Khaled Abou El Fadl's Approach to the Hadith
Khaled Abou El Fadl (b.1963) is one of the most distinguished scholars of Islamic law today. He is also one of the few progressive Muslim scholars who has fully engaged with the postmodern episteme, post-enlightenment hermeneutics, and literary theory, as well as applied them in relation to gender issues in Islam, including the interpretation of hadith pertaining to gender. Much of his Qur’anic hermeneutics and approach to Islamic jurisprudence is in agreement with scholars such as mohsen Kadivar and nasr Abu Zayd , and need not be repeated. However, El Fadl’s work also includes discussions pertaining to (in)determinacy of meaning, ambiguity of textual hermeneutics, and the process of meaning derivation as employed, for example, in literary theory and semiotics (which he has applied to both Qur’an and hadith texts) (El Fadl, 2001, 88). El Fadl has systematically engaged in these discussions and has applied them to the issue of women’s rights in Islam. With reference to determinacy of meaning process, El Fadl makes a distinction between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘authoritative’ textual hermeneutics. To substantiate this distinction, El Fadl cites Qur’anic verses upholding the principle of God’s Sovereignty and Omnipotence, as well as the ontological relationship between The Creator and the created, namely that of the Lord and His vicegerent. In this context, he claims that due to this very hierarchy in the natural order, the human representatives of God on earth can never self-identify themselves with God’s intent or profess to have grasped His Knowledge beyond any shadow of doubt or ambiguity – a practice that has, in his opinion, become quite widespread among present-day authorities on religious issues (El Fadl, 2001, 170–177). In this context, he asserts that the prevalent ‘Wahhabo-Salafi’ ‘authoritarian hermeneutics’ is oblivious to the intricate and subtle relationships existing between the author, text, and reader regulating the process of determinacy of meaning of God’s indicators (adilla), and thus is guilty of equating the author’s intent with that of the reader, thereby violating the principles inherent to the Qur’anic weltanschauung and its ethico-religious foundation.
In contrast, El-Fadl, proposes a more balanced approach when engaging in the task of interpreting texts in which neither the author’s intent, the language, nor the reader have the upper hand in determining the meaning that he terms ‘authoritative’. It is the balance between these three which upholds the ‘inherent ambiguity’ embedded in the textual sources, thus acting as an anti-authoritarian interpretative measure. He advocates what Umberto Eco (1979) has termed as ‘an open’ (versus closed) interpretation which is capable of sustaining ‘multiple interpretative strategies’. El Fadl terms this ‘authoritative hermeneutics’.
Importantly, El Fadl (2001) applies some of these insights to deconstruct misogynist interpretations of Islamic law as espoused by contemporary Saudi Arabian scholars (whom he refers to at times as ‘puritans’ or ‘Wahhabo- Salafis’), especially those based on a particular approach to and interpretation of hadith literature.
In this context, El Fadl (2005) elsewhere asserts:
The consistent practice of puritans is to collect, publish, and disperse traditions, attributed to the Prophet or the Companions, that are demeaning to women. Such collections act as a foundation for issuing deprecating determinations in regard to women. Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab himself, the founder of the Wahhabi movement, set the precedent by collecting a group of these women-deprecating traditions and listing them under the subheading “Living with Women.” But these women-deprecating traditions, without exception, are of weak authenticity, if not pure fabrications . . . The traditions utilized by the puritans invariably are of a single transmission, which means that the possibility exists that the Prophet actually authored them, but the possibility is remote and far-fetched.
One aspect of El Fadl’s approach to the question of hadith and its authenticity generally is best reflected in the following passage:
The mechanical and nearly mathematical methodology that Ahl al-hadith apply to the hadith and Sunna in light of our modern epistemological knowledge about reality, meaning, fiction, archetypes, symbolism, phenomenology, and especially history is untenable. . . . In fact the oral reports that are commonly titled the books of hadith often construct and narrate a performance – a performance that preserves a memory of the prophet in some form but that also documents the epistemological attitude of early Muslim generations (2014,317).
El Fadl still sees value in preserving and studying this body of knowledge as it can be mined for its historical, theological, ethical, and moral insights but this process of study ought to be achieved by means of an “epistemological arsenal that is available to us today – not through the epistemological tools that existed more than ten centuries ago” (El Fadl, 2014, 318). El Fadl also forms the view that the traditional Islamic sciences approached this body of knowledge too literally, a feature which contemporary Muslims are, for reasons stated earlier, to avoid at every cost. In this context El Fadl (2014) writes:
the books of hadith are replete with dramatized performances that are
deeply embedded in the epistemological and phenomenological dialectics
of the first centuries of Islam and therefore are not to be understood
as strictly factual. (2014,318)
Apart from this epistemological critique of the hadith body of literature, El Fadl, importantly, has introduced some novel hermeneutical principles in the evaluation of authenticity of the hadith which go outside of those established by the classical hadith sciences and has applied them to argue for gender-just interpretations of Islam.
The concepts of ‘multiple authorship’ and ‘authorial enterprise’ are such an example. According to El Fadl, the term ‘authorial enterprise’ refers to the process of determining to what extent the Prophet’s role in the historical transmission of the report can safely be established. In this context, he argues that when evaluating reports attributed to the Prophet, we need to keep in mind that these reports are a result of what a number of Companions have “seen/heard, recollected, selected, transmitted and authenticated in a non-objective medium”, hence they have multiple authorship. This view is further supported by classical Islamic scholarship’s view of hadith as not being the actual words of the Prophet but recollections and interpretations of the Prophet’s words which (often/sometimes/at times) retained the core meaning by the individuals reporting them. Hence, hadith can be a result of several authors and various collateral influences, each impacting upon both the structure and the meaning of the report. Therefore, in each report, a personality of the transmitter is indelibly imprinted, a process he terms ‘authorial enterprise’ (El Fadl, 2001, 88). El Fadl (2014, 316–317) argues that due to this nature of the hadith, “it is virtually impossible to attribute any specific report to a particular person in history, whether the Prophet or any of the early generations of Muslims”. Rather, these reports, which might retain kernels of truth from the Prophet, are more indicative of the memory of the early generations of Muslims and the contesting ideological currents that were prevalent at the time.14
Additionally, El Fadl applies another regulatory mechanism relating to the normative effect of hadith reports. According to this rule, reports having “widespread moral, legal, or social implications” must be of the highest rank of authority and “require [the] heaviest burden of proof” (El Fadl, 2001, 89). When approached with certain morally repugnant but ‘sound’ hadith (from the perspective of classical hadith sciences, ‘ulum ul hadith) that has wide-ranging implications for society, the proof must be the highest otherwise the hadith will not be considered as normative. Lastly, when dealing with morally repugnant hadith (e.g. misogynist), as the very last methodological resort, El Fadl introduces the concept of a ‘conscientious pause’, which is a faith-based objection to textual evidence based upon the overall understanding of the Qur’an-Sunna weltanschauung and its élan/ethos (El Fadl, 2001, 93). He utilizes these hermeneutical principles to reject the normative nature of misogynistic hadith that are relied on Saudi Arabian scholars to deny gender-just interpretations of Islam (El Fadl, 2001).
So , in summary, El Fadl does not discount the potential role of hadith as sources of an Islamic worldview altogether but he puts in place a number of methodological and epistemological caveats that ought to be applied before assessing their role and worth in informing Islamic beliefs, practices, laws and ethics.