Islam and Muslims in America (Interview)

Islam in the West: Dr. Jasser Auda (Part 1)
By Reading Islam Staff

Jasser Auda at Onislam
Dr. Jasser Auda at Onislam.net
Dr. Jasser Auda

During his recent visit to Cairo, the first visit following the Egyptian revolution which started this year on January 25th, Dr. Jasser Auda met with members of the Onislam.net editorial team for more than two hours in a dialogue on the Purposes of Islamic Law (Maqasid Al-Shari'ah) in the context of today's current events, which is his field of specialization.

For those who don't know him, Dr. Jasser Auda is an Egyptian/Canadian scholar born in Cairo in 1966. He is an Associate Professor at the Public Policy in Islam Program of the Faculty of Islamic Studies in Qatar. He is a Founding Member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars (IUMS) in Ireland, and a member of several committees dealing with Islamic thought and contemporary issues in Canada, the UK, Egypt, India and the US.

Before the start of his talk on Maqasid, we conducted with him this interview on the Shari'ah Index project, and the recent controversy in the US on the issue of Islamic Law and the conditions of Islam in America, followed by the situation of Muslims in Europe and how the conditions of Muslims in the West in general could be improved in the near and distant future.

This is a transcript of the first part of the interview on Islam and Muslims in America, which took place in Cairo, on Wednesday 9 March 2011:

Onislam.net (OI): It is a pleasure to have you with us today at Onislam, and we are honored by your visit.

OI: You mentioned today something about the initiative you took in cooperation with the Gallup Foundation, to present Shari'ah (called the Shari'ah Index). Could you give us the background of the project, and elaborate on the findings you reached in this project?

Jasser Auda (JA): The Shari'ah Index project is a project that started several years ago, about five years ago. I actually joined the project two years after it started. It started as an initiative of the Cordoba Initiative, which is an American NGO that is interested in bridging the gap between the West and Islam. They were supported by the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Badawi at that point, in order for them to answer the following question: "What is an Islamic State?"

There were a number of experts who met over a number of years in order to answer that question. I was honored to join that committee in 2007, where that seminar reached the following conclusion: The Islamic state is the state that establishes Maqasid Al-Shari'ah, or the purposes, objectives, intents, higher principles of the Islamic Law. That is how we can measure the "islamicity" of a state. Obviously Maqasid Al-Shari'ah is a very human general way of measuring the well-being of human beings, whether we are talking about the preservation of religion (faith), the preservation of souls (of life), the preservation of wealth, the preservation of offspring, or if you wish for a contemporary translation the preservation of family, and the preservation of honor, and dignity or rights in the general sense.

So from this, the committee started to consult with Gallup Foundation in the States, as to how can we measure the achievements of Maqasid Al-Shari'ah in Muslim societies, and also in non-Muslim majority societies, whether Muslims are majority or minority, how can we measure the success of the state in implementing or achieving these things in the society via its policies. And actually even this idea evolved to how to measure the success of the society itself, whether the state plays a major or minor role or not in that, so how the society succeeds in achieving these goals. When we met with Gallup as a delegation from the Committee, in their HQ in Washington DC, for a couple of years, trying to brainstorm with them the intersection between that index, which we ended up calling the Shari'ah Index, or the Maqasid Index, and their well-being Index. And there was a lot of intersection.

OI: Was this study limited to the US or was it on a global scale?

JA: It was actually on a global scale. We ended up deciding to study the OIC countries, which is the Organization of the Islamic Conference countries as a first stage, and then to expand that to other countries in the world. And we realized that we were not big enough, and that our support from the Malaysian government, even though is was a great support, it was not big enough to really come up with the ranking itself of the different countries, but at least to come up with the criteria by which you can build the Index.

