Although Muslims have resided in parts of Europe for centuries, and many slaves taken from Africa to North America were Muslims, the question of Islam in the West rose in importance after World War II. European countries encouraged workers from North and West Africa, South Asia, and Turkey to add their labor power to the postwar recovery, and most of those workers were Muslims. By the late 1960s, many of those workers had settled in Europe with their families. Immigration to the United States increased at about the same time, and Muslims, particularly from South Asia, were among those who settled there. Among the new arrivals were many Muslim scholars who offered opinions about how ordinary Muslims were to live religious lives in lands where they were minorities and where not all Islamic religious institutions were available. At the same time, many African American Muslims were turning from the specific teachings of the Nation of Islam toward a more broadly distributed Sunni Islam. Contemporary scholars of diverse origins increasingly provide opinions through broader networks that stretch across the Atlantic and include scholars from non-Western centers of learning.
Muslims have posed questions about (1) the legitimacy of participating in Western political institutions and (2) how best to adapt their individual, everyday behavior to their new, non-Islamic environments. One major response has been the call to develop “legal theory for Muslim minorities” (fiqh al-aqalliyyāt) or a distinct jurisprudence for Muslims living as minorities in non-Muslim societies. In Europe the idea has been most closely associated with Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a scholar born in 1926 in Egypt who was educated and taught at Azhar University before moving to Qatar, where he created a faculty of shari‘a and became well-known through his books, his website, and his broadcasts on Aljazeera television. He played a major role on the popular website Islam Online and in the European Council for Fatwa and Research, an association of scholars mainly living in (although not originating from) European countries. Qaradawi also wrote of the “fiqh of balances” (fiqh al-muwāzanāt) to point to the need to balance minor evils against greater or longer-term benefits to Muslims. He drew on this imperative to argue (in 1999, through the European Council) that Muslims unable to find interest-free loans could borrow at interest for a first home. He drew on the arguments advanced by Ghazali (d. 1111) and Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (d. 1388) that Muslims should above all advance the objectives (maqāṣid) of revelation. Qaradawi employed Shatibi’s three-level hierarchy of necessities, needs, and improvements: “when interests (maṣāliḥ) conflict, a low-level interest is sacrificed for the sake of a higher-level interest.” In the bank interest matter, it was the prohibition of ribā (interest) that was sacrificed for the sake of stable Muslim families and thus religious lives.
In North America, the idea of a “fiqh for minorities” has been promoted through the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and in particular by the Iraqi scholar Taha Jabir al-Alwani, although in later writings Alwani recommended that scholars should rebuild fiqh from values and rights in the Qur’an rather than through the idea of Muslim minorities, perpetuating the older distinction between the dār al-islām (abode of Islam) and the dār al-ḥarb (abode of war). Many contemporary Muslims express discomfort with this way of viewing the world; some refer to the protection given to religious minorities by international law and propose dār al-‘ahd (abode of covenant), dār al-da‘wa (abode of predication), or dār al-shahāda (abode of witness), emphasizing the possibilities open to Muslims in these lands.
Much of the debate among scholars living in the West concerns how to determine general principles or objectives, not whether such activity should take place. Whereas Qaradawi couched his fatwa (legal opinion) within the several schools of fiqh and ended by exempting some Muslims in the West from the rules of fiqh, other scholars argue that fiqh is and should be universal but that its universal dimensions are at the level of general principles. The Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan, for example, together with many scholars active in England, France, and Belgium, argued that one could consider a civil marriage to already contain most or all of the elements of an Islamic marriage (consent, witnesses, a contract), and therefore it could constitute a marriage in Islamic terms. Tareq Oubrou, based in Bordeaux, emphasized the distinction between obligatory ritual (‘ibādāt) and social norms (mu’āmalāt) and contended that the former does not change but the latter may be realized either as law or as ethics, depending on the political context within which one lives. In Western countries, Muslims must “ethicize” these norms.
Though touted as providing support for progressive views, this approach can lead to more prohibitive view of the law (e.g., a traditional view that all abortions are forbidden because of the need to