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Damascus University, Department of Sharia

20-sep-03, early afternoon

We visit the University of Damascus, which looks much like any American university. We go to an older building and enter a meeting room in the Department of Sharia. The weather is hot, we are in suits and ties, and there is no air-conditioning. We are scheduled to meet with the Dean, but he is detained elsewhere. We instead talk, over tea, with his assistant. Bashar is not with us, so Aziz translates.

The department offers a 4 year program covering 54 topics including History and Civilizations. There is a 2-year series on Hadith. (The Koran is the primary authority for Muslims, but on the many issues not covered, the faithful look to Hadith. This is the collection of the Prophet's sayings that are not in the Koran -- that is, not dictated by Allah.) They also study Christianity and Judaism, which are taught "objectively".

Islam decrees different courts for Muslims, Christians, and Jews. (Upstairs from us, Jewish and Christian Law are taught.) There is a separate discipline for "personal Islamic law", covering subjects like birth, death, and marriages. The role of the Imam is narrow; the government "handles everything".

We ask about pastoral counseling and mental illness. These are unfamiliar topics here; there is not much understanding even of disorders like schizophrenia.

We also ask about the role of doubt. The school does have a special course on "suspicions", where certain dangerous questions are entertained. For example, what if Mohammed, rather than God, wrote the Koran? However, the goal of the course is to allay all doubts; an Imam cannot have suspicions.

Philosophy and Theology are taught only after the 4-year undergraduate Sharia course.

The School of Sharia has more women students than men, and there are women on the faculty. There is no movement to allow women to be Imams. We are told that women can't pray or fast during menstruation, which would make them inappropriate Imams.

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