Of course to make an index, we have to go to all the different countries and ask them, which would require a building and a number of people. Gallup though cooperated by giving us data that they have on the Muslim world. Our sister Dalia Mugahed at that time she was the Head of the Muslim societies branch, now she is in Abu Dhabi leading the same project on Muslim societies in a different project. At that time in Washington she was leading the Muslim societies index, and she gave us according to an agreement between Gallup, Cordoba and the Prime Minister of Malaysia office, gave us the data for three years, through which we came up with some conclusions based on asking people.

The Index itself of Muslim societies, or the Poll of Muslim societies, was not meant to be a Maqasid Index, but we transformed the results of these questions and answers into what could fit as an analysis of the Maqasid of Shari'ah Index. And we ended up with some sort of index, but not really ranking the countries, but just an initial study. Unfortunately it was never published anyway. I guess politically the project could not continue after some point, but it was a proposal for an Index as to how we can measure the well-being of the society which is based on the Maqasid Al-Shari'ah achievement in a society, based on an analysis of what exactly we mean by the right for life, for example, or preservation of life. For example, we divided that into health related issues and environment related issues, … etc. all from an Islamic point of view. And the poll which was asking Muslims how these things are achieved on the ground, in different Muslim countries, these questions were used as indices into the Maqasid Index, so that we can measure the achievements of these Maqasid in Muslim societies. So, that was the project.

OI: What were the most important criteria for the Shari'ah Index? You mentioned health, other criteria for the Index included education I assume?  

JA: Well, we divided the criteria in the same division that is there in Maqasid Al-Shari'ah, which are: (Darooriyat, Hajiyyat & Tahsiniyat), meaning the necessities, what we call "the needs" and what we call the "luxuries". The necessary criteria were the main criteria, and this is divided into five as it is in the classic theory of Maqasid: The preservation of religion / faith, The preservation of life, The preservation of family, The preservation of honor, The preservation of mind and dignity

Now, these were equally-weighted, because each of those represent a part of the Islamic understanding of well-being, but the necessities were the highest of the scores. Now measuring these things, there were things that overlapped with the UNDP for example (The United Nations Development Program) criteria as in health, education and all of that, and there were things that were exclusively Islamic, like for example in the preservation of mind number one criteria was what we call the Sobriety Index. It is very important in Islam that a mind is conscious, and the society that is free of drugs and alcohol for that matter, is an Islamic society in that sense. And therefore countries that allowed alcohol to some extent, or was not tough on drugs for example compared to other countries scored less, though these countries could be alright in other well-being indices.

The preservation of honor, the issue of adultery in Islam is a major issue, so if a country is giving a priority in its educational system, and if the formal and informal media in that country is going against the culture of adultery, this country for example scored higher, even though the family values … etc are common amongst people. So there were issues which were common among humanity, to be honest most of the indices, but some of the indices were exclusively Islamic that we inserted in the Index.  

OI: So the first phase as I understand it was Muslim countries (OIC countries). Then you went to a second phase of this project to apply this concept to the US?

JA: Actually we didn't finish the first phase. Before the end of the first phase and publishing anything which has to do with OIC countries, what we decided a couple of months ago is to publish a book which has the criteria of the Index, and the theoretical analysis of the index, but without ranking any countries. And I think the project stopped there. We can appreciate that there is a lot of politics in ranking Islamic or non-Islamic countries in term of how Islamic they are, which I think put the project at the end to a halt at this stage.

OI: But you presented this idea to a society in the US?

JA: O yes of course. It was on the web site of The Cordoba Initiative, some of the initial findings and the initial criteria of the index, but again without ranking or anything, because this was never finalized, and I think the cooperation with Gallup stopped there. This will be in that book which Cordoba will publish, will be an Appendix really, an initial study carried out with Gallup as to how we can really try to measure these things. The questions will be included in the Appendix but not the findings.

