A Conversation With Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
Founder and Chairman, Cordoba Initiative
President Emeritus and Chairman of the Board, Institute for Global Engagement
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder and chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, joins the Institute for Global Engagement's Chris Seiple to discuss the fundamental requirements and parameters of contemporary Islamic statehood, as part of CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.
SEIPLE: Good afternoon, folks. We’re going to begin our conversation.
Just like before a plane takeoff, you are at the Council on Foreign Relations. You’re here to hear from the esteemed Imam Feisal about a book called Defining Islamic Statehood, and you’re at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is being videoed, it’s on the record, so please be aware of that. And we will end promptly at 2:00.
My name is Chris Seiple. I work for an organization called the Institute for Global Engagement. We operate at the intersection of religion and realpolitik, in some complicated places, trying to demonstrate that people of faith can contribute positively in all sectors of life, resulting in a society that is civil, a state that is stable, and in particular doing that through rule of law and religious freedom, but also discussions of security and citizenship.
So it should be perhaps no surprise that along the way, over the last 15 years of doing these kinds of things, that I have come to know, respect, and love Imam Feisal.
FEISAL: Thank you, Chris.
SEIPLE: He is a man who is of considerable charm, of good humor, a soft heart. But the thing that I love about him most is that he wrestles with his faith in the sense of thinking through how it gets applied in complicated places, starting with our own hearts, but then also taking that theology and thinking through what it means for governance, and then what that governance means for good policies, for multi-faith action at home and civil society and abroad, but also on issues of security and stability.
And so what he has done through a seven-year conversation with the ulama, Islamic scholars from around the world, is that he has had a conversation about what is it about Islamic principles and objectives that inform good governance. How does my theology inform good governance, and then what are the implications for that in the world that we live in—a world where there are real security concerns? So today we’re going to talk about that book and kind of go through those types of questions until about 1:15, then we’re going to open up the floor for comment.
So thank you, Imam Feisal, for being here today.
FEISAL: My pleasure indeed, Chris, and thank you for that very warm introduction. And God bless you, and God bless you all, and thank you very much for being here.
SEIPLE: What I thought we might do first is, in terms of you coming to grips with how to write—about this book, you say in the introduction that law cannot be separated from divine law, and that they have to be—there has to be a—not a coalescence, but they have to be in agreeance with one another. And so he brought together Islamic experts—Islamic theologians, if you will—from around the world to have that discussion. What were the key concepts that had to be thought through theologically before you could get to governance and then develop an index by which you could gauge the Islamisticity of particular governments and states?
FEISAL: There’s like three questions in that one question, Chris.
FEISAL: Well, let me just first say that the reason why I conceived of this project is because the term “Islamic state,” Dawlat al-Islamiyah in Arabic, is a relatively new term in Islamic—in Islamic thought. Until the beginning of the mid-19th century, beginning of 20th century, this term did not exist. People talked about the right—the right ruler—caliph, sultan, emir. These are the terms that were used in traditional Islamic thought on the—on the mutual obligations between the ruler and the ruled.
When, at the end of the Ottoman caliphate and the Mughal caliphate in India and Turkey, et cetera, and the concept of a modern nation-state evolved, then the issue of how the state would identify itself became. So the—fast-forwarding to the last century, increasingly towards the second half of the 20th century, this concept, Islamic state, has not really been adequately defined in a way that there is consensus around this issue. The word “Islamic state” has been used—in usage in different ways, which do not even mesh with each other. The OIC was a group of 57 majority-Muslim nations which grouped together, and they’re called the Organization of Islamic Conference, now called Cooperation. It’s basically a demographic definition. There are states like Turkey and Indonesia, which consider themselves secular states. There are states like Saudi Arabia, which is a monarchy. There are republics. There are democracies. And yet, they’re all members of this, and we call them the Islamic countries or the Islamic world, the world.
But there is also an aspiration to define an Islamic state in terms of the obligations that we have to the Creator. If you look at the original term “religion”—“religiare” in—or “religare” in Latin, “to bind,” the covenant, which is both an Abrahamic idea, a Jewish idea, Christian and Muslim idea, is that there is a contractual agreement or covenantal agreement between God the creator and humankind as his creatures. And there are—these commandments and obligations, these obligations are what bind us, in the word of “religion,” what religion means. And therefore “din,” which is often translated as “religion,” which also means “law” in Hebrew, all right, is the—is the sum total of the reciprocal obligations that we have to the Creator and what the Creator has pledged towards us if we abide by His dictates. So religion is essentially law, the commandments of law. And as we have said in our American Declaration of Independence, the laws of nature and of nature’s God, which links it to the idea of a particular worldview that recognizes the role of the Creator and the Creator’s laws as giving us our mutual perspective with God and our perspective towards our fellow human beings and the rest of creation.
So these are all involved in the notion of what does a(n) Islamic ruler or a Muslim ruler have to do in terms of his commitment to abide by the divine laws when he or she rules a particular country. So that was the aspect, to provide clarity around the meaning of a Dawlat al-Islamiyah, or Islamic state, and to explore the prospect of consensus among a group of Islamic scholars, some of whom were actually in government or in the judiciary, to—who are recognized by their respective countries, on what the term “Islamic statehood” means. Because if you could get consensus among a working group of scholars that represents a cross-section of Muslims around the world, Sunni and Shia, representing key Muslim countries, and then develop that consensus and grow it and expand it, then we have something that can be of use. The other step was then to measure that definition—to seek to see how, if we can develop methodology, to measure the definition that the jurists agreed upon. So that was the ambition of the project.
SEIPLE: Say a little bit, if you would, about—one word that most people would understand and respect for—and recognize is the word sharia. Among my Muslim friends, they say that’s a way of life, a code of conduct, a law. But what struck me in reading the book was that sharia can be interpreted in different ways at different times and different contexts, and in some ways that allowed the scholars to come together, and then through a process of ijtihad, of legal reasoning, of interpretation, that there could be an agreement about what this index might be based on common theological concepts. Could you say a little bit about sharia and ijtihad in terms of how you came to the point where you could have an index to gauge governance?
