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The real Islam uncovered

Douglas Blane finds a course on Islam that will help teachers understand a range of principles found in the Koran

Reading the Koran in English is unlikely to enhance a non-Muslim's understanding of Islam, says Mona Siddiqui of Glasgow University's theology and religious studies department.

Holy books are not the most accessible aspects of any religion, she says. "A non-Christian reading the Bible would soon discover that Christianity condones child sacrifice, misogyny and genocide." It doesn't, of course, and nor does Islam encourage terrorism and murder.

Islamic studies courses are urgently needed to raise the veil of confusion through which Muslims are seen by Western eyes. Only one - run by Amanullah De Sondy, a research fellow in Dr Siddiqui's department - is currently available and accredited by the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

The topic for today, half-way through the 20-week course, is Islamic law, and during the first part of the evening session Mr De Sondy explains the varying origins and sometimes troubled evolution of the Sharia.

"The prophet Muhammad was a political leader, judge, spiritual guide and teacher," he says . "He was not a technical legal expert, nor was there an established legal system during his lifetime."

As a result, although the Koran is the foremost source of the Sharia, it is not obvious how a legal code governing the Muslim way of life can be derived from its contents.

"The term Sharia literally means 'the way to the waterhole', but it can also mean 'the right path' and hence the law," says Mr De Sondy. "God is the best judge and legislator, but the Sharia is man's attempts to help Muslims remain within God's mind."

The various sources of Islamic law, he explains, include debate, discussion and human intelligence (Fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence), the personal opinion of scholars (Ra'y) and analogical reasoning (Qiyas), which is necessary because the Koran does not speak explicitly on every issue.

As Mr De Sondy introduces and explains the terms, he writes them on a flip-chart, prompting one student to ask if she needs to memorise all these unfamiliar names for the exam. (Successful completion of the course, assessed by one essay and one exam, earns 30 credits and a Certificate in Islamic Studies from Glasgow University).

"The reason I am writing the words is that I want you to become familiar with both the sound and spelling of the Arabic," replies Mr De Sondy, "and to help you get as close to the correct spelling as you can. If you write 'Moslem', for example, instead of 'Muslim', you will fail the exam I Don't worry, I'm only joking."

Other sources of Islamic law include Ijtihad, which is creative juridical reasoning, Ijma, the consensus of the scholars, and Urf, customs or practices which do not contravene the fundamental tenets of the Koran or Hadith (the collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet).

"I look for things that bring communities together. Wedding ceremonies often have much in common and many wedding practices can, I believe, be accepted under this whole area of Urf. Alcohol on the other hand, no matter how common it becomes in society, can never be lawful in Islam."

The perception is that the Sharia is "unable to address the contemporary", says Mr De Sondy, but he argues there is latitude for discussion and debate on modern issues. "Islamic law is not in a time capsule, but allows scope for change depending on the political, social and economic situation.

"It's very hard for Westerners to understand Islam when all they hear about is Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists. Someone who follows the fundamentals of Islam knows that it encourages diversity and different opinions."

So too does Mr De Sondy's course. Each session comprises a lecture followed by a discussion, then a presentation from one of the students and another discussion.

The course assumes no previous knowledge of Islam and covers topics in some depth. It looks at the life of the prophet, the fundamentals of Islam and its relationship with other faiths. It also covers women, Palestine, Islamic art and Muslims in Scotland.

Nicola Fisher, who teaches at Carolside Primary in Clarkston, East Renfrewshire, takes a keen interest in Islam but has learned a lot from the course. "I feel more confident answering the children's questions about Islam. I want to go on and study further," she says.

Julian Tolley, a religious, moral and philosophical studies teacher at Caldervale High in Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, particularly enjoyed the session on the Koran, given by Mona Siddiqui. "I like the mix of presentations and discussion and the guest speakers. I think it's a splendid course."

Islamic Studies starts again at Glasgow University on September 7. For more information, contact Dr Mona Siddiqui or Amanullah De Sondy, tel 0141 330 46042435

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