There was a lot of uproar in the States when the findings were presented because some obviously right-wing politicians in the States, Neocons to be precise, they thought that this is too friendly of a picture that we are introducing for Islam, and especially with the other project of the Cordoba Initiative, which is the Islamic Center in New York, that the Shari'ah Index was supposed to have the headquarter there, in one of the floors. This was too much for them to take in terms of how friendly this is. You find articles on the Internet and blogs sites and stuff, and how these people are deceiving America by making Shari'ah very friendly. But actually the council which was formed of thirty very prominent Shari'ah scholars, that is how they viewed Shari'ah. Nobody was giving any false picture, and In-Shaa-Allah when the book comes out, hopefully by the end of this year, you will see how authentic and classic these views are. This is Shari'ah, that is how we understand it. But perhaps some people have an agenda not to present any friendly picture of the Shari'ah. It is supposed to remain a buzzword for evil and stuff for some agendas.

OI: Did you get any positive reactions from academics or objective researchers?

JA: Yes, we did actually. In our campaign for publishing that book, we sent a summary and some main highlights to a number of Muslim thinkers and scholars who praised the project and were willing to participate in the seminar when we announce it. Yet exactly the contributions and the official statements evaluations are still in the making, we don't have anything to publish so far.

OI: So as you are familiar with the environment of Islam in the States and the conditions of Muslims in the US, what do you consider are the main challenges Muslims in America are facing at the moment, especially with the recent campaign against Shari'ah in the US?

JA: I think the main challenges are political, rather than cultural. I think Islam is integrating in America in a very good way. The second generation of Muslims there are advancing, building their own institutions, and I am speaking about America and Canada, being a Canadian anyway. I think these people are re-defining their existence there in a very indigenous and familiar way. You see they are, like in Canada, because it's a multi-cultural society, they present Islam as one component of that society. And I think so far they've been successful in separating their cultural baggage and their cultural background from the new reality of life in Canada.  

In the States it's a bit different because it's a melting pot, where you know you have to be American before anything else. But I think American Muslims are succeeding in that. America has the advantage of allowing people to add another description to being American, Arab American, Muslim American, Italian American, … etc., and I think Muslim Americans or American Muslims are succeeding in forming this new identity in a very good way. I think the challenges are mostly political. Of course there are cultural challenges where they have to kind of develop the initiatives that they took, in mosques being more family-friendly and women-friendly, and I think this is very important to develop.

But I think the major challenge is political because there are so many people who have a political agenda against minorities in general, on racial basis or partisan basis or something. And these people are very powerful in the media, some of them have some Zionist agendas, some of them are pro-Israel and they think that the American Muslims are going to be a problem for their political views, and political agendas. So this is the main challenge in America for Muslims from my perspective.

OI: Do you consider that the overall image of Islam and Muslims in the States is more positive now compared to what it used to be a few years ago? Is the image of Muslims and Islam in the media improving with time or is it getting worst?

JA: I think it's improving. I think a few years ago, especially after 9/11, the image of Muslims was very negative. Now as there are more and more Americans who question the official narration of 9/11 and asking for more investigations on one hand, and as Muslims are becoming more vocal and more representative of the values of Islam on the other hand, I think that makes the overall picture of Muslims being much better, because on the one hand Muslims are more aware of the need to present themselves in a vocal way and in a way where they seek common grounds between them and fellow citizens, and on the other hand the campaign which was against Muslims and the accusations of Muslims that they are behind every evil in the American society is actually becoming less and less as more average Americans are being aware of perhaps the other evils in society, and the other interest groups that are causing damage to society.

So Al-Hamdulel-Alah, the image is improving in general. The current Administration is very friendly towards Muslims, and the initiatives that they take are very useful. President Obama's statements that Islam is one of the religions of America, even though it brought him a lot of accusations of being Muslim and all this non-sense, but actually it is very true and very useful for Muslims, that is a very different talk from the Islamo-facism and all that stuff we heard before, and that is very useful for Muslims in America.

End of Part 1 of interview.

Part 2 on Islam and Muslims in Europe to follow …

Related Links:
Islam and Muslims in Europe (Interview)
Community Responsibility Towards New Muslims
Reverts and their Muslim Communities
Bracing that Perfect Storm – with an Air of Calm
The Prophet's Guidance for New Muslim Youth

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