Dr. Asifa Quraishi’s presence in a room, or a city, is quickly noticed. The MPSN house was buzzing with guests, alumni, founders and friends this past week, all beaming with enthusiasm to visit Dr. Quraishi and her mother, Mrs. Quraishi, who helped start the Muslim Public Service Network. The dinner table was lively with stories of MPSN’s past and the ambitions of fellows and guests. The social atmosphere, however, soon gave way to the seriousness of the topic at hand: Islamic law.
Dr. Asifa Quraishi was a natural candidate to speak on the topic. She is a law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with years of research and teaching experience focused on U.S. constitutional law, legal theory and comparative Islamic law.
In the spirit of her profession, Dr. Quraishi conducted her Monday and Tuesday night sessions using the Socratic method, calling upon the fellows to engage in critical analysis of scholarly sources on the question of women witnesses and their validity under Islamic law. Dr. Quraishi used the discussion on this question to give the fellows insight into the thought process that Islamic legal scholars employ when grappling with difficult issues that have multiple interpretations given Qur’anic and hadith texts.
Dr. Quraishi also gave the fellows a condensed version of her semester-long Introduction to Islamic Law course, discussing key differences between Shar’iah (God’s law in Islam) and fiqh (scholars’ interpretation of God’s law) and highlighting the origins of major schools of thought in Islamic jurisprudence.
I found Dr. Quraishi’s concluding points particularly interesting. Dr. Quraishi explained that the traditional model of governance in majority Muslim countries called for a separation between the jurisprudence of the fuqaha, Islamic scholars, and siyasa, the political and administrative system. Whereas the former was non-binding to allow for diversity in opinions and interpretations, the latter focused on providing for the welfare of all citizens regardless of religious convictions and was binding through the police power of the state. Under this system, Islamic legal scholars enjoyed autonomy to think critically about and interpret religious texts to answer questions of their time. However, the scholars had no authority to impose their conclusions on all citizens unless they articulated their opinions via the political process and successfully argued that the legislation of policies they favored would be beneficial for the population at large.
This historical insight is especially helpful in understanding the contemporary landscape in many majority-Muslim countries. It reveals that the terms “Islamic government” or “Islamic state,” which are often sprinkled into the jargon of both the mass media and modern Muslim political movements, may not always be accurate. In some cases they suggest that one interpretation or school of thought should be merged into the political state at the exclusion of all other scholarly religious opinions. Traditionally, however, plurality was an honored pillar of Islamic jurisprudence, and scholars were keen to protect that independence of thought from being tainted by politics.
Dr. Quraishi’s sessions could not have been more timely. Several majority-Muslim countries—Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to name a few— are sorting the pieces of the fiqh-siyasa puzzle in their current struggles for change in governance. Others, like Indonesia, have long embraced keeping the political and Islamic jurisprudential realms separate. Dr. Quraishi emphasized, however, that this separation is different from the American constitutional ideal of a separate church and state. The traditional Islamic model allows for greater interaction between the religious and worldly, but provides for checks on how laws from a religious source can or cannot be legislated as generally binding.
It will be interesting to see how this model will play out, if at all, in a modern context. This past Sunday, the committee overseeing the presidential elections in Egypt declared Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood the winner of the first presidential elections in the country after the February 2011 revolution. Morsi has been criticized for having an ‘Islamist’ agenda. However, in his address to Egyptians on Sunday, Morsi promised to be a president for ‘all Egyptians,’ alluding to the separation of fiqh and siyasa that Dr. Quraishi expressed.
The unfolding of this statement in Egypt and elsewhere in majority-Muslim countries over the coming years will shed light on what model of government will best meet the needs of the Muslim populations of today. Ultimately, I think we will learn what history has confirmed—that Islamic jurisprudence and politics are the products of humans’ search for understanding and order in society. Therefore, they are necessarily imperfect, but they are necessary nonetheless and noble when genuine.