FEISAL: Sure. The word—the word “sharia” comes from a verse in the Quran where God says he has “shara’a lakum minad deeni”—he has ordained for you of din, which can be religion and law, what he recommended to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, and to Jesus, that you—that you worship God and not be divided in your worship. So there is a clear concept that the Quranic view of sharia is—means God’s ordinances, God’s commandments. So the Ten Commandments, you know, all of that is part of sharia. It means what God has ordained for us. It’s God’s commandments.
Now, God also says in the Quran that he has—he has abrogated some of his commandments. I mean, Muslims believe that Jesus and Moses and Abraham are all our prophets. They are just—just like, you know, in the Bible you consider—Christians regard all the Old Testament prophets as part of their heritage, we regard all of the Old Testament and Jesus Christ as our prophets as well. In other words, we should not think of Islam as—there’s a—there’s a tendency for people to think of Islam as Muhammad incorporated, Judaism as Moses incorporated, and Christianity as Jesus incorporated. The Quranic viewpoint is that Islam is God incorporated, with Muhammad, Jesus, and Moses as regional managers, if I can use that analogy. So we must think of religion and sharia from the Quranic point of view. It refers to what God has ordained to all of humanity, and there’s a commonality to all of that. You know, the Ten Commandments is—essentially comprises a lot of it. So that’s what sharia is.
And the fact that in terms of details God has modified his laws. In the Quran Jesus is quoted as saying I have come to change, to make permissible for you some of that which was prohibited for you before. And the Quran itself says that God himself has abrogated some verses, replaced them with other verses, which indicates to Muslim scholars that the sharia itself is—has to be interpreted to suit the time and the context.
And this is why we have had—have different what are called madhhabs of fiqh, schools of jurisprudence of schools of interpretation, in different—we had the Hanafi madhhab in, you know, the Sunni world. We have different schools of interpretation. And even with the Shafi’i interpretation, differentiation between when he was in Iraq and Egypt, or different interpretations of the Hanafi madhhab between India and Turkey. So this proves the living quality and the need of scholars and the reality and the historical fact of scholars of jurisprudence who have engaged with the needs of their time to make sure that it speaks to the relevance of their particular context, but at the same time maintaining the continuity of the essentials of the face. That’s the—that’s where the tricky balance is.
SEIPLE: In writing the book—and by the way, the book is in the back and you should go get a copy and get it signed by the author. But what’s fun about the book is that the book actually presents a conversation, and you can listen to the different perspectives from the different authors. And then it ends with a conclusion from different government officials and people who have practiced their faith in civil society and in governments, et cetera, which is fantastic.
FEISAL: Now, may I ask you—I’m going to turn the tables on you.
SEIPLE: (Laughs.) Good.
FEISAL: Because I was so impressed by some of the comments. What did you—what struck you about the book?
SEIPLE: What struck me about the book was this idea of that you actually brought Sunni and Shia together. And so, if you know, Arab world is only 20 percent of the Muslim-majority world. And so there’s Muslim scholars from the other 80 percent that we don’t tend to think about as much here in America, and they’re together sitting at the same table. And remind you, seven years—seven years of conversations, theologians locked in the same room. (Laughs.) And you’re thinking about these things together, and the—it seemed to me, as you moved toward something practical, the anchor point was that you had to resolve—and a question back at you—is the Shia seemed to emphasize in terms of an indexed legitimacy of the ruler, and the Sunni seemed to emphasize governmental outputs, in that way, of the results of the governance. And so how did you come to grips with that? And then how did that inform the index that eventually resulted? Because that was—that struck me. You don’t have a common theology that is a big tent, that doesn’t sacrifice substance, and respects the differentiation among the different traditions, but you still have to move forward in a common way. That had—you had to bridge that gap somehow.
FEISAL: Yes, but the more difficult gap to bridge, Chris, was actually between scholars who represented different countries and were—felt constrained by what I call the chains of political correctness.
SEIPLE: Ah, really?
FEISAL: Yes. For example, I mean, we—as we defined in the passout—handout here, a state is normally—the modern nation-state is defined typically by three things: by its declarations; by the—by the process or the mechanics by which it selects and legitimizes its rulers; and, third, by its deliverables, by its outputs. And so we—the scholars agreed that an ideal Islamic state—because they just to decide, what’s—here’s a perfection of Islamic statehood—it should declare some things; it should have, you know, leaders who are qualified according to the law and so forth; and also should deliver these set of deliverables.
When I come to declarations, the biggest dispute between was with the scholars who are from countries like Malaysia, which—or Pakistan, who declare themselves as Islamic states, and scholars from Turkey and Indonesia, where they don’t declare anything about the Islamic statehood. So they were concerned. So that was—that was an issue, actually.
The issue that you brought—the reason why the Shia-Sunni differentiated on the issue of legitimacy, the issue of legitimacy per se, is because the very birth of the Sunni-Shia divide in the history of Islam was around this issue. It was around the fact that, you know, Imam Ali was for it, and when the people wanted his sons to rule Muawiyah, who was a governor essentially, although was dismissed by Imam Husayn ibn Ali as governor, he refused to surrender, and he and the other governors banded together and succeeded eventually in outlasting and in maintaining power. So this original split and the memory—and the historical memory and this has splayed through the past 14 centuries is the very birth of the Sunni-Shia divide. So in the Shia worldview, the legitimacy of the ruler, for our Shia scholars, was paramount. Whereas the Sunni scholars—not all of them, but you know, a couple of them were more outspoken on the issue of, well, if the—if—the most important is deliverables.
And what’s interesting is that when the—when Sisi took over in Egypt, OK, I began to replay this whole scenario in my mind. I began to reply the discussion. Javad Larijani of Iran was focusing on legitimacy, and Jasser Auda and some others who were focusing on the importance of deliverables, and seeing how—why both were important, OK? The whole issue of whether Sisi was—how he came to power, was it a legitimate way? Which created problems vis-à-vis some Western nations in accepting his legitimacy, and yet the people at the end of the way wanted the deliverables. I mean, as we say in our American Declaration of Independence, you know, these are—this is what the rights that we want, and government’s instituted by men—by people—to help deliver these rights. And when they don’t, we the people have the right to change government to give us what we want. So at the end of the day, the most important thing that people want are those deliverables.
SEIPLE: Move us toward—let’s move from the theological into the practical of the index itself. Say a little bit about what informed how you did the index, and then how you think this could be relevant to a place like the Council on Foreign Relations on policymaking for governments. But also, can the index be used to gauge civil society and multi-faith engagement and working with NGOs and those kinds of things?
FEISAL: In all of these spaces, Chris, I mean, I think the bottom line is a true Islamic state is a state that has to provide justice. And many people, from Ibn Taymiyyah for example, a famous 13th-century scholar, who said Allahu, God will sustain or establish the yaqeen—means to make stand—the just state, even if though it is not a Muslim state. And Allah will abase the tyrannical state, even though it is a Muslim state.
So justice has always been key among Muslim scholars from the very, very beginning. Even among our scholars, they said that, in the traditional thought of Islamic rulers, they said the ideal ruler should be—should be wise, should be pious, and should be just. But they also discussed what happens if he does not all of these three. Well, he still deserves the pledge if he is not pious and not wise, as long as he is just. So justice was the minimum threshold of acceptance of the—of the legitimacy of a ruler in terms of—in terms of his performance. So these scholars agreed upon justice.
And they agreed upon the—that, both in the system of courts and government, that the—that the—that the net result of the institutions of government would be to protect and enhance the so-called six objectives of Islamic law, what’s called maqasid al-sharia in Arabic, which is protection of life, of religion, of property, of intellect, of lineage to expand to family and family values, and honor or dignity. And I have personally mapped these to the American declarations of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, because pursuit of happiness essentially is—these are the things that people want, both to protect it—so by protection of life, which is where national security is important, law enforcement is important, safety in the streets is important—but also health care, to prolong life; and, you know, property, in terms of preventing theft and fraud and corruption; but also advancing of property, so jobs and economic advancement and helping entrepreneurs and stuff like that. So, in each of these six areas, that’s basically the deliverables of an Islamic state.
So if we look at this, an authentic Islamic state based upon the jurisprudence, it looks very similar to America.
FEISAL: This is why many, many people say that a—that America is very, very, very Islamic. And in fact, some of the—a couple of the scholars pointed out that the primary purpose/objective of an Islamic state is to help further God’s intent in testing humankind, because in several verses of the Quran God says we created death and life in order to test you, which of you is best in action. In other words, God created humankind from a drop to test him. So the purpose of God’s creation of humankind is to test us, and a real state—an Islamic state in terms of its substantive deliverables—has to provide an ideal testing environment, you see? Even the—even the verse in the Quran where God says, had God willed he would have made it all of one faith, but he didn’t, in order to test you. So repeatedly the concept of God’s testing humankind is essential. And one of the things that many so-called Islamic states do is they don’t; the coerce.
Which is a very—I mean, what—the tragedy which has befallen the Muslim world today, Chris, is that much of the states which purport to be Islamic are violating the very fundamentals of the faith. We are now battling something the equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, where in the name of Christianity the very antithesis of what the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, came to preach was being practiced. And that’s the tragedy which has befallen the Muslim world today, and that is why it is important for us to advance this—these set of ideas—which, by the way, I can assure you that 99 percent of the Muslims around the world believe in their hearts, but they don’t know how to express.
SEIPLE: Say something—the responsibility of the state is to create an environment for testing, to be in contest over virtue. That also impressed me. I did not know that Islamic concept. But say something about one particular testing ground, and that is of religious minorities. There are real concerns about religious minorities, particularly in the Middle East and the—and the Arab world. And how did the governance and the index, and you as scholars and theologians, how did you think about that and how they—minorities should be accounted for? But also say something about what it means to be a Muslim minority in a country like the U.S., a Christian-majority country, or even Burma, a Burmese-majority country, but there are issues with the Rohingya there.
FEISAL: Well, the jurists unanimously agreed that a true Islamic government has to protect all minorities—not only religious minorities; religious, language, culture, all of those. And the proof of the fact is that until the 20th century, such minorities existed all over the Muslim world. I mean, if you read Will Dalrymple’s book, From the Holy Mountain, I mean, in his journey through Turkey he met varieties of Christians that don’t exist in—never—you know, could not exist in Europe.
And in fact, I’d like to refer you to a book by a friend of mine, John Morrow, called the Six Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of His Time. These are covenants the Prophet Muhammad made with Christian communities in different parts of the world that guaranteed their safety, guaranteed their freedom to practice their religion, to show that the prophetic hadith, the prophetic precedent on protection of minorities is there.
And also is that there is a jurisprudence called fiqh al-aqalliyyat, the jurisprudence of minorities, in Islamic law, which starts—which goes back to the time when—during the prophet’s mission when he was oppressed by the—by the Meccans, and he sent a community—a group of his followers to Abyssinia, modern Ethiopia.
FEISAL: To the Christian king, called Negus. And he gave them protection. And based upon that and similar situations, Islamic jurisprudence is very clear on the fact that Muslim minorities, as long as they have their freedom to practice their religion—to pray, to fast, to live their—according to their morality—that they have to abide by the law of the land and to respect the law of the land. And this is the basis for us in this country.
In fact, I’m working with a friend of mine who is a judge—a sharia court judge in Jerusalem which is part of the Israeli judiciary. He is a member of the Israeli Bar, OK? (Chuckles.) Because the Israeli Supreme Court is actually a civil court, and that means that they have both the rabbinical courts and the sharia courts on an equal standing. And people from Jerusalem and the West Bank love to come to his courts. Why? Because, A, his decisions are actually sharia, whereas the law under Jordan or, you know, of Palestine is actually—they have changed the sharia law after the end of the Ottoman period. Secondly, his decisions, which are according to sharia law, are actually enforced by the Israeli government. (Laughs.) So—which is fascinating. So the point is—and this is in a book which I had in my mind to co-author with him: if Israel can do it, why can’t America, right? So in the area of present status law, which is what this law is about.
But there this jurisprudence, as I said, that has both protection of Muslim minorities under Muslim rule and the loyalty of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim-majority countries to the majority rule and law of the land.
SEIPLE: One more question for you. But before we do that, I want to—we’ll open the floor up, and prepare your questions, and we’ll go to you. But I don’t want us to miss something that Imam Feisal said. When the first martyr in Islam was a woman persecuted for being a minority faith in Saudi Arabia, the prophet sent some of his companions to a Christian kingdom. So a persecuted faith goes to a Christian-majority country for safe haven. I learned this story in the Middle East with my friends in Syria, but the point is that there is an exogenical theological basis in the holy scriptures and the holy sayings of the prophet and the hadith to think this way, and that is something for a Christian ear, at least, that we don’t always hear or understand or expect. I just think it’s very important to call attention to that point in terms of religious minorities, particularly as more research shows that where there’s more religious freedom, there’s more political stability, there’s more economic development, and there’s more women’s empowerment. This is Brian Grim’s work. But this is a very critical point for the future of the Middle East in thinking of this, but it goes back to the holy text.
Last question, and we’ve got to talk about it because everything that you’ve described does not fit what we might draw as an interpretation of Islamic state if we just read the headlines or maybe wrestled with some of our own stereotypes. And so how does the index, how does this book, through people who actually live in those countries as theological experts, how does this help us defeat and think about containing and then defeating this threat of Daesh, or commonly known as the Islamic State, which is neither Islamic or a state, as I suspect you might argue?
FEISAL: Well, part of this, again, is to—I believe we have the content here to combat ISIS ideologically, because to combat—you know, it’s like, if you want to combat an argument, you have to combat it within the framework and the language and the discourse of that particular space, that tradition. So if you want to argue something in the American courts, you have to use American law. You can’t use, you know, British law to argue in an American court, and vice versa. So because Islam shares with Judaism the fact that it is also a religion of law, to apply legal arguments and to get a growing group of scholars of note behind it is part of what we’re doing.
In fact, the future work we’re trying to do here is in different spaces. And within the academic—the Muslim academic space, what we are working on right now is a translation of this work into Arabic and into Malay and Indonesian, and then getting increasing scholars of note behind it so that governments can get behind it, because we need to have greater academic traction and then political traction behind the academic traction. And this is where the scholars themselves, we mapped out the nature—you know, the hierarchies of scholars and which scholars are—if you get their approval, that will influence others, you know, things like that. We mapped this all out in order to do that. So that’s part of the work.
This is very useful to show because, I mean, we need—I mean, I don’t blame Americans for being afraid of Islam and sharia because, you know, the images that we see are horrible, you know? But sharia is not about punishment, fundamentally. And they see the penal code, the application of penalties. Islam is not this. A true Islamic state is not this. And so this is the message we have to collectively work together, and then find ways to apply it, let’s say, in issues of policy.
For example, at critical moments of intervention in Egypt, for instance, between Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood, all right—because this the—this is the—there is now—we are seeing under our own eyes in the last century a new fragmentation that is happening throughout the Muslim world analogous to the Sunni-Shia fragmentation that happened 13 centuries ago. It’s happening between the so-called religious party political parties and secular parties. So in Palestine, it’s Hamas versus Fatah. In Egypt, it’s the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist parties versus the secular political parties. In Malaysia, it’s between PAS and UMNO—both Malays, both Muslims, both Sunnis, both shafi’i madhhabs, and one say we are the religious party and you are not. And it’s happening throughout the Muslim world, and this is dangerous.
And the worst part about it? It’s a myth. It’s a myth. Both sides want justice. And even the fact that—the notion that an Islamic state or so-called Islamic state is—or an authentic one is different than America is also a myth. Because if we define—because a state is not a real person. A state is a corporate concept. The notion of the nation-state was the—was born basically with the French and the American Revolutions. When we—when we changed from the idea of a person—an ontologically real being, a king—ruling over groups of individuals to a notion of a corporation with stockholders, and the original stock that the American voters had was land. So you had to be a landowner to vote originally because you are—that was what—that was your—that was your right to vote in the—that as your stock in the corporation. You voted for a president, and the president would appoint his officers. So the corporate idea of a state is not a real being.
So, in fact, some of—one of the arguments we had was, how is a state Muslim? The concept itself is incoherent. It’s flawed because a state is not going to die, be resurrected, and judged on the day of judgment. So to call it Islamic is basically to shoehorn an idea into something which is inanimate. And a state is an instrument to deliver certain objectives to its people, purely that. And that’s what we have to remember, and that’s the lesson that we have to convey.
And again, I would say that the key points, the key takeaways, is a true—a true state that fulfills—it’s like if Christianity is defined to love God and love your neighbor, the greatest commandments, and then if a Christian state does that, everybody will be happy with that. If a true Jewish state would—like, as Rabbi Hillel said, standing on one leg to define the Torah is to—is to whatever’s hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor, and if a Jewish state does that, hey, everybody will be happy with such a definition of a state. The same thing with an Islamic state. If it’s about justice and about loving your neighbor, this is what—this is what the fundamental ethical common denominator on which we are all human beings stand.
So a true, authentic state that speaks to the Islamic ethical values, it will be very similar to what we have in America. Sharia is a common ground of all our faith traditions. And if you can advance that in the interfaith space, that’s very important. And the only thing that I would like to propose in this august assembly is to see how we can advance these messages in the interfaith space, in the foreign policy space, in combating ISIS ideology, and also in helping to advance the measurement because it’s how you measure. We used—we used data from the World Justice Project, from various sources, to try and determine, you know, what are the—what are the criterions by which we define who and what we are.
SEIPLE: Thank you.
FEISAL: Thank you.
SEIPLE: I may add two thoughts here, but let’s go—have the first person ready to ask a question. If you have a question, just raise your hand, and we have mics in the back. We’ll start in the back right there.
But two comments reflecting on this last word from Imam Feisal. One is, you know, sometimes there’s—it seems like there’s a double standard in how we think about international relations, and I’m a guy with a Ph.D. in that realm. If it’s a European conflict, we have a secular lens. We don’t think about the wars of the 20th century as Christian on Christian, or do we think about Russia and Ukraine as Christian and Christian. What if they tried to love God and love neighbor, or think about those things, or if faith could be a role—play a role in peacebuilding and reconciliation there? But as soon as we go to the Middle East, it’s a Muslim thing. And so we need to think about what is our frame and our lens through which we understand things.
