The idea that devout Muslim faith, strict adherence to shari'ah, and even Islamist politics can be compatible with libertarian ideas would have been a tough sell even before the September 11 attacks. Since then, the Islamic world and the liberal west have viewed each other with skepticism and horror. Nevertheless, the Minaret of Freedom Institute seeks to bridge the divide between the two civilizations—or rather, to show the bridge that, it says, has always been there.
Imad A. Ahmad is the president and director of Minaret of Freedom. In books, lectures, and classes at the University of Maryland, he draws on everything from astronomy to medieval history to Murray Rothbard's economic theories to show that Islam is not only compatible with but intimately related to free speech, free religious exercise and free markets. Although Minaret of Freedom, founded in 1993, is still a tiny organization with a minuscule budget, Ahmad says the organization and its principles are attracting a growing number of followers. He spoke with Reason from his office in Baltimore.
What's the mission of the Minaret of Freedom Institute?
We have a fourfold mission: to counter the common distortions about Islam; to show the origin of certain modern values that came out of Islamic civilization; to educate both Muslims and non-Muslims about the value of freedom and free markets; and to try to advance the status of Muslims, whether they live in the oppressive east or the hostile west.
How difficult is it selling a Muslim audience on libertarian and free-market ideas?
It depends on the particular idea. Most free market ideas are easy to persuade Muslim audiences on. They're very much promoted by Islamic teachings and history. An example: The value of trade and traders is easy because the Prophet Muhammed was himself a merchant. On the other hand there is one free market idea that is very hard and almost impossible to sell to Muslims. That's the permissibility of charging interest on a loan.
On other libertarian ideas beyond market ideas, it depends really on what the issue is and to whom you're speaking. For example, most Muslim immigrants to the United States are social conservatives. Most African American converts have had family members who have had such bad experiences with drugs that that's very difficult to talk about.
On the other hand, when you talk about civil liberties, it's not as hard as you might think given the bad civil liberties records of most of the Muslim world. On the contrary, one can point to the practices in those Muslim countries and contrast them with certain Islamic teachings in order to make the point.
In your article on Murray Rothbard and the medieval economists, you speculate that theories of relative value and dynamic taxation were pioneered by Ibn Khaldun, and might even have influenced the Scholastic economists Rothbard treated. But what caught my attention was your negative commentary on the Quranic prohibition on lending at interest; you even seem to be arguing against it. Would you advocate the elimination of the usury prohibition? If so, how could such a change be squared with Islamic law?
I have another article on riba and interest that might resolve those questions for you. Basically, this so-called quranic prohibition is a little more complex than it seems, in that the Quran does definitely prohibit riba, which is usury. The question is: Is all interest usurious? Although 99 percent of all Islamic scholars have said it is, I simply believe they're wrong. And I make that argument using not only economics but the example of the Prophet and his companions. Even the majority of Islamic scholars, contrary to the claim that all interest is usurious, will allow certain forms of interest. For example, they'll allow a vendor to offer a discount for cash or surcharge for credit. This is interest; there's no way of getting around it. That tells you that interest is not inherently forbidden.
So that raises the question: What is usury? Usury is something that's analogous to overcharging of any kind. I cite some Hadiths in which it's clear the Prophet was against any form of overcharging. For example, he talked about if a broker dealing with somebody from out of town were to misrepresent the buy and sell prices of the products he's dealing with, then that would be riba. Clearly, that kind of overcharging is not interest, but it is prohibited. So my argument is that overcharging of any kind is prohibited to Muslims. A Muslim has to engage in honest business practices.
And you haven't made any headway with this argument?
Very little. It's amazing. It's the one issue I have a very hard time with. I think that's because it's so widespread in the Muslim mind that interest is prohibited that people are not willing to look at it rationally. Also, I haven't gotten much help from non-Muslim economists; they tend to shrug their shoulders because the prohibition on interest is so easily gotten around.
But I can think of two areas where you can't get around it. One is in government bonds, which may actually be a good thing. Unfortunately, there's another one I can't think of a way around, and that is when you have an entrepreneurial idea that is so radical that you can't convince anyone that there is a profit to be shared in it. I believe this may be why Islam never had an industrial revolution. If you look at Islamic history, they had strong business, they had international trade, they had factories, science, innovation. Yet somehow they never made that final leap to an industrial revolution. And when I look at the fact that the steam engine was called Fulton's Folly, I can't help but wonder, to what degree did the availability of interest play a role in the commercialization of the steam engine? And is it possible that the Islamic prohibition on interest meant that that just wasn't gonna happen in the Muslim world?
We see very little in contemporary political Islamic movements that would seem likely to expand the scope of human freedom, and even less that would indicate an interest in free market economics. (Just the other day, for example, there was a protest in Spain by various Islamic groups urging the end of capitalism). Is there any prospect that any current trends in political Islam might lead to greater liberty?