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City of Brass

City of Brass

The fish market

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Steven Waldman makes an interesting point, quoting a hadith of the Prophet SAW,

“Do not buy fish in the sea, for it is gharar .”

and suggests that this could be applied to financial transactions like sub-prime mortgages. That’s a great tassavur (exegesis), one that I hadn’t heard before, but will certainly quote from now on.

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Proper tassavur is actually essential with most aspects of Shari’a law, which is why it lends itself so readily to abuse. Economic issues in Shari’a are a great example – the fundamental ban against riba (usury) in the Qur’an (summarized nicely here), for example, is laid out in broad brush strokes, and so most of the burden of actually applying it to one’s own fiscal affairs is rests squarely on the shoulders of the individual. Even islamic authorities, be they fiqh councils or learned imams, are unable to render anything but the most general advice in these matters. The safest route of course is to shun all obvious forms of interest, but that is easier said than done – for example, social security checks are drawn upon the social security fund, which is interest-bearing, so is social security haram? Since most public companies are heavily reliant upon interest to manage their balance sheets, does owning stock from these companies (becoming an owner, essentially) haram? What about mutual funds, where you buy a share of a stock portfolio and not the stock directly itself? What about exchanging money at a bureau de change, where a standard fee is charged for the use of money? Some people take the maximal posistion against usury, and forswear all of the above, while others argue that usuary strictly only relates to “excessive” interest, and that only on personal loans. Most muslims fall somewhere in between. The variance of tassavur in this regard is extremely high.

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It should be noted that the Islamic Finance industry is a burgeoning one, with “Islamic-friendly” invest funds, anks, mortgages, etc all being offered in parallel to the interets-based economy. Whether or not these vehicles are truly “safe” or whether they are really just excercises in rationalization is again a matter of individual tassavur.

We often hear, from critics of Islam and other polemicists, that the “gates of ijtihad (interpretation)” are closed for muslims. However, as with most aspects of Shari’a, the gates of ijtihad swing wide open indeed, at the level of the individual muslim.

Incidentally, with respect to the ongoing economic crisis in the financial markets, the words of the Prophet SAW and the injunctions in the Qur’an take on a particular relevance. Daniel Larison characterizes the crisis as our collective cultural obsession with credit as a way of life rather than a tool and means to an end. Larison goes on to note the social impact of this credit-centric worldview:

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As virtue is the moderation or even denial of appetites, moral
integrity in society as a whole weakens as this culture gains ground. 
When limits to our consumption seem to fall away, the desire for
acquisition and domination becomes stronger and it begins to be
expressed in our relations with the rest of the world.  We begin to
define our interests to satisfy unbounded desire, and so the scope of
what we believe is rightfully ours expands until it encircles most, if
not all, of the globe, and we are then violently offended when our
claims are challenged.

And so we come full circle to Ramadan and fasting – for the purpose of the fast is to instill a discipline that moderates our appetites and preserve our moral integrity. These ideas do scale from individuals to societies. Perhaps a better concept of Islamic banking would be one which follows this principle rather than simply finding loopholes around usury in name.

Related: Forbes’ special report on Islamic finance, via Talk Islam.

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Ceylon circa 1890

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

There are sometimes treasures to be found at Flickr. Look at this set of vintage photos from Ceylon from before the turn of the (previous) century. Modern Sri Lankans are casual, friendly, outgoing, and quick to smile, but these photos show a reservedness, almost noble air. For example:

I’ve long marveled at the strength of the Sri Lankan character – you’d think that the long years of civil war would have taken their toll, and yet they remain unbowed. The strength that this woman’s descendants display today in the face of terror and violence is etched on her face.

(via UltraBrown)

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Shari’a courts and domestic law

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

A can of worms, indeed:

ISLAMIC law has been officially adopted in Britain, with sharia courts given
powers to rule on Muslim civil cases.

The government has quietly sanctioned the powers for sharia judges to rule on
cases ranging from divorce and financial disputes to those involving
domestic violence.

Rulings issued by a network of five sharia courts are enforceable with the
full power of the judicial system, through the county courts or High Court.

Previously, the rulings of sharia courts in Britain could not be enforced, and
depended on voluntary compliance among Muslims.

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[…]

Under the act, the sharia courts are classified as arbitration tribunals. The
rulings of arbitration tribunals are binding in law, provided that both
parties in the dispute agree to give it the power to rule on their case.

This is one of those issues that are subtle and complex. On one hand, the idea that a minority can employ a parallel system for arbitration of disputes is not unique to British muslims – Jewish Beth Din courts have operated for over a century in Britain and also are used to resolve civil disputes. A good article at the BBC gives some context:

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The Beth Din is the most formally entrenched of these
minority courts. The UK’s main Beth Din is based in Finchley, north
London.

It oversees a wide range of cases including divorce settlements, contractual rows between traders and tenancy disputes.



The court cannot force anyone to come within its jurisdiction. But once
someone agrees to settle a dispute in the Beth Din, he or she is bound
in English law to abide by the court’s decision.

