Friday, December 25, 2009

Shariah-Compliant Wills: A Primer

Click Here to read the whole article.

Essentials of the Islamic Will

A will is a legal document that gives the executor of that will direction on how the testator’s property should be distributed. In the Islamic context, however, the distributions are not at the discretion of the individual; rather, they are dictated in detail in the Qur’an and Hadith. Therefore, under Shariah law every individual’s estate would automatically be distributed in accordance with the rules outlined in the Qur’an and Hadith.

While the laws of succession, whether intestate or not, are strictly structured by Shariah law, a dispensation does allow for the distribution of a portion of the estate as the decedent pleases by way of a will, as established by Hadith. According to this tradition, and several other similar narrations, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), permitted an individual to dispose of up to one-third of his or her property to anyone not defined as an heir under Shariah law. This distribution, known as the wasiyya, allows an individual to leave bequests for charitable organizations, non-relative friends, non-Muslim relatives, adopted children, or anyone not recognized as a legal heir under Shariah law. In the aforementioned example, under Shariah law H cannot leave an additional wasiyya bequest to W since she is already set to inherit a one-eighth share. However, if W was not a Muslim, then she would not be entitled to a one-eighth share under certain interpretations of Shariah law. Assuming in the present example that W could not inherit from H due to her difference in religion, H could make a wasiyya bequest to W for an amount up to one-third of his possessions.

Thus, the Islamic will is essentially a three step process. First, before any distributions are made, Shariah law requires that all of the decedent’s debts and expenses be settled before any of the estate be distributed amongst his or her heirs. Once those debts are settled, an individual may bequeath an amount of up to one-third of his or her estate by way of the optional wasiyya to any person or institution who will not inherit under the normal Shariah intestacy laws. Finally, once debts and expenses are settled and the optional wasiyya has been subtracted, the remaining estate is distributed in accordance with the strict guidelines established in Shariah law.

An Islamic Will in U.S. Jurisdiction
It is absolutely clear that U.S. courts will not recognize a mere desire to have a relative’s estate distributed according to Shariah law principles—even if such desire is expressed through a signed or even notarized document. Quite practically, a U.S. judge cannot be expected to sit and interpret Islamic law. Moreover, a judge will not apply a document that is not legally binding upon the court. Thus, in order to have an Islamic will enforced in a U.S. court, one must make sure that the document is legally valid and that the instructions are clear and unambiguous.

All American jurisdictions require certain formalities before a will is legally acceptable. For example, in New York, the formalities are as follows:

(1) The testator must be over 18 years of age;
(2) The testator must sign the will;
(3) The signature must appear at the end of the document;
(4) There must be at least two attesting witnesses;
(5) The testator must declare to the witnesses that the document is his/her last will and testament;
(6) The testator must sign or acknowledge is signature in the presence of each witness;
(7) The Will must be executed within 30 days after the first witness signs.

Requirements for other jurisdictions may vary slightly (e.g. some jurisdictions may allow more or less time to execute the will). In very few jurisdictions, such as New Jersey, a holographic will—an unwitnessed will in the testator’s handwriting—is still legally acceptable. Although legally acceptable, such wills are frequently subject to contests and challenges after the death of the testator, and it is therefore preferable that a will comply fully with the aforementioned formalities so as to avoid contestation.

Consequently, an Islamic will must be drafted with these same formalities in order to have any force in a U.S. courtroom. In addition to these requirements, the bequests must be stated clearly, explicitly identifying individuals and the quantities they are to receive. It is not sufficient to state: “This estate shall be distributed according to Islamic Shariah law.” Instead, the will must state that it is an Islamic will and then it must recite all the beneficiaries and their respective shares. The wasiyya bequest and Islamic inheritance distributions must both be set out in this document as there is no distinction in U.S. courts between wasiyya and inheritance.

© Omar T. Mohammedi, Esq., Law Firm of Omar T. Mohammedi, LLC, 233 Broadway, Suite 801, New York, New York 10279. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Muslims In America: What We Need to Do

by Minara Uddin

Muslims in America are in a unique position today. Eight years ago, Muslims were thrust in the spotlight (whether or not they wanted to be), because of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. While this was a tragic part of our American narrative, it also provides Muslim Americans with the power to steer that narrative.

According to Time, nearly 40% of Americans still say they think Islam is more likely to encourage violence, according to a new Pew Forum survey, and only a minority hold favorable views of Muslims (the latest poll does not distinguish between Muslims and Muslim Americans).

