TORONTO -- Suad Almad, her head wrapped in a blue silk scarf, was discussing her beliefs with a group of friends. She said fervently that she thought the lives of all Muslims should be governed by Islamic law, known as sharia.
''It's something nobody can change and we must follow," said Almad, who came to Canada from Somalia, then engulfed by war, more than 12 years ago. ''We come to Canada and we become lost. . . . We need our own court, and we need our own law," she said, her voice strong and certain. ''That's what I believe."
Almad and thousands of other Muslims, taking advantage of a provision of the law in the province of Ontario, can now decide some civil disputes under sharia, including family disagreements and inheritance, business and divorce issues, using tribunals that include imams, Muslim elders, and attorneys. While it is less than full implementation of sharia, local leaders consider it a significant step.
Muslim promoters of sharia arbitration said that no cases had been decided but that the process is set. Islamic leaders created an Islamic Court of Civil Justice last fall and that organization, in turn, has chosen arbitrators, who have undergone training in sharia and Canadian civil law, according to organizers and participants.
Sharia is based on the Koran, which includes the teachings of Islam and revelations by the Prophet Mohammed.
A 1991 Ontario law permits arbitration according to religious principles.
''People can agree to resolve disputes any way acceptable," said Brendan Crawley, a spokesman for the Ontario attorney general.
Crawley said the arbitration act establishes a number of safeguards, including the requirement that parties enter into arbitration only on a voluntary basis. Any decisions by arbitrators are subject to court ratification.
Canadian officials said that no criminal matters would be considered by sharia arbitrators and no corporal punishment could be imposed.