September 22, 2003

Islamic Scholar Gives Lecture on Human Rights

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Islamic legal scholar and writer, Khaled Abou El Fadl, gave a public lecture entitled “Islam and Human Rights” on Friday afternoon in Goldwin Smith Auditorium D. The lecture room’s 186 seats were nearly all occupied by the lecture’s start and still more guests trickled in afterwards.

Before Fadl’s arrival, Prof. Shawkat Toorawa, near eastern studies, introduced the speaker. “[Fadl] has called into question the evolution of Islamic Law,” Toorawa said. In addition, Toorawa explained, Fadl has been noted as an excellent speaker and a person of great charisma. “[He] is a towering presence,” Toorawa said.

Despite arriving a little later than expected due to traffic conditions on the way from Yale, Fadl began speaking immediately upon entering the auditorium through a front doorway. “Thank you,” Fadl said, in response to the audience’s clapping. Fadl then explained that he would keep his speech short in order to accommodate questions at the end.

“The human rights paradigm is a convictional system — a system based on a belief of both values and priorities,” Fadl stated at the onset. “Human beings are vulnerable to abuse, [and] human beings in a structured society have a propensity to engage in power,” Fadl continued. This power, Fadl suggested, leads to abuse.

Fadl then criticized the use of a deity to substantiate authority and abusive authoritarian acts. “Abuse is especially bad when the authority backing the abuse invokes the name of the divine,” Fadl stated.

Midway through the lecture, Fadl’s focus changed to that of core Islamic values. “Any Muslim would be able to tell you that one of the core values of Islam is mercy,” Fadl stated. Fadl then described the condition of mercy as “knowledge of oneself and of another.”

In addition, “to know someone you must reach a level of empathy with them — refrain from killing them.” Accordingly, Fadl qualified the relevance of his statements by explaining that mercy is the essential component to achieve human justice. “Mercy provides the core moral value for justice,” Fadl said. Without these core values, claimed Fadl, “we are left only with rules and regulations.” Fadl described such a state as “a very deformed reality of Muslim law.”

At the end of the speech, Fadl allowed members of the audience to ask questions. Some members expressed uneasiness with Fadl’s speech. “What am I supposed to do with your lecture,” asked one member of the audience who subsequently explained that he felt Fadl’s lecture was so abstract and philosophical that it offered no tangible solution to the issues of human right’s abuses. “You don’t have to do anything with my lecture,” Fadl responded. He then explained that philosophy does have a place in the shaping of a society and its core moral values.

Other members of the audience expressed concern over how to encourage a society to embrace values such as mercy. In response, Fadl admitted that such a feat would be difficult to accomplish, but nonetheless necessary.

After the questions, certain students expressed satisfaction with Fadl’s lecture. “I liked the lecture,” Aneela Haider ’05 said, “I liked the way he was drawing up the fact that mercy is essential to human rights.”

Shada El Sharif ’05 said that Fadl’s lecture “took me by surprise in a good way. [By] making his entire argument in abstract form, he really got the audience engaged.” Sharif also described the lecture as “very intellectual.”

Among the publications composed by Fadl is God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women, And God Knows the Soldiers: The Authoritative and Authoritarian in Islamic Discourse, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law and The Place of Tolerance in Islam. In addition, Reasoning With God: Islam and the Challenge of Democracy is due out in January.

Fadl is also a visiting professor at Yale Law School and a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles. He received a B.A. from Yale University, a JD from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University. He was recently appointed to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom by President George W. Bush and frequently serves as an expert witness in international litigation involving Middle Eastern law.

Fadl’s lecture was sponsored by several organizations including the Department of Near Eastern Studies, the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, the Department of Government, the Ithaca College Department of Politics, Cornell United Religious Works, the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association and the Cornell Arab Association, among others.

Archived article by David Andrade