A Struggle For Authority

For Sunni Muslims, authority to speak on behalf of the religion, and to command from it the obedience of the religion’s adherents, is not derived from a divinely established religious hierarchy. Rather, authority is derived from a divinely revealed text- the Qur’ān- and the authenticated sayings and actions of a divinely influenced messenger- the Sunnah. In The Authoritative and the Authoritarian in Islamic Discourses: A Contemporary Case Study Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl argues that Islamic scholars who, while citing the Qur’ān and Sunnah believe only their interpretation to be authoritative, are diminishing the complex approaches classical Islamic jurists have developed in interpreting these texts and, in doing so, are making themselves out to be authoritarian. El Fadl’s education makes his perspective on this issue a unique one, having received an education in law at Yale, Pennsylvania Law School, and Princeton University and formal training in Islamic Jurisprudence both in Egypt and Kuwait.

Though his work has received a wide readership among non-Muslim and Muslim academics, including those who are students of classical Islamic jurisprudence, he has remained a controversial figure among traditional and reformist Sunni scholars. None-the-less his arguments against a rising authoritarian and puritanical Islam has earned him sympathy, if not respect, from those who feel that Sunni Islam is being threatened by this same anti-scholastic trend. In this Contemporary Case Study El Fadl analyzes a fatwa (religious edict) said to “illustrate the tension between the authoritative and the authoritarian and the process by which the authoritative is used to produce the authoritarian” (20). Through this analysis El Fadl contrasts with portions of the fatwa classical Islamic legal approaches that do not seem to have been followed by the fatwa’s original author and discusses possible damage to Islamic scholarship if one follows the author’s approach.

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