Battling Islamic ‘Puritans’

UCLA professor, once a fanatic himself, is now a leading scholarly voice against intolerance among Muslims. Death threats don’t deter him.

After a lengthy process of textual research and prayer for divine guidance, he concluded that reports against dogs were passed on through questionable chains of transmissions, or contradicted by more favorable reports–for instance, one story of Muhammad praying with his dogs playing nearby.

Some reports against dogs bear uncanny similarities to Arab folklore, Abou El Fadl says, leading him to suspect that someone took the tales and attributed them to the prophet.


The most incendiary Muslim in American academia knows a thing or two about Islamic fanatics. He says he used to be one as a seventh-grader in his native Kuwait.

UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl remembers beating up other kids, condemning his parents as unbelievers and destroying his sister’s Rod Stewart tape, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”

“I found it remarkably empowering to spew my hatred with the banner of God in my hand,” he says. But challenged by his father to take up true religious scholarship, Abou El Fadl began a journey of Islamic learning that would transform him into a nemesis of the extremists he once endorsed. Today, at 38, he is a leading warrior in the intellectual struggle that exploded into America’s consciousness Sept. 11: Who speaks for Islam? Who defines it?

With breathtaking bluntness, Abou El Fadl attacks Muslims who promote a strict, literalist trend in Islam, most prominently the creed of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.

In his writings and through the electronic media, he accuses them of an “intolerant puritanism” that values ritual over morality. He blames them for oppressing millions of women, creating hostility toward non-Muslims and giving the likes of Osama bin Laden their theological justification for terrorism. He issues scathing critiques of Saudi legal rulings that permit everything from the mistreatment of dogs to the beating of women.

For tackling the puritans in high-profile forums, Abou El Fadl has received so many death threats that new security systems are going up around his office and home. His books are banned in Saudi Arabia and his visa applications denied in Egypt.

Before Sept. 11, his daily battles would have been dismissed by outsiders as esoteric doctrinal debates. Today they are better understood as critical insights into the fierce ideological tensions raging within Islam between the forces of puritanism and moderation. They shed light on how Islam can produce such chilling extremists as Bin Laden, who exults in the carnage of Sept. 11 as “blessed strikes.”

By devoting himself to a modern interpretation of the Koran, Abou El Fadl is perhaps the most articulate enemy of the Wahhabi creed that shaped Bin Laden’s brand of Islam.

“The supremacist creed of the puritan groups is distinctive and uniquely dangerous,” the scholar recently wrote in the influential Boston Review. “They do not merely seek self-empowerment, but aggressively seek to disempower, dominate or destroy others.”

To many muftis, ayatollahs, sheiks and their followers throughout the world, Abou El Fadl has become “America’s most dangerous corrupter of Islam,” as one foe put it.

One international network of students claims credit for successfully working to blacklist him from most Islamic conferences and publications under the banner of protecting “the one and only true Islam.”

Wahhabism’s founder, 18th century evangelist Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, was alarmed by what he viewed as corruptions to the faith. He advocated a strict, back-to-basics approach to keep Islam as pure as the day it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and practiced by his early companions nearly 1,400 years ago.

Wahhabism had long been a marginal force in Islam. Abou El Fadl asserts that it has risen in prominence in the last three decades because of the collapse of Islamic institutions after colonialism, creating a vacuum of authority that puritans, backed by Saudi petrodollars, rushed to fill.

Today’s puritans advocate strict gender roles and perpetual guarding against what they view as heretical innovations–be they new interpretations of the faith by scholars such as Abou El Fadl or other expressions of Islam, such as mystical Sufism or the Shiite branch of the faith.

Many followers of Wahhab describe their approach benevolently, merely as “monotheism without the frills,” as one member of the Saudi-financed King Fahd Mosque in Culver City put it.

Abou El Fadl, however, says extremists have used Wahhabism to justify sometimes violent intolerance–massacres of Sufis and Shiite, for instance–or hostility to non-Muslim “infidels” that has bred terrorist acts.

Many Muslims see an even more pervasive impact of puritanism–robbing Islam of its richness and flexibility. Howard University professor Sulayman Nyang calls it “the mummification, ossification and fossilization of Islam.”