Opening of Islamic Law Program highlights unmet needs

The Friday opening includes a speech by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn.

Graison Hensley Chapman

Wounded protesters and the remnants of destroyed property are not the only things that will need to be mended when the revolution in Egypt finally transitions to stable governance.

The changes brought by new leadership âÄî and how that affects the countryâÄôs residents âÄî will also need to be pieced together.

ThatâÄôs part of what Abdulwahid Qalinle, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Minnesota, hopes its new law school venture will accomplish.

The Islamic Law and Human Rights Program, a subset of the schoolâÄôs Human Rights Center, opens Friday. Qalinle will head the program, which will share resources, including faculty and fellows, with the larger human rights center.

âÄúOur role in what is unfolding in Egypt is to shed light on the intersection of Islamic law and human rights,âÄù Qalinle said, referencing the potential of the Muslim Brotherhood, an opposition political group currently banned by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, to implement some elements of Islamic law, or Shariah, if they are elected in the government to follow the presidentâÄôs exit.

The program will blend academic and advocacy efforts. While it will sponsor traditional ventures, including research and conferences, it will also offer training and internships and partner with groups to address community issues.

Kristi Rudelius-Palmer, a co-director of the center, said the program was conceived in response to those local needs. Certain prescriptions of Islamic law, which range from prayer to diet, are difficult to square with the policy intricacies of a predominantly Christian nation.

Finance is one such area. Shariah forbids usury, or charging interest on loans. To allow debt financing while still complying with the law, a lending institution signs a joint-ownership agreement with a family or business, owning the majority of the property, which the borrower buys back over time.

âÄúIt is a partnership over a lender-borrower agreement,âÄù said Hussam Qutub, spokesman for Guidance Residential, the largest Shariah-compliant home lender in the United States.

That market is growing as more American Muslims, many of whom are first-time homebuyers, look to purchase. Qutub said that since American firms began offering Shariah-compliant lending âÄî Guidance was founded in 2002 âÄî $2.5 billion in loans have been produced, adding that the potential of the market is âÄúbetween a  $20 [billion] and $40 billion opportunity.âÄù

Islamic-American business owners have less recourse for their capital needs. While agencies such as MinneapolisâÄô African Development Center offer compliant loans to small businesses âÄî one such center said most of its loans are less than $35,000 âÄî ­­larger sums are not available.

Last week the ADC received a $40,000 grant from the City of Minneapolis to boost its microlending efforts.

âÄúMy mom keeps asking me why we have these loans,âÄù said Majdi Wadi, only half-jokingly referring to his businessâÄô use of conventional loans. Wadi is the CEO of Holy Land, the Minneapolis-based restaurant and grocery chain. He said that if his business borrows money, it is likely to be more in terms of millions, not thousands, of dollars.

âÄúIf any financial institution announced tomorrow that they would start complying with Islamic law,âÄù he said, âÄúI would be the first to sign up.âÄù

The needs of Islamic homeowners and businesses are not the only unmet needs of that community. Local schools have struggled to provide time for Muslim students to pray and to offer Halal-certified menu options at their cafeteria.

âÄúHow do you make sure all of the students are feeling valued in the communities?âÄù Rudelius-Palmer said, adding that the hybrid approach of academics and advocacy fostered by the program is set to help address that.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the first Muslim elected to Congress, will speak at the opening of the program Friday afternoon. 

âÄúI appreciate the effort to reach out and gain a better, firmer understanding of how Islamic societies have used law to conduct their affairs,âÄù Ellison said, lamenting that âÄúthe term Shariah law is tossed around like a political football sometimes.

âÄúThis center offers an opportunity to get a more realistic picture and deeper understanding of what itâÄôs all about,âÄù he said, applauding the University for âÄúfulfilling one of its basic functions as an institution of learning and truth-seeking [by taking] a look at these issues.âÄù