U of M joins handful of schools with Islamic law program

Since news of the University of Minnesota's new Islamic Law and Human Rights program went public a few weeks ago, Kristi Rudelius-Palmer has gotten a few e-mails.

Rudelius-Palmer, co-director of the Human Rights Center, said they haven't all been supportive.

"As some of the negative responses came out, I guess it just had me recharged for the importance of having the Islamic Law and Human Rights program in existence," she said. "Because if there really is that much fear out there, then it's obviously a program and these conversations are things that we need to have."

I think that this is a bold endeavor. Because there are people active in our country who have essentially made a living on sort of vilifying and demonizing all things Islamic.

The academic focus will be on Islamic, or Sharia Law -- something that guides the lives of many Muslims. It's an extensive code of conduct based on writings in the Koran and the life of the prophet Muhammad.

Abdulwahid Qalinle will direct the new center. He has been teaching courses on Islamic Law at the university since 2004. He says Islamic Law reaches far beyond religious life.

"Muslims believe that what prophet Mohammad has said, or what he has done in his lifetime, or the things that he approved, basically his entire life, is a law that Muslims are required to follow," he said. "It has a commercial law to it, it deals with the area of family law, it deals with issues that relate to international law.

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"It is a very wide variety of legal doctrines that have been implemented over a period more than 1,000 years."

Interest in Islamic Law courses has grown since the terrorist attacks in 2001, Qalinle said. With recent events in Egypt and the Middle East, he thinks knowledge and context about the region are becoming even more important.

"I believe that people would like to put what they see on on TV about the Muslim world and about Islam -- which is a lot these days -- into context," he said.

Creating the center was Qalinle's idea, adding there are often waiting lists for his classes.

"We intend to have, for instance, research done in whether or not the men and women have equal rights in Islam," he said. "The concept of having equality is an issue that has attracted a lot of debate in the Muslim world."

The program will start small, with just a few courses and instructors. It'll be funded through individual donations and grants from governments or foundations.

The curriculum will involve students in applied research, fellowships, internships and field work. Qalinle said he expects students to go on to jobs in government or as human rights workers.

There are a few other programs on Islamic Law, including one at Harvard. Officials at the University of Minnesota think their law school's large library, with its sizable Arabic section, will attract top-level academics from around the world. The center's students will also be able to work with the Twin Cities' Muslim populations.

Kristi Rudelius-Palmer said she hopes the new Islamic Law program can help open Minnesota culture and traditions to immigrant communities.

"We're trying to look at how we are respecting human rights in the classrooms in our schools, whether we're creating spaces for people to have quiet time, or whether we're trying to look at different foods that we're providing in our lunchrooms," she said. "You know, it's kind of an urgency right now that we try and figure out how we can implement human rights in practice."

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress and a Democrat from Minneapolis, will attend the opening ceremonies.

Many people don't know enough about Islam, Ellison said, even though they talk about it often. That dynamic makes myths grow and misunderstandings develop, he said, adding he hopes the new center will be a tool to spread true information about the religion.

"I think that this is a bold endeavor. Because there are people active in our country who have essentially made a living on sort of vilifying and demonizing all things Islamic," Ellison said. "For those people this might be very threatening because what it represents is people really shedding light on a topic they want to control the public square on."

As Arab nations around the world, like Egypt, struggle to define themselves, Ellison says understanding as much as we can about Muslim societies couldn't be more important.