Taha Jabir Alalwani grew up in Iraq. After graduating from al-Azhar University in Cairo in 1959, he returned to Iraq, where he became a professor and imam. He later returned to Cairo, earning a doctorate in 1972. He then taught Islamic jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia for 11 years. In 1984, he helped established the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in the United States. He now teaches at the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences (GSISS) in Leesburg, Va., and is also the chairman of the Fiqh (Jurisprudence) Council of North America.

Q. What are the main challenges facing Muslims in the 21st century?

A. Muslims need to know themselves and know others. They don't know who theyare, what their role in life is, and what kind of relations they should have with others. They tend to choose naive and simplistic answers. They like to summarize everything by saying it is haram (forbidden) or halal (allowed). Butfiqh (jurisprudence) is not everything. It is only one aspect of life. Life is not based on law alone. You have legal, economic, social, and political needs. The majority of Muslims, in the West and abroad, think it is enough to say thisis halal or this is haram, this is OK, this is not, this is `kufr'.

Some of us think life is only a path to death, and that all you need to do is take short cuts to al-Janna (paradise). What about life itself? Allah tells us we are His vicegerents on earth and gave us his trust. He gave us certain responsibilities. In the Qur'an, Allah says "He who created you from this earth and gave you the responsibility to build it."

Our task is to build a civilization with values. Unfortunately, this concept is absent from our lives. Muslims now have an "individual" mentality. They think of the need of the individual not the ummah, or community, needs. In our religion, we have many obligations to the community. You must have hospitals, doctors, engineers, schools, roads, food, etc. These obligations fall on the community. The individual must cooperate with others to fulfill these requirements. Muslims think, by mistake, that if you pay to build a mosque, you will get more reward from Allah than if you pay to build a hospital, for example. A Muslim can feel the link between the mosque and Allah, but he or she can't feel or see the link between a hospital and Allah, in the same way. This also applies to other societal needs such as housing students, publishing books, or building an institution fighting against dictatorship and calling for Shura and democracy.

This is a misguided and distorted understanding of Islam. We need to rebuild ourconcept of life and help Muslims understand their role in life and how to have a balance between life and the hereafter. How to build a strong Ummah or community? This is the big challenge and the responsibility of the elite of thisUmmah. Anyone who has some education must do his or her best to help the Ummahunderstand these needs.

Q. What about the concept of an Islamic state. Is there such a thing as an "Islamic State" and how would you define it?

A. I would like to be very frank on this issue. In all of my studies, I never felt that Islam was too concerned about building a state. Islam, from the beginning, was working to build an Ummah, and there is a big difference between building an Ummah and building a state. Building an Ummah means you have certain concepts and values. The Muslim Ummah is based on three main values: tawheed (oneness of God), Tazkiy'ah (purification of the human being), and Imr'an (building a civilization with values). These three values are considered as the main goals of Islam. When you build an Ummah, on Tawheed, Tazkiy'ah, and Imr'an, you will have a strong Ummah. Ummah means a community built around certain values. For example, the founders of thiscountry left Europe and came here with certain values. They did not find room to implement those values in Europe, so they decided to find another place. They came here with their values to build this country. This is an Ummah, andnot a nation, because nation is built around a piece of land, and not values.This means that God does not want to be governor or mayor. God created us, and gave us certain values. He told us if you like to fulfill your duty on this earth, you must follow these principles. The details of how to build yourpolitical or your economic system are up to you. God has not appointed a Khalif (leader) for us. It is up to us, the Ummah, to appoint a Khalif, but this Khalif cannot be responsible for everything. He must be guided by the Ummah,through a parliament or Majlis As-Shura, and he must be accountable to the Ummah.

This understanding of the sovereignty of God is part of the legacy of the children of Israel, not the Islamic legacy. In the beginning, Allah decided to lead this experience by himself. He told them "I am going to build you as a model. Your land is a sacred land, you are my nation and my people, and I will be your governor and leader. Your prophets and messengers will be myassistants". That's why when you read the old testament, you find that their relationship with Allah was a relationship between a people and their leader, not their God. For example, they ask him we need lentils, we need onions, we need this and we need that. When they asked for water, Allah said "O, Moses, hit the stone with your cane, and you will get water". He did, and every tribe got their own water.