Conversation with Dr. Basma Abdelgafar
Conversation conducted by: Ivan Ejub Kostić
Basma Abdelgafar is Associate Professor of Public Policy. She consults and provides training internationally on policy, governance and Muslim affairs. Dr. Abdelgafar has worked in the Canadian federal government, academia and the third sector. She has contributed to the development of graduate studies in public policy at the American University in Cairo, Qatar Foundation and the International Peace College of South Africa. She was founding head of the Public Policy in Islam Masters Program at the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, Hamad Bin Khalifa University. She has a keen interest in research and teaching in public policy and governance in Islam as well as in Muslim history, thought, institutions and communities. She obtained her Ph.D. in Public Policy from Carleton University, Ottawa, in 2003. Her book publications include: Public Policy Beyond Traditional Jurisprudence (London: IIIT), Thriving in a Plural World (Singapore: MUIS), M.A. Draz’s Morality in the Quran and the Greater Good of Humanity (Wales: Claritas), and The Illusive Tradeoff (Toronto: University of Toronto Press). Dr. Abdelgafar is currently authoring a book on the Quranic Theory of Invention and Innovation.
In your recently published book “Public Policy: Beyond Traditional Jurisprudence: A Maqasid Approach” at the centre of your research is public policy in Islam. Can you define and elaborate what are the most important features of this field?
The idea of public policy in Islam though embryonic has great potential to reframe some of our most important public concerns. The field, if we can call it that, is bound by four major principles so that any course of action undertaken by an authority to address a public problem or take advantage of an opportunity is guided by Islamic ethics (as embodied in tawhid), justified by the higher objectives of divine law (maqasid al-shariah), actualized through collective decision making (shura) and results in improvement (islah).
The main aspect of your research methodology is maqasid al-shariah. Can you tell us more how do you understand maqasid al-shariah?
On a very basic level the maqasid approach is the search for the ‘why’ behind any specific ruling with the aim of demonstrating the benefit achieved or harm averted. Between the eighth and fourteenth centuries, a number of classical jurists identified six essential all-encompassing objectives in an appeal to their contemporaries to be more heedful in making legal pronouncements and interpreting the texts. The six objectives included the preservation of faith, life, mind, wealth, progeny and dignity. The aim of these early jurists was to unify the body of fiqh or jurisprudence that was already in existence and to insist that future productions respected a widely agreed upon ethical framework. The maqasid were intended to show that every legal ruling in Islam has a purpose, either to attain benefit or avoid harm. This is good and well if we are to limit ourselves to the fiqh that such developments had aimed to rectify. However, in the realm of public policy and perhaps even a fiqh relevant for today, we need a more complex and robust methodology that will enable us to mine the primary sources for greater guidance on diverse and timely issues.
Public policy in Islam demands a different maqasidi methodology. I am currently adapting the framework developed by Dr. Jasser Auda at Maqasid Institute. This framework is comprised of the seven elements including objectives, concepts, values, rules, universal laws, parties and proofs that interact in the Quran and Sunnah to produce core meanings. The methodology involves a complex and repetitive process of cycles of reflection on the texts to identify how these seven elements may be associated with a given question or phenomenon allowing the scholar to extract meanings that can then be used to address their concern, formulate principles or in the case of policy, provide recommendations. While each element can be studied separately, it is only in the way they interact that we can gain deeper insight into specific courses of action. In policy, the idea is to identify every incident or waqi’a which addresses the question under consideration whether implicitly or explicitly. An incident or waqi’a is an occurrence or event. As an adjective, incident is used in the field of physics to describe particles of light or radiation that fall on an object thereby exposing its quality, for example, purity or filth. We can think of each incident then as a light, a truth, projected by the Quran that enables us to critically assess both the problem with which we had approached the text as well as our real life context. Moreover, the nature of incidents related to the issue under consideration may force a reconsideration of the original research question with which one initially approached the text. Unlike in the traditional fiqhi approach where the question is taken as given, the new maqasid approach proposes that even the validity of the question is guided by the texts. Systematically examining the incidents related to any policy question then becomes a path to clarity and guidance. Incidents are articulated in a number of ways in the Quran. They may manifest in units like a verse, group of verses, narrative, metaphor, chapter or dialogue. From these incidents it is possible not only to deduce the seven essential elements but also the objective or maqsid that each is meant to reveal as well as the more complex network of Quranic meanings related to the policy concern from which we can then derive policy principles and recommendations.
