Archive for the ‘Dr. Ahmad’s blog’ Category

The Passing of Ali Memon

Saturday, December 31st, 2022

Former Minaret of Freedom Institute’s board member Ali Memon passed away yesterday, leaving behind his wife Razia and two sons Kamran and Nauman. Today, I joined them and other members of his family and many friends at his burial where we prayed for him and put the earth over his grave.

Ali is remembered by his acquaintances for his ready smile and welcoming demeanor. We at the Minaret of Freedom Institute remember him for his dedicated service during a critical time in our growth when he appropriately used his oversight position as a board member to insure that we crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s. There is no doubt that his efforts made a difference in the success of our humble organization.

May God forgive him and grant him paradise and comfort all who love and loved him. To God we belong and to Him we return.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

The Moral and Ethical Role of Taqwa in the Personal, Social, Economic, and Political Spheres of Life in the 21st Century

Friday, December 9th, 2022

The following article by Imad-ad-Dean AhmadThe Moral and Ethical Role of Taqwa in the Personal, Social, Economic, and Political Spheres of Life in the 21st Century” was first published in the Discussion and Debate section of the Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies (JIMS), Vol 7 No 1 May 2022. “This article was published as [complete bibliographic citation as it appears in the Work]. No part of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted, or distributed, in any form, by any means, electronic, mechanical, photographic, or otherwise, without the prior permission of Indiana University Press.”


The Moral and Ethical Role of Taqwa

in the Personal, Social, Economic, and Political Spheres

of Life in the 21st Century


By: Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.


Abstract: This essay will examine the concept of taqwa as it is used in the Qur’an to illustrate how its application is fundamental in understanding its function in daily life decisions that may be applied in the 21st century. Although there are many translations for taqwa, I believe that the concept is best defined as God-consciousness. I provide daily-life examples to explore how the moral and ethical implications of this concept are relevant today in the four major spheres of life: personal, social, economic and political. The examples provided are based on experiences during my professional journey while serving either as an academic, chaplain, community leader or political activist. The analysis of of taqwa focuses on various Qur’anic verses that illustrate how to understand its application in the personal, social economic and political spheres of life. As I review each of these four spheres, I list verses in Qur’anic chapters that explain the impact that the concept of taqwa can have in daily life-decisions. The importance of maintaining awareness of God in all of these areas lies in the fact that God observes and holds everyone accountable for all of their actions and behaviors. God-consciousness allows us to subordinate our animal instincts to our rational faculty. It allows us to place the well-being of others on the same plane as our own. It saves us from being dazzled by wealth to the point that we forget that there are higher values to which wealth should serve as a means, but never replace it as an end. It is the only safeguard against the temptation to make gods of ourselves to impose our will on others. The challenge to religion in a secular era is to effectuate a link between belief and action. This article will begin by developing an understanding of the meaning of taqwa and then of its application to the four spheres of life in the 21st century: personal, social, economic, and political.


Key words: taqwa, God-consciousness, Qur’an, ethics


Introduction: The Meaning and Importance of Taqwa

The word taqwa occurs 17 times in the Qur’an, and its four co-derivatives appear more than 240 times.[1] Clearly the concept is important. For comparison, the word Islam only appears 8 times, while its 10 cognates (excluding the proper name “Sulayman”) only appear about 140 times. Since understanding the meaning of taqwa is essential, we can find guidance in defining it by looking at the manner in which various respected interpreters of the Qur’an have sought to translate the word into English.[2]


One expects the translation to vary depending upon the context. For example, Pickthall, the most literal interpreter, usually translates the term to mean guarding or restraining oneself from evil or as “duty” or “piety,” linking the term to one’s submission to God.[3] Yet, Arberry consistently translates the word as “godfearing” (with minor variations) associating the term with an emotion.[4] I think Arberry’s view is colored by a common use of the English expression seen in Jonathan Edward’s citation of Luke xii 4-5: “And I say unto you, my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that, have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom you shall fear: fear him, which after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell: yea, I say unto you, Fear him.”[5] This usage obscures the distinction between taqwa and khawf (fear in general) in Qur’anic usage. Thus, the Qur’an uses the word khawf to refer to fear of Pharoah, but never uses taqwa in that context although there should be no lexical objection to doing so.[6] In Islamic theology, obedience to God may be motivated by fear of the hellfire, by the desire for paradise, or by love of God. Sufis point out that obedience to God out of fear of hellfire is the meanest of motives and while the love of God is the highest. Rabi`a al-Basri’s prayer-poem “O My Lord” is an excellent example: “O my Lord, if I worship you from fear of hell, burn me in hell. If I worship you from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates. But if I worship you for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face.”[7]


All of the motivations mentioned above may be considered a form of fear. The fear of hellfire is a fear of punishment. The desire for paradise is the fear of losing a reward. The love of God is a fear of displeasing God. The fear of displeasing the Beloved is better called taqwa than khawf (raw fear). Beyond the translations already mentioned, other translators surveyed use English terms including “righteousness,” “reverence,” and “godliness.” I believe that Muhammad Asad comes closest to capturing the meaning of taqwa with the English term “God-consciousness.”[8] He is able to use some variant of this term in every context in which the word appears. This is important because it demonstrates that he has found the English equivalent of the Arabic term. Further, the word bridges the divide between belief and action. That the textual and lexical usage supports this is evident from the fact that the word is translated as both “fearing” (an emotional reaction) and “protection” (a practical action) in the Vocabulary of the Holy Qur’an.[9] It reminds me of an old traffic safety PSA in which drivers were told to imagine that they saw a police car in the rear view mirror any time they were tempted to speed. Becoming conscious of law enforcement would deter one from breaking the law. In the same way, a constant state of God-consciousness facilitates our obedience to Divine Law. A constant state of consciousness could serve as a subconscious trigger emulating the “rear view mirror” model to help one keep track of ethical and moral behavior in daily life decisions.


Application of Taqwa in the Personal Life Sphere

More than at any other time in history, the 21st century is dominated by the notion that the private sphere of personal activities, those that do not adversely affect others, must be safe from the interference of others. The classical liberal notion[10]  that individual rights should be protected from state interference has now been expanded to demand that personal choices also be exempt from public disapproval or even from private judgment.[11] These points will not be argued in this essay, as they require another comparative study between Islamic law and Western law. However, Islamic law is even more explicit than Western law on the right of privacy. Consider Umar’s judgment [12] that a man who reported on his neighbor’s private consumption of wine was in the wrong for spying on his neighbor. (Compare this with the American Supreme Court having to infer a right to privacy as one of the “unenumerated” rights mentioned in the ninth amendment.)[13] The point I wish to address is that the mere fact that we do not punish, nor even wish to shame people who make evil or immoral choices regarding their own personal life does not mean that the choices themselves are no longer subject to a standard of good or bad.


Many imams preach about taqwa as piety and as fear of God, but do not clarify the connection between taqwa and conscience which is the focus of this paper. Conscience is the God-given faculty to distinguish right from wrong and God-consciousness is the method by which the conscience is purified and immunized from corruption. It is my hope that the scholars, whose job it is to interpret and articulate the principles of our faith, will not only critique and refine this connection, but pass it on to the imams whose role it is to inspire the believers, providing them with the intellectual ammunition they need to inspire their listeners to purify their consciences and make taqwa a practical tool for making their daily life choices. Taqwa, which makes every individual directly responsible to the Almighty, means that the individual himself has a duty to enforce God’s will upon himself.


The critics of religious personal moral codes presume that they are traditional man-made codes falsely attributed to a divinity (who may not even exist) and are at best outdated and at worst completely irrational. The source of the error here is the belief that personal moral codes prescribed by religion are arbitrary and not based on the reality of human nature.