But to—I don’t want to speak for you, but what I just heard you say is that there are—scriptural literacy is our greatest enemy on all faith fronts. Faith becomes a religion when it gets manipulated for purposes of power and violence. And a lot of people of faith, whatever your tradition, doesn’t have a mechanism for fighting back, as it were, to articulate themselves. And this book provides a framework to do that. Only good theology beats bad theology, but you got to be ready to do it.
FEISAL: I like that line, good theology. (Laughter.)
SEIPLE: Or, in a security context, only the best of faith defeats the worst of religion. And that requires a different type of thinking among policymakers because policymakers in this country have gone to elite schools where they’re scared to talk about religion. I won’t let you—I won’t start a therapy session, having gone to some of those schools. (Laughter.)
So let’s go to the first question.
HOBSON: Imam Feisal, Richard Hobson. Haven’t seen you in quite a long time.
FEISAL: Indeed, Richard. So good to see you.
HOBSON: Thank you for your wonderful remarks.
FEISAL: Thank you. Please don’t leave before I embrace you.
HOBSON: (Chuckles.) Thank you. And sign my book.
HOBSON: (Laughs.) So I’m afraid this is an obvious question, but you’ve addressed constitutional and legal issues, perhaps. And it’s an intriguing notion that America is not incompatible with notions of an Islamic State. It’s intriguing and highly interesting both. What about let’s call it social behavior? Does it show up in your index? Is it a concern? And in particular, perceptions in the Islamic world of Western civilization in general, and America in particular, must be at best immodest at worst amoral, based on our popular culture, our behavior on the weekends, and our new year’s eve celebrations. So please comment on social behavior and human behavior as an aspect of statehood.
FEISAL: The scholars—thank you, Richard. The scholars said that the purpose of Islam is to educate an ethical community, a community that believes in God, and the obligation of a parent is to enhance the moral values of our faith traditions. Now, how a government educates that—I mean, we didn’t—we spoke a little bit about it, but because there were differences between our countries and the people from different countries, it was a hard topic to think about. But education and the importance of building a moral society was important. But what the scholars decided to do is to define—because we discussed the issue of, you know, what does a state mean and what does Islamic state mean. And I talk about the state being the condition of a people or I’m talking about the state as a mechanism of government, as a tool of governance.
And given the various aspects in which this term has been deployed and cut, we decided to narrow our focus purely to the issues of the—of governance. What makes the government or the state as a tool of power Islamic, because that’s what we decided to focus on. The social part, which is—which comes through education, comes through families, it comes through parents, and through the social institutions, that we didn’t focus as much on is this book. We focused mainly on the political aspect.
SEIPLE: Here in the front, and then there, and then here.
LAURENTI: Jeff Laurenti.
Imam Feisal, I wonder if you could explore for us two dimensions of the problematic of—and Islamic or any other kind of religiously defined state. One is the role and space for, quote, “democracy,” as we understand it. And the second is the role and space for minorities. Democracy presumes that the people can decide by an electoral choice to change rules of the game, even those that some believe were handed down divinely at some period in ancient history. And Iran, which hasn’t been mentioned yet, is an example of a state that has attempted to create something of a democratic constitution, but with a clerical hold to ensure its Islamic character.
So I hope you might explore what that space is for the people to, in effect, tell the ulama, no, we don’t want that anymore and we want something else. Does the state then become un-Islamic if people should exercise that choice? And this goes to the question of minorities, both Islamic subcommittees, heretical communities in the eyes of some, and those that are not. The Christians in the Middle East have rallied to the side of al-Sisi in Egypt, to the side of Assad in Syria, to the side of secular authorities because they see in those who are espousing a more Islamic state being suffocated, paying the old jizya. The laws against apostasy that would forbid someone from marrying outside the Muslim faith or, god forbid, choosing a different religious tradition. Are all those things that an Islamic state is bound to enforce because that is what makes it Islamic, to ensure pious observance by the religious tradition as ordained by clerics and the true believers in it?
FEISAL: Thank you. Personally, I have never liked the term Islamic state, just like I don’t like the term Islamic bank, or Islamic food, or Islamic dress, because to me that is—that is a—first of all, it’s new language and it shoehorns the whole religion into something which is irrelevant. So I would rather people say, OK, if you—rather than say Islamic banking, why don’t you say zero-interest bank, or non-usurious bank. See everybody will say, yay, I want zero-interest banking, OK?
LAURENTI: If I’m the borrower.
FEISAL: Of course. Well, so what they do is they don’t—they charge fees instead, you see. But the point is that rather than calling something Islamic, which blurs and it is—it’s a flawed way of thinking about the issue. It creates flaws in the logical structure of the idea itself. We want to define what it means substantively, OK? Instead of saying Islamic dress, why don’t you say modest dress, non-sexually provocative clothing? I mean, if you define it that way, a lot of people say I’m fine with that, in fact I prefer that. I remember once a friend asking me, there’s a word for Islamic dress. And I said, have you seen the nativity scenes in Christmas? How does mother Mary and Joseph dress? Isn’t that Islamic dress? I never thought about it.
I mean, so the question is, what is—this notion of trying to—you know, we have—there is this—there is this mythical, iconic love which Muslims in the 21st century have attached is they’re going to Islamize everything. And that, to me, has been one of the most—what’s the word, no, not nefarious, another word which means a similar thing—one of the most dangerous things that happened to Muslim thought in the last century, the Islamization and Islamic label. So Islamic—it’s just a just state, a state which is just, which protects its minorities, which advances human rights, which protects—which advances the role of women. This is what Islamic state is. It’s not to resemble. It’s not that you dress in a certain way and look in a certain way.
The problem that we have is that a lot of those who are trying to create Islamic states are trying to, you know, say let me wear a white coat and say I’m a doctor. You are not a doctor because you wear a—you know, a Muslim because you dress in a certain way and carry a beard or wear—dress in the same way of the 7th century. It’s about the ethical values and principles. And that was how Muslim scholars understood it. They recognized the culture, the context, which is why you had Muslims wearing different styles of dress in different parts of the world. And they knew that certain things were the subject of context.
So in the context of—like Saudi Arabia, where a man would never dress in white. You never dress—wear a flashing red suit or a blue suit. But in Africa, Indonesia they wear those colors. It’s not considered unmanly to wear those colors. Context plays a difference. But the broader—the more philosophical issue is in the West the whole idea of the relationship and the—and the balance and separation of powers between institutions of power, namely the state, and the institutions of religious authority, the church, was resolved in different ways in the Western world.
Essentially, although we call it separation of church and state in America, it’s really separation of religion and politics because England, for example, the queen is the head of the Church of England. They don’t have separation of church and state in England. But there is separation of church and politics. India is a country which has an official separation between church and state, or temple and state, but there’s no separation between religion and politics. And we in America are somewhere in between, as Professor Mazrui says. So in the Muslim world, this issue of what is the right institutional role and involvement between religion and politics is the unfinished business of the Muslim world. And this is what this product is supposedly about.
When it comes to protection of minorities, protection of even democracy, the scholars recognized that an Islamic state at its core has to acknowledge God as sovereign, and that the sovereignty of God on Earth is expressed through two broad mechanisms: the collective khilafah, the collective vicegerency of humankind, and within a state its citizens; and a rule of law that recognizes that does not—is not ultra vires of God’s law, does does not contradict God’s law. And that has to be fulfilled through the judiciary and through the government. And that the collective vicegerency of the community is obtained through consultation, the word for shura, through consensus, bay’ah, and through the pledge of allegiance. And democracy is a mechanism by which shura, by which consultation, and consensus is achieved. So democracy is an acceptable form of governance.
But because when you try to measure and index states we could not say that, oh, the rule of Saudi Arabia is less or more Islamic than the rule of, you know, Jordan or Pakistan, we couldn’t really say this and have traction. So we—and when we—but even from a philosophical point of view, what we tried to achieve was that definition which is equivalent to what we call the shahada in our faith. What is the—what is the thing that makes you Muslim as a human being is to bear witness there is no God but one God and Muhammad is his messenger. Once you have acknowledged that, you are acknowledged as a Muslim, even if you haven’t prayed, you don’t pray, you are a Muslim.
So what is the equivalent of that as far as a state? Some scholars said it’s to declare. But if I applied the concept of consensus, there is no consensus on that. There is no consensus on—there’s even a sensitivity, I’ll talk about the qualifications of a ruler. But justice was the most important aspect of governance. But unanimously everybody agreed on the deliverables. So therefore, we concluded that if you—if a state provided deliverables, we will accept it as Islamic—whether the rule was legitimate or not, whether it’s a monarchy, whether it’s a Republic, whatever. At the end of the day, if the deliverables are there, that would be the equivalent of a shahada. And democracy is certainly part of it.
KANAAN: I’m Mona Aboelnaga Kanaan. Thank you, Imam Feisal, for your—for your fascinating discussion.
So I grew up in this country in an immigrant family where I was taught that America was able to implement Muslim ideals far better than the Muslim country that my parents came from, that I came from, Egypt. And one of the reasons for that was the fantastic education we were able to receive here, which included a right to question. And so I wanted to take you back, if you could expand please on the state of Islamic jurisprudence, which you talked a little bit about finding the right leaders, Islamic thought leaders. But I guess my question is whether or not, you know, counter to what we traditionally believe, that more versus less money and effort should be spent in Islamic education. So not just the top level of jurisprudence, but in the schools at an earlier stage to allow children and people to learn religion the way I learned it, which was far more open, rather than dogma, rather than coerced believe, as you said. And I’d like to hear what you’re doing there and what your thoughts are for areas of hope or not.
FEISAL: Thank you. It’s good to see you again, Mona.
You know, one of the fascinating discussions we had this—first of all, eqal, or mind or intellect, is certainly part of one of the maqasid of the sharia. And therefore, education, and advancement of education, and advancement of knowledge is certainly part of the—one of the objectives by which we measured states. When we developed the index, one of our most fascinating discussions where how does this—how is this different from a development index? What makes this Islamic? One of the most fascinating discussions our scholars had.
And some said, well, maybe we have to give rate—give more weight to the religion maqasid. Other scholars said, well, God says in the Quran, have you seen the person who gives the lie to the din, to the religion, is the one who ignores the orphan, does not feed the poor. And therefore, social justice is part of religion. And therefore the—and in our faith, as in all faiths, the debate between faith and action, iemaan and ‘amal-us-saalihaat, between salah and zakat, between praying and giving alms. OK, faith is not just a matter of the vertical dimension of the cross, to use Christian symbolism. It’s also the horizontal dimension of the cross in terms of taking care of people, taking care, being good stewards of the Earth, which is what the concept of khilafah Allah means. When God’s created us as his vicegerents have an obligation to God, and to humanity, and to creation.
Education’s an important part of that. And this is why education is one of the objectives of the—or development of the mind and education is an important part of the maqasid. Now, unfortunately what has happened in much of the Muslim world, in Egypt where we came from, for example, is that the religious authorities were co-opted by the political authorities. Up until the time of Abdel Nasser, Al-Azhar was independent. The academic religious institutions has their own wakfu, their own endowments, and they were independent of the government. Under the Ottoman, the sheikh of Islam had the—had the theoretical capability to dismiss the sultan. This was the balance of power that existed in our traditional societies.
What has happened today, even the so-called Islamic states, is that we don’t have this balance—this check and balance. And this played out in Sunni history at the time of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, when the—when there was a tension between the courts, between the executive branch if you will, and the scholarly and academic branch, which also housed the judiciary. And there was a—and there was a check and balance. So, OK, fine, we’ll acknowledge you as a political power, but you don’t get involved in matters of theology. The sultan, the emir was not allowed to render a decision, an opinion, on matters of thought or matters of the judiciary. The judiciary was independent, and that was what allowed the Muslim world to prosper.
But after Ataturk’s demolition of that heritage, the demolition in Egypt by Abdel Nasser of religious heritage, the same in Iran by the shah, that tradition was lost. And what happened—like what happened in America with the rise of fundamentalism as a result of the mockery of religion, you know, in the early 20th century, resulted in this tit-for-tat response. What we have seen in the last 50 years is this so-called Islamic fundamentalism which as responded because of the political co-opting. So the fact is that this content will be agreed upon by many scholars, even in those countries. Some of them will agree privately because they can’t agree it publicly.
So part of the work we have to do is to tack against the political winds and find ways, because we are actually in an ideological war at the moment within the Muslim world. There are many—the majority believes this, but in some countries it is not politically correct to come out and say this. So we have to find ways to strengthen this and to combat the ideological extremism, which has basically—as we say in mitarbis, the mind of the—of the Egyptians has—you know, has closed their minds. There’s a great book called The Closing of the American Mind by—
SEIPLE: Bloom. Bloom.
Q: Bloom. Allan Bloom.
FEISAL: Allan Bloom?
Q: Allan Bloom. (Laughter.)
SEIPLE: He’s dead.
FEISAL: Yeah, The Closing of the—a brilliant book, by the way. I mean, when I read that, I said, I need to write a book about the closing of the Muslim mind, you know? I mean, these subtle ways in which—in which minds get closed in a particular society is something which we have seen happening. But when you have grown up in different societies, you can see both the—both this aspect and its parallels in other societies.
SEIPLE: This is—we’re going to go over here, right there, then I want to come back here. But this is a really important point. Even from within my own tradition, there’s a book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which only came out in 1994, going back to the Scopes Trial and their retreat from the public space. But what I want you to hear if you don’t see or hear this, and why it’s so important what Imam Feisal has done, is every question he goes back to the scriptures. He goes back to the historical experience.
Something else that struck me about the book was the idea of an independent judiciary, is they anchored that in the examples of the 2nd and 4th caliph, I think, and say: This is what they did then. That gives us permission to think about this now, as opposed to making a secular academic argument, which is OK, but it’s not going to resonate the same way in a culture that is very Muslim, but maybe not Muslim—literate of the scriptures, which you can say about any faith tradition, where a faith becomes more of a culture as opposed to something rooted in the holy scriptures.
GUENGERICH: Thank you. Galen Guengerich. Imam, wonderful to see you again.
FEISAL: Thank you, sir.
GUENGERICH: And thank you for this project, which I find enormously intriguing, in part because it approaches the question Jeff posed a few minutes ago in a rather different way, addressing what I think is one of the greatest challenges of religion in the West, which is that we effectively ask people of faith to set aside their most deeply held convictions when making public policy. And it seems to me that what you have done is provided a somewhat different template.
So my question is, if in fact the Islamic character of a state is its ability to embody certain universalist principles that are not narrowly held by Islam, why is that you chose only to index states that presumably explicitly say they are trying to be Islamic? If a state’s ability to be Islamic in the sense that you describe isn’t particularly related to what they actually say they are trying to do—either they are trying to be Islamic or they are not trying to be Islamic. It seems to me it would have been much more powerful, both within the Muslim world and in the West, to rank everyone and then say, in fact, the U.S. embodies Muslim—you know, the index is point-whatever. And in fact, maybe more faithful to Muslim statehood than some states who say that that’s what they’re trying to do. So I’m curious where you drew the boundary where you did.
FEISAL: We actually did index all states.
GUENGERICH: Please tell.
FEISAL: (Laughs.) And the highest-ranking states were some of the Scandinavian countries. (Laughter, applause.) However, here’s what happened. The scholars said, look, this issue of—I mean, of an Islamic state, while some of us said there’s no such thing as an Islamic state and we should debunk the idea, but you can’t—the objective of this project was to change perceptions and to—and to shift the discourse and to shed light on the discourse of Islamic statehood from the pure emotion that is driving it in much of the Western world to something more sobering.
So, rather than saying, oh, you know, the state is a real person, blah, blah, blah, what I said before, that is not going to—we have some perception experts who know how to manage perception, who say that’s not how you do it. You have to say, this is what a true Islamic state means. OK, that’s how you change perceptions. Now, the scholars said, you know, this issue of defining an Islamic state is not an urgent issue in the non-Muslim majority countries. And to try to measure non-Muslim majority countries by a Muslim yardstick might be considered by some of these countries as being a little bit presumptuous on our part.
But it is more important for the Muslim world to rally around this idea, to see if we can get—to plant the seed of accepting this definition of Islamic state in some key Muslim countries and grow it, because it’s like, you know, when Christiaan Barnard performed the first heart operation. As much as the guy needed the heart, the antibodies just rejected it, OK? So we wanted to plant this seed, or to do this ideological replacement, in a body where the antibodies would probably want to reject it.
So we decided on a sequential point of view, that this is where the wisdom of the scholars was nice to watch. They said, let us strive first to get it accepted in the Muslim majority countries. We can speak about it in audiences like this, I can share with you the results, you know, verbally whatever, but let’s not go and blare out that the most Islamic country is Norway. This will—(laughter)—this will have no value in Pakistan, OK? This will have no value in the state of Saudi Arabia. We want people in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, we want to inject this into the discourse in Egypt.
We want to say, you see, if Sisi had said—and I went to Egypt, by the way, at that time—you Muslim Brother people, this is what an Islamic state means, this is what your parties are all about, and this is what I’m going to establish. This is a true Islamic state. It’s justice. It’s economic. It’s the six maqasid. I can’t do all six maqasid in one shot, but in this I’m going to focus on property, on the maqasid of justice and—or maybe on financial well-being. I want to raise our GDP to this standard. Let’s measure—let’s get that for this year, OK? I mean, you can’t do everything at once, so that’s the answer to your question, sir. But thank you for that question.
SEIPLE: We’re going to come over here. Thank you for your patience. And just to note, Galen, it says several times in the book that this is designed to be an iterative process. It’s a living baseline.
BASHIR: Salaam Alaikum, Imam.
FEISAL: Salaam, sir.
BASHIR: Can you hear me?
FEISAL: Very well.
BASHIR: OK. Your discourse here kind of remind me of azutzu (ph) when you talk about the talk about the seed and the semantical thing in terms of the state. It also—it reminds me of Faisal al-Rahman with the themes of the Quran, how we look at the Quran and come up with these various things. Also, that movement from Mecca to Yathrib, where the Muslims became a state. But one of the issues that I wanted to talk to you about is the fact that I’m often questioned at my seminary why African-Americans are not that enthusiastic about this group called Daesh. And thank you for naming it correctly, because ISIS is an ancient religion in Egypt. (Coughs.) Excuse me.
And the difference, I think, in terms of African-Americans was that they primarily since the 8th century maybe to the time that they actually arrived here enslaved, they saw Islam as a liberation-type of religion as opposed to setting up states and things like that, because most of the time they had to keep Islam under the ground due to the oppression that they faced. So I wanted to ask you this question. I hope it’s not too personal. OK, are you projecting a school of thought here when you talk about the Islamic state or the Muslim country? Are you projecting a particular madhhab?
FEISAL: No, because we have people from all madhhabs represented. You see, we got people from all the madhhabs, and from Sunni and Shia, and from—and scholars who are recognized by their countries so their collective decision could not be dismissed by the political powers. We wanted—the scholars said we wanted this to be a project which would not just be an academic project and thrown into a drawer. We don’t want something to be so politically correct that there’s no academic creds. We want something that would actually make a difference.
So this is basically the common denominator. And when we had disputes, what we did was I used the law of averages. I said, look, I mean—and I said, this is a living process. We’re going to have more scholars in the future deciding on these decisions. So we’re going to have disputes, for example, on declarations, should the state declare or not. I said, those who said the state should declare, give it a weight. On a scale of zero to a hundred weight this much—weight declaration this much. Weight qualifications of governance this much. And weight deliverables by this much.
So let’s say if you say 20 percent for that, or 10 percent for this, 20 percent for this and 70 percent for that. And those of you who believe that deliverables are all that count put 100 percent for deliverables and zero for the others. And we averaged the decision of everybody. That’s how we got people to agree and saying this process, we can repeat it in the future, because people’s thinking evolves, people change. But this was basically an attempt to get ijma, consensus, by a group of scholars who are representing the cross section of Muslim scholarship—Sunni, Shia, and all the madhhabs.
BASHIR: Who was it funded by?
FEISAL: It was funded by the Malaysian government.
BASHIR: By who?
FEISAL: The government of Malaysia.
BASHIR: Oh, OK. All right. OK.
SEIPLE: We’re going to go to the back.
BASHIR: Thank you.
UTHUP: Thank you, Imam Rauf. Good to see you again after a few years. I think I last saw you in this very same surroundings. I’m Thomas Uthup.
And I’m asking this question really in my personal capacity. A few years ago—actually, a couple of decades ago when I was writing my dissertation I tried to construct an index of Islamicity, because I was trying to compare for states and their development outputs. So I’m very fascinated to see this recent work. But I’ve noticed that there’s also a professor called Hossein Askari at Georgetown or George Washington University, who’s also constructed an index of Islamicity. Could you tell us a little bit about how yours and his differs? And the point you were making earlier about Norway being the most Islamic country, his results have been released and he found that Ireland was the most Islamic country. (Laughter.) So could you just tell us a little bit about the difference between these indices?
FEISAL: Well, I mean, we developed our index as a—not so much as a measurement, per se, but both as a tool to be utilized for American Muslim governments, to shift the discourse around this subject, the Islamic state, in Muslim-majority countries. That’s number one. So that’s why we did not publicize anything about non-Muslim majority countries. Secondly, the other difference that we had is that when we—because when we started to talk about this, many people knew about this. Many academics knew about our project. We actually at one point, in the index, we approached Gallup.
I didn’t have time to talk about this earlier. But after working with them for nine months, they said we couldn’t stand behind it because something needs to be done first. It took me a while to understand what that was, and that’s each maqasid itself, each—or each definition of the—of the law—whether it’s justice, whether it is life, whether it is property—had to be defined. In other words, the way to explain it is that if you say we know something called distance, speed, more heat, less heat, heaviness—if you want to create tool to measure each of these things you have to have a different tool.
So let’s say if you want to weigh heaviness you have to create something called a scale. You have to test it repeatedly to ensure that what you’re measuring is truly what you’re measuring—you’re measuring weight and not volume, OK—and that you are—that it is—you repeatedly measure it to make sure it is, what’s the world, validity, and what’s the other expression, viable—reliable, it’s reliable. So you don’t weigh yourself today and today I’m, you know, I’m 180 pounds and tomorrow 120 pounds. Something’s wrong unless, you know, I had a limb amputated or something.
So when you say weight, you can’t—and many of the things that we measure, we measure by—not directly. So let’s say heat is not measured directly. You don’t see heat. You feel it. How do you measure it? You measure it by the correlation between a piece of metal or a fluid that expands and contracts. Now, if you do the analogy as far as, let’s say, weight, you can say, well, the bigger something it is the heavier it should be. Not always. A beaker of mercury against ten times the beaker of water, the mercury, which is smaller, will outweigh it. So you have to test because you measure things through proxies. So we had to work with the scholars to define proxies.
And what happened was when they did the—when Gallup did the iterative processes, they did not cohere around the concept. So for example, when we did the—a very clear example, a maqasid of eaql, of mind. In Islamic jurisprudence, it comes from the provision against consumption of drugs and alcohol, right? So the scholars defined, what are the proxies by which you measure eaql? Consumption of alcohol, research and development, education in the country, blah, blah, blah. When our measurement scholars—we had two scholars from Columbia, by the way, George, who helped us on this—two professors of measurement at Columbia University—they found that the proxies—some proxies cohered, but alcohol did not cohere. We found that consumption of alcohol in a society did not correlate with the maqasid or eaql as defined by the jurists, OK? So we had to drop it. We had to drop that definition. So this—it happened with the maqasid of life as well.
So this is where the methodology on determining what we are measuring was one of the major outputs of this. So our index here is a beta index, 1.0 version, beta version. We did a breakthrough in methodology. We don’t have adequate data on much of the definitions, but it is a step in the direction. And that’s why we need much more—much more help in gaining data, more accurate data, and also in defining the understanding of each of these maqasid as a concept.
SEIPLE: We are at the witching hour. It’s 2:00. I hope you have been encouraged by this conversation. I’m allergic to science and technology, but what I understood from this last bit was the point of the conversation is to have less heat and more warmth. (Laughter.) And warmth, without watering down irreconcilable theological differences, but warmth as brothers and sisters in humanity. And I think that’s the right thing to do, because it’s in all of our self-interests. We’re all minorities someplace. And we all want to live out the best of our faith according to justice.
So we are grateful, Imam Feisal, for this book, and for your time. Please join me in welcoming and thanking him. (Applause.)
FEISAL: Thank you very much.
SEIPLE: Thank you.
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