While most law students study existing legal codes in school, second-year Law student Adnan Zulfiqar is spending this semester creating one.
Zulfiqar is part of a special seminar being offered at Penn Law School this fall entitled "Islamic Criminal Law: Drafting a Criminal Code for the Maldives." Under the guidance of professor Paul Robinson, the class will draft a new criminal code for the Maldives that will be implemented by the Maldivian government.
The students will travel to the Maldives as part of a United Nations mission to coordinate the criminal code drafting work. The Maldives is a nation of 1,200 islands in southern Asia. With a population of under 400,000, its government strictly adheres to Islamic law.
Robinson was approached by the Maldivian government to reform its criminal justice code while he was planning out his courses for the fall. Deciding this would be an invaluable educational experience, he canceled his other classes and invited interested students to apply.
Fifty students submitted applications to the class, and 18 were accepted.
Critics have attacked Robinson for taking on the project, saying that the code will be based on the principles of the Shari'a.
The Shari'a, Islamic law derived from the teachings of the Quran and from religious practices called Sunna -- those believed to be handed down from the Prophet Mohammed -- is implemented to varying degrees in different Islamic countries.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based think tank Middle East Forum, critiqued Robinson's course in an article last month.
"Rather than cleanse the modern Shari'a code, I appeal to Professor Robinson to reject the Maldive commission and take a totally different approach to his seminar," Pipes wrote, adding that a course should instead have been formed "critiquing that code's criminal provisions from a Western point of view and ... show[ing] how this religiously based legal system contradicts virtually every assumption America makes."
Robinson disagreed with Pipes' assessment, saying the "opportunity should be enthusiastically embraced."
"The Maldivians are in the midst of a great social change," he said, adding, "How could I possibly in good conscience refuse?"
Despite the controversy, Robinson is dedicated to the project and expects the same of his students.
"I have given them fairly burdensome assignments," Robinson said, "but the project is growing just as well as it would have been with professional attorneys."
Penn Law graduate Angela Migally agreed that the workload is intense but invaluable. Migally graduated in May and was hired by a corporate litigation firm. Yet she was so interested in the idea of the class that she pushed back her job until January and asked to be a research assistant.
"It's just a unique opportunity," Migally said. "It's really fast-paced and a lot of work, but it's well worth it."
Zulfiqar agreed, saying, "It's not a typical law school class. It's more like working for a law firm."
Drafting the constitution will take longer than the term, and Robinson hopes some of the students will stay on to complete the project.
"The United Nations agreed I can bring some students to the Maldives upon completion," Robinson said. "With a 38-hour flight, and flying through Dubai, it should be interesting."