These numbers can either serve to energize or depress Muslim Americans. We need to get out and be active in our communities. I have noticed far too many Muslim Americans only focus on themselves and their "plight". Volunteer with a local soup kitchen, help people in shelters, mentor someone, be a wonderful coworker, and stellar students in all fields (not just medicine).

I know we need to branch out into law, media, and other professions. There so many different instances where Muslim Americans have seen their rights infringed upon. We have seen the New York City's MTA prevent women from wearing hijabs (headscarf for modesty), a Philadelphia Muslim police woman disciplined for wearing hijab, proposed legislation that would ban wearing hijab in driver's licenses in Oklahoma and Minnesota.

These measures are amid protestations that the United States protects the rights of all citizens. President Obama declared in his speech in Cairo: "Freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one's religion. That is why the U.S. government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab, and to punish those who would deny it. "

We need to become more involved in the legislative process. How can we expect Americans in general to understand how much we love our country if we isolate ourselves? Let us take those numbers from the Pew Forum Survey to heart. The reason that Americans feel this way is because we have not spoken up enough to let Americans know who we are. I encourage all Muslim Americans to stop hating and start participating in the Democratic process.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Muslim's Reaction to Obama's Speech

This is a few months old now, but it's still a very good interview with some very interesting people. Below is a transcript of the interview, see the video here.

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a discussion today of President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world and the reaction to it. Kate Seelye was a longtime Middle East correspondent, based in Beirut. She is now a vice president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. Vali Nasr is a professor of international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and is also serving as a special adviser to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who is leading US diplomacy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Professor Nasr speaks here for himself, not for the US government.
Welcome to you both. Professor Nasr, let’s begin with you. The reaction throughout the Muslim world — what do you hear?
Dr. VALI NASR (Professor of International Relations, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University): Very, very positive. There’s no doubt that the speech exceeded expectations from the vast majority of Muslims all the way from Indonesia to Nigeria. Even though the president did not go deeply into policy, I think the level of respect and empathy and seriousness that he showed in terms of engaging the Muslim world was very well understood by the public and very much appreciated.
ABERNETHY: On the other hand, Kate, there was a lot of criticism, wasn’t there, or some guarded comments from officials?

Kate Seelye
KATE SEELYE (Vice President, Middle East Institute, Washington, DC): Well, there were. I think people are—there are some who are holding reservations. They want to see if he’s going to translate his words into action. There was also some disappointment on the part of democracy activists who wanted him to be tougher, let’s say, on Arab leaders, who wanted to put more pressure on them. And there were some who wanted him to be tougher on the Israelis. But by and large, people were very positive and felt that he went out of his way to try to bridge this gap between America and the Muslim world.
ABERNETHY: What could be the deeds now that would satisfy the people to whom Obama was talking?
Dr. NASR: I think one of the ways to look at this is that the speech or the series of speeches he’s given is a deed in itself. In other words, our habit in this region is that administrations come up immediately off the bat with a plan of action for something, whether it’s Iran, Arab-Israeli issue, Afghanistan. This president understood that there is no point trying a new policy before you change the context in which you engage the other side. So I think his very first policy, his very first deed has been to gain trust, and I think the first way in which he has to be measured is by trust, and I think Kate’s point, which is correct, there are — I think he’s been successful enough that some actors like the Iranian government or Hezbollah or the Muslim Brotherhood may worry that he’s quickly changing the game on them very fast and effectively, and some of the reaction we’re seeing has to do with that.

