Friday, April 20, 2007

Haunted by Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny

As I sit this morning, getting ready to prepare my khutba for later today, I have tried four different topics, but keep getting back to a book that's been haunting me ever since I read it two weeks ago on the plane back from DC (after participating at a GMU conference honoring one of my ex-colleagues who is near retirement). The book is Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, NY: Norton, 2006. The book's main idea is obvious (we all have multiple identities, and trying to reduce any individual or group of individuals to a single identity can only lead to trouble).

The book is based on a series of lectures, and therefore it is somewhat simplistic and repetitive, at least as compared to Prof. Sen's more profound writings. Yet, I was captivated -- and still am -- by the book's strong message. Consequently, there is no escaping the topic for my khutbas this month. The first challenge, ironically, is how to make the book's universal message "Islamic" so that it may be appropriate for a sermon, without chauvinistic claims that Islamic principles are necessarily universal, or vice versa. The second challenge is to avoid being excessively critical of my communities of Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, Egyptian expats, Arab expats, Muslims in America, academic economists, etc.

I have been trying to focus in recent khutbas on positive messages, conducive to building the community and integrating it in society in productive ways, and that is -- of course -- difficult to accomplish without attacking the separatist and triumphalist approaches that have plagued many communities and countries (a disease that is not by any means restricted to Muslims, although people usually cannot see the same disease in their own nationalisms and religious chauvinisms, even if you put up a mirror to their faces -- see the movie Borat for a great example of how embarrassing the realization can be). There will not be any shortage of scriptures (Qur'anic and from the Sunna) to support my message. Unfortunately, there will not be any shortage of scriptures to support the opposite message either. So, am I about to commit intellectual (and/or religious) fraud?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Al-`Awwa on the need to reinvestigate Legal Objectives (Maqasid)

In an interesting article on, Muhammad Salim Al-`Awwa, the Secretary General of the Council of Islamic Scholars, is quoted to have argued in a lecture delivered on April 11 for continuous reinvestigation of the Objectives (Maqasid) of Islamic Law (Shari`a). He cited, for example, the methodology of the great contemporary scholar of Zaytuna Al-Tahir ibn `Ashur, who added such Maqasid as justice, liberty, and egalitarianism to the usual lists by Al-Ghazali and other scholars of the classic era. See this discussion of a translation of ibn `Ashur's treatise on Maqasid. Also, the middle part of this article provides a basic introduction to the thought of ibn `Ashur.

Al-`Awwa is reported to have argued that in modern times, we can infer Maqasid (Islamic legal objectives) based on our understanding of society, not necessarily being restricted to the religious Canon. Utilizing that methodology himself, he added fairness of wealth distribution and fairness of elections to be among the Maqasid of Shari`a today (an implicit reference, no doubt, to the current conditions in his native Egypt).

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Business Week on Equity-Sharing Mortgages

In a story this week, Business Week reports on family members helping out by taking an equity stake in their younger/poorer relatives' homes. This is a topic that I had addressed a while ago on this blog, within the context of hedging home equity risk.

The following two paragraphs appears toward the end of the BusinessWeek article:

At the moment, shared equity financings are largely ad hoc legal agreements negotiated between well-off parents and their young adult children. There was an attempt in the 1970s to popularize "shared appreciation mortgages," but they never took off because the terms were unfavorable to investors.

In the next couple of years a more formalized shared equity arrangement could get new life. At least that's the vision motivating real estate scholars like economist Andrew Caplin of New York University. He and a number of other experts are designing standardized shared equity mortgages that would allow outside investors to buy a piece of the equity gain. Caplin estimates that about 25% of first-time home buyers could find such arrangements attractive. When they do come along, investors in it for the money will extract stiffer terms than mom or dad.

Even though I had known Caplin's Psychology and Economics work, I was not aware of this literature on housing partnerships. This is of course reminiscent of some of the mutual/musharaka models such as the Islamic housing coop in Canada. I wonder if this will soon become a more viable (and more Islamic, as some would argue) alternative to the bad replication of mortgage loans currently being provided via multiple structured sales or leases.