In the beginning of your book you are stating that maqasid scholarship is distinguished comparing to other Islamic approaches, especially the traditional one. Can you please tell us more about how you perceive these differences?
The classical maqasid approach defined by the preservation of faith, life, mind, wealth, progeny and dignity while distinguished from traditional fiqh and usul ul-fiqh or the fundamentals of jurisprudence, is actually derived from them. The objectives of the classical iteration actually coincide with what the early scholars perceived as the positive corollaries of the legal limits in the penal code. Given this intricate relationship between the rulings or ahkam and the maqasid, several prominent jurists have suggested that the maqasid should take on an obligatory nature in conformance with other fundamentals of jurisprudence. Al Shatibi (d. 1388) one of the most celebrated among the early scholars, went so far as to maintain that the law was laid down for no other purpose than to preserve these six essentials or interests and, as a result, all specific rules have to yield to their priority. And herein lies the major difference between the classical maqasid approach and traditional jurisprudence. From the perspective of maqasid we must seek to understand ‘why’? What is the wisdom behind any ruling? The approach demands that jurists and scholars align their intellectual productions with the achievement of some benefit or the aversion of some harm. Rulings cannot be conceived in an ethical vacuum. The classical maqasid, however, do not challenge the methods by which rulings are extracted in the first place or provide a methodology for how modern issues can be addressed.
The new maqasid methodology that we have developed at the Maqasid Institute is distinguished by three primary features. First, it centralizes the Quran and Sunnah rather than fiqh. In so doing, it is capable of critiquing both classical maqasid theories and their more contemporary evolutions, as well as classical usul theory. Second, it considers the entirety of the Quranic text and relevant (authentic) traditions of Prophet Muhammad (SAS) which brings critical dimensions into the analysis including a robust conceptual framework, value system and universal laws. The rulings or ahkam emerge as only one element in the analysis and as such their significance is no longer exaggerated. Finally, the new maqasid methodology approaches knowledge in a holistic, integrated and multi-dimensional way. In other words, fiqh is not just about law and legal issues. This affords scholars from other disciplines the opportunity to incorporate maqasidi thinking in their respective fields of study and encourages everyone involved in the academic enterprise to strive for transdisciplinary understandings based on the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah. These are more suited to the nature of reality.
Can you tell us more about how maqasid approach potentially contributes to some fundamental changes in the field of (islamic) public policy?
The new maqasid approach just outlined can have far reaching implications for public policy in Islam. As an illustration, take the topic of my current book where I am considering the question of intellectual property rights especially as they impact pharmaceutical drugs and access to medicines. If you look at the literature based on classical theories or traditional fiqh you will find one of four perspectives. These result from taking the question as given. By largely equating intellectual property with real property, the first takes the position that intellectual property is halal (permissible) because it involves creativity and this ought to be rewarded. The second perspective is that it is haram (prohibited) because there is no reference in the Quran or hadith for protecting ideas or knowledge. Indeed, these cannot be monopolized and must be disseminated widely. The third position holds that this is a secular issue and Islam has nothing to say about it. Finally, the fourth position sees intellectual property as a measure that secures the preservation of wealth which is one of the essentials in the classical maqasid framework. While each position may have some merit, they tend to be subjective exhibiting a major lack of intellectual rigour.
Approaching the Quran and Sunnah through the new maqasid approach demonstrates that intellectual property is a nonexistent concept. However, this does not render it halal or haram, nor does it mean that these sources have nothing to say about the subject. It means that we are asking the wrong question. What the texts actually do is draw our attention to a core issue, namely, invention and innovation. It is argued that the provision of intellectual property rights is necessary to fuel invention and innovation in modern economies. The core concern then is not intellectual property but rather their purpose or the object of their availability. By focusing on the core concern, the Quran brings us back to authenticity, to the concepts that have sultan or truthful authority. If our goal is to promote invention and innovation, should that not be what we study first? Concepts that have sultan in the texts are by definition hegemonic over all else. Every incident that involves invention and innovation is examined for the seven essential elements. These elements must be consistent regardless of which incident is under consideration. Different incidents may add information to the elements (adding sub-elements or enhancing meanings) but they cannot present knowledge that is contradictory. The method therefore is self-correcting. Based on our understanding of the maqasid that the texts give these incidents we can then proceed to design – through shura – the best possible instruments for the promotion of invention and innovation. This process ensures that our ultimate decisions will respect the four principles of public policy in Islam that I outlined earlier. Consequently, the instruments that we design to encourage invention and innovation must yield to their maqasid in the texts. Based on our new understandings we can then, as a society, decide the nature of the instruments that we would like to use to promote those meanings and we can critically assess those measures that prevent the full realization of human dignity.
