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Friday, August 28, 1998 Published at 16:35 GMT 17:35 UK

World: South Asia

Interpreting Islam

The US missile attacks led to protests in Pakistan

Religious affairs correspondent Jane Little reports

Jane Little: "Details of what Mr Sharif envisages remain sketchy"
The proposal to make Islamic law the supreme law of Pakistan has left many questions over what kind of measures the government would implement.

Interpretations of Islamic law vary widely.

The prime minister's announcement to create a truly Islamic welfare state, seems to be a well-timed move to unite Pakistan's majority Muslim population.

It comes a week after the United States caused outrage there by carrying out missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan.

And it comes after a long campaign by Muslim extremist groups in Pakistan who've been lobbying for a return to Islamic values.

But details of what Mr Sharif envisages remain sketchy, reflecting the difficulties of implementing a law to please everybody.

Based on the Koran

Islamic or Shari'a law is a code of conduct expected of all Muslims.

[ image: Nawaz Sharif: Difficult task to please everyone]
Nawaz Sharif: Difficult task to please everyone
Based on the holy book, the Koran, and the teachings of the prophet Mohammed, it includes prescriptions all Muslims must conform to, like praying five times a day, giving to the poor and fasting.

But just as there is no single, unchanging Islam, there's no monolithic interpretation of the law. In Shia-dominated Iran, the spiritual leaders - led by the Ayatollah - interpret the law with the aid of Shia tradition and customs.

In the majority Sunni world, there are a variety of different approaches to issues such as punishment - all ostensibly based on Shari'a law.

Mr Sharif has attempted to elevate Shari'a law before.

This time he's spelt out that minorities and women won't be penalised.

His emphasis on respecting education for everyone seems to be a pointed attempt to distinguish Pakistan's version of the Shari'a from neighbouring Afghanistan's.

There, the ruling Taleban have imposed what many Muslims regard as draconian and un-Koranic measures against women, in an effort to guard against what they see as the evils of western culture.

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