Bob Abernethy
ABERNETHY: But a specific deed now to follow this, Kate, what could that be?
Ms. SEELYE: Well, I mean everybody’s waiting to see what he’s going to do vis-a-vis the Arab-Israeli peace process. What steps he is going to take to pressure the Israelis perhaps to halt settlement building. This is what Arabs and Muslims are looking for — concrete deeds with regard to the peace process, frankly.
ABERNETHY: Did you feel on that that he was tilting a little bit toward the Palestinians?
Ms. SEELYE: Well, he acknowledged the Holocaust, he acknowledged the suffering of the Jews, and he also acknowledged the suffering of the Palestinians, and this was really a first. Many presidents have acknowledged the need for a two-state solution, but few have said, you know, I feel for the suffering of the Palestinian refugees. He won high marks for that.
ABERNETHY: I was struck by the language, especially the references to the Qu’ran and other phrases that come out of the Islamic tradition. That can’t help but have helped him in the Muslim world.
Dr. NASR: Absolutely. I mean, there are ways of using the Qu’ran and then there are ways of using the Qu’ran. Often Western commentators or leaders usually use the Qu’ran in order to hit the Muslims on the head with it. In other words, use their own scripture in order to preach to them very selectively. This president, I think, has used a very light touch in terms of trying to use the Qu’ran to convince the Muslims that he believes they belong inside the tent — that there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian tradition with the Muslim standing out there. The way he used the Qu’ran, particularly at the end, was to say that there is an Islamic-Judeo-Christian civilization—that your values are the same as our values and our values are the same as your values, and look, here is the example by referring to all three scriptures at the same time, and I think that’s what’s most effective.
ABERNETHY: And as you said, this attempt to build respect with the audience he was talking to is the first step in new policy?

Vali Nasr
Dr. NASR: Well, absolutely. If you looked at the Bush administration, their approach was that you are either with us or you’re against us. It’s either black or white, and the burden was on Muslims to prove themselves innocent. In other words they’re guilty unless proven innocent, and they set down a set of markers which basically meant abandon your faith, change it, reform it, change everything, and then you’ll be sort of acceptable. This president is starting from a very different point of view. First of all, he’s creating a massive gray area in the middle. It is not either us or you, that we have a common arena in which we share, and the burden is not on Muslims to prove that their religion matters or that their values are world values. He immediately off the bat said, “I agree with that, and I’ll give you better examples than you can yourselves.”
Ms. SEELYE: Yes, and if I might add to that, I mean he was very sensitive about language and Muslim sensitivities. He never once used the word “terrorist,” because over the past eight years the word terrorist has become synonymous with the word Muslim and Islam. So he avoided these words, and he used language that people applauded. When he talked about the Prophet Muhammad he said “peace be upon him.” That was very important for Islamists and traditionalists watching his speech.
ABERNETHY: What about nuclear weapons? What can you divine in the speech about how that problem can be addressed now?
Dr. NASR: That’s a problem that has to be solved at the negotiation table, and we will not see where it is going until the day the United States and Iran are sitting at the table and discussing it. But I think the president is trying to make it easier or in some ways compel the Iranian government not to hide behind excuses that Americans are not sincere, they’re not serious, there’s no point talking to them. To say that you — look, there is a pathway for you to come in, and the United States is going to engage Iran over these very serious issues from a position of respect.
ABERNETHY: Kate, did you hear anything from people you know in the Muslim part of the world about what we’re talking about? Did anybody say anything to you?
Ms. SEELYE: Oh, absolutely. I had some blogger friends from Saudi Arabia say that they were thrilled by this speech because it wasn’t directed toward Arab leaders. Obama never once mentioned the name of Hosni Mubarak, the host. He was speaking to the youth, to the women, to the people of the Arab world, and that’s very rare in a region where people don’t feel like they’re being addressed by their leaders. Here was this leader of the world superpower saying, “I care about you. I want to help you. Your education is important. Let’s invest in you.” That was profoundly appreciated.
ABERNETHY: Many thanks to you, Kate Seelye, and to Professor Vali Nasr.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Benjamin Franklin on Religion

Just before he died, Benjamin Franklin was asked about his religious beliefs. Here is (in part) what he said:

“Here is my creed: I believe in One God, the Creator of the Universe. That he governs the world by His providence. That he aught to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we can render to Him is doing good to His other children. These are the fundamental principles of all sound religion.

Regarding Jesus (peace be upon him):

“I think his system of morals and religion, as he left them to us, the best that man ever saw or is likely to see. But I apprehend that over time, it has received various corrupting changes.”

“I have some doubts as to his divinity, though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

This was taken from a lecture given by Geoffrey Stone at the University of Chicago School of Law, entitled "The World of the Framers: A Christian Nation?"

How much of this conflicts with Islam? If a person told me today what Benjamin Franklin said, I would have a hard time arguing that this person could not be a Muslim. That said, Franklin was definitely not a Muslim. But the important thing to understand from this quote is his egalitarian view of religion. He, and most of the other founding fathers never meant to create a Christian nation, but to create a pluralistic society based on shared values and human rights.

Muslims are not alien to America, but an essential and deliberate thread in the American fabric.