In your book you are critical toward mainstream islamic scholarship who in your words are “communicating and convincing each other of the need for marginal changes. Generally, their concern for guarding a vast legal inheritance far outweighs a concern with the intricacies of today’s public interests or critical phenomena. This is not acceptable in policy studies and does not reflect its theory and practice in the Qur’an and Sunnah…”
Considering this, can you please tell us more about the reasons for intellectual stagnation, especially when we are talking about Islamic political thought, and why contemporary ulema are disconnected from the problems that Muslims around the world are facing in their “everyday lives”?
In the book I am actually critical toward three actors – the state, ulema and Muslims themselves. My intention is to highlight important areas of concern and action. The fortification of state corruption and violence is part of a long historical process that is rooted in centuries of dynastic rule and an exaggerated authority of the caliph or sultan. This history did not nurture ruler-subject relations in such a way that would enable later generations to resist foreign invasion, occupation and colonial rule. Those who overturned colonialism largely acquiesced to the political and economic demands of their former colonial masters – controlling and subjugating local populations rather than leading them to true independence, determination and human dignity.
Understandably, though misguidedly, this pitted the leading Islamic ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries against the west. This betrayed the fundamental tenet that divine law is universal and that Islam has a contribution to make within the west and wherever it found itself present. The fixation on restricted understandings of key political concepts like caliphate, ummah, jihad and shura, defied the possibility of promoting textual guidance in diverse political settings. When Islamist parties came to the fore during the Arab Spring the shortcomings of these limits became all to evident. It was not surprising to see the lack of international support, strength, speed and policy acumen to deal with internal challenges that emanated from the military, judiciary, police, security apparatus and corrupt inflated bureaucracies. There was a dearth of ideas, understandings, theories and methodologies that were seriously needed to unify the diverse aspirations of their respective citizenry. The result was a disastrous retrenchment, loss of life and incarceration.
As for the religious establishment, I tend to agree with al-Kawakibi (1848-1902) that the burden of advancing the ethical literacy of society [lay] squarely on the shoulders of the intellectuals in order to combat despotism. This is even more so given the ulemas assumption of role of guardians of the Shariah. Unfortunately, many jurists, scholars and the organizations that they have erected have served to reproduce the enterprise as a powerful, patriarchal, centralized, top-down and predetermined structure operating with strictly defined roles and responsibilities with minor accommodations for changing technologies, values, economics, politics and society. They have reserved for themselves the articulation of the definition of the shariah, the criteria for the jurist and scholar, the accreditation of places of higher learning, and everyday permissions and prohibitions for believers. Many organizations do not give adequate voice to other experts, women and youth except as secondary, optional considerations. Yet, to balanced, one must acknowledge that the linguistic illiteracy of both Arab and non-Arab Muslims combined with spiritual doubts about the true nature of Islam has forced individuals and communities to rely almost exclusively on their religious leaders and local imams or even on distant imams via social media for the mundane to the most serious matters.
In today’s world, the ultimate responsibility to reclaim the faith lies with Muslims themselves. As Professor Taha al-Alwani asserts one of the most salient manifestations of the crisis of the Muslim mind is an imbalance in the standards and priorities on the basis of which it has come to operate. This includes knowledge of what Islamic policy and governance entail. Moosa suggests that the real damage of decades of authoritarianism has been the denial of people’s opportunity to think and actualize the ethical teachings of their religion. Yet, this use of one’s reason is the hallmark of Islam. In the words of Rashid Rida, those who oppose this rational free-thinking approach put themselves in opposition to God and completely undermine the essence of the Shari’ah of Islam and its relevance and effect. Through their ignorance they do a great disservice to Islam. Ultimately, it is the individual believer and Muslim communities that must actively contribute to the advancement of human welfare in its complex modern forms.