My experiences serving as a chaplain for over ten years at a university, and fifteen years at a maximum-security mental hospital in the larger Washington, DC metropolitan area, afforded me the privilege to observe behavioral problems that young people in general have confronted in today’s modern world with all of its temptations. These include problems associated with dating, family life, cultural, behavioral, intoxicants (drug use and alcohol) and sexual issues. The problem of intoxicants should be a clear example. In 21st century America there is a trend against prohibitionism. There is good reason for this trend. State enforcement of prohibition transforms a personal problem into a criminal problem. But that does not mean that intoxicants are not a problem. Setting aside the social problem they cause, they contribute to the poor health and even death of those who consume them. Absent external constraints upon them, those addicted to intoxicants must turn to others similarly afflicted in self-help twelve step groups for social support. Those who have taqwa can obtain their support from God directly. “They ask thee concerning wine and gambling. Say, ‘In them is a great sin and some profit for men; but the sin is greater than the profit’” (Q 2: 219).


Another example of how maintaining a constant state of God-conscious was so clear in an incident I observed when I served as chaplain at the maximum-security mental hospital. The conscious decision made pertaining to the application of taqwa was very evident in the following case: Two patients who were friends with each other were released from the hospital. One regularly attended the Friday jum`a prayers and his therapist informed me that he had internalized the teachings presented in the sermons. She did not know the term, but the internalization of which she spoke about describes taqwa. Upon release, he succeeded in starting a small business. The other person ignored his friend’s pleas to avoid alcohol, relapsed, and died within a year of his release.


The Qur’an makes clear that Allah has not created these rules to torment us, but rather, to guide us to what is best for our own selves as highlighted in the following verses:

“And it may be that you dislike a thing which is good for you and that you like a thing which is bad for you. God knows but you do not know” (Q 2:216).


“And if anyone is conscious of God, He will remove his ills from him and will enlarge his reward” (Q 65:5). [14]


It is important to mention that “misunderstanding” the meaning of some of the Qur’anic verses causes confusion. For example, numerous Qur’anic verses refer to the fact that everything in life is a trial, but some people may read such verses to mean that if they are meticulous in the observance of religious rituals, they will be spared the trials of life. They fail to realize that it is not the performance of the ritual per se, but their God-consciousness that protects them.[15] Then, when God tries them with some hardship, they may mistake the test for a punishment:


“Do people think that they will be left alone because they say: ‘We believe,’ and will not be tested? And We indeed tested those who were before them so that God will indeed know those who are true” (Q 29:2-3).


“Or do ye think that you shall enter the Garden (of bliss) without such (trials) as came to those who passed away before you? They encountered suffering and adversity, and were so shaken in spirit that even the Messenger and those of faith who were with him cried: ‘When (will come) the help of God?’ Ah! Verily, the help of God is (always) near!” (Q 2:224).


The point of these verses is that a person who takes a bad development in life as a punishment rather than as a trial is under the misconception that s/he will not be tested in this life, else s/he would see the trial for what it is. The fact that the messengers, whose sins were forgiven should still have faced reversals so severe that even their loyal followers thought God had forsaken them makes that precise point. God was not punishing the messengers and their followers, but rather testing them. When events in one’s daily life are understood simply as “punishments” or “rewards,” that undermines the concept of taqwa or God-consciousness and distorts the meaning of Qur’anic verses pertaining to trials. Similarly, when tests come in the form of blessings, they mistake the test for a reward.


“Now, as for man, when his Lord tries him, giving him honor and gifts, then says he, (puffed up), ‘My Lord has honored me’” (Q 89:15).


Taken together these verses demonstrate that although there are good and bad consequences to our choices, in this life both hardships and blessings are tests. Hardship is to be met with patience and blessings with gratitude. The ultimate rewards and punishments are in the hereafter.


“Whoever works righteousness, man or woman, and has Faith, verily, to him will We give a new Life, a life that is good and pure and We will bestow on such their reward according to the best of their actions” (Q 16:97).


Application of Taqwa in the Social Life Sphere

Beyond the sphere of personal actions that directly affect only the individual is the sphere of social action. Broadly speaking, everything beyond the personal is social, although personal actions can indirectly affect society. As a community leader (while serving both as an imam and president of community organizations), I was actively involved in a variety of social concerns, including issues of immigration, racism, changing demographics in neighborhoods, job security, and domestic violence. For the sake of this discussion, however, I shall focus on those actions which are neither commercial nor political and which affect society directly rather than indirectly. This is still a very broad field for it includes all family life, neighborhood life, voluntary social interactions from courting to parties to civil society, philanthropy, and charitable activity. It is an area in which ethics plays an obvious role. It is an area where questions of good and bad become questions of right and wrong because our actions affect others besides ourselves. It is another opportunity for demonstrating the relationship between God-consciousness and conscience. The concept of taqwa in the social sphere of life is strongly emphasized in the Qur’an: [16]


“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do” (Q 4:135).


Because the family is the basic building-block of society, we should start with the questions of relations within the family. The Qur’an recognizes the importance of the family, and accordingly, emphasizes the importance of strong relationships between parents and children, between husband and wife, among siblings, and among kinfolk in general.


The enforcement of some of these relationships is difficult. For example, the fact that children should respect their parents, does not seem to require a strong sense of taqwa on the part of children since small children, at least, are so much smaller and weaker than their parents and so totally dependent upon them, that the parents themselves are sufficient enforcers to command respect. But in the case of respecting the rights of children, consciousness of God is a necessity. The most obvious example of this in the Qur’an is the prohibition of infanticide. If pre-Islamic Arab culture was disrespectful of the rights of females, this was most extreme in the practice of burying baby girls alive, sometimes out of fear of poverty, but often simply out of “shame” of having fathered a girl.[17] While Muslim tradition may have exaggerated how widespread this pre-Islamic custom was,[18] without God-consciousness, parents who engaged in such a practice may have felt they would never be held to account for such an abomination committed against a victim not only too weak to resist but without even the voice to testify against them. The Qur’an, however, inculcates an awareness of God that will deter this practice with a terrifying prophecy of the Day of Judgment:


“When the female (infant) buried alive is questioned for what crime she was killed”

(Q 81:8-9).


Similarly, the principle of taqwa provides an antidote to all power imbalances not only between young and old but between men and women, among various tribes, ethnicities, and races, between rich and poor, or even between Muslims and people of other faiths. Examples of taqwa pertaining to power imbalances is further explained in the following verses:


“O you who believe stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts) lest you swerve, and if you distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that you do” (Q 4:135).


“Women shall have rights similar to men according to what is equitable and men have a degree over them (in inheritance)” (Q 2:228).


“God forbids you not with regard to those who fight you not for (your) faith nor drive you out of your homes from dealing kindly and justly with them; for God loves those who are just” (Q 60:8).


In one of my Friday Jum`a sermons as chaplain at the maximum-security mental hospital I focused on the meaning of the following passage and noted that it is a reference to our conscience:


“By the soul and the proportion and order given to it and its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right; truly he succeeds who purifies it and he fails who corrupts it” (Q 91:7-10).


After the sermon, a non-Muslim patient who sat in on the service told me that he had no conscience. When I asked him why he would say such a thing, he stated that it was because he felt no remorse for the things that he had done that caused him to be committed to this mental hospital. When I told him that I thought he did have a conscience, he asked me why I would make such a remark.  I told him that the fact he had chosen to share his lack of remorse with me, was proof that he does have a conscience and that his failure in life was due to its corruption, and success could come from its purification. Needless to say, the look on his face was priceless. He obtained a copy of the Qur’an and began to study it with great diligence and he became so familiar with its content that whenever I would start to answer some other patient’s inquiry “What does the Qur’an say about [a particular matter]” as soon as I began reading the Qur’anic passage as the response to the question asked, he would immediately open his copy to the passage I was reading, even though I did not specify the surah or verse numbers to the relevant passages. He has since been released. He recently called me for recommendations for a mosque which he could attend. His release testifies to the confidence of the state of Maryland that he is no longer “not responsible,” in other words that he does have a conscience. His request for a masjid testifies to his own realization, not only that he has a conscience, but of the need to purify it.


Application of Taqwa in the Economic Life Sphere

The importance of economic life is not always understood. As the CEO of a Schedule C Corporation, I observed how economic principles play out in the modern business world. Wealth is not simply based on having an abundance of material resources, but rather, it is dependent upon the use of these resources in ways that make them of value to members of the larger community. Many seem to think that in a free-market system taqwa is not needed to achieve this goal since each individual’s actions to increase his or her own wealth in the process, actually increases the wealth of the community as a whole. Examples of taqwa that highlight issues pertaining to wealth in the Economic Life Sphere are explored in the following verses: Q 3:130, Q 9:85, and Q 4:29.


An example that illustrates how the Qur’an encourages prosperity is best understood when reviewing that the Prophet (pbuh) and his wife Khadijah (may Allah be pleased with her) were both merchants.[19] In fact, the Qur’an, itself, encourages trade:


“O you who believe! Squander not your wealth among yourselves in vanity but let there be trade by mutual consent. …” (Q 4:29).


Any suboptimality in the subsequent distribution can be dealt with by charity and/or the political system. However, this idyllic picture overlooks a certain human weakness, to be dazzled by material wealth as indicated in the Qur’an:


“Nor let their wealth nor their children dazzle you: God’s plan is to punish them with these things in this world, and that their souls may perish in their (very) denial of God” (Q 9:85).


I know of no better way to elaborate on and clarify this point than to quote the observation of Muhammad Asad (born Leopold Weiss) and his wife of the “well-dressed, well-fed people” around them in a Berlin subway who “all looked as though they were suffering the torments of Hell … without any goal beyond raising their own ‘standard of living,’ without any hopes other than having more material amenities, more gadgets, and perhaps more power. …”[20] It was about them he realized that the Qur’an speaks:


“You are obsessed by greed for more and more until you go down to your graves. Nay, but you will come to know! Nay, but you will come to know! Nay but if you knew it with the knowledge of certainty, You would indeed see the hell you are in. In time indeed you shall see it with the eye of certainty: And on that Day you will be asked what you have done with the boon of life”[21] (Q 102:1-8).


Within the framework of taqwa, material wealth is a morally neutral commodity.[22] What counts is not how much we have, but how we acquired what we have accumulated and what we shall do with it now that we have it. Unethically acquired wealth (whether by fraud, force, or by unfair exploitation of an imbalance of power) is a moral evil, as is wasting wealth or using it to evil ends. While one can ask the state to enforce laws aimed at stopping or ameliorating such evil, society only succeeds where most people generally enforce such standards upon themselves. Furthermore, the giving of charity is most effective when done voluntarily by civil society. Yet, the “dazzling” effect of wealth on the human psyche will tempt givers to be lax unless counteracted by the knowledge that God sees what we do. This cannot be sidestepped by charging the state with the task of redistribution of wealth since those charged with redistribution are just as susceptible to the dazzling effect of wealth and, armed with the coercive power of the state, even more likely to yield to corruption.


I must add that as necessary as God-consciousness is for an ethical economy, it is not sufficient in the absence of an understanding of what it is that God commands. I know of a Muslim woman who needed money to pay a loan that if not paid within a few days would incur a late fee of 100%. In her eagerness to avoid bank loans as rib? (usually “usuary,” literally “excess” and thus any excessive charge, not limited to interest),[23] she had borrowed money from a loan shark who professed to charge no interest, only a 100% late fee if she was a single day late. While the subject of interest has become highly controversial,[24] most Islamic economists consider any interest at all to be rib?,[25] there is absolutely no disagreement that a late fee that doubles the debt, a common pre-Islamic practice specifically alluded to in the Qur’an, is definitely rib?:[26]


“Only one species of riba, however, can really be deemed to be the subject of a primary (daruri) prohibition, and that is riba al-jahiliyya. The riba of the pre-Islamic days consisted of compounding the debt of insolvent debtors, and that is the kind of riba to which the threat of war from God and His messenger is directed.”[27]


“O ye who believe! Devour not usury, doubled and multiplied; but fear Allah; that ye may (really) prosper” (Q 3:130).


Her taqwa had driven her from an arguably prohibitive (har?m) modern banking market interest loan to a clearly har?m jahil?yah era style loan. Further, contrary to common belief, the notion of rib? applies not only to fixed rates of return, but to any form of overcharging as demonstrated by the Prophet (pbuh) warning Bilal that a spot barter exchange of one kind of dates for another is a form rib? unless the exchange is conducted at the market price of the two commodities[28]


Application of Taqwa in the Political Life Sphere

Having held political party office and participated in and managed political action campaigns and ran as a nominee twice for the U.S. Senate, I have witnessed and experienced first-hand challenges of political action and the struggle to attain political power and maintain it. Although I wonder whether taqwa can help politicians understand the concept of “integrity” in the political sphere? I am still convinced that the application of taqwa is fundamental to maintaining ethical and moral behavior in political life.[29] Even more dazzling than greed in distracting us from God-consciousness is power. The greedy merchants of Mecca come in for their share of criticism,[30] but it is Pharoah who goes beyond the sin of self-worship to the crime of demanding that others also worship him as a god: “Pharaoh said: ‘O Chiefs! no god do I know for you but myself …’” (Q 28:38).


The truth of Lord Acton’s famous dictum that “All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”[31] lies in the fact that once in power the maintaining of power becomes the supreme concern of the ruler. When Mansoor Farhang fled for his life from Iran, he appeared on what was then the “McNeil-Lehrer Report.” He was shown an interview from a year earlier which praised Khomeini for placing “equal emphasis on the significance of freedom and the importance and necessity of socio-economic justice” and was asked what he would say now. His response was that “an 80-year-old man who had defended freedom and justice for 15 years in exile, was transformed, due to corruption of power and his dogmatic position on various issues, into a criminally insane person.”[32]


On his inauguration as commander of the faithful, Abu Bakr recognized this problem, saying,


“Now it is beyond doubt that I have been elected your Amir, although I am not better than you. Help me, if I am right; set me right if I am in the wrong; truth is a trust; falsehood a treason. … Obey me as long as I obey Allah and His Prophet; when I disobey Allah and His Prophet, then obey me not.”[33]


When a man boldly warned Abu Bakr’s successor to “Be God conscious!” Umar’s reply was “There is no good in you if you do not explain the fault you see, and there is no good in us if we do not listen to it.”[34] The importance of public oversight is underscored by the Qur’an’s warning of the special need for taqwa in secret counsel:


“O you who believe! When you hold secret counsel, do it not for iniquity and hostility, and disobedience to the Prophet; but do it for righteousness and God-consciousness; and fear God, to Whom ye shall be brought back” (Q 58: 9).


Democratic societies attempt to allow popular oversight of the ruler through elections, but as preferable as this is over violent overthrow of the ruler, it is no guarantee of God consciousness of the rulers since the electorate themselves may be motivated by ungodly interests. They often see being a “strong man” as a short-cut to even their legitimate objectives, as Kais Said’s recent power-grab in Tunisia demonstrates.[35] Said was elected president because of “popular dissatisfaction” over the lack of economic reform. He used the “dissatisfaction” as an excuse to replace the constitution, which was painstakingly assembled by Parliament and approved by a vote of 200 – 12 with 4 abstentions in 2014, with a new constitution issued by presidential decree (May 2022). He called for a referendum (July 2022) to ratify the move, and 90% of those voting approved it. Taqwa is especially difficult in the political sphere since the politician who manages to maintain it may find himself removed whether by election or coup. Although Taqwa cannot be delegated to the ruler, it is the responsibility of every citizen.



In the Qur’an, the Creator has provided moral and ethical guidance for how to successfully live on the spaceship “earth.” Implementing this guidance is challenging in the face of animal passions, social pressures, material greed, and the corrupting effects of political power. God-consciousness is a tool for maintaining focus on that which is good and right in the presence of such distractions. It is most effective when it becomes so habitual that it governs our subconsciousness as well as our conscious thought.


“O you Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of God-consciousness – that is the best. Such are among the Signs of God, that they may receive admonition” (Q 7:26).


“Which then is best? he that lays his foundation on consciousness of God and His good pleasure? or he that lays his foundation on an undermined sand-cliff ready to crumble to pieces? and it crumbles to pieces with him, into the fire of Hell. And God guides not people that do wrong” (Q 9:109).



[1] Except for the particles, Arabic words are generally derived from past third person masculine singular verb roots of three or four letters. Thus, the feminine noun taqwâ is derived from the root waqâ, meaning “he protected.” Other nouns derived from the same root include taqîy (God-conscious, used five times in the Qur’an), tuqât (fear). And the verb ittaqâ (to be God conscious, used over 200 times in varying tenses and voices).

[2] For this discussion I have considered translations of AbdullahYusuf Ali, Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, M. H. Shakir, Muhammad Sarwar, Muhsin Khan, Arthur John Arberry, S.H. Nasr et al, Muhammad Asad and Sahih International. Except for Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Qur’an: Text Translation and Commentary (Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc. 2002), Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Jospeh E. R. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustam, The Study Quran: A New Translation and commentary (New York: Harper Collins, 2015) and  Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an (Bristol: The Book Foundation, 2003) all sources are as quoted online at Corpus Qur’an (2017),

[3] Marmaduke Pickthall, quoted online at Corpus Qur’an (2017),

[4] Arthur John Arberry, quoted online at Corpus Qur’an (2017),

[5] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” p. 7.

[6] See, e.g., Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, “The Status Of Piety, Asceticism and Self-discipline,”

[7] Rabi`a, “O My Lord,” translated by Jane Hirshfield, Poetry Foundation,

[8] Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an.

[9] Abdullah Abbas Nadwi, Vocabulary of the Holy Qur’an (Chicago: Iqra International Educational Foundation), p. 738.

[10] John C. Goodman, “What Is Classical Liberalism?” Last accessed 8/28/22.

[11] Witness the current controversy over transgender people in which the classical liberal view that such people should be safe from physical assault is now expanded to say they should be guaranteed the use of their preferred gender in public and accusing J.K. Rowling for suggesting the  word “woman” be reserved for “those who menstruate” of being guilty of some form of aggression and morally equating those who think it is unfair for trans-women to compete against cis-women in athletics with those who would prohibit black people from competing against whites.

[12] Al-Mu??aq? al-Hind?, kanz al-?umm?l. (, Accessed August 11, 2022, 465.

[13] Adam Lamparello, “Fundamental Unenumerated Rights Under the Ninth Amendment and the Privileges or Immunities Clause,” Akron Law Review 49. No. 1 (2015), p. 178,

[14] See also Qur’anic verses Q 2:224 and 228; Q 29: 2-3 16: 97; and Q 89:15.

[15] “… Whoever holds in honor the symbols of Allah, (in the sacrifice of animals), such (honor) should come truly from God-consciousness” (Q 22:32).

[16] See also Qur’anic verses Q 2: 228; Q 60:8; Q 81:8-9; and Q 91:7-10.

[17] W. Robertson Smith, Kinship & Marriage in Early Arabia (London, Adam and Charles Black, 1903) p. 293.

[18] Omar Abdallah Ahmad Shehadeh and Reem Farhan Odeh Maaita, “Infanticide in pre Islam Era: Phenomenon Investigation,” (Zarqa: The Hashemite University)

[19] See any decent biography of the Prophet, e.g., Karen Armstrong, A Biography of the Prophet (London: Phoenix Press, 1991), p. 79.

[20] Muhammad Asad, The Road to Mecca (Gibraltar: Dar al-Andalus, 1980), p. 309.

[21] Road to Mecca, p. 309-10.

[22] Imad A. Ahmad, “Islam and Markets,” Religion and Liberty 6:3.

[23] See Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, “Riba and Interest: Definitions and Implications,” (delivered at 22nd Conference of American Muslim Social Scientists: Oct. 15-17, 1993, Herndon, VA) Minaret of Freedom Preprint Series 96-5 (1996),

[24] Jibrail Bin Yusuf Hassan, Shakeel Shah, Mohammad Ayaz, and Jabal Muhammad Buaben, “Interest free Banking and Finance in Brunei, Darussalam: Present Realities and Future Prospects,” Journal of Islamic Thought and Civilization 8:2 (Fall 2018), pp. 35-62.

[25] Timur Kuran, “The Economic System in Contemporary Islamic Thought: Interpretation and Assessment,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 18 (1986), p. 149.

[26] “Economic System in Contemporary Islamic Thought,” p. 149.

[27] Mohamed Fadel, “Re: Glorifying our past,” IEF-Review Listserv (Jan 6, 2011 6:55 a.m.).

[28] Sahih Bukhari, 3:506,

[29] Qur’anic Verses that encourage ethical guidance include Q 7:26 and Q 9:109.

[30] See Q 9:34.

[31] Ben Morrell, “Power Corrupts,” Acton Institute.

[32] “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; A Personal View from Inside the Chaos of the Iranian Revolution by Mansour Farhang,” American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

[33] Amir Hasan Siddiqi, Islamic State: A Historical Survey (Karachi: Jamiyatul Falah, 1970).

[34] Ali Muhammad al-Sallabi, Sirat Umar bin al-Khattab, (Beirut: Dar-ul-Ma‘rifah, 2004), p. 107.

[35] Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, “Tunisia’s Democracy Under Threat,” Minaret of Freedom Weblog. (Oct. 27, 2021).

Blasphemy Laws in Islam and in Muslim-majority Countries

Wednesday, November 30th, 2022

[On September 24, 2022, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy hosted a panel discussion on “Blasphemy Laws in Islam and in Muslim-majority Countries” moderated by Sahar Aziz. This our summary of highlights of the discussion and is not a transcript.  The use of the first person is for convenience only. The event can be seen in full here.]

Khaled Abou El Fadl. The Qur’an is very clear and ahead of its time that “There is no compulsion in religion.” Muslims have been more influenced by the khalifal policies in the “ridda wars” than by the practice of the Prophet. The question is why Muslim societies have not reformed their blasphemy and apostasy laws into conformance with the Prophetic model. I would argue that it is the absence of democracy. To understand this, it is useful to look at the example of Egypt where many people take to the airways to insult the Prophet with impunity but disagreement with President Sisi is not tolerated.

Mustafa Akyol. The early Muslim society adopted the laws on blasphemy and apostasy from other empires  of the time. Some modern translations now change the verse Dr. Abou El Fadl quoted by adding a parenthetical twist so that “No  compulsion in religion” becomes “No compulsion in (entering the) religion.” There is no punishment specified for blasphemy or apostasy. In fact, the Qur’an actually quotes blasphemies (to refute them), which puts the Qur’an itself in opposition to Pakistani laws against quoting blasphemies. “You are sure to hear much that is hurtful from those who have been given the scriptures before you and those who are polytheists. Be steadfast and mindful of God.” (3:186) The Qur’anic exegete Fakhr ad-Din ar-Razi opines that the claim of some that this verse abrogated is weak because other verses instruct Muslims to win the disbelievers over by preaching and discourse. At-Tabari quotes verses that show Moses was ordered to speak gently to Pharaoh (the archetype of evil), and Muhammad is told to tell the believers to forgive those who do not believe. “If you hear people denying and ridiculing God’s revelation, do not sit with them unless they start to talk of other things”  (4:140). The Qur’an calls for disengagement from, not punishment of, mockery. Later episodes are taken as the basis for punishing blasphemers, in particular some poets killed by early Muslims for mocking the Prophet, e.g. Ka`b. But Ka`b was not just a disrespectful poet, he was engaged in propaganda to incite people to violence against the Muslims. The Prophet forgave those who insulted him. Ibn Taymiyyah has argued that the Prophet had the right to forgive people who insulted him, but we don’t. This opinion is cited in Pakistani High Court decisions, despite the fact that Prophet is supposed to be our model in all things. Blasphemy and apostasy laws are unIslamic and we Muslims do not need them.

