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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Sport
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
football
Life and Style
food + drink
News
video
Sport
Malky Mackay salutes the Cardiff fans after the 3-1 defeat at Liverpool on Sunday
footballFormer Cardiff boss accused of sending homophobic, racist and messages
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Amis: Taken to task over rash decisions and ill-judged statements
booksThe Zone of Interest just doesn't work, says James Runcie
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 apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Lead Business Analyst - Banking - London - £585

£525 - £585 per day: Orgtel: Lead Business Analyst - Investment Banking - Lond...

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Engineer-(Support, ITIL, Software Vendor)

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Engineer-(Support, S...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel you sales role is li...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home