The Islamic Democracy Project Wiki

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Peace on you all,

I wanted all of you to know that I have begun developing some Wiki space for our project on linked from the CyberOne class Wiki. I am very excited about it and I hope we will find it useful. I have opened up a page, for example, for what I call the “Islamic Constitution Project” which I intend to be our attempt at collaborating on some system of Islamic governance. We may even decide that it will be the framework for our future experiments in Second Life!

Remember, anybody can edit a wiki, and nothing is lost. It is always possible to revert to prior versions. So please, begin to fill in the blanks, and begin to change anything that is there as you wish.
Click here to access the Islamic Democracy Project Wiki.

Peace,

Tawfiq Ali

Question About Western Muslims

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Peace on you all,

I received an email from a member of CyberOne regarding the purpose of inviting so-called Western Muslims to the Islamic Democracy project. This podcast expresses some of my thoughts.

Click here to listen to how Western Muslims might benefit from the Islamic Democracy Project.

Peace,

Tawfiq Ali

Islamic Democracy in Second Life

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Peace on you all,

For the last several days, I’ve been playing out in my mind the possibilities of using a virtual world such as Second Life as our laboratory for an Islamic Democracy. Second Life is a virtual online world, where anybody can choose a graphic representation of themselves, called an avatar, and meet and greet people from around the world, who have entered Second Life with their own avatars. Some feedback I’ve received from my colleagues, however, has led me to rethink making Second Life the central forum for our discussions right now.

First, I recognize that it is difficult for many of us to get into Second Life because it requires rather significant computer resources (I can’t even get in through the laptop I am using right now). Considering that this project’s purpose is to open up dialogue and invite many voices, I strongly hesitate to exclude members right off the bat just because they don’t have the technological capabilities to enter Second Life.

Second, I realize it might be difficult at this early stage to gather enough buzz to organize an event where all of us who are interested in an Islamic Democracy experiment would be able to arrange to meet together in Second Life. At this point, it may be better to document our ideas in other media, such as on this blog, or on WIKI, so that we can steadily and surely gather steam.

But certainly, for once we have gained sufficient momentum, I’ve thought of another purpose for Second Life.  After we have put some ideas of Islamic democratic governance on the table, we might use Second Life, or some other virtual reality tool, as a laboratory for actually applying such principles. One of the great things about a virtual world is that we could test our ideas there, before we apply them to the “real world.” And we wouldn’t simply be philosophizing about ideas in the abstract. The vision of experimenting, in Second Life, with an “Islamic state” that embodies certain principles of democracy, is quite an exciting one. Perhaps as our project develops, we can consider how to make such an experiment in Second Life viable.

As always, this project is as much yours as it is mine. I invite feedback about how to best use Second Life or other online media to facilitate our project.

Peace,

Tawfiq Ali

Choosing the Media

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Peace on you all,

I have a tough decision in front of me, and invite your feedback. I presented my project, in its seedling stages, to the CyberOne class at Harvard Law School earlier this week. The video of that presentation can be found here.

The feedback and excitement I received from the class was quite encouraging, yet I am still unsure what media would be best for our project. Let me offer some suggestions.

Blog: I would be more than happy to open up this blog or another blogspace as a place to post topics of discussion on issues of Islamic ethics and law. Participants could then use the comments function to add their voices, and debated and engage one another.

Chat: We could develop a chat forum on a separate site devoted to discussion of Islamic legal and ethical issues.

Online forum: What if we just used a conventional online forum where participants could post issues and discussions could follow in threads?
Second Life: We could hold a convention of sorts in Second Life, or some other online virtual world to bring together multiple perspectives on issues of Islamic law and ethics.

Wiki: There are many possibilities for Wiki, where topics could be discussed in the form of a forum where participants just edit the page by adding their two cents. The best potential for Wiki is as a tool for collaboration. One of my colleagues suggested using Wiki to develop an Islamic constitution.

I invite your feedback.

Peace,

Tawfiq Ali

Message to Congressman-Elect Keith Ellison

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Peace on you all,

My discussion on Tuesday with the CyberOne class inspired me to broadcast an audio invitation to Congressman-Elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to the U.S. Congress. I pray that he will join us in our project.

My audio invitation to Congressman-Elect Keith Ellison.

Peace,

Tawfiq Ali

Islamic Law and the Texts

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Peace on you all,

Since my last post, I have been thinking more about the scholars, and I have so much more to say. The scholars, at least those who have reached the level of mujtahid, are indeed experts.  Experts worthy of respect.
To the scholars, I say to you that I recognize the sources of this religion are in the texts, the Qur’an, and the sunna. Without the texts, we have no tradition, no narrative history that makes us Muslim. They form the focal point of our heritage, that which differentiates us from others.
You, the scholars, are experts in the study of the texts. You have developed, in each of your respective schools, elaborate systems of legal reasoning to take the few pages that these texts comprise, and to discover a whole universe of meaning.

You are able to read the texts in a way that I cannot read them. Most obviously, you can read them in the original Arabic. I must read them in a translated version because my Arabic is poor. The translation is usually written by one of you. In some sense, you have already decided what the text means, and are presenting it to me through your eyes.   And what I read, through your eyes, still fills my heart with light and joy, at least most of the time. I depend on you, and I thank you.

But even beyond that, what you do in interpreting the texts is not so different from what American judges do to interpret the laws of the United States. You are specially trained like our judges here, who follow canons of legal interpretation, to make sense of constitutions, statutes, and legal opinions.   And it is well-assumed, that judges in this country must be well-trained in jurisprudence.  In our highest courts, we select only the best legally-trained, sharpest legal minds we can find to govern us all.  The Supreme Court of the United States is made up of nine of these geniuses of law, and we are quite sure that we could never substitute a random nine of our lay citizenry and expect their interpretations of the law to be nearly as wise and sophisticated.  That is, I think we are quite sure, but that’s not to say I don’t wonder what would happen if we tried.

And so it might be that Islamic texts too require levels of interpretation involving sophistication most of us cannot handle. You’ve spent many years training to become mujtahids. You’ve learned special rules of textual interpretation. In theory, these rules are meant to help you best realize the true intent of God.  Many scholars will say further that such sophisticated rules of interpretation keep them from reading into the texts their personal desires.  We look around at the world, and we see so much evil committed by human nature.  We look at our own lives, and we know we are not pure.  By following strict rules, perhaps you as specially trained scholars are not influenced personal opinion, but are determining what the texts, in some logical, transcendent sense, dictate.

Yet, I know that even you agree that what you are doing in interpreting texts is not mathematics. There are many things you consider before rendering legal conclusions, and you do not come to your decisions mechanically. You struggle with yourself, the very meaning of ijtihad, and you recognize that your reasoning isn’t perfect, because we are all fallible.

Traditionally, the use of qiyas is perhaps the most obvious realm where much of the uncertainty inherent in human reasoning has traditionally played a part in your struggle. Especially as it applies in our modern world, so much is left silent in the texts. Qiyas is the name for the process you use to draw analogies from what can be read from the text to then be applied in a new context.

Especially relevant for our purposes, think, for example, of Islamic cyberlaw. The Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.), as prophetic as he was, never made any specific mention of what our community should do when much of our lives would become electronic. How are we to decide what is the proper etiquette in this medium? Presumably, you the scholars would derive the rules appropriate in cyber-media by analogy from laws you think appropriate in the “real world.” And those laws, you would somehow derive more directly from the texts.

But if I understand correctly, to apply an interpretation of Islamic laws to cyberspace, you must determine what is the essence of the preexisting laws you have already deduced. The essence, or ‘illa, that is the ultimate reason for the law, is the part that you find to be the essential manifestation of God’s wisdom.

Alas, when it comes to determining God’s wisdom in such circumstances, even the traditional schools recognize that personal opinion must come into play. The Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, in particular, allows extensive use of istislah (where uncertain, prefer interpretations that maximize utility) and istihsan (where uncertain, prefer interpretations for unstated reasons). Utility (maslaha) is what we generally understand to be the aggregate measure of all the “good” that might come from a given rule or analogy. We assume that where one rule or analogy seems to bring more “good,” that must be the right one, because God would only want good for us.  But the very fact that there is uncertainty about the interpretation shows that God has not made the best course clear even to you the scholar!  God must be depending on you to struggle, and bring your own hearts to bear on the decision.  Istihsan requires an even more subtle use of the heart, because here, you need not even give a reason for choosing one interpretation over another.  You choose an interpretation because it seems better–you just cannot explain it.  It is a subtle level of inspiration that draws you to one interpretation over the other. By the mercy of God, because we think He must want what is ultimately good for us all, we have traditionally trusted that He is guiding you the right way.

Yet, purity of heart, and the potential for spiritual guidance is available to every person, lay or expert.  In the Qur’an, God says about every person, “I am closer to you than your jugular vein.”  And He says that before we were born, He “breathed something of [His] spirit into” us.  In some sense, we all have the capacity to voice the beauty of God, though our close connection to Him.  We are not perfect, far from it, but each one of us manifests some of God’s qualities at least imperfectly.  He is there to guide us all.  The more we let his spirit shine through us, the better our world becomes.  Will you not tap into that spirit that resides in all of us?  At least where you are unsure about your interpretations, perhaps you will find some hint of the wisdom of God through the voice of even the lay Muslim, who wants to join you in the struggle to understand truth.  Perhaps as you listen to more voices, you will find them as an aid to applying even the traditional rules of interpretation that have historically dominated Islamic legal systems.

Again, I hope you the scholars will join us, and engage us.

Peace,

Tawfiq Ali

Our Place in Islamic Legal Tradition

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Peace on you all,

I wanted to tell you a little bit about the traditional context in which I want us to launch our experiments in Islamic Democracy.

Traditionally, at least in orthodox Sunni Islam, it has been presumed that the proper authorities on Islamic legal interpretation are trained scholars accredited by some governing authority or institution. In Arabic, the process of religious interpretation is called ijtihad. Etymologically, the word derives from the same root of the word jihad, meaning struggle. Literally, ijtihad means to struggle with oneself to derive truth from the traditional sources of Islamic law, the Qu’ran (the literal word of God), and the sunna (recorded sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.)). One qualified to perform ijtihad is called a mujtahid. The very rare person indeed is traditionally considered a mujtahid.

The vast majority of followers of Islam are traditionally called muqallids, or those who should practice taqlid, meaning the practice of following an authority figure unquestionably. The muqallid is promised that so long as one blindly followed a qualified scholar, one can act immune from guilt or divine retribution. Under this concept, when one who is not a qualified scholar practices ijtihad to derive religious rules and principles for himself, he or she risks being in grave error. Worse, if one instructs others according to one’s own interpretations, he or she risks spreading mischief throughout the land.

Considering all of this, how dare I now suggest that “democracy” is a way to engage issues of Islamic law and interpretation? A democracy is where all of us, however we might deem ourselves ignorant of the vast tradition that has preceded us, will exercise some voice in how our religion and religious and ethical law should be understood. What will happen to us if we are so bold? I have to admit, part of me is absolutely frightened about taking every uncertain step in this journey.

The following podcast, addressing the Islamic scholars, speaks about my fears. I suspect many of them are shared concerns. But I hope you, the scholars, will at least consider my invitation to join us in our leap into the unknown. Together, I pray, we might learn how to allay each other’s fears.

Click here to listen to “The Scholars in an Islamic Democracy”

Peace,

Tawfiq Ali

My Religion, My Vision

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Peace on you all.

I have been a Muslim all of my life. I love the religion of Islam. I love the melodic verses of the Qur’an when I hear them recited. I love the narratives of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) extraordinary examples of generosity and kindness, which made wonderful bedtime stories for me when I was a child. And I still find so much beauty in this religion. There is so much we as Muslims can share with each other, and so much we might share with all of humanity.

It is with this ideal of mutual contribution in mind that I want to open rhetorical spaces for discussion of Islamic legal ideas and interpretations. I understand that the idea of an open rhetorical space where even lay Muslims will engage with interpretation of Islam departs from some traditions that have historically prevailed in the Islamic community. Little by little, I want to engage with those concerns. Piece by piece, I want to build this vision together.

I don’t think it will happen overnight, nor do I want it to. What I have in mind is not an end goal. It is a process. Over the course of several posts, I hope we’ll uncover together new ways to use online media to allow lay Muslims, Islamic Scholars, and the broader community to engage issues of Islamic law and Islamic society. This is an open process, and one I have faith will be fruitful.

I look forward to receiving all of your comments and feedback. Even more so, I look forward to your participation in the many experiments I hope we’ll have the courage to undertake.
Peace,

Tawfiq Ali

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