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 they are, 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). But fiqh (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 this is 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 our concept 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 this Ummah. Anyone who has some education must do his or her best to help the Ummah understand 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 this country 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, and not 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 your political 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 my assistants". 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.

The relationship was based on miracles of the unseen. Then, they got bored from that. When they saw other people worshipping a cow, they said we need a God we can see as those people have their own God. We need to talk to him directly, and the Sameri made a cow for them. They said to Moses, we dislike to deal with somebody we can't see. God changed from direct divine sovereignty to the King/ Khalif. "O David, we have appointed you as vicegerent on earth". The direct sovereignty of God is over. Allah mentioned those stories in the Qur'an as lessons.

Unfortunately, some colleagues from the Islamists misunderstood the stories. They thought that sovereignty of God still applies, and Muhammad peace be upon him, like Moses, came to implement sovereignty of Allah. No, he did not. He did not even talk about it.

Q. What about the verse that says "Whoever does not rule according to Allah's wishes are the unbelievers". Many Islamists use this to justify the need for an Islamic state?

A. That verse means rule according to Allah's teachings as Ummah. This means you have to develop the system to implement those values. Your obligation is to implement justice. How? It is your business. I need from you to build freedom, How? It is your business. I need from you to establish fairness and trust, How to do that? It is the business of the community, the Ummah.

The message of Islam is not for a specific nation. It is impossible to develop a political system for the whole world and put all of humanity under one system, regardless of differences in languages, cultures, backgrounds, ethnicity, etc. The message of Islam is a message for all humanity. If we try to put all human beings under one system or kingdom, or dictatorship, or whatever, no one will accept Islam. But, Allah says I have these values I want you to implement. You should develop a system, according to your own needs, to implement these values.

Q. When we attempt to develop a system according to our needs, there will invariably be different interpretations. How do we resolve these differences?

A. Islam teaches us that we need to agree on certain values, but the system is up to us. The system is something under our Ijtihad and our understanding. When you neglect the Ummah, the whole nation, and take your decision by yourself, what does that mean? That means you think you don't need the Ummah and the people. You are highest and you are above them. The Qur'an says "Man becomes an oppressor because he thinks he is highest." That means when the governor or ruler starts to think that his people are inferior to him and that he does not need them, they should stop him and get him away from power. Why? Because he will cross all the lines and become a dictator. You don't need to wait for him until he says like Pharaoh did, "I don't know any other God for you except me."

From the beginning, we should put the ruler under certain laws and restrictions to help him see the picture in a proper way. If he says "I am responsible before Allah," we should tell him "no, you are responsible before the people." If we use these three values to build our system, we will never allow a dictator to come to power riding a tank or forcing the people to accept him as a leader.

I remember, on August 2, 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait I was in Egypt. Many people around me were very happy to see Saddam invade Kuwait. I told them, "he will never succeed because the Qur'an teaches us that 'the oppressors will not reach my covenant' and that 'Allah does not guide those who are oppressors.' When you practice this kind of dictatorship and oppression, you will never be able to succeed in the long run."

Q. One of problems that some Muslims have with democracy is the rule of the majority. They say we don't have to follow the majority because the majority can be wrong. Therefore the rule of the majority is not required. What do you think about this?

A. This is wrong. Sometimes, Muslims look at one part and forget the other parts. I call this the "Jurisprudence (Fiqh) mentality," because as a Faqih I always look at the small details of the case and forget about the others. But when you look at the whole picture you will find something else. Allah told us to implement justice, truth, trust, purification, civilization, etc. This responsibility falls on the Ummah, which means the majority and not the minority.

If there is any protection from Allah, it is for the majority not the minority. Prophet Muhammad said, "My Ummah will never agree on wrongdoing." There are about 18 hadiths like this, about the guidance and protection from Allah to the Ummah. The Ummah always reaches the truth, but the minority sometimes reaches the truth and sometimes misses it. The Prophet says "You should follow the majority (Sawad al-atham) of the Ummah". That's why the concept of Ijmaa (unanimity) should be revived to move away from individual and minority rule.

Q. But if we don't have a unanimity (Ijmaa), is it OK to accept the majority?

A. It is better to accept the majority than to accept a minority. If I follow the majority, I am always on the safe side. Following the minority will open the door to other minorities to take over by claiming to know the truth. We can't open this door because it will lead to unspeakable violence and confrontations.

Q. A major hurdle facing the Muslim world today is dictatorship or lack of freedom, because it does not allow people to discuss different ideas, strategies, and approaches and to evaluate solutions. Are you optimistic about the ability of Muslims to overcome this hurdle? And how do we get out of this situation?

A. When we look at history, we find that dictatorship in Europe's history was much stronger and harsher than dictatorship in our countries. However, with time, Europeans developed an acute awareness about this problem. Unfortunately, in our heritage we have some `viruses,' and the dictators always use them. When I was a student in Egypt, Jamal Abdel-Nasser invited some of the writers and journalists. He told them: "some of you were talking before the revolution about justice coming through a just dictator; I see some of you now objecting to my role. Why? I am a dictator but I am also just!" This concept was, unfortunately, even mentioned by al-Afghani himself who said that the Muslim Ummah needs a "just dictator." Allah, told us there is no way to put these two together. There is no justice with dictatorship. You cannot have both. This kind of thinking needs to be changed in the minds of Muslims.

Q. Finally, do you have any advice for [Muslims interested in democracy in America]? A. I feel you have a very difficult task ahead. America and the West can help in many ways, but it is difficult, because our culture and our mentality are based on Islam. If you don't bring new ideas through Islam itself, those ideas will be resented and rejected. In Saudi Arabia, for example, America from time to time raises its voice about the need to implement democratic reforms. Saudi officials reply that our religion talks about Shura, and we have a Majlis for Shura and we don't need anything else because this is our culture and mentality. Even religious leaders and scholars can't accept democracy because they see it as foreign to Islam. We, therefore, need to try to find something from our legacy and from our heritage, and ask them to implement it. Yes, certain groups may raise some objections, but they are much more likely to accept the proposed reforms, if we can show them that they are from our own religion and heritage, and not in contradiction with it.

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