Ahmet T. Kuru. There 70 countries with blasphemy laws today, half of which are Muslim majority countries where they are generally more severe (and six of which include capital punishment). This a societal, not just a state, problem. 70% in southeast and Southern Asia and 50% in the Middle East say apostates should be killed. This, the killing of other Muslims, and failing to make contracts written are the three most blatant departures of Muslim practice from Qur’anic commandments. In the 11th Century social, economic and military crises led to the rise of an uluma-state alliance embracing the killing of apostates. Today uluma (Islamic scholars), Islamists, and Sufi shaikhs embrace the idea of punishing blasphemers in order to establish a hegemony. It has become difficult to hold the middle ground because there has been a rise of an intolerant secularist camp that sees us as naive and an extremist religious camp that sees us as kafirs.

Basheer Ahmed. Rather than control blasphemy, the blasphemy laws spread it. I think Muslims have done more to spread blasphemy than non-Muslims. Without doubt blasphemy hurts the feelings of Muslims. Many Muslim countries today have laws calling for the incarceration or even execution of blasphemers. The existence of this laws affect both Muslims and those of other faiths. There are 150 people now incarcerated in Pakistan on blasphemy charges. Although none have been executed by the state there, many have been killed by mobs. Even a man who called for the fair trial of blasphemers was killed. A judge in a trial of a man accused of blasphemy was threatened and had to leave the country. Does this give a good image of Islam? Nearly all prophets were abused, but the Qur’an has never indicated that their supporters were encouraged to kill the abusers. The Qur’an says the punishment will be in the afterlife. Why did the Prophet never order the killing of his opponents?  When the lady who daily threw garbage at him failed to show up, why did he ask after her health?

Radwan Masmoudi. Most people in the world don’t care about the theory of blasphemy, but about the practice. One of the biggest misunderstandings of Islam is that it does not believe in freedom of religion or belief and that it imposes itself on Muslims and others. The biggest rebuttal to this is the existence of Islam with religious minorities in so many Muslim majority countries around the world. I will focus on freedom of conscience in the 2014 Tunisian constitution, the only popularly written constitution in the Arab World, written by an elected Constitutional convention after two years of public comment to build a consensus that would be backed by virtually all Tunisians and not just a majority. Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience were among the thorniest question. Tunisians are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Should people be allowed to choose or to change religion, or to have no religion at all? Debates were often heated or intense. Some argued that we must protect Islam and allowing people to change or leave their religion would jeopardize Tunisia’s religious homogeneity. Can you achieve homogeneity by forcing people to pretend belief in something in which they do not believe? Or do you achieve homogeneity by open debate? Is the goal homogeneity or hypocrisy? And what does Islam itself require? The Qur’an is very clear and specific: “Let there be no compulsion in religion. Truth stands out clear from error. Whoever believes in God rejects evil has grasped the most trustworthy handhold which never breaks; and God is the All-knowing” (2:256). “Say, I am not a guardian over you” (6:104). How can Almighty God hold us accountable for our choices if we were not free to choose? The Tunisian people, allowed to choose, overwhelmingly approved Article 6 guaranteeing freedom of conscience and belief. Unfortunately the Tunisian democracy was overthrown in a coup and the new dictator has imposed a new constitution from which Article 6 has been deleted.

Sahar Aziz. Is any Muslim majority country governed by Islamic law? Are not almost all Muslim countries governed by a mishmash of colonial law and Islamic law (except for some elements of family law)?

Abou Fadl. Islamic jurisprudence has not survived the colonial moment. It has been deconstructed and all purported representations of Islamic law in effect are legacies of colonialism. Consider Saudi Arabia. Who has been put to death in Saudi Arabia for apostasy and blasphemy?  A Shia scholar who supported the Arab Spring and said protest against oppressive government is an Islamic right. In Egypt law is idra’ al idyana, disrespect of religion, a phrase that comes not from Islamic tradition but is a translation of a phrase from the French colonial period. One man was arrested on this charge at the request of the Coptic church.

Mustafa Akyol. It is respect for authority that is imposed by coercion. (It has secular versions, like the law against insulting Ataturk). Diversity of state law should not distract us from the main issue. Blasphemy law is not only an issue of state law but a driver of mob violence.

Ahmet T. Kuru. We are addressing two different audiences. To the Western audience the diversity of Islamic law is an important point. To the Muslim world, most have secular constitutions, but the blasphemy issue is a matter of teachings in mosques and schools. Rather than focus on the state law, look at the influence of Locke on the English speaking world, Descartes on the French, and Shafi on the Arab.

Radwan Masmoudi. The rulers of the Muslim world do not want any debate whether about religion or politics. Yes, we want a modern understanding of Islam, but it must be authentic and come from within the Islamic tradition. It is a long struggle. In Tunisia, we have trained over half of the imams on democracy and free speech.

Sahar Aziz. Should we be focusing on changing laws or changing popular attitudes? Is your position that Islamic law does not accommodate blasphemy law at all or does it merely require reform?

Ahmet T. Kuru. In the Western model, blasphemy laws were first made a dead letter. In Pakistan, the murderer of an accused blasphemer was killed by the state and now a political party celebrating him as a martyr is getting 10% of the votes.

Mustafa Akyol. Blasphemy laws can be used against Muslims, as in India where Muslims are subjected to violence for disrespecting Hinduism by eating beef. We can abolish blasphemy laws in the same way that we abolished slavery.

Sahar Aziz. We may fetishize American free speech rights, but people across the Atlantic, supposedly in the same tradition, disagree on things like hate speech laws.

M. Basheer Ahmed. All shariah laws were devised by human beings during the Medieval period.  When laws defeat their purpose, should they not be changed or abolished?

Khaled Abou Fadl. There are very good scholarly works challenging such laws. Abu Bakr’s decision to fight the apostasy wars laid the groundwork for the existing problematical laws. The prerequisite for a reasoned discussion of history is to take that history seriously and approach it with an open mind. We Muslims don’t take our history seriously. Works produced in Arabic, Turkish, Persian are for the most part reductive, derivative, and imitative. Consider Ibrahim Issa who has sold out to a despot equal to the Pharaoh allowing his call for reform to be used as a justification for Sisi’s oppression. The minute a Muslim starts dreaming of liberty and rights, he is told he is an exception to humanity that locks the Muslim mind into an endless pathology.

Sahar Aziz. There are many forces causing these problems, it is not just religious zealotry.

Mustafa Akyol.  The number one reform we need is of the rule that the ruler must be obeyed even when he is oppressive. It is true that U.S. standards of free speech and religion are higher than those of Europe, but I believe they are better for that reason. Let us not forget that hate speech laws can be used against us Muslims as well.  Does not the Qur’an say unbelievers will go Hell? Can that not be used against atheists?

Ahmet T. Kuru. I agree that as along as we do not harm one another there should be freedom of speech. We must also not forget that Muslims who continue to profess Islam have also been called apostates for questioning any particular of traditional Islamic law even though they pray five times a day and fast.

M. Basheer Ahmed. There is no reason we have to accept law as understood in the eleventh century.

Radwan Masmoudi. We need more of these debates and discussions. It is a long-term project to change the mindset of Muslims. Who speaks for Islam? Authoritarian regimes or institutions they create and control are not qualified. In true Islam there is no one charged to speak for Islam; all of us speak for Islam, which is more democratic than a Church establishment. It is time we speak louder and take back our right to define and defend Islam. We must convince the majority of Muslims that what we say is true and genuine.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Public Freedoms in the Islamic State

Monday, November 28th, 2022

[On October 27 the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding co-hosted a book launch for the English translation of Rached Ghannouchi’s book Public Freedoms in the Islamic State, co-moderated by Radwan Masmoudi and John  Esposito.  This is a summery of highlights of and is not intended to be a transcript of that discussion.]

Prof. John Esposito, Georgetown University and the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding. We have seen how Shaikh Rashed walked his talk, and, until recently, hopes were high for the success of Tunisian democracy.

Shaikh Rached responded to questions from Andrew March, Univ. of Amherst (who said this book is of importance not only to Islamic studies but to political philosophy more broadly) David L. Johnston, Fuller Theological Seminary (who translated the book), Tamara Sonn, Georgetown Univ. (who noted it was his advocacy of democracy that required Shaikh Ghannouchi to seek political asylum in the face then, as now, of well-funded disinformation campaigns), and from the audience.

