Whatever one's feelings about the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is no denying that the capture and looming trial of Saddam Hussein have the potential to mark an historic turning point in the history of Iraq, the Middle East, and even Islam and its relations with the West. I use the word potential, however, because unless the pending trial is part of a larger paradigm in shift in the thinking of leaders East and West, the long-term impact of Hussein's capture might not be much greater than that of the last dictator the United States arrested, Manuel Noriega of Panama.

Still, the trial could prove a watershed event, revolving around the manner in which Hussein is tried. It is clear that reforming Iraq's legal system is of paramount importance to the reconstruction of the country. The Iraqi Jurists Association, an international organization of Iraqi lawyers and legal experts, gave the United Nations a 700-page document in May 2003 outlining how to reform the legal system based on respect for rule of law in post-Hussein Iraq. Even a year ago--that is, well before the U.S. invasion--Iraqi and American legal experts knew that the manner in which Hussein and others would be tried would be crucial to reshaping Iraq's political system and larger culture.

And so it's no surprise that it was announced this week that Hussein and other senior Baath leaders will be tried by a five-member tribunal of Iraqi judges, with a nine-member appeals tribunal that would review any verdict and sentence. As a spokesman for Human Rights Watch put it, "This is such an extraordinary opportunity to try one of the world's most notorious human rights violators that it's important it be done in a way that is perceived around the world as wholly proper."

While most commentators have suggested that internationalizing the trial in some manner would ensure its fairness, it is clear that "internationalizing" for most means bringing in European or American experts or those trained specifically in Western law. The former UN War Crimes Chief Prosecutor and South African Supreme Court Justice Richard Goldstone, for instance, has called for a "kind of hybrid court that has been set up in Sierra Leone and Cambodia--a mix of local and international judges and prosecutors, including guarantees for the safety of defense attorneys."

Yet it seems that religious jurists, legal scholars, and judges are not being considered valid participants in such a process. This would be very problematic, because limiting the definition of "international" to predominantly "secular" Western concepts and norms is condescending toward both the Muslim world and Islamic law. After all, Islam has a sophisticated set of legal traditions in the Shari'a that are well over 1,000 years old and which encompass the full spectrum of criminal and civil laws. Whether it's murder, theft, or utterly failing to "enjoin the good and prohibit the evil" (as every Muslim, and especially a political leader, is commanded by God to do), Hussein clearly can face justice from a Muslim perspective.

One could object, of course, that the various "schools" (really, systems of interpretation) of Muslim law sometimes contradict each other in important ways, especially between Sunni and Shii systems--a crucial distinction in Iraq--and so it would be impractical to try Hussein through one of these systems, since his crimes have affected members of both sects.

More broadly, according to a September report in the The Financial Times, "On the role of Islam, most parties have agreed to allow the constitution to name it as the official religion of Iraq, but disagreement begins on the role of Shari'a Islamic law. Religious parties have called for it to be declared 'the only source' of law in Iraq, while more secular parties have said they would be content with Sharia rule as 'one of the sources' of law but nothing further."

The subject of religious law is contentious; this is because in the last century the trend in the Middle East, except in Islamic states such as Iran, Sudan or Saudi Arabia, has been to separate Islamic from so-called secular legal systems along Western lines. This separation was a result of attempts by European colonial regimes, and subsequently newly independent nation-states, to limit the power of Islam to purely "family" or "personal" status issues; the government, meanwhile, controlled all other aspects of political life.

But this process had the unfortunate consequence of isolating much of Islamic legal theory to a focus on preserving something called "essential Muslim identity," which generally meant preserving patriarchal systems of oppression. And in religiously ruled states, it has usually meant the imposition of harsh penalties such as amputation of limbs or stoning to death of adulterers. These kinds of laws have been as much about sustaining men's power over women and publicly identifying with highly charged symbols of Islam in the context of a perceived hostile international environment as they are about developing a contemporary Islamic legal culture.