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Muddassir Siddiqui calls himself a bridge builder. And, indeed, he is a lawyer straddling contrasting worlds: the East and the West, the sacred and the secular. A peek at his legal education offers explanation enough. He received a comparative law certificate at the University of London, LL.M.s from both Temple and Harvard universities, and a J.D. from the Chicago Kent College of Law. He was licensed as a shaikh after seven years of study in Saudi Arabia, giving him the authority to advise on Islamic law, or Shariah, which, among other things, prohibits Muslims from paying or accruing interest. For 20 years, he put his education to use with the Saudi government � both in Saudi Arabia and here in Washington � until he left the Saudi embassy last year to hang out his shingle. In March 2002, he began his practice as a Shariah consultant. In August, he joined 14-lawyer D.C. firm Kalbian Hagerty as of counsel. He now serves, not only his own clients, but also those of the firm. His clients range from such large corporate clients as Fannie Mae and a Fortune 500 hotel chain to individuals and families in the Muslim-American community. It’s not surprising that Siddiqui would develop contracts for Fannie Mae and write prenuptial agreements for local Muslim couples. According to Kalbian Hagerty associate Jimmy Gonzales, who studied Islamic law as a third-year student at George Washington University Law School, “[Islam] is all-encompassing. There is no dividing line between which is Islam and the rest of their lives.” Thus like Islam itself, Siddiqui’s practice is holistic. Kalbian Hagerty founding partner Haig Kalbian says Siddiqui has adjusted well to private practice and that his Shariah expertise complements Kalbian Hagerty and its Middle Eastern clientele. Siddiqui is licensed to practice law in New York, and his D.C. license is pending. “Already we’re seeing a difference in our ability to market the firm, both here and the Middle East,” Kalbian says. Originally from Rampur, India, Siddiqui traveled as a teen-ager to Medina, Saudi Arabia, to study at the Islamic University, as his brother had before him. Siddiqui, 55, says his desire to study law was piqued after his Shariah studies. “Shariah was like an appetizer, an incomplete meal,” he says. He felt he needed training in Western law to be “useful here or back home.” He then studied in England and next in the United States. His studies gave him his first glimpse into the gap between Shariah and Western law. “[U.S.] lawyers don’t like Shariah because they don’t understand it. And Shariah scholars say, ‘If we implement Western laws, everyone will be drinking [alcohol]. This will be Hollywood.’ “ This is where Siddiqui’s knowledge can come into play. “Its pretty rare [to find someone] who’s actually trained in two legal systems,” says Douglas Desjardin, a partner at the D.C. office of law firm R. Jack Clapp & Associates, who retained Siddiqui as an expert witness several months ago for a case involving a Saudi Arabian woman injured in a plane crash in the United States. AT HOME IN TWO SYSTEMS While Siddiqui’s task is to testify on relevant Shariah and Saudi law, the “added bonus” of a legal expert trained in two systems is that he can also explain the U.S. legal system to Muslim clients, Desjardin says. Desjardin’s firm retained Siddiqui through a series of referrals from lawyers and professors. “We were originally looking for someone who’s more like an anthropologist, but he turned out to be exactly what we needed,” Desjardin says. Most of Siddiqui’s work deals with Islamic finance. In Islam, the making of money on money is prohibited. Practically, that meant some Muslim-Americans avoided savings accounts and mortgages while others, for lack of alternatives, took advantage of them. After identifying Muslim-Americans as a “significantly underserved population,” Fannie Mae began working on an Islamic finance project in August 2001 called murabaha. While other institutions, including Freddie Mac, have launched Shariah-compliant structures for home purchasing, Fannie Mae’s first in-house structure will be launched later this year in New York and Chicago under two lenders. Under murabaha, a bank will buy property from a seller and then resell the property to a Muslim-American buyer at cost plus markup. Over 15 to 30 years, the buyer will pay the bank in monthly installments, comparable with principal plus standard mortgage interest. The difference is this: Standard mortgage is based on a loan that accrues interest, whereas murabaha is meant to be a sale with profit. Siddiqui was pulled into work with Fannie Mae by Chris Johnson, founding partner of the D.C. firm Johnson & Pomp, who first did work for Fannie Mae while a partner at Arter & Hadden. Johnson, who specializes in Islamic finance, says Siddiqui “understands the spirit of Islamic law.” Islam “is his whole life,” Johnson says of Siddiqui. Lawyers on the Fannie Mae project are charged with developing and reviewing the contracts. Once murabaha is launched, Siddiqui will also do outreach work, which may include travel to various cities to educate the community at local Islamic centers and train lenders on murabaha. The biggest obstacle facing murabaha, says Senior Business Manager Dan Thompson of the Fannie Mae Community Lending Department, is recruiting lenders. “While some lenders realize there’s a niche for Islamic funding, they are reluctant, with the interest rate and political climate.” On matters of Islamic finance, Siddiqui has lectured internationally, including at Harvard and at the American Bar Association. This activity, as well as his longtime service as an imam, or prayer leader, at U.S. mosques, has given him name recognition in the Muslim-American community. From this community come Siddiqui’s local clients, who aim to reconcile their faith and U.S. law. For example, Shariah is based on the premise that the husband is the provider � an obligation that ceases upon divorce. Divorce in Islam is complete after the husband has told his wife three times that he divorces her. “Under U.S. law he can say it 100 times, and she’s still his wife,” jokes Siddiqui. Thus, Siddiqui’s role as both a Shariah expert and lawyer for the local Muslim community is to write prenuptial agreements for couples, as alimony is not allowed under Shariah, or to help legally divorce couples who have already been divorced in the eyes of Islam. When potential clients went to Siddiqui for help during his years at the embassy, he referred them to other lawyers. Siddiqui says this homegrown group of clients is still discovering his private practice. PRACTICING WHAT HE PREACHES “The rule of Shariah is based on the supremacy of law, not the supremacy of man. Every individual, from the leader to the ordinary men of society, must adhere to it,” says Siddiqui. Thus, as a practicing Muslim, Siddiqui must also consider Shariah even when billing his clients. Fixed monthly retainers, hourly rates, monthly salaries, or lump sum payments are acceptable under Shariah. He charges his clients $300 to $400 an hour, depending on the length and involvement of their relationship. Contingent fees may be a matter of disagreement, he says, because in Islam the goal is for both judge and lawyer to be impartial. Some believe that “financial interest attached to the winning or losing of a client’s case has the potential to cloud your judgment.” On the other hand, Siddiqui notes that there may very well be instances where it would be proper for a lawyer to take a matter on contingency, such as in the case of a poor client who cannot afford to pay hourly rates. But, says Siddiqui, even in the Islamic country of Saudi Arabia, lawyers accept contingency cases. “There is a big difference between the ideal and what is being practiced,” he adds. Siddiqui attributes the success of his practice thus far to the growing interaction between the Islamic world and the West, and greater awareness of Shariah. He hopes to bridge the gap between the two worlds, especially in what he calls the “complex task undertaken by the U.S. administration of restoring supremacy of law, justice, and democracy in the Middle East.” He heralds the goals of the U.S. administration as noble, but fears that without understanding and appreciation of Shariah, reformation may “cause more alienation than reconciliation.” To this goal, he is working on a project to rewrite Afghan commercial law, which involves the pro bono work of more than 100 lawyers worldwide. His duty is to ensure the proposed laws be Shariah-compliant. Considering all his pursuits, Siddiqui is enjoying private practice. His only regret: “I should’ve done it sooner.”

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