Spread, not rise: a review of Khaled Abou El Fadl’s “The Great Theft”

In one fell swoop, Abou El Fadl renders impotent and wasteful the life’s work of Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, but fails to explain the spread of puritanical interpretations of Islam. 

Tap any American on the shoulder and ask her what the last decade’s most important question was. Participation may vary, of course, but one might reasonably expect “Why do they hate us?” to garner a plurality. Likewise, asking passersby who “they” refers to in that formulation would undoubtedly find most Americans answering correctly. But while the question might be durably ubiquitous, it has since been replaced in American discourse by a corollary: “Where are the moderate Muslims?” This more intelligent formulation suggests two lines of inquiry: are there moderate Muslims and, if so, why aren’t they speaking out against the extremism of their coreligionists?

UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl definitively answers the question’s first half with resounding affirmation in his 2005 book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From The Extremists. A concise and accessible treatise, The Great Theft aptly captures the fissures within Islam in a manner both understandable to the uninitiated and intriguing to experts. No less relevant now, given Newsweek’s recent “Muslim Rage” cover coupled to an Ayaan Hirsi Ali feature, The Great Theft is both primer and playbook, equal parts explanation, education, and admonishment.

Yet despite his tactical successes, Abou El Fadl’s own arguments fail to identify the causal drivers that that led to a situation in which he felt compelled to write The Great Theft; in other words, he addresses only fleetingly how once-marginal viewpoints came to the forefront of Islamic discussion. “Wrestling Islam from the extremists” requires not sundry theological disputes or dismantling of Islamophobic stereotypes, but empowerment of Muslim moderates themselves through the same methods that catapulted puritanical organizations and ideologues to their contemporary domination of both Islamic discourse and discourse about Islam.

No reader could depart The Great Theft and claim ignorance of Islam, but Abou El Fadl deserves additional credit for interweaving educational material for non-Muslims with self-criticism and advice for fellow Muslims. Crossing the bridge of fitna proves, as Abou el-Fadl confesses, personally difficult. Moreover, Muslim reformers find themselves strategically isolated and surrounded by two demagogic groups: first, Islamic puritans who ironically court Orientalism by claiming essential differences between “Muslim civilization” and the West; second, by Western observers who adhere to and promote the same “clash of civilizations” thesis. Both pseudo-millenarian factions reinforce each other, generating a positive feedback loop of rhetoric and action aimed not so much at each other as at the masses in the middle. Abou El Fadl himself notes frequent accusations of his being a “stealth Islamist,” and one could be reasonably confident that puritans like Ayman al-Zawahiri or the late Abdul Rasul Sayyaf would consider About El Fadl a case study in takfir.


Beyond basic elucidation of Islam, the book’s most useful part has Abou El Fadl doing Occam’s work on the taxonomy of Islamic factions. He opts for “puritan” over “fundamentalist” to describe the problematic cliques, citing the obvious complaint that “all Muslims claim to adhere to the fundamentals of Islam.” Similarly, he assigns the “reformer” and “progressive” monikers to intellectual elites, leaving “moderates” to denote the vast majority of Muslims. Such a taxonomic scheme, based on identifying the root problem as opposition to pluralism, is well-supported by the proclamations and actions of extant Islamic groups.

The classification system does run into snags, but these are on balance less problematic than naming schemes we regularly see on cable networks. Take two transnational puritan networks, for example: al-Qaeda and its derivations deliver regular addresses that are virtually indistinguishable from the public communiques of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, yet the latter does so while preaching that only a caliph may announce jihad. The key difference between the two lies largely in al-Qaeda’s championing of the takfir interpretation, or the certainty that impurity demands immediate expurgation or extirpation. Abou El Fadl is less sanguine on this count, lapsing frequently into usage of “radical” to describe his violent puritans, an obvious but oft-repeated misnomer, as per the late Christopher Hitchens: “Today I want to puke when I hear the word ‘radical’ applied so slothfully and stupidly to Islamist murderers; the most plainly reactionary people in the world.” For an author as exacting as Abou El Fadl, this oversight bears revisitation because the “radical” label is frequently aimed at progressives like himself, and the word is so widely applied it connotes nothing more than a general dislike of the particular designated group. Taxonomy should not reflect the way outsiders frame the discourse, and thus “extremist” better captures the distinction between otherwise ideologically similar groups, e.g. AQ/Hizb-ut-Tahrir, JUI/SSP.

The evolution of Islamic jurisprudence and common practice is examined in a manner immediately intelligible to any Westerner with a basic understanding of Christian schisms. Abou El Fadl acknowledges and rejects the attempts made by both pious Muslims and Westerners of all ideological stripes to absolve Islam itself of blame, which directly challenges the “religion of peace” canards lazily lobbed by each party. Islam is what its practitioners make of it, argues our author.

