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What is Shari'ah and can it be incorