LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas law professor is playing a key role in arming U.S. Army special operations officers with a vital understanding of local culture, law and religion before they are deployed to the Middle East.
For several years, Rice Distinguished Professor Raj Bhala has been teaching a course on Islamic law, or Shariah, at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College. He recently became the first American legal scholar to publish a comprehensive textbook on the subject, which he also offers to students at the KU law school.
There is a growing demand for such education in the Department of Defense community, said Lt. Col. Joe Cieslo, instructor in the department of army tactics at Fort Leavenworth.
“Especially within Army special operations forces, given that our officers specialize in specific regions of the world and survive on their ability to understand their operational environment and bridge cultural divides,” he said. “Raj’s wealth of knowledge goes beyond just law and really helps tie in the important cultural aspects of the environment in which many of our officers operate today.”
The demand isn’t limited to the military. Islamic law is now taught at about half of the roughly 200 law schools in the United States accredited by the American Bar Association and many foreign law schools.
“There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. Our KU law students – whether they’re doing banking law or family law locally, or trade and investment deals in big cities in the U.S. or abroad – are absolutely going to encounter Muslims and Islamic law,” Bhala said. “The hope is that the book prepares KU law students to practice law in the world that exists now and the world that is to come. Islam is a big part of that world.”
“Understanding Islamic Law (Shari’a),” published this summer by LexisNexis, covers the entire history and religion of Islam, synthesizing it with the development and practice of Islamic law. It explains the sources of Islamic law and its pertinent specialty fields: banking and finance, contracts, criminal law, family law and property.
The book also deals directly with controversial topics such as religious freedom, women’s rights, reproduction and terrorism – attempting to distinguish Islam’s true teachings from extremist views and practices. For example, on the topic of jihad, Bhala points out that extremists have distorted the term to justify terrorism.
“These distortions get introduced, typically by men, over the ages, and they tend to come up in three areas: women and women’s rights, religious freedom and the law of war,” Bhala said.
Based on nearly three years of research and 10 years of teaching, the manuscript has been used to train law students, legal professionals and senior American government and military officials.
Bhala has been teaching Islamic law at KU since he arrived in the fall of 2003. He traveled the globe while conducting research for the book, visiting countries such as Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, India, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, France and the Philippines. KU law students from Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Kansas also contributed to the book as Bhala’s research assistants.
Bhala hopes the book will help increase understanding of a great religious and legal tradition.
“I don’t want to see my daughter grow up in a world where every time she goes to the mall she has to go through security because of the risk of terrorism,” Bhala said. “I just thought that a book that teaches about this tradition and isolates inauthentic teachings and shows that they’re extreme – they’re not really in Islam – might help build understanding.”
The understanding of Islamic law that Bhala has built among military officers at Fort Leavenworth will have far-reaching impacts, Cieslo said.
“These guys will be commanding troops, leading planning groups,” he said. “The wisdom will trickle down and hopefully go up, too. A lot of these guys will influence staff decisions and decisions made by higher commanders, guys with stars on their chests.”