Most of the 288 pages are concerned with a dual track focusing on refutation of barbaric practices commonly perceived as Islamic and explanations of what ordinary Muslims believe. The widely repeated dichotomy between the “house of Islam” and “house of unbelievers” is contextualized, the religious foundation for beheadings is contemptuously discarded, the applications and diversity of sharia law made lucid. Abou El Fadl’s baseline thesis in highlighting the puritan-moderate schism is as profound as it is simple: “In essence, then, the moderate view recognizes the temporal and sociocultural changes that have taken place since the time of the Prophet.” As a humorous example, he cites the puritans’ forbidding of toothpaste because the Prophet used only a little twig; he relates the bemused progressive reply that toothpaste did not exist in the seventh century. Abou El Fadl also describes the origins of Salafism and Wahhabism before expanding on what drives and differentiates contemporary puritans: 1) how much of life religious texts are meant to regulate and 2) whether morality is innate. He quotes al-Ghazali in dismissing puritans as “hadith hurlers” and generally succeeds in walking the tenuous line between description and argument.


Abou El Fadl ventures further than most critics—Muslim or non—in admitting that al-Qaeda- and Taliban-type groups are “in fact extreme manifestations of [a] more prevalent intellectual and theological current in modern Islam…puritanism.”

Our author has a two-pronged explanation for the rise and spread of puritanism. He first clearly states that the decline of ulama influence in the twentieth century led to a crisis of religious authority and an inability to “learn whether Islam endorses or condemns a particular position or practice.” He casts this breakdown negatively: “Today, practically anyone can appoint himself a mufti and proceed to spew out fatwa without either a legal or a social process that would restrain him from doing so.” Yet he simultaneously argues that the dissipation of religious authority has, a la the Protestant Reformation, allowed ordinary Muslims to interpret scripture and precedent themselves—and casts this development in a positive light. These two positions are mutually exclusive to a degree Abou el-Fadl never acknowledges, as lay interpretation can only flourish at the expense of religious authority. Additionally, it is unclear how a restoration of traditional Islamic jurisprudence would ameloriate the puritans’ gains. While Abou El Fadl cites influential ideologues like al-Banna, Qutb, bin Laden, and Moqtada al-Sadr as examples of essentially unauthoritative thinkers, he leaves out scholars who would hold significant sway in a return to religious authority. In short, increased familiarity with the diverse jurisprudential history may not have as great a moderating effect as Abou el-Fadl believes, precisely because finance and public relations—not erudition—dictate popularity and power.

Second, Abou El Fadl cites the prevalence of torture in Muslim-majority countries as the perfect breeding ground for extremist ideologies. Sayyid Qutb, for instance, was closer to an outlier than a figurehead in the Muslim Brotherhood prior to the crackdowns of Nasser and Sadat. Torture extremizes individuals like nothing else, but the extent of its effects on societal ideological evolution certainly did not equal the 1967 Six-Day War or the continual repression of peaceful political Islamists.

Abou El Fadl masterfully identifies ideological drivers of the rise of puritanical Islam, but fails to confront the causal factors in the spread of puritanism. Inadvertently, he does touch upon this crucial issue: “the reformers, for the most part, were scholars and jurists who did not lead mass movements.” The simple fact is that puritan ideology would never have gained the widespread traction it now enjoys had it not been for an unlikely confluence of factors: the failure of Arab nationalism combined with the Gulf oil boom and Soviet Afghan War provided near-perfect conditions for the petrodollar-funded expansion of reactionary interpretations of Islam. While it remains difficult to accurately assess international charitable funding, Lawrence Wright claims in The Looming Tower that by the mid-nineties Saudi Arabia—less than 1% of the world’s Muslim population—accounted for over 90% of the faith’s aggregate expenses. Whatever the actual figure is, examples of this proselytizing effort abound, whether in studies on contemporary terrorism or reports on the state of Pakistani education.

The cascading effects of the dissemination and imposition of otherwise marginal ideology simply cannot be overstated. The sheer amount cash raised both by Saudi means and donations to itinerant preachers like Abdullah Azzam is staggering, yet somehow continuously absent from argument. The most frequently cited “authoritative” book about trends in Islam, Lewis’ What Went Wrong, does not consider at all on the effects of international financing in the rise of puritanism. What went wrong? Simply put, the most reactionary and extreme organizations received a shitload of money. Imagine giving Terry Jones, Pat Robertson, and John Metzger tens of billions of dollars, control over parts of the education system, and access to vast numbers of refugees. The experiment can be replicated with any ideology.    

Enough Abou El Fadls exist to turn back the tide of Islamic extremism; The Great Theft is testament to this fact. The reformers must now study the spread of puritanism to figure out how best to mobilize for what Abou El Fadl rightly terms a “counter-jihad” against puritan expansion, but this entails less ideological argument and more focus on the boring ground-game mix of community organizing, fundraising, and public relations. The fight cannot be won in any other manner.


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