Big news for Shari'a law

Why Islamic studies suddenly became a fad in the United Arab Emirates.

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One morning in early March I arrived at my office at the College of Shari'a and Law at the Islamic Institute, as is my near-daily routine, and stopped by my advisor's office on the way. The barren room was short on decoration, as all the offices had been, save for the expected articles: back editions of the college's journals (the only books on the two bookcases), a yellow prayer carpet with the Kaba (the monolith in Mecca which Muslims face during prayer) on the face rolled up in one corner and a Koran on the computer monitor. Dr. Shafa - we refer to professors by first names - a professor of Hadith (recorded sayings and deeds of the Prophet Mohammed), was not his usual bubbly and busy self, jetting from room to room, organizing conferences and greeting guests. That day he sat on one of the plush leather couches in his office, offered me tea, and began to explain his two plans. "Plan A," as he termed it while adjusting his white head scarf, would be to pursue a degree in constitutional law at the University of Oxford. "Plan B," would consist of taking a hiatus year at Oxford to conduct research and reorganize. As ironic as it sounds, Shari'a studies seemed to have become a passing fad in the United Arab Emirates. THE HARBINGER of this trend in Al Ain was the separation of its College of Shari'a and Law into the College of Law, to remain in Al Ain, and the College of Shari'a, to move to a still-undetermined location in Abu Dhabi. As one law professor in the faculty explained, "the Shari'a people have a different mindset from the lawyers"- a realization that seemed to have gained popularity with the college's dean as well. Thus, 30 years after its inception, the college would see its arranged marriage between clerics and lawyers end in divorce - with the lawyers inheriting the establishment. And for the clerics, as with Dr. Shafa, either a change in course or a change in country - or both - seems the solution. AND WHAT role does this big news for the country's only open university play in understanding the country's course? To appreciate this, one must understand the establishment of the modern Shari'a legal system in the United Arab Emirates. Traditionally, the seven Emirates - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Ras al-Khaymah, Fujeira, Um al-Quwain - organize into two of the four recognized madhahab (schools of Islamic practice). The Abu Dhabi and Dubai tribes have followed the Maliki school, while the other Emirates have followed the Hanbali one. This accounts for the cultural disparity between Dubai and Sharjah, the next town over, as it were - where, in contrast to the socially liberal nature of the former, in the latter it is forbidden for unmarried couples to ride in the same car. Before the Emirates joined to form the UAE on December 2, 1971, legal disputes among tribes would be adjudicated by the respective sheikh, or ruler, of each emirate. And while the schools favored religious practice, the judgment lay in the hands of one venerated leader. The legal landscape changed drastically in the 1970s with the union of the Emirates and the subsequent confusion regarding the madhabi predilection of the country. A constitution was drafted and a Shari'a court system was designed and presided over primarily by lawyers from the Levant, Egypt and Iraq. It is of some importance to note that the legal systems of those countries, albeit incorporating Islamic law, also borrowed largely from the legal codes of Britain and France. Thus, it could be said, the law introduced was not Shari'a in its purest form. Nonetheless, the need for a system was quenched and, with the changing demands of the country's rapidly developing society, three years ago aspects of the other two religious madhahab, the Shafi'i and Hanafi ones, entered personal status laws as well. Thus, while remaining Islamic, the version of the religious law changed. This fact of life did not seem to bother the country, which was clinging to tradition while on a fast track to modernization. The role of the clerics and traditional establishments is becoming one of choice rather than decree. In personal-status issues - marriage, divorce, inheritance - citizens are given the option of either taking the official route of settlement through the courts or appealing to their respective mufti. Either approach is legal and the validity depends largely on the nature of that citizen's family - usually the foremost criterion in this society. As regards education, the madrasa system is increasingly taking a back seat to private, English-taught schools. The same holds true for institutions of higher education such as the one at which I was based. Dr. Shafa speaks some English, but not enough to teach his field of expertise. This inevitably raises the issue of the language of instruction at the university's College of Law. Should it shift to English, only a handful of Islamic studies courses to be taught in Arabic? ONE ALSO wonders about the incentives for such a change. Is it the titles, accreditations and international recognition the universities hope to attain by their reforms? Or is it the more inspirational idea that somehow opening to the West provokes an alternate approach to education? Or can it be a middle path the country's leaders are attempting to pave in an effort to reconcile their religious identity with their commitment to global leadership? Certainly there are those in society who sense a sort of abandonment. When I inquired about the significance of such changes in an Islamic country to Sheikh Ahmed al-Kubaisi, a noted Islamic scholar and sometime advisor to the UAE's founder, he replied tersely: "This is not an Islamic country; it is an Arab one." His point is well taken. The task of crafting an Islamic society is a critical challenge facing the UAE today. The country may use its geographic surroundings as a reference point, but can't borrow from them, both because of its unique demographic composition and because of the nature of those regimes (particularly the highly politicized Iranian version and the agenda-oriented Saudi monarchy). Elie Kedouri reminds us in Nationalism: "An Islamic state based on the classical model is an anachronistic impossibility." However, before imagining such an entity, defining religious tradition must take precedence. With the political pollution of Islamic studies by the bin Ladens and Khomeinis, even education about the religion's basic tenets is still a big question mark. If one speaks to 10 Muslims from several countries and asks them to prioritize the most important aspects of being a Muslim, one will receive 10 unique lists. Dr. Shafa's decision to develop his scholarship in the UK may be emblematic of the future of this field. The writer is a graduate student at Harvard who spent the past year in the United Arab Emirates as a Fulbright Scholar.