Rached Ghannouchi wrote this book during exile and imprisonment. Islam is valid for all time and places and not linked to  a particular context.  There  is no value unless humans are free. Shurah (consultation with stakeholders) and democracy are compatible. Revelation and reason are compatible. All human relationship are established by free will, whether social, theological, or economic. Freedom of conscience is essential. In prison he came to realize that riddah is a political crime (treason), not a religious crime (apostasy). Islam is democratic because democracy is not a creed but a mechanism to avoid dictatorship. The ethical dimension is important in the state. Islam provides values from which a democracy may draw strength.

The first Islamic state in Medina was headed by the Messenger (peace be upon him) so that state and ummah were intertwined. Now the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) consists of 27 countries, and the religious community is no longer linked to the nation state, but refers to a broader society.

Human beings are ideological creatures. Even secularism is a kind of religion. Humans have spiritual longings beyond matter. Politics is built on interests but should not be divorced from values. For example, the war on Iraq in the nineties, launched on the false premise that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, led to horrible consequences to Iraqis and to Westerners. The transition to democracy in Tunisia has been difficult but so have all others — many more difficult. Even America has undergone wars and even recently has seen an attack in the Capitol. Tunisians will fight those who seek to take it back to its despotic past.

Sayyid Qutb believed that Islam is civilization, whereas Malek Bennabi believed that they are separate things. Islam can be understood in a way that produces progress or that leaves us backward. Ghannouchi met with both men and realized that Malek Bennabi’s understanding was better. The greater the space for freedom, the more liberal understandings of Islam that spread. Under the Soviet Union Islam was almost extinct, but as soon as communism collapsed, Islam regained its power. Islam flourishes where there is freedom.

The concept of human vicegerency is a fundamental concept due to the fact that humans are neither pure matter nor pure spirit. Regarding non-Muslim minorities, all citizens equally own the state regardless of creed. In the process of writing the book Ghannouchi abandoned any notion of classes of citizenship, realizing in the modern world such distinctions serve no positive purpose. In the medieval era Muslim states came closer to this ideal than the Christian ones.

Like Stalin and Hitler, the founders of the French Revolution (who invented modern state terrorism) were all secular. In America, politicians visit churches, synagogues, and mosques, and debate issues like abortion and prayer in the schools. Yet, many have chosen to push democracy on the French, rather than the American, model. In Tunisia, Ghannouchi was not pushed from parliament by elections, but by a coup which some persons in a position to do something about it have refused to call it by its true name. Ghannouchi believes people are fundamentally good and is hopeful that the truth will prevail over the smear-mongers.

Responding to a question as to whether democracy is now unpopular in Tunisia and Egypt, Ghannouchi said that we cannot say that democracy failed in Tunisia or Egypt until there have been free and fair elections from which no one is excluded.

Ghannouchi denied any contradiction between Islam and democracy. In democracies, parliaments represent the people, but they do not have absolute power.  They reflect the common culture whether it is Islamic or something else. The book is premised on the notion that Islam is freedom. Establishing freedom is the necessary first step towards an Islamic state. Excluding secularism from public life  is not moderation, it is extremism of a Jacobin sort.

Islam is a space for common ground, not conflict. Islam is democratic because democracy wants to create space for dialog, not war. Tunisia is living though a difficult transition, but it shall triumph because justice will prevail.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. I asked a question which, unfortunately, there was not time for Shaikh Rached to entertain: Even if foreign investment were more valuable than domestic development (a premise I do not share) a viable domestic economy would still be important to attract foreign investment. Either way, what though have you given to freeing up the Tunisian domestic economy, especially given the degree to which over-regulation invites the corruption which, after all, was the seed around which the regulation there sprang?

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Iran: Historical Context and Latest Developments

Monday, October 31st, 2022

[On October 21, 2022, the Middle East Policy Council held a panel discussion on Iran moderated by retired Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer. The following is a summary of highlights and not intended as a transcript of the event]:

Ms. Barbara Slavin, Director, Future of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council.

When she first went to Iran, shortly after the revolution that established the Islamic Republic, women said that the forced wearing of the headscarf was the least of their problems. What has changed is that the scarf has now become the symbol of all that is wrong with the regime.

Mr. Ali Alfoneh, Senior Fellow, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

The Iranian Revolution has been a modernizing force on Iran.  The problem is that it has not been willing to adapt to the modernization of society that its own policies have provoked. Education, especially of women, availability of not only television but satellite television and the Internet has changed social values and ambitions in ways the state is not willing tolerate let alone support. The regime is not on the verge of collapse, but it is on the verge of a fundamental change. The Revolutionary Guard has the ambition of becoming like the army in Pakistan, the custodian of the state. When the Revolutionary Guard reaches the conclusion that Mr. Khamenei is a liability rather than a source of legitimacy, a military dictatorship that doesn’t care that much about religion may emerge.

Alex Vatanka, Director of Iran Program, Middle East Institute.

Observers do not know if this is the end of the regime, but it has become clear that the Islamic Republic can no longer (if it ever could) reform itself. Iranians born in 2000-2010 are fearless. 70% of those arrested in the recent demonstrations are under 20. Iranian sociologists on Iranian TV are stating that the leading force turning young people away from Islam in Iran today is the regime.

Alfoneh. The killing of Mohandis in Iraq was a disaster for the ways that the loss of Solomeini was not for Iran because the Iranian military is so institutionalized, not so dependent on any single individual. The IRGC calculation is that without the JCPOA we will pursue a bomb and be like Pakistan. If there is a JCPOA it demands positive economic consequences.

Slavin. There has been a deal on the table since March, but whoever is in charge in Iran has not accepted it. This may be because they have no faith because the U.S. can’t be trusted to keep it, but that point is moot, because the taste for this deal is gone “wherever you look.”

Vatanka. I agree there is no  sign of a deal, but if the alleged drone sale is why there is no nuclear deal, the Iranians are losing much more in oil and gas sales than they are making in drone sales. It is evidence that IRGC is poor at long-term strategy.

Alfoneh. The IRGC calculation is that once you get a nuclear bomb you have a blank check. No one would dare to sanction you, as Pakistan remained unsanctioned even after it was found to be housing Osama bin Ladin.

Slavin, North Korea has a nuclear weapon but no blank check. It is one of the most heavily sanctioned places on earth. Before Iran got a bomb, the Isrealis may do something first.

Alfoneh. I am not aware of large scale Iranian deployment’s to Russia in support of the invasion of the Ukraine.

Vatanka. Support for Russia can only be justified as snub to the West. It does not serve Iranian national interests: it does not help the Iranian economy and there is no possible “Islamic” justification.

Mr. Richard Schmierer. What should the response of the West if the nuclear deal is not reinstated and Iran moves to pursue a nuclear weapon?

Slavin. Sanctions have already maxed out. There will probably be cyberattacks and attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities, although massive strikes may only press Iran to move faster. If they obtain nuclear weapons there would be a balance with the Israeli nuclear weapons in a kind of India-Pakistan situation where neither side could use them. One question is if JOCPOA is bot revived would Iran work more closely with Russia and China in the nuclear field. An alternative approach is to offer a trade of unfreezing some Iranian assets in exchange for a freeze on their nuclear development. Israeli strikes, even if supported by the U.S. would be a disaster.

Alfoneh. Iran’s nuclear program was started by the Shah and the Islamic Republic inherited it along with the Shah’s nuclear ambitions. Any successor to the current regime may inherit both, and if provided with economic means, may more effectively develop nuclear weapons. Nuclearization of Iran is the most likely outcome.

Vatanka. UAE already has a live nuclear project and the Saudis are moving in that direction. Iran must calculate the risks of regional proliferation. Unlike North Korea, Iran has a lively civil society and the risks of nuclearization to the population cannot be ignored. There are many inside the regime who, given a better alternative, would chose it.

Schmierer. When he was in Oman the Omanis were nervous even about the safety of Iran putting a nuclear generator on line. What are the prospects of reducing the Sunni-Shia tension in the region?

Slavin. With the perception that the U.S. is withdrawing from the region, the regional actors se the need to reduce tensions since no side can count on U.S. intervention. But if Iran goes for nuclear weapons, so will the Saudis.

Alfoneh. The regime feels threatened by Iran International television which is backed Israel and the Saudis and they might well bomb the Saudis soon as evidences by allusions made by Iran to the attacks on the Saudi oil facilities.

Slavin. Iran’s interests now are to survive and get what benefits it can from relations with Russia and China. A direct attack on the Saudis is not promising.

Alfoneh. Iran has found that bullying its neighbors had improved relations ion the past.

Vatanka. Iran has been rewarded by recklessness in the past has been rewarded, but a direct attack on Saudi Arabia can’t be counted on to have the same effect. The allegations of Saudi involvement in Iran International comes fro Iranian propaganda.

Schmierer. How should the West on react to the current protests?

Slavin. Biden has been doing a pretty good job, enabling tools to circumvent internet interference and avoiding direct intervention. Advocacy for reform without calling for foreign imposed regime change or direct foreign intervention. One thing that can be done is to kick Iran off the UN Women’s commission.

Vatanka. We need to focus on how to get people within the regime to see its bankruptcy and desert it. I see no sign of compromise on Khamenei’s part. We must start thinking about what we do the day after Khamenei leaves.

Schmierer. Are there forces at work that might allow Iran to evolve put the current morass into a better position.

Slavin. Iran already has somewhat democratic constitution If you get rid of the Supreme leader, the guardian council, and the council of experts, you have a baseline for post-Islamic Republic.

Alfaneh. If the regime in Iran develops into a military dictatorship, then within five to ten years we may see a successful move for democratization as Samuel Huntington outlined in The Third Wave of democracy.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

American Religious Leaders Meeting with Raisi

Sunday, September 25th, 2022

When Ebrahim Raisi came to the United Nations last week to address the General Assembly, he also revived the traditional annual meeting between Iran’s president and American religious leaders of the Abrahamic faiths. The meeting this year was entitled “The Role of Religious Leaders in the World Crisis.”

Three invited speakers were given eight minutes to open the roundtable. A rabbi told the story of a king who asked his wise men who was more powerful: the king or God? The wise men were uncomfortable with the question, but one dared to answer.  The king was more powerful he explained because the king could expel a subject from his country, but no one could ever be outside the domain of God. A Christian pastor emphasized the importance of interfaith dialog and cooperation. The Muslim speaker, Prof. Abdulaziz Sachedina of George Mason University, pointed out that when, in the Qur’an, God promises Abraham that he will make leaders of his offspring, He emphasizes that His promise does not extent to the unjust.

Before President Raisi spoke there was an opportunity for many of us present to put forward questions. Many of those were directed to international issues such as Iran’s support for Palestine and Syria and the efforts to revive the JCPOA. When I was called upon to speak, I mentioned the serious problem in America of people who die while in custody of the authorities. I said that investigations have concluded that this is not merely a matter of some bad actors, but there are serious systemic problems that need to be addressed. I thanked Mr. Raisi for his earlier announcement that he intended to launch an investigation of the death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of the morality police for mandatory religious education. I urged him to make sure that this investigation goes beyond searching for possible bad actors and seriously investigate the possibility of systemic problems.

In his response, Mr. Raisi did not directly address my question. However, he did strongly stress the necessity for leaders to be just and insure justice for their people. He stated that any human being can become a better human being through cultivation of four aspects of daily life: his relationship to himself, to God, to other people, and to nature itself. Religious leaders should demand that political leaders fight suffering, injustice, and unfairness. He mentioned the instructions of Imam Ali to the governor of Egypt that he must be just to all under his jurisdiction, not just Muslims. Conflicts between faith, he said, only promotes Godlessness. Instead there should be dialog between between the practitioners of different faiths and customs, facilitating constructive collaboration. He warned against changing religion under the flag of religion as ISIS (a/k/a Daesh) has done (e.g., calling for the murder of noncombatants under the flag of a religion that strictly prohibits killing noncombatants).

He also alluded to the verse in the Qur’an that may be translated, “Let there be a group among you who call others to goodness, encourage what is good, and forbid what is evil—it is they who will be successful” (3:104). Just as American leaders fund the police to defend domestic peace, Iranian leaders fund the Gasht-e Ershad to defend social decorum; but as the rest of President Raisi’s remarks suggest, neither of these goals can excuse injustice.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Innocent Until Proven Muslim

Saturday, August 13th, 2022

[On August 10, 2022 the International Institute of Islamic Thought presented a book forum featuring Dr. Maha Hilal on her book Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War on Terror, and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11. The panel was Moderated by Mohammed Abu-Nimer (American University). Here follows our summary of highlights from that presentation. It is not intended as a transcript of the event.]

It is imperative to address the role of Islamophobia in “the war on terror.” The phrase was first used by George W. Bush in a speech given Sept. 20, 2001. Twenty years later, Joseph Biden continues to use the same theme, of the United States as victim, in a process that has had bipartisan support throughout that time. This U.S. victimhood justifies and legitimizes the tactics used throughout. The extra-judicial assassinations of Bin Laden by Obama, Baghdadi by Trump, and now Zawahiri by Biden reflect that justice is whatever the U.S. says it is.

Dr. Hilal defines institutional Islamophobia as “a phenomenon whereby officially constructed hate and fear of Muslims are built into structures of the state and society for the pursuit of power and for the justification of war and repression.” Positioning Muslims outside of moral boundaries “results in consequences ranging from prejudice and discrimination to detention and death.”

The war on terror is a weaponized and violent narrative that dehumanizes Muslims and legitimates violence against them. It positions the United States as responsible for bring civilization and freedom to the Muslims world while exempting the American government from any responsibility for the immorality of their tactics. The state defines terrorism and excludes its  own behavior from the definition.

An essential element of the narrative is that Muslims are inherently angry.  This both means that no grievances lie behind their anger and that their anger cannot be dealt with in any rational manner, but only by brute force. The line that separates the violence of Muslim groups from that of the U.S. is not that innocent civilians are victims (which is true in both cases) but that violence by Muslim non-state actors cannot be rationally explained and violence by the state against them need not be. In other words, violence by Muslims cannot be defended and the violence by the U.S. government need not be. Muslims are irredeemable, and the U.S. state is exceptional. When the war crimes at Abu Ghuraib were revealed, the U.S. reaction ignored the injustice to the victims, and focused only the redemption of the image of the American state.  When the suicides at Abu Ghuraib were revealed, it was depicted not as an act of desperation but as an act of asymmetrical warfare, minimizing the unbearable conditions imposed upon them.

Dr. Hilal has identified five dimensions to the war on terror: militarism and warfare; draconian immigration policies; surveillance; federal terrorism prosecutions; and detention and torture. Corresponding to these dimensions are five modes of violence: corporeal (physical harm and death); border (control of physical borders leveraged against targeted groups); panoptic (using surveillance as a tool of oppression, such as the arrest of a boy who designed a clock for a science project on the grounds that clocks can be used in bombs); juridical (in which targeted groups are denied the use of the judicial system in there defense and/or wielding the system as a means of their persecution); and carceral (in which the state’s physical control over the bodies of victims to inflict various forms of harm from indefinite detention without cause to physical harm).

When Muslims internalize Islamophobia, they absorb the dominant narrative about Islam and Muslims. For example, those Muslims who overcompensate in condemning acts of violence by Muslims while minimizing violence against them. Even in contradicting the narrative, Muslims will sometimes inadvertently legitimize it as when they say “I’m Muslim, but I’m not (angry/violent/intolerant/misogynistic, etc.).” Even worse are Muslim organizations that participate in the state’s apparatus (e.g., inviting the FBI into the mosques).

Dr. Hilal concluded, “Whoever has the power to construct the terms in which the war is fought has the power to legitimize the violence that is inflicted. In the case of the war on terror that squarely fallen on the United States.”

