William & Mary law professor Christie Warren is just minutes into her course on Islamic law when a debate on the day's topic has already captivated the class.
Warren's students, packed into one of the smaller classrooms in the north wing of the Law School, were given advanced reading assignments. But it's obvious they went beyond the required preparation and are anxious to discuss the future of Islamic law.
Questions are lobbed from all directions. Who should be allowed to interpret Islamic law? How can the Arabic region make Islamic laws more relevant to the modern world? How do you teach people to recognize an educated scholar of Islam? Should the Western world even be involved with helping others interpret Islamic law?
"I think the point that is being made by everyone is that there needs to be more public exposure to the text," says Alana Malick, a third-year law student. "The doors of interpretation have been shut down since the ninth century."
The discussion continues as Warren feverishly writes each student comment or question on a nearby blackboard. The 75-minute class finishes, it seems, too soon and it's obvious the students want more. Warren invites them to hang around and the talk continues.
"It's like this every class," Warren said after class. "The students are so interested in this topic. I have some who e-mail newspaper articles to me in the middle of the night and are so excited about every bit of information they have found. They're doing research on their own - during their own free time - and want to share it."
Even though this is the first semester of Warren's Islamic Law Seminar, the course has gained a tremendous amount of popularity at the Law School. Warren says the genesis of the course came following the events of September 11th. The students' response, she says, was to ask why it happened and to attempt to learn more about the Muslim world.
"If the future of the world is in the hands of people like these students, whose reaction to disturbing world events is to want to learn more in order to interact and respond effectively and meaningfully, we are lucky," Warren said.
Warren has a deep background in international law. Prior to coming to William & Mary in 2001, she served as an advisor to rule of law programs all over the world, including programs in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia. Among her other credentials is time as the Supreme Court Fellow assigned to Chief Justice William Rehnquist where her duties included briefing Justices on international issues before they traveled abroad.
Warren used to cover Islamic law in a two-week span of her Comparative Law course. Then a small group of students came to her last spring and asked if she would sponsor them in a directed reading on the subject. Directed readings are small groups of students, sponsored by a faculty member at the law school, who study a particular subject for a semester when there is no official course offered. She agreed to sponsor the group and the response was overwhelming. So many students wanted to participate, she had to find an additional faculty sponsor. At the conclusion of the spring semester, Warren said, the law school administration saw the tremendous student interest in Islamic law and agreed to offer a full-credit course.
The students say their reasons for wanting the course are simple. For a true understanding of international law, the students felt it was necessary to learn more about Islamic law and the Muslim world. It's a course they say will become an essential part of curriculums at law schools across the country. The world has become globalized.
"I don't think you can have any comprehensive study of law in today's society without some understanding of Islamic law," said third-year student Brooke Rodgers-Miller. "It's a very important part of international law. Plus, it's pretty cutting edge."
The reaction to the course is obvious by the activity of the students. Warren has set up the syllabus for the course to embrace participation by the students and many times it's the students who lead the direction of discussions. Opposing views are welcome and no one holds grudges if they are on opposite sides of debates - lively talks that can cover everything from women and Islam to who is responsible for the future of Islamic law. Some classes feature guest speakers - such as retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, who served as President Bush's special envoy to the Middle East and teaches a course at the college; or William & Mary professor Tamara Sonn, an internationally known Islamic scholar.
"I'm so glad for this experience," said second-year student Chris Supino.
Warren's students come from a variety of backgrounds. Rodgers-Miller, a third-year student, hopes to one day teach courses related to women's studies. Second-year student Tom Barrow is an active-duty captain in the Army, and he is participating in what is called a Funded Legal Education Program - basically he is attending law school on full scholarship with the agreement that after he graduates and passes the bar, he will serve six years in the Judge Advocate General's (JAG) Corps.
"Any knowledge (on the Muslim World) that I can bring to the table as a JAG will benefit the Army as a whole," Barrow said. "This class has given me a better understanding of Islam, which will hopefully translate into better relations between our military and the citizens of the countries where we are currently committed."
While the students are quick to attribute much of the course's success to Warren's energy and enthusiasm for the subject, the professor says it's her students who make the course.
"They feel they needed a course such as this to participate meaningfully in our rapidly globalizing world," Warren said. "They have not taken a passive position and have not simply digested what people say they need. They have told us what they feel they need to learn and the law school administration listened."