What in your opinion are the concrete consequences on the practical level of hegemonic influence of traditional jurisprudence on politics and policy studies in Islam?
The concrete consequences of the hegemonic influence of traditional jurisprudence on policy studies in Islam involve an almost complete neglect of how the texts can actually guide us, not just in predominantly Muslim settings but in any context that allows civic participation. Perhaps it is hard to get one’s head around this, but the guidance presented in the texts cannot be classified as religious without qualification. The Quran and relevant aspects of the Sunnah cover all aspects of life, not just those related to worship. The elucidation of Quranic concepts, objectives, values, universal laws, rules, parties and proofs represent truths for all of humanity. We must debunk the idea that Shariah has little or nothing to say about the nature of the state, politics and policy. The claim that it is silent is due to a misguided conflation of the shariah or divine law with fiqh or jurists understanding of that law. Fiqh for the jurist refers to the volumes juridical opinions that were given by various jurists from various schools regarding the application of shariah to various situations. This collection is predominantly based on ayat al ahkam or the legislative verses of the Quran totaling about 250 of 6000 verses and about 1200 ahadith al-ahkam or Prophetic narrations with legislative content. Collectively, these Quranic verses and narrations are commonly but mistakenly referred to as the shariah though it is clear that they can only ever comprise a very small segment of it. Restricting the understanding of the shariah in this way has disabled policy studies from mining the texts for invaluable content relating to both processes and substance and has diminished the potential authority of such findings when they do occur.
Regarding the concept of shura you are using a very interesting metaphor about the bees and how they are functioning. When you are talking about it you are mentioning surah El- Nahl. In that context, how do you understand the concept of shura and is it applicable to the modern societies if it is implemented in the way how traditional scholars define and understand this notion?
Traditional scholars understand shura as some level or practice of consultation. Many believe it is a recommended act that is based on voluntary practice without concrete structure and guiding principles. One may be forgiven to think this, that is, before we learned of the significance of the Quran’s allusion to honey bees. Shura is in fact more than consultation. It is a divinely ordained process of collective decision making that derives its meaning from the world of honeybees. The literal definition of shura is the extraction of honey from its source alluding to the obligation that any decision making process and its outcomes must be illuminating and beneficial, i.e., lead to improvements (islah).
In the chapter An-Nahl in the Quran, shura is contextualized within a complex reality that emphasizes the unity of design, which is revealed through divine proofs that are expressed in the sacred texts and manifested in nature. Unravelling the intricate connection between these proofs, the values that they reveal, the objectives they guide toward and the universal laws they follow demands the application of intelligence at different levels of sophistication and the establishment of collective decision making mechanisms that enable the pooling of human capacities, resources and spiritual insights for this purpose. The surah’s appeal to the unity of all living matter is furthered by an account of how God inspired the bee to build its home in hills, trees, and in the habitations made by humans. Bees, we are told, are also inspired to eat from all the fruit, produce, flowers and plants, and to follow the ways that have been inspired to them by their Lord (An-Nahl: 68-69). Indeed, modern science has revealed that those ways include a process of collective decision making from which humans have much to learn.
So bees are divinely inspired to search for and choose homes that best meet their survival criteria, much like Revelation inspires humans to make decisions that best satisfy the objectives or maqasid al-shariah to achieve human dignity. Just like the bee criteria are used to build consensus among a swarm, the maqasid are intended to build consensus within political communities. Honeybees use a form of “direct democracy” to choose their new dwelling where individual bees participate directly rather than through representatives. Through open competition each participating bee presents (through dancing) its proposed alternative. The presentation demonstrates the extent to which that alternative meets the divinely inspired criteria. In other words, each bee tries to persuade others of its alternative. Observers must make independent assessments of each proposal and decide whether to accept or reject. There is no blind followership since each bee can only support an alternative after independent investigation. As certain alternatives are increasingly endorsed they receive further support from others. Support for poorer alternatives gradually fades as the bees stop promoting them. Each bee thus remains a highly flexible participant in the decision making process as its interest, like all others, is survival and its loyalty is directed toward settling on the best alternative. Scientific studies have greatly enhanced our awareness of why the Quran refers people to the world of honeybees to improve collective decision making skills.