In response to the question whether Islamophobia a form of racism or a tool that promotes racism, Dr. Hilal says it is not either or. Islamophobia is rooted in black suppression (we must remember the history of enslaved black Muslims brought to the United States) but it is also a tool for promoting racism against black and brown people. Muslim and Arab are often conflated. A comprehensive understanding of Islamophobia requires recognizing the differences of impact of Islamophobia on different groups. The fear that calling Islamophobia racism constitutes a racialization of Muslim is valid, but we cannot and must not avoid addressing the racial dimension.

The most powerful form of resistance is when different communities come together to confront state violence. Muslims are a very diverse community and bringing together the multiple constituencies is important because the same weapons are being used against all our communities. We must understand how immigration policy affects both Muslim and non-Muslim Latinx communities. Before it was used to detain and oppress Muslims, Guantanamo was used to detain and oppress other communities.

In response to a question about the Albuquerque murders, Dr. Hilal said we must address head-on the context of anti-Shia bigotry and how such problems are used to divide the Muslim community. We must address the marginalization and demonization of Shia in many Muslim spaces. It is an example of the internalization of Islamophobia, as is the use of the anti-terrorism narrative by Muslim states to repress their own populations.

Prof. Abu Nimer asked whether there is a link between Islamophobia and the pro-Israel lobby. Dr. Hilal said Israel will use any tool, including Islamophobia and the war on terror, to advance its anti-Palestinian agenda, but the focus in her book is on United States.

In conclusion Dr. Hilal said she finds it hard to be hopeful, but she does see hope in the fact that many more Muslims are becoming politically educated and active in combating all systems of oppression.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Tunisia’s Authoritarian Turn

Sunday, July 31st, 2022

[On July 19, 2022, the Cato Institute held a panel discussion on Tunisia’s Authoritarian Turn, moderated by Mustafa Akyol, Senior Fellow at Cato’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. These notes are a summary of the highlights of the discussion and are not intended to be a transcript of the event.

Radwan A. Masmoudi (Founder and President, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy)

That Tunisia is ripe for democracy (including human rights, transparency, etc.) is evidenced by its ranking for the past several years by Freedom House as the only Arab country to be ranked as totally (not partially) free. Its constitution, drafted after two years of consultation, past by 93% in the elected Constituent Assembly, including far left, center left, center right and far right. Islamists and secularists worked together not only parliament but in other sectors of government.  There were mistakes, including the law for electing the parliament that favored small parties over large parties. That served well in the drafting of the constitution and certainly in the lack of attention to economic reform, which left it helpless before the pandemic crisis.  On top of this was foreign intervention by Egypt, UAE, and others who feared the success of democracy in Tunisia would cause it to spread to their own lands. Egyptian intelligence has been running the show in Tunisia for the past few years.

Monica Marks (Prof. of Middle East Politics, New York University Abu Dhabi).
It came as a shock to most people when President Kais Saied took all three branches of government into his own hands. Tunisians felt that various combinations of political parties had never delivered and Tunisians were ready to return to the traditional model of a strong father figure at the head of government. He presented himself as a clean-handed political professor who would deliver politically or be overthrown by Tunisia’s strong civil society, but the civil and political society has been unable to stop him as he has consolidated authoritarian rule.  He has taken over various political institutions including the High Judicial Council which is the closest thing Tunisia had to a safeguard of judicial independence; he took over the elections council and placed his own people inside it; he uses military courts to prosecute his opposition; he has convicted Tunisia’s first elected president (now in exile in France) of treason in absentia and sentenced him to years of  imprisonment without due process. Now he has single-handedly authored a new constitution, summarily rejecting the advice of his own hand-picked advisors. His style of rule is sultanistic. His supporters claim he has no ideology, but he is closest to Qaddafi, promising to rule directly in response to the masses with no intermediary political or civil society. In practice his style is close to that of the deposed dictator Bourgiba.

Mustafa Akyol.  You are describing a process that has, in a milder form, taken place in Turkey over a much longer period of time.

Doug Bandow (Senior Fellow, Cato Institute).

The Tunisian people face a serious problem. The reforms in Tunisia were a response to events set in motion by a street vendor who set himself on fire. The democracy did not solve the underlying problem, but where in the world have these problems been resolved? Saied was elected because he properly criticized the failures of the previous governments, but he has used his election to dismantle democracy itself. All who deal with him say he is unresponsive and incapable of listening to anyone, even his hand-picked yes men.  He has produced an authoritarian constitution, designed to empower a singe person, himself, although once he leaves the scene any successor shall be able to use the system as he pleases. He has produced no answers for the problems he uses to justify his power grab, suggesting that he will himself face unrest.  Will he run to the Saudis and Emiratis, or the Egyptians? He is creating a system under which the people have no alternative to violence against him. Will the U.S. recognize its own limitations? No one wants to hurt the Tunisian people, but should it be providing aid to a government that is destroying democracy? The hard part will be to get the Biden administration’s attention when so much is going on, but this is an issue that should not be ignored. It has an impact far beyond Tunisia’s borders.

Akyol. Does the way forward include economic liberalization?

Masmoudi. We need a free market economy. The state has a role in guaranteeing education, health, etc., but what we have had in Tunisia has been a mishmash of the worst features of capitalism and socialism with corruption, monopolies, and people paid to do no work at all. The IMF is now emphasizing the need for economic reforms that have been known for over ten years, but I don’t think those reforms are possible without democracy, good governance, transparency, and accountability, things that are not possible in a dictatorship. Rashed Ghannouchi, the leader of the main opposition and the head of the former parliament is now under interrogation and faces a possibility of arrest.

Akyol. Thank you for mentioning Rashed Ghannouchi, for whom I have great respect not only as a political leader but as an Islamic thinker committed to not just electoral politics, but to civil liberties. In my book I quote him saying the response to disrespectful speech towards is Islam should be “better speech” rather than bans.

Masmoudi. He has written over twenty books on Islam and democracy, women’s rights, and women’s rights which have been translated into over twenty languages.

Akyol. What of the concern that in a Muslim democracy Islamists will win the elections and create illiberal regimes. There is some evidence this is happening in Turkey, but not in Tunisia. Is the argument that we need strongmen to prevent Islamists coming to power part of the discussion in Tunisia as it is in Egypt, Monica?

Marks. That is my main area of focus in Tunisia, and scholars are well aware of the fact that authoritarians have played on the fear of Islamist takeover to prevent any room for democracy. In the 1990’s Amin used that argument in Tunisia, but that argument is not evidence based. Not only did Ennahda not impose an agenda on the country, but when defeated in an election conceded the defeat. Dictatorships cannot win the battle of ideas against extremists, but a democratic system can. What would have worked in Tunisia would have been to partner with some of the people from the old regime to fight corruption and decrease the Byzantine red tape in the economy without cutting the social safety net entirely. Those reforms were not made and even much of Ennahda’s own base left the party over that failure. One of the most unrecognized reasons why we are at this tragic despotic juncture is the explosion of the Nidaa Tunis party that stood up to Ennahda and could have made Tunisia into a vital two-party system. President Beji Caid Essebsi had the political capital to undertake a lot these reforms but did nothing except give amnesty to corrupt people from former regimes. The obsession with the question of compatibility of Islam and democracy after the experience of Tunisia sucked up a lot of political bandwidth is really a tragic case of amnesia. It also overlooks Article 5 in Saied’s proposed constitution that says Tunisia is part of the Islamic ummah, something Ennahda did not entertain in their wildest dreams.

Akyol. Jonathan Allen asks, if Tunisia democratizes again what is to prevent another Saied from taking over?

Marks. Creating the institutions of checks and balances in democracy is essential. Had a Constitutions Court been created it could have been a check on Saied’s takeover, but Tunisia’s elected government’s one after another put it off.

Akyol. An anonymous Tunisian citizen asks what will the Biden administration reaction be to a recognition of Israel by Saied.

Bandow. I don’t think the President Biden would see that as of benefit to anyone but Israel after playing that card in Saudi Arabia. He doesn’t need more problems within his own party.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of freedom Institute