11/24/2015 02:38 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2016

Teaching Islamic Law (After 9/11, After Paris, or at Any Point in the Future)

Why study Islamic law?

Do I really need to answer this question? To understand terrorism, of course.


I was approached by London's Bloomsbury last spring, asking whether I would be open to writing a standard textbook in Islamic law for the use of English speaking undergraduate students. The text would cater to college students in North America, in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and an increasing number of students the world over. I agreed and started to reflect on my undergraduate teaching program in a comprehensive manner.

Plans Old and New

The undergraduate teaching program I developed to date centered on two lower division (freshmen-sophomore) courses, one covering a medieval theme and the other a modern one. The title of one class was Islam and the West 700-1850 (the west before it became the west, that is) and Islam and modernity. On the upper division I offered 5 classes (a 119 series, from 119a to 119e) covering Islamic law (a) the Quran and its interpretations (b) jihad and just war (c) Islam and government (d) and the less frequently offered Islam and women (e). It was something of an upside down pyramid, with fewer classes at the bottom (for freshmen and sophomores) and more on the top (juniors and seniors).

The introduction to Islamic law (119a) is the class I use to prepare students to look into the nature of Islamic legal reasoning. Some of my 119a students came looking for analytic tools for the news, most notably news about terrorism or misogyny in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Some students were interested in Sufism, not Islamic law. The ones who seemed to have liked most of what I did were the pre-law type undergrads with an international bent, juniors and seniors who already thought about the LSAT and which law schools they wanted to go to. I enjoyed having these students as much I they seemed to have enjoyed the class. The truth remained that they were not the majority. The majority was a mix of humanities and non-humanities students (always a couple of biologists, psychologists, or physicists) who had only this class to spare, in order to satisfy their limited interest in a vast subject. The subject had to be resized for their purpose.

On the old plan, I gave this majority less than the attention they deserved. I always focused on questions about whether there was one or multiple versions of natural law, whether local customs were the essence of law, and whether financial justice was best fulfilled through the freedom of economic activities or through the protection of the weak. My new plan starts from a recognition that the students who constituted the majority deserved to set the agenda for the class. The students were genuinely interested in understanding how Islamic legal reasoning worked, but they neither wanted big doses of it (time and space would not allow it, anyway) nor wanted theoretical material. The new plan had to center on other aspects of the subject.

There are civil rights cases involving discrimination based on religion that involve Muslim workers, asylum cases where residents of Muslim countries seek to be asylees based on fear of subjection to discrimination, sanctioned by their national laws that originate in medieval legal doctrines. I have by now authored expert testimonies in a sufficient number of these cases, and although I am not allowed to divulge confidential reports, I could draw on my understanding of these cases and how Islamic law plays a role in figuring out a way to solve them. The cases give ample opportunities to speak about the reconciliation of legal and religious obligation in the Islamic tradition (eg., one must work to support oneself and family but must also attend to daily prayers and fasting obligations; one must simultaneously commit to one's contractual obligations--all according to Islamic law).

I also had the opportunity to work with Human Rights Watch on issues such as Saudi Arabia's limited commitment to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The Saudi clergy's reluctance to support admitting females into the legal bar to practice all areas of the law, despite allowing females to enter into law schools, was the crux of the issue. Saudi scholars were not sure that women could be criminal lawyers, since they could not be criminal judges, according to the tradition. The tradition also has it that women could be 'muftis' or religious legal authorities. The function of a modern lawyer is a question undiscussed in the tradition, and if you lean that being a lawyer is closer to the function of a mufti (who provides non-binding legal opinions) rather than a judge (who decides cases of public law), then you may find a leeway for Saudi women who are aspiring to practice criminal law.

These are extremely limited parameters for the subject's presence on a global scale and in zones of proximity to Western laws and cultures. But it was these cases that started me on the textbook. I expanded the cases to explain the relevant legal doctrines, the legal reasoning behind them, and some of the history that led to the presence of different versions of Islamic law in different Muslim countries. The textbook process led me to study more of modern Islamic law in Iran and Indonesia, go back to an early and brief interest I had in Islamic finance, and work on finding language to articulate principles of Islamic legal reasoning in plain English. The process is not complete but has been rewarding, even if it is never completed.


So what?

What if Islamic law is a vast subject and is relevant to much more than the news about terrorism? Is it unreasonable to ask about Islam and terrorism? All I am saying is that it is not the only thing that comes to mind.