Posted on August 10, 2005

Islamic Law Course Hears Opening Arguments

Boyd Erman, Globe and Mail (Toronto), Aug. 6

Islamic law is coming to the University of Toronto.

Not in the form of sharia tribunals for cheaters or strict dress codes for female students, but in the form of two professors hired to teach the subject at the university’s law school.

While students are excited about the opportunity to learn about another legal tradition, especially one that’s often in the headlines, groups fighting to keep sharia out of Canada’s legal system worry that the hirings are a setback to their efforts.

Bringing in Anver Emon, 34, and Mohammad Fadel, 38, to teach courses in Islamic law is part of a push for a more global focus that students are embracing, says acting law school dean Lorne Sossin. Having two full-time professors will give the law school a bigger concentration on Islamic law than anywhere else in Canada.

“The early indications are that students are going to be beating down the doors, and it’s a testament to the timeliness of it, with Islamic fundamentalism in the news abroad and of course the sharia debate in Ontario just this last year bringing these issues close to home,” Mr. Sossin says.

Too close to home for Homa Arjomand, who heads the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada, and Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women.

Ms. Arjomand has been campaigning to keep Islamic law out of the Canadian system because in other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan or Nigeria, women have suffered under strict and violent interpretations of Islamic law. The hirings are “like a green light for sharia,” Ms. Arjomand says. “I’m so mad.”

Ms. Hogben says she’s “concerned about the motivation.” Canada’s law system should be totally secular so the university shouldn’t be seen doing anything to prepare for the possibility that sharia law may make inroads, she says.

The issue of sharia law hit the headlines in Ontario in 2003, after a Muslim lawyer founded the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice to settle family-law and inheritance-law disputes. The move was perfectly legal under Ontario’s Arbitration Act, which allows people to voluntarily settle arguments outside the court system using an arbitrator of their choice. The outcomes are binding.

Amid an outcry that raised the spectre of Muslim women in Ontario living under the same restrictions as those under the Taliban, where adultery allegations could lead to summary executions, the Ontario government did what governments do. It commissioned a report.

Marion Boyd, a former Ontario cabinet minister who works as a mediator, spent six months researching the issue before recommending that religious law keep a place in family arbitration as long as safeguards are built in to protect women and children. Ontario’s Attorney-General, Michael Bryant, plans to respond in the fall.

The Boyd solution can work, according to Mr. Emon, who believes Islamic law is more open to interpretation than many realize and can be adjusted to protect the rights of women. Islamic law studies such as those he will offer at the University of Toronto are necessary to show students that Islamic law is open to more liberal readings, he says.

“Islamic law is not just about these rules about cutting hands off thieves or discriminating against women. It’s a living tradition in which jurists are trying to embrace and engage in active acts of interpretation,” Mr. Emon says.

And, should the Ontario government leave the option of faith-based dispute settlement in the Arbitration Act, the University of Toronto’s Islamic law courses will mean at least Ontario will have some lawyers who know their way around sharia law.

“If the proposal does go through, this would mean that some students would have the ability to support their clients’ efforts in ways that maybe others don’t,” he says.

Even if the government rules Islamic law out of bounds in arbitration, a lawyer working in Toronto may have to deal with cross-border cases that involve countries where sharia is used, Mr. Fadel says.

He says Islamic law has come up in his work as a lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell, a New York firm known for its work in business law. “It is increasingly relevant, say, for commercial transactions in which you have investors who call themselves Islamic investors, and they want the contracts to be compliant. It’s not something that’s so obscure that some percentage of U of T lawyers won’t come across it at some point in their careers.”

Mr. Sossin says he is aware that the hirings might raise some concerns, but ignoring an area of the law because of controversy is wrong. Instead, “you want to have the scholarship and teaching in the area,” he says. “We’re so unfamiliar with the Koran and the other Islamic law texts that we just lump it all together.”

Mr. Sossin has the backing of students such as Kim Haviv, vice-president of the Students’ Law Society at University of Toronto.

“There’s really been a push from the students to broaden the perspective and increase diversity in the faculty, so from our end it’s a step in the right direction,” Ms. Haviv says. “Teaching students more about different legal systems can’t be a bad thing.”

As part of its international focus, the school now offers courses in Hebrew law, Latin American legal systems and international human-rights law. Mr. Sossin says the school is looking for more scholars to broaden that reach. Ms. Haviv agrees that there’s still “work to do.”

Mr. Emon comes to University of Toronto from Yale University, where he completed a law degree. He is working on a doctorate in history from the University of California at Los Angeles, with a focus on medieval traditions of Islamic law. He says he was drawn to the subject by the uproar in the early 1990s when some Muslim clerics called for the assassination of author Salman Rushdie for his portrayal of Islam in The Satanic Verses.

Mr. Fadel will teach business law as well as Islamic law, which he says he studied because of his interest in international affairs and the Middle East, where “it is always present.” He will join the university next year.

Ms. Haviv, who is heading into her second year, says she would be interested in taking a course with one of the new teachers, though is not sure it will fit into her schedule. “But I really look forward to welcoming the new professors,” she said.