Khaled Abou El-Fadl has written an amazing book, And God Knows the Soldiers. He discusses the issue of authority in Islam, and how certain “authorities” have blurred the lines between their interpretation and the actual text itself, in this case the Qur’an. He argues that many of today’s ‘ulama have crossed the line between being authoritative and authoritarian. Although God is sovereign, this sovereignty can only be exercised through human agents. Since humans do not receive direct guidelines and communications from God, they must therefore examine God’s will through a medium. In Islam, this medium is the Qur’an, which as a text exercises total authority.
Human agents negotiate the process of determining the authenticity and meaning of the text. In fact, the role of human agency in expressing the Will of the Divine is unavoidable (31).
The two extremes that often result from this process of negotiation are the following. One is that you end up with a religion that is completely subjective and individual, and this is risky as it could weaken the authority and dilute the value the text has. The other extreme is that you could see all issues of meaning resolvable and thus you only need to worry about carrying out the resulting instructions. This is also risky because it could leave you with a religion that is rigid and inflexible. Abou El-Fadl defines authoritarianism as being
manifested by the act of empowering oneself with the moral weight of religion in order to obtain unjustifiable deference from others (34).
In this process, a text with different meanings could be appropriated by someone and recast instead as a text with a single meaning. Authoritarianism cannot be anything but negative, as it is an abuse of power and a betrayal of the trust others place in the agent as an authority. Instead, we should make it clear that our interpretations are just that: our interpretations. This is how the text remains authoritative.
Finally, there is a worrying process involved in an interpreter becoming authoritarian: the closing of an open text.
Effectively the interpreter approaches an open text – open because the text is accessible to all readers and interpreters – and closes it, rendering it inaccessible (41).
The meaning of the text and the interpretations of the speaker become the same as the speaker and the text become one. This last point is important – closing an open text – because in my opinion it is one of the most noteworthy critiques of the contemporary ‘ulama and the traditionalists in general: that the Qur’an is an open text, accessible to all, but it has been effectively “closed” due to authoritarianism and monopolization by the ‘ulama and pre-modern Islamic jurists and scholars.