Reasoning with God. Reclaiming Shari’ah in the Modern Age by Khaled Abou El Fadl Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014. 556 pp. $50. Reviewed by Stephen Schwartz
Middle East Quarterly Spring 2016
Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at the University of California, Los Angeles, has produced a dense and wordy work that amounts to an encyclopedia of evasion. Endorsed by international Islamist “rock star” and Muslim Brotherhood apologist Tariq Ramadan, Reasoning with God is clearly intended as a major academic text but is really a defense of the outlook of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement the author seldom describes or addresses straightforwardly. Nor is he transparent about his own relations with the Brotherhood even as the text includes numerous personal reminiscences pointing indirectly at such a relationship.
Worse, Reasoning includes flights of fancy and conspiracy theories that make the book, at times, almost comical: The failed “Arab spring” was caused in significant part by Arab resentment over Muslim humiliation at the hands of U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, he says, and the incarceration of accused terrorists at Guantánamo Bay. The 2002 death by fire of fifteen schoolgirls in Mecca, who were prevented from escaping the blaze by members of the Saudi morals patrol, was really caused by resentment over indignities inflicted by the West in Afghanistan and “Palestine.” A Saudi fatwa justifying slavery to legitimize the exploitation of foreign domestic workers “was a direct response to the  American invasion of Iraq.”
The author does qualify these outlandish assertions by specifying that they cannot be proven empirically, but that does not inhibit him from piling them on, even relying on the bogus memoirs of British spy Oliver Hempher who supposedly encouraged the rise of Wahhabism to weaken Ottoman and Islamic power. But there is no more evidence that Hempher ever existed than there is connecting the 2002 Mecca girls’ school fire to events in the larger Middle East.
Nor will the volume be of much use to an individual seeking to learn about Shari’a, the topic of the book’s subtitle. Abou El Fadl is committed to the reestablishment of Shari’a as a component of common law in Muslim lands and blames its abandonment for much of the decline in Islamic intellectual rigor.
In the end, Abou El Fadl’s book offers little more than the dyspeptic ranting of a Muslim Brotherhood acolyte with a deep enmity toward both Wahhabism and Western “colonialists.” Hailed as an Islamic moderate exposition by the gullible, his Reasoning instead takes leave of both reason and reality.