Assoc. Prof. Deina Abdelkader, close-up Image by Meghan Moore
Political scientist Deina Abdelkader teaches about Islamic politics and legal thought.

By Katharine Webster

Deina Abdelkader, an associate professor of political science, is an influential Islamic legal scholar as one of only two women on the Islamic Jurisprudential Council of North America, which provides guidance to Muslims in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. on how to follow Islamic teachings and laws in their adopted countries.

Abdelkader, who grew up in Egypt and the United States, researches historical and current Islamic legal thought in relation to democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, Islamic activism and the role of women in Islam. She teaches classes on comparative politics, Islamic politics, women in Islam, the politics of discord between the West and the Middle East – and more. She is also affiliated with the Peace and Conflict Studies and Global Studies programs.

Now on sabbatical as a visiting scholar at Harvard, she is the author of "Social Justice in Islam" (2000) and "Islamic Activists: The Anti-Enlightenment Democrats" (2011), and a co-editor and author of the recently released book, "Islam and International Relations" (2016).

Q: How did you become an Islamic legal scholar?

A: As a graduate student working on my Ph.D., my question was, “What is an Islamic state?” I found a lot of literature saying that it’s a state run according to Islamic law, but there was no book that I could pick up and say, “This is Islamic law.” So I started wondering and piecing things together, first at the International Institute of Islamic Thought, which has an extensive library of works on Islamic jurisprudence, and then at Harvard, which has an even more extensive collection.

It was a journey, for me, of discovery. I found there were liberals and conservatives, and even if the head of a school of thought was conservative, his followers might be very liberal. My research showed me that no one interpretation of the faith was sacred when it came to governance, but there is a body of law that talks about social justice and basic human rights that Islamic jurisprudence could not go against.

Assoc. Prof. Deina Abdelkader grading papers Image by Meghan Moore
Assoc. Prof. Deina Abdelkader grades papers on comparative politics.

Q: What are those basic human rights, and how do they apply to governing in an Islamic country?

A: The fundamental rights that no system of government can violate under Islamic law are the protection of religion, life, the mind, posterity and property. Those are the foundations of a socially just society. Nothing in the texts says exactly what form a government should take. It could be monarchical, parliamentarian, presidential or a theocracy, but it could not be authoritarian, it could not be dictatorial – those are clear issues. The government needs to be just.

For example, the Islamic State, or ISIS, has a document on running an Islamic state. I read it, and it was simply a lot of rhetoric together with organizational issues, but it had nothing to offer in terms of, “What is governance? What is socially just?” To me that was really strange, because those are the first questions they should have dealt with if they claim to be an Islamic state. They could have been a secular group for all that matters.

Q: What is the role of women in interpreting Islam and how is that changing laws in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)?

A: The feminists who gain most traction in the MENA region are talking from within the faith. And these women are discovering that the men’s interpretation of what the faith says isn’t always correct. For example, historically speaking, it was always thought that only men had the right to initiate divorce. No – not the case. They went back to practice and the texts and yes, women could initiate divorce. Even if a woman has to give back all her material belongings, she can negotiate a relationship. In Egypt they began discussing this in the late 1990s, and now they have a law allowing women to divorce. It’s called Khul’.

In the early days of Islam, women were given a lot of space in terms of interpretation, but nobody pays attention to that now. That’s one of the research questions I hope to get to one day: Who were these women and what was their importance? How did they influence our knowledge of the faith?

Q: You teach some controversial subjects to classes that include first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants, international students, Jewish students, and liberals and conservatives. How do you handle that?

A: I tell students I don’t care which side you’re on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example. All I care about is that you address each other respectfully when you’re discussing and debating it – and I grade them based on that. My job as an instructor isn’t to relay my personal position. It’s to get them to think for themselves, to start reading and analyzing, separating opinions from facts.

What I find refreshing about UMass Lowell is that I make a difference here. Most students here have at least one job, if not two. They’re just here to learn, and that’s what attracted me. Sometimes, even my Muslim students know very little about their faith or their government. Often they come up to me and say, “I didn’t know that.”