This is because under English law people may devise their own way to settle a dispute before an agreed third party.

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Crucially, the legislation does not insist that
settlements must be based on English law; all that matters is the
outcome is reasonable and both parties agree to the process. And it’s
in this space that religious courts, applying the laws of another
culture, are growing in the UK.

For civil matters, the idea of Shari’a tribunals (not “courts” in the strict sense) is a reasonable one. However, the problem is that these courts are also permitted to handle cases of domestic violence, which enters the realm of criminal, not civil, law:

It has also emerged that tribunal courts have settled six cases of domestic
violence between married couples, working in tandem with the police
investigations.

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Siddiqi said he expected the courts to handle a greater number of “smaller”
criminal cases in coming years as more Muslim clients approach them. “All we
are doing is regulating community affairs in these cases,” said Siddiqi,
chairman of the governing council of the tribunal.

Further, while the Shari’a system in theory must be agreed to by both parties, in matters like domestic violence it is easy to conceive that the weaker party may be coerced into accepting it – and for domestic cases, that’s usually the woman, who is then again disadvantaged in the outcome since Shari’a law favors males in matters of testimony.

I fully agree with thabet at Talk Islam that the jurisdiction of these Shari’a courts over domestic violence cases is deeply troubling, and requires a clear delineation of the line between civil and criminal matters:

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What is probably needed is an expert’s analysis on the line between a
criminal matter (related to domestic violence) and marital issues under
consideration by a Muslim arbitration tribunal, such as those reported
by The Times (and repeated elsewhere). The erosion of this line is not, and should not, be considered acceptable. Further, as one legal scholar has argued, “the
state should seek to apply all human rights and anti-discrimination
legislation rigorously to avoid structural discrimination in the
operation of these minority courts of arbitration”
. Anything less would be an abdication of responsibility by the state.

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What is important here is that the Shari’a tribunals exist solely within a space permitted by English Law. Just as the Arbitration Act provides the foundation for these tribunals’ existence, so too does it provide a basis for their regulation.

Rod Dreher also noticed this story, and categorized it as “dhimmitude” [1] and implies it represents the “decline and fall” of the West. The term dhimmitude gets tossed around rather easily nowadays, but the existence of these tribunals is not any kind of threat to the British system, any more than the Beth Din courts are. Shari’s law is still subordinate to British Law, and only possess authority granted to it. The challenge here is far more mundane than the breathless Clash of Civilizations narratives; it is simply to reconcile tradition with modern values, especially on the gender front. The government must not be swayed by hyperbole about separation of church and state, and act aggressively to ensure that the boundaries of arbitration are clear and firm, as thabet noted. In doing so, the ideal of freedom of religion can coexist with the rule of law, and modern progressive values.

[1] The word dhimmitude is one of those terms, like crusade or inquisition or reformation, that touches on centuries-old religious fault lines but has very little meaning or applicability in the modern world. Use of these terms serves only to impede honest debate. These are dangerous words because their purpose is to inflame rather than inform.

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in motion, the believers reflect the heavens

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

If you think about it, the question of time and date is central to the
daily religious routine of a muslim. We need to know when to pray five
times a day, we need to know what time to start and begin our fasts, we
need to know what days to start and end fasting. To know what direction
to pray, we need to know the shape of the earth itself. Even our
prayers are in a sense the reflection of the cosmic clockwork, with
predictable cycles, rising, and setting. It’s not by accident that the
symbol of Islam is the crescent moon.

Despite the rich
heritage of mathematics and science that we as muslims can lay equal
claim to, however, there is an anti-intellectual strain in the modern
Islamic polity that says that calculations, astronomy, and math are
developed in a “western” context and that these ideas need to be
purified somehow before muslims may make use of them. There’s talk of
Islamic science as if science is not something universal, but reduced
to a mere ethnic trait. It’s incumbent on muslims in the modern age to
reject this way of thinking and embrace the tools that let us complete
our Deen.

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In these modern times, the definitive resource on astronomical calculations is actually the military – the US Naval Observatory and its counterpart in the UK, HM Nautical  Almanac Office
These are fantastic resources for a muslim – since I am more familiar
with the USNO, I’ll give examples from there, but most of the same kind
of data can be found across the pond. Here are just a smattering of
useful links from the USNO’s Astronomical Applications department:

The USNO even has a page devoted to crescent moon visibility and the Islamic calendar – and they’ve listed the start dates for Ramadan and the Islamic new year all the way out to 1432 Hijri.

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It
is astounding to think that in this day and age, anyone walking down
the street with an iPhone and a GPS can in a fraction of a second
access celestial and cosmological knowledge, to higher accuracy than
has ever been possible. Granted, there is an artistry in the make and
the use of an astrolabe, but those things don’t fit easily into your shirt pocket.

In
many ways, we are in a golden age of religious observance, because at
no previous point in the history of Islam was such fantastic
calculation and precision possible.

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