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“We hear a lot about the ‘clash of civilizations.' This course is dedicated to the prospect and promise of ‘dialogues of civilization.’” -Brett Scharffs, BYU Law professor

Ten years ago, BYU Law Professor Brett Scharffs attended a conference hosted by the Oslo Coalition of Freedom of Religion or Belief in Norway. Gathering in the hall between sessions, he along with a handful of other attendees conceived an idea that would take a decade of academic persistence and collegiate engagement to bring about.

“We wanted to build a bridge between two seemingly contradictory legal systems: Sharia law— the moral code and religious law of Islam— and international human rights laws,” Scharffs said. “Our intent was not convergence, but rather to find areas of harmony. The idea isn’t to eliminate all dissonance between these legal worldviews, but to look for bridges and avenues of discourse.”

After germinating for three years, the idea surfaced again as the small group of academics gathered for another conference. This time their conversation led to the formation of a short course on Sharia and Human Rights. The program brought together experts on Islamic law and human rights with students of law, Islamic law, sociology and history, as well as practitioners from a range of NGOs. The short course was institutionalized and expanded to a masters-level course for credit.

Believing that the Muslim world would appreciate the concepts of human rights and religious freedom more when it came from other respected Muslim scholars, Scharffs and the others partnered with credible scholars such as Professor Mohammed Hashim Kamali, from the International Institute of Advanced lslamic Studies in Malaysia, and Professor Abdula Saeed, from the University of Melbourn, Australia.

Now, ten years after the first conversation, the University of Muhammadiya, Malang Indonesia, along with the Oslo Coalition of Freedom of Religion or Belief, Norway, and BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies have announced the creation of the first-of-its-kind Master’s Degree program on Sharia and Human Rights. Their course is the cornerstone of the MA’s curriculum.

“We hear a lot about the ‘clash of civilizations,’” Scharffs noted. “This course is dedicated to the prospect and promise of ‘dialogues of civilization.’”

In addition to the course, Sharffs along with the other academics are putting the finishing touches on a course book, Sharia and Human Rights, which will be published in both English and Bahasa Indonesia and will provide a template for teaching courses on the intersections between Islamic law and human rights law. About half of the chapters are written by experts in Islamic law and half by experts in human rights law.

“We have been successful because the idea built upon respected relationships and continuous engagement over time as we worked with credible Muslim scholars,” Scharffs said. “I’ve often said we are engaged in a lot of work that can be discouraging, but education is an act of faith; we hope our ideas make a difference over time.”

According to Scharffs, many of the students in this program will become professors and expand the curriculum at the universities where they will teach; others will work for NGOs and human rights organizations. 

Writer: Tonya Fischio