Ibn Taymiyyah, Muhammad Abduh, Al Tabari and Al Raysuni say that shura is obligatory, or “one of the “fundamental principles of the Shariah”. Even the Prophet himself was commanded by God to comply with Shariah (Imran: 159). So if we take all of this into account what went wrong in the Islamic world that today we have in power most blatant forms of dictatorial and autocratic regimes?
It is true. Shura is obligatory having been stated immediately after the injunctions to respond to God and to pray. Ibn Taymiyyah and Mohammad Abdu viewed shura as obligatory. Al-Tabari, even suggested that shura was one of the “fundamental principles of the shariah (‘aza’im al-ahkam), which are essential to the substance and identity of Islamic government.” Al-Raysuni argues that shura is actually mandatory in all matters except those of a personal nature. The Prophet himself was commanded by God to comply with shura (Aal-i-Imran: 159). Through the application of shura, Prophet Muhammad demonstrated that a leader’s power, even if he be a prophet, must be limited and that the participation of concerned stakeholders in decision-making is mandatory.
Unfortunately, as I just noted a number of things went wrong that ultimately led to the establishment of autocratic and dictatorial regimes. Shura demands freedom, freedom of thought, association, participation and movement. There is no blind followership or autocratic leadership in shura. The diminution of the mandatory nature of shura can thus be summed in a fear of freedom by both the tyrants and religious zealots albeit for different reasons. The tyrant knows that freedom leads to demands for political, social and economic rights. The provision of these, however, means a less controllable populace and more equitable sharing of national income. It also means competition for power. The religious zealot fears freedom because he lacks confidence in the divinely ordained autonomy that God has gifted to every human will. He believes that he is the guardian of the faith and that this entails control and direction to the furthest extent possible. The believer is denied the possibility of understanding that it is he or she who must question, internalize, synthesize and defend divine law. It is he or she who must place their unique imprint on it and reproduce it in the world in the only way that they can. This is the meaning of taqwa or heedfulness of God, for which only the believer is ultimately responsible. There is little room in the world of the religious zealot for shura; the public is too illiterate, too naïve, untrustworthy, frivolous. The text and the way it must be approached is too difficult for the common person. This exclusivity and arrogance has fed tyranny in politics and religion.
In your book you mention professor Kamali’s views on shura and democracy. When we take into account your reading of professor Kamali’s thoughts can we say that the shura has potentials to become a type of what i would call “Islamic deliberative democracy”?
To Kamali shura is the Islamic equivalent of democracy but in comparison the latter is individualist in orientation, whereas shura is more community oriented for it contemplates consultative judgments and decisions, taken as a result of contact and association with those who may have something to say and an opinion to contribute. Basically, shura requires the head of state and government leaders to conduct community affairs through consultations with community members and does not preclude the choice of leadership itself. Every citizen who wishes to engage with public affairs must have the opportunity and security to do so regardless of religion or any other perceived difference.
The Quranic allusion to honeybees does indeed resemble a form of deliberative democracy. From this we can see that shura is most suitably defined as a system of collective decision making where public leaders draw upon epistemic communities who must engage the publics in an ongoing process of communication that seeks to solicit further input and/or garner support for the policy alternatives under consideration that fulfill the maqasid. This process is therefore most closely akin to management of public affairs through a system of expert advice that encompasses certain features. It involves leadership, expertise, civic participation, decision criteria, evidence, persuasion, investigation, voting/elections, quorum and consensus. Leadership in this system is important but it is not hegemonic. Leadership is primarily responsible for catalyzing processes that (1) solicit advice on problem definitions; (2) define criteria for successful outcomes; (3) propose possible responses; (4) persuade the public as to best course; and (5) give rise to the best collective decisions. The leader also heads the apparatus that implements policies and subsequently monitors, reviews and amends policies if outcomes are not satisfactory. Again, these functions may be subject to shura if they entail a significant change of course. Decisions based on shura appear to be time bound, lasting only as long as they produce their intended benefits.
At the beginning of the fourth chapter of your book you discuss Human Rights “as the binding fabric of the maqsid for governance”. First of all what is your opinion about Human Rights in the Muslim world today, and in that context can you explain to our readers why they are so important, or let us say, an integral part of the maqasid approach to the public policy?
The book actually does not deal with the state of human rights in the Muslim world but rather how it is dealt with in the Islamic literature. It is indisputable that the state of human rights in the Muslim world today is dismal. This is not only due to the internal politics of countries and the struggle of authoritarian regimes to hold onto power, but also to western interventions, wars and proxy wars. All of these unfortunate circumstances have no consideration for human rights, national aspirations and self-determination. A diminution of human rights, however, appear to be problematic all over the world. The recent rise in domestic violence due to COVID19 lockdowns around the world have shown just how fragile the human rights balance actually is. In dealing with COVID-19, another more heinous pandemic, dubbed “the Shadow Pandemic of violence against women and children,” by UN Women has taken hold all over the world. Such violence is not limited to one culture or religion and it is a blatant violation of human rights. This is not to mention the rights and dignity of migrants around the world as well as human trafficking. Human rights are therefore a global concern and no one group or region should think themselves above any other. Some are just better at denying or hiding it! There is a long way to go for everyone.
The maqasid literature has dealt with rights and freedoms in four major ways. The first is very partial in that it takes the form of evolving the objectives of the preservation of religion and honour to either mean specific human rights or to include them. A second stream argues that human rights form the foundation of significant Islamic principles that cannot be upheld if fundamental rights and freedoms are violated. This understanding insists that rights and freedoms, though not directly articulated in the texts, are nevertheless clearly implied in the principles and injunctions of the shariah. A third stream, takes an interest-based approach to human rights by transforming all the maqasid into inalienable rights thereby incorporating all modern concepts into the traditional maqasid classification. Finally, a fourth stream argues that additional dimensions must be added to the essentials of maqasid including rights and freedoms.
I argued that as progressive as these approaches might appear to be, we still have to rethink the maqasid and human rights in light of the Quran and Sunnah in order to develop an indigenous theory. The Quranic presentation of human rights addresses individuals, communities and governing authorities or more generally those with wealth and power. It sets standards for the most basic provisions on the individual level to more complex, overlapping and collective provision on the communal and state levels. For each unit from the individual to the nation, it establishes obligations, responsibility and sanction. The Quran seamlessly weaves human rights, and those of other creatures, into the very fabric of our humanity. Therefore, the diminution of a supply of ethical goods in its diverse manifestations is in essence a diminution of our humanity.
It is also important to note that many examples of human rights mentions in the Quran are actually related to the rights of women. But in order to understand this we must re-appropriate the concept of hudud or limits from traditional jurisprudence. In traditional jurisprudence the hudud have been defined as the body of corporal punishments articulated in the Quran and Sunnah. This is a juristic construct that is not verified in the Quran. In fact, the hudud comprise the shariah’s clear articulation of a separate category for fundamental rights. A had (singular of hudud) is a limit beyond which an individual or group violates divine law and as such the balance of life. The hudud are mentioned in nine Quranic verses. In every mention, it is evident that the concept is meant to promote human and especially women’s rights. In four verses, the hudud are mentioned in relation to the preservation of the rights of women during divorce where God commands believing men to be heedful of His hudud, i.e., not to violate or in any way diminish the rights of women during times when the likelihood of committing injustices is heightened.
We can see from the Quranic meaning of hudud, that the concept is intricately associated with the likelihood that people are more prone to commit injustices when they are ignorant of the law, socially privileged, emotionally or physically distressed, or dealing with the distribution of wealth. It is precisely in these instances that the Quran reminds people of the fundamental and inviolable nature of human rights. As adverse circumstances are no excuse to violate the rights of others, it can be safely assumed that guarding such rights under normal circumstances is given. The hudud establish the minimal standards beyond which individuals and larger social units commit injustice. Moreover, this system of rights is backed by moral, legal and divine sanction.
When you are writing about the ethics of governance and maqasid approach to public policy in Islam you discuss that through four different notions/issues: Tawhid, issue of benefits and harms, Ummah and anthropocentrism. Can you tell us more about why you singled out exactly these four notions/issues?
Governance and public policy in Islam are guided by a comprehensive ethics that posits tawhid or unification as its core philosophy. Tawhid implies that a belief in one God carries with it the responsibility of guarding an order that He ultimately rules. Everything in His order possesses its own sanctity, which is independent of the value attached to it by humans. The blessing of human dignity that is effected through an order that is malleable and responsive to human actions that necessarily impact other creation therefore demands a concern for consequences. How do our behaviours benefit or harm others? Nature?
Systematic ethical analysis therefore necessarily involves consideration of the nature and sources of benefits and harms in the shariah. In conformance with the depth and breadth of the shariah and the complexity of tawhid, policy has to adopt sophisticated and inclusive ethical approaches. But before such calculations are made, questions must be settled regarding whose interests count in any policy discussion. The ummah is a useful concept for this purpose. Although it has traditionally been understood as an exclusively Muslim collective, the Quran Sunnah, and early Islamic rule present us with much richer possibilities. Indeed, an ummah can be considered at many levels and is even used to describe communities in the animal kingdom.
Governance and public policy in Islam must move beyond the erroneous anthropocentric view that has been propagated and embedded in the Muslim psyche by traditional scholarship and even the classical maqasid. All creation has intrinsic value in the divine scheme and we must strive our utmost to protect life in all of its forms. The ethical system in the Quran recognizes and sanctifies all life and its interdependencies. The current environmental crisis coupled with the COVID19 pandemic underscores the necessity of our incorporating animal and plant communities in our ethical considerations.
Before the last question I would like to ask you about Muslim academics and intellectuals who are very critical toward the thinkers who use the maqasid approach. I would like to know more about your stance on their critique that using maqasid will lead to introducing Western liberal values and paradigmes like for example individualisation of religion into Islamic Weltanschauung, and liberal interpretation of islamic rulings.
I actually agree with Muslim academics and intellectuals who are critical toward the thinkers who use the maqasid approach. I, myself, am critical of both the classical model and its evolution over time to uncritically respond to western liberal values and the prerogatives of governments when we are talking about policy. Resort to the concept of unrestricted interests or al-masalih al-mursalah which is the basis of siyyassah shar’eya or shariah-oriented policy is too lax and too limited and has facilitated an unjustified neglect of studying the entirety of the texts using a robust methodology. As we expand the source material to include all of the Quranic text and authentic hadith with verified content, while applying more complex methodologies, skepticism will hopefully be replaced with confidence. Indeed, the Quran states: “… We have not neglected anything in the Book…” (Al-An’am: 38). A maqasid approach to policy and governance studies cannot be limited to ayat al-ahkam or the epistemological restrictions of the fundamentals of jurisprudence (usul ul-fiqh). Nor can it accept the unrestricted character of shariah-oriented politics even as they reference the classical maqasid classification. The texts are much more encompassing and accommodating than either concedes. The new maqasid approach that can fill this gap is currently being built and it will, God willing, offer a robust edifice to support transdisciplinary studies and guide policy and politics.
We are currently in the Holy Month of Ramadan. Can you share with us some of your thoughts that you find important, and inspiring, having in mind so many obstacles and difficulties that Muslims face today?
Yes, indeed, we are in the beautiful month of Ramadan. Ramadan Kareem to all. A month where we show gratitude for the gift of the Quran. In the beautiful summation of Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah Draz, the Quran is the divine light, which shows the right way and puts us on the right, or the straight path. It is the best discourse. It is the established doctrine, serious and decisive, conforming to pure nature, and to the middle path. It continues and confirms the correct tradition. It constitutes justice, truth, evidence, science, wisdom and unshakeable steadfastness. It provides healing to hearts, ennobles the soul, and life in its most sublime meaning. Does this not make us the most fortunate ummah?
Muslims may be facing many challenges but we also have so much to be grateful for. I sense a renewed global interest in the Quran and the life of Prophet Muhammad (SAS) by Muslims and non-Muslims. There is a growing number of believers that want to study and understand the message for themselves. Younger generations, women and non-Arab speaking people are showing more confidence in their reclamation of the faith and their sources of reference, learning and advice. They are rejecting some of the more rigid and dominant narratives and bringing faith back into important spheres of life. They are recognizing tyranny whatever garb it chooses to disguise itself in. In this new found boldness, they are forcing important changes to tradition and marginalizing those who refuse to positively respond. Islam has so much to offer the world and many Muslims are rising to the challenge both explicitly and implicitly. We are living in interesting times and I firmly believe that new possibilities are continually being born. God willing, we will change the world for the better. Not by wasting energy on challenging each other but by creating new and better realities that centralize human dignity with its associated respect for nature and all living things. This will unite, attract and gain the support of Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. Peace, blessing and mercy on all.