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Khaled Abou El Fadl: Project illumine (Tafsir of the Quran)

Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl is truly one of our time’s most distinguished and brilliant Islamic thinkers, engaging both Muslims and non-Muslims on numerous complex issues regarding the interpretation of the Islamic faith, law, and the Quran. In her interview, Dr. Safiyyah Ally probes his thoughts on several topics related to the Quran. She puts forth challenging questions that demand further explanation from Dr. Abou El Fadl, while also bringing about deep reflection on the part of the viewer: how can we understand the Quran to have complete ethical coherence in its overall message? What has motivated Dr. Abou El Fadl to undertake Project Illumine: The Light of the Quran, the first direct-to-English Quran commentary (tafsir) in 40 years? In response, Abou El Fadl explained why each chapter of the Quran has the educational function of elevating human beings ethically beyond any specific period or historical moment. Likewise, he describes how the Prophet (peace be upon him) embodies in his traditional legacy a living example of the content and function of God’s message as provided in the Quran. Uninterrupted and inseparable from self-conscious exegesis, the Quran’s message, described in each chapter, is brought to light with diverse explanations throughout this extraordinary interview.


Abou EL Fadl’s essential argument is that we have become alienated from the Islamic tradition through the many interventions of the West into Muslim cultures. The manner in which Islam was originally understood by the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) has been forgotten among modern Muslims. The Quran transformed Pre-Islamic Arabia, and we must continually ask ourselves why this was the case. He says:


"What is it about this dynamic between the history of the earliest Muslims and the way that the Quran engaged that history, interacted with that history and elevated these human beings beyond their historical moment? So much so, we say it is very likely, but we don’t understand how enormous it is; so much so that they left both Sassanids and the Byzantines well behind them, and that’s mind-boggling."

As the reader can tell, the description of the magnitude of the Quran’s impact on early Arabic civilization was immense. In his interview, Abou El Fadl described the long and challenging time he spent investigating medieval Quran commentaries. He wanted to know when and where each verse was revealed and eventually discovered how the principles articulated in the Meccan period gave the early Muslims abstract moral foundations. In contrast, the Medinan period was a living, breathing example of how one goes from these abstract Quranic principles to an applied and practical morality.


Every chapter of the Quran taught a specific lesson to the early Muslims. For example, the Quran in chapter 57 is entitled al-Hadid. According to Abou El Fadl, the chapter does not take its name because iron is mentioned; rather, the title indicates that each Muslim must be like iron when facing hardships in life. Here, if we read the chapter with this in mind, we would understand the message as the Muslims in the Meccan period understood it.


Abou El Fadl explains how the Quran came to educate the early Muslims and taught them ways of living according to high moral standards. It is difficult for the modern mind to understand how transformative this process was in Medieval pre-Islamic Arabia. God reminds Muslims that they are individually responsible for their own souls and should not become prideful. He explained why the Quranic chapter, Maryam, was so revolutionary to the early Muslims’ understanding of this principle:


"The Jewish law of the temple did not allow women to be servants in the temple. But Maryam and her parents defied the system of patriarchy and defied the law of the temple. And what the rabbis of the temple said is, “well, okay, if you are not gonna go away, you are only allowed in this small little room in the corner of the temple.” And she refused to withdraw. And we forget what it means for a virgin woman who already defied the elders of the temple, the rabbis, the servants of the temple, and her parents … to have not just a boy, but a boy who was unrelenting in criticizing the unethical behavior of the rabbis of the temple."

Of course, the boy spoken about here is Isa (peace be upon him). But the example of Maryam and her fortitude explains why the chapter was named after her. But what was it about the Quranic message that produced all the extraordinary women in the first two centuries? “What is it that they understood that we are missing out on?” Abou El Fadl believes that the reception of the Quran and its message somehow empowered the women of the first two centuries. Their reception of the Quran, morally and intellectually, ultimately outweighs all ideas which empowered women of the later centuries.


Ally asked Abou El Fadl: “what of the verses that give us ethical pause? How does your tafsir project deal with the verses on slavery or inheritance.” Abou El Fadl explained that the verses should be closely examined in context to be understood correctly, and he follows this methodology when teaching his students. He spends hours discussing the inheritance verse and all the Quranic verses that might relate to slavery. Each verse must be analyzed in the context of legal history and the function of law in medieval times: the other legal systems of the period would, for example, lock a woman in a room or put her to death on a mere accusation from her husband. People may be unaware that, in many parts of the world, it still remains the custom that women within the legal system are not considered persons. In a revolutionary way, the Quran prohibits this custom and declares the personhood of all women. The Quran created a lot of tension among men, but God vindicated women and made them feel human in a society that did not recognize their status as individuals who could also think, feel, and have rights. This message of the Quran is still relevant to the status of women today in many parts of the world.


It is difficult to describe or overstate Abou El Fadl’s insight in his 10-year personal study of the Quran and the commentary tradition. If the viewer takes the time to watch the recorded interview, they will see how he deals with the subtleties of the Quran. His interview, more than anything else, makes the viewer want to dive into his commentaries on the Quran in Project Illumine: The Light of the Quran, the first direct-to-English Quran commentary (tafsir) in 40 years. We at Let the Quran Speak hope to speak with Dr. Fadl more about his understanding of the Quran in the future.

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