The Big Question: How do Britain's sharia courts work, and are they a good thing?

Why are we asking this now?

Civitas, an independent research organisation, has issued a report saying that there are many more sharia courts operating in the United Kingdom than we thought. It was known that there were such courts operating in London, Manchester, Bradford, Birmingham and Nuneaton, but no-one knows how many there are. By examining online fatwa sites, the author calculated that there at least 85, most operating out of mosques, but some located in cafes or Muslim schools across the country.



What is a sharia court?

The Muslim writer Tariq Ramadan lamented that "In the West, the idea of sharia calls up all the darkest images of Islam ... Many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to the concept for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the mere mention of the word."

Sharia is linked with another word, "fatwa", which first entered British public's consciousness courtesy of Ayatollah Khomeini's pronouncement that Salman Rushdie should be killed for writing his novel Satanic Verses. Actually, "fatwa" is a traditional word for a sharia legal judgement or opinion and need not have such negative connotations, and in the UK sharia courts are a means of settling marital or financial disputes between Muslims without the expense of going to court.

How was the figure of 85 reached?

A network called the Islamic Sharia Council, run from a converted corner shop in Leyton, operates 13 tribunals in the UK. The Association of Muslim Lawyers runs another three. There are three other formal councils, making 19. But there are other informal councils dotted around the country whose existence can be imputed from online fatwa sites – at least 66, if Civitas is correct, though the fact is that no one knows exactly how many there are.



Are sharia courts legal?

The existence of these courts is controversial, and some rulings recorded on fatwa sites clearly conflict with British law – for instance, that a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim man unless he converts, and if she does, her children should be taken away from her; or that a wife should normally obey a man's summons to have sex; that a divorced wife has no property rights; or that homosexuality should be severely punished.

But if a married couple choose to take their marital problems to a religious leader, or if Muslim businessmen appeal to a cleric to settle a financial dispute, that is their affair, assuming that both parties are there voluntarily. In such cases, the issue is not whether a fatwa issued by a sharia court is against the law but whether it has any force in law.



Why should any British court recognise a fatwa?

In 1996, Parliament passed the Arbitration Act setting out rules under which parties in a dispute have the right to go to an impartial tribunal to get justice without expensive litigation. Muslims lawyers interpreted this as meaning that sharia courts could act as arbitration panels under the Act, they began in 2007, and their decisions are legally binding.



Why did the Church of England back sharia courts?

In February last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, caused a storm of protest when he said during an interview on BBC Radio 4, that "certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law." He was accused of advocating a parallel legal system for British Muslims, but Lambeth Palace insisted that he was simply saying that to achieve social cohesion in this country, we should recognise that thousands of Muslims want their affairs settled under sharia law. Five months later, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Philips, shocked a many people when he backed the Archbishop, saying: "There is no reason why principles of sharia law, or any other religious code, should not be the basis for mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution."



Why should Muslims get this special treatment?

One argument is that they are not the only ones. Jewish Beth Din courts have operated in this country for centuries, used mainly by Orthodox Jews, and are recognised under the 1996 Act. Both parties in a case have to be Jews, and have to agree to have their cases heard by the Beth Din court.



What is wrong with sharia courts?

On International Women's Day, in March, there was a huge demonstration in London, backed by feminists, supporters of gay rights and others – including a substantial number of Muslims – who marched under a banner saying: "No sharia and faith-based laws – one law for all." They claimed that the supposedly voluntary nature of the courts is a sham, because many Muslim women are pressured into accepting their rulings, and that sharia courts dispense cheap injustice. Denis MacEoin, author of the Civitas report, argues: "Women are not equal in sharia law, and sharia contains no specific commitment to the best interests of the child that is fundamental to family law in the UK. Under sharia, a male child belongs to the father after the age of seven, regardless of circumstances." The Muslim Council of Britain says that this talk is "scaremongering".



What do the courts' defenders say?

Sheik Sayeed, president of the Leyton-based Islamic Sharia Council told the BBC earlier this year that the majority of the cases they handle are divorce cases, mainly involving women wanting to escape bad or forced marriages. "What we do is, we try to make their guardians, their parents, understand the Islamic position, and also we tell them what is the position of British law on marriage," he said. According to Najma Ebrahim, a former coordinator with the Muslim Women's Helpline, it is vital for some women's religious faith and peace of mind that they get this reassurance from a cleric.



Are there any other aspects of British life where sharia law applies?

It might surprise many people to know that the Treasury enthusiastically supports the spread of sharia-compliant banking, which now has 40,000 customers. Mortgages were a problem for Muslims, because they involve paying interest – until the banks devised sharia-compliant equivalents. These attracted double stamp duty, until the Treasury altered the Stamp Duty Land Tax in 2003 to benefit Muslim homeowners.



Is there any objection to sharia-compliant banks?

It might seem wholly reasonable that banks should devise ways of doing business that do not offend their customers' beliefs – but in the current issue of the conservative magazine Standpoint, the writer Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens sounds a warning: "It has one effect that is strong and unmistakable: it reinforces the perception of mutual incompatibility between the West and Islam. Muslims and Western governments alike have a duty to weigh this dangerous quality against sharia banking's highly dubious religious and economic credentials."

Should sharia courts play an active role in British society?

Yes

*Everyone, including devout Muslims, should have the right to settle personal disputes in front of the tribunal of their choice

*Many Muslim women feel the need for a cleric's reassurance that they can break a forced marriage

*They give Muslims a facility already available to Orthodox Jews

No

*Sharia law does not recognise women's equality, or gay rights, or religious freedom

*Though participation is supposed to be voluntary, women in particular are likely to be pressured into accepting sharia law

*Sharia courts unnecessarily exacerbate the divisions between Muslim and western societies

a.mcsmith@independent.co.uk

Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Environment
People are buying increasing numbers of plants such as lavender to aid the insects
environmentGardeners rally round the endangered bumblebee
Sport
Australia's Dylan Tombides competes for the ball with Adal Matar of Kuwait during the AFC U-22 Championship Group C match in January
sportDylan Tombides was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
musicBest exclusives coming to an independent record shop near you this Record Store Day
News
Ida Beate Loken has been living at the foot of a mountain since May
newsNorwegian gives up home comforts for a cave
Extras
indybest10 best gardening gloves
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Arts & Entertainment
Comedian Lenny Henry is calling for more regulation to support ethnic actors on TV
tvActor and comedian leads campaign against 'lack of diversity' in British television
News
Posted at the end of March, this tweeted photo was a week off the end of their Broadway shows
people
News
peopleStar to remain in hospital for up to 27 days to get over allergic reaction
Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit