Why is the Law Society throwing its weight behind a regressive form of Islam?

Their decision to do so is a cruel blow to reformist Muslims


If you’re a woman and your parents leave behind some money when they die, you’re entitled to exactly half of whatever sum your brother receives. That’s not my opinion: it belongs to the body which represents all solicitors in England and Wales, whose new guidelines on drawing up wills were published recently. If this seems unfair, it could be worse: if you were adopted, the Law Society says you should receive nothing at all. The same goes for any “illegitimate children” – that’s those born to parents who aren’t married, in case you don’t speak Victorian.

But relax. None of this will apply to you – unless, that is, you’re a Muslim. The guidance was published to help solicitors draw up wills that comply with sharia, or Islamic, law.

The Law Society insists this is no big deal. After all, sharia wills are perfectly common: the law places almost no restrictions on how you distribute your assets after you’re gone, so if you want to discriminate against your female relatives – whether for religious reasons or simply out of good old-fashioned misogyny – nobody can stop you. Solicitors are already being asked to draw up sharia-based wills, so this will simply make their lives easier. Anyway the "guidance" is just that: it has no status in law, despite false reports by newspapers last week.

But this isn't the whole story: both practically and symbolically the move undermines the axiom that all British people – male and female; gay and straight; Muslim, Christian and atheist – should be equal under the law. As Charlie Klendijan of the Lawyers’ Secular Society explained to me, “The Law Society’s guidance notes have a special influence and prestige. They’re the recognised benchmark of ‘good practice’ for all solicitors, so they have a major impact on how law is practiced in this country. By publishing this guidance note, it has effectively legitimised sharia in the eyes of the legal world.” 

Last year Panorama had to go undercover to show us how Muslim women can face disturbing treatment under sharia, but here it is in black and white – complete with a seal of approval from one of the gatekeepers of the British legal system. The Law Society’s move doesn’t just encourage the spread of such practices, it grants them respectability – in a country that has had a Sex Discrimination Act in place since 1975.

Though it blithely advises its members on how to demean Muslim women, the Law Society is zealous when it comes to protecting other minorities. In 2012 it caused a minor row when it cancelled an anti-gay marriage conference due to take place at its headquarters because, it said, the event clashed with its “diversity policy”. 

But our pseudo-liberal creed of "tolerance" - the hypocrisy du jour - authorises the trampling of Muslim women and their rights. Facing protests from outraged secularists this week, the Law Society's president Nicholas Fluck glibly explained that "we live in a multi-faith, multicultural society” and Muslims are entitled to distribute their assets "in accordance with sharia practice”.

But British Muslims aren’t a single culture with a monolithic faith, and it's not up to the Law Society to decide which understanding of "sharia practice" is correct. Instead of producing a neutral description of sharia, it has effectively issued a declamation on behalf of a regressive, reactionary version of Islamic jurisprudence that more liberal-minded Muslims fight bravely against.

For an organisation ostensibly committed to the liberal values enshrined in British law to join the theological fray on the conservative side is a cruel blow to reformist Muslims. (To name just one, Dr Usama Hasan, an astronomer, Islamic scholar and imam, argues there is no necessary conflict between sharia and feminism for those with a less literalistic approach to holy texts than the Law Society.) 

What makes the controversy over these guidelines all the more absurd is their utter pointlessness. The Law Society ought simply to remind its members that their job is to provide legal, not religious, advice: clients looking for guidance on what sharia requires should be advised to consult an Islamic authority of their choice. 

The nature of British Islam in not fixed: both moderates like Dr Hasan and reactionaries with their flyblown dogma hope to inherit a greater share of its future. The case continues and continues. Meanwhile is it too much to ask of the Law Society to refrain from taking sides?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific