of the Qur’an, paying attention to other passages, which propose a tolerant way of Islam. He also proposes to critically deflate a radical version of Islam, namely the Muslims who fight in the name of God. In his turn, Akeel Bilgrami explains many passages from the Qur’an in historical context, showing how one’s literal interpretations can be verified. However, Tariq Ali turns the discussion to another course, proposing to analyze the issue of tolerance in Islam not in theological and hermeneutical context, but to interpret it as a political phenomenon.

He offers a completely opposite position, thereby claiming responsibility for the emergence of intolerance among Muslims on Western colonialism. Ali argues that the West does not only cultivate aggressive and intolerant policy against Muslims, but continues the colonial policy of Islam from the past centuries, referring to the presence of anti-human elements in the East. In other words, the idea of Islamic intolerance is a myth that has been created by the Western world, and especially by American government, in order to justify their colonial policy. Moreover, Ali believes that the same concerns other religious extremists, thus it is important to focus on political circumstances, not theological ones, which force “Ban Laden and his gang” (El Fadl 38) to turn against the United States and the Saudi regime.

Finally, El Fadl summarizes all previous ideas in the final part, responding to arguments raised by other contributors. He agrees with intensification of stereotypes about Muslims and Islam, which result in discrimination. These stereotypes are unfair, since the amount of radical Muslims represents a small minority among other believers in the world. El Fadl agrees with the authors, namely with Hashmi and Bilgrami, that the Qur’an, as any other sacred text, should be interpreted within historical context, as some provocative passages were a result of their time. Therefore, there are different traditional (orthodox) and non-traditional interpretations, which form a variety of Islamic groups. It means that the existence of radical extremist groups does not mean that the entire religion is intolerant towards others, especially Jews and Christians. In this regard, El Fadl clarifies that the majority of Muslims are not involved in terrorist acts, and only some of them express highly intolerant position. Speaking about myself, this argument does not seem strong, since the majority can support the extremists passively. Moreover, it is hard to agree with the fact that Muslims do not accept Western policy not because of their special cultural and historical background, but because of difference in their worldview.


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In conclusion, The Place of Tolerance in Islam is an example of good polemic literature, representing different views and arguments. El Fadl and others analyze tolerance as one of most controversial questions of Islam, referring to the Qur’an and secondary sources. I consider that El Fadl does not often understand broader context of tolerance, which can be inferred from his final response. It seems that his opponents understand the problem much better, but they need more space for sufficient argumentation. Thus, El Fadl often repeats his own ideas, ignoring such questions as manipulation, Western hegemony, and cultural diversity. In general, I agree with Viorst and Kurtz that El Fadl’s idea of tolerance does not correlate with Muslim worldview, and, probably, the problem lies not only in one’s misinterpretation of the Qur’an, but in fundamental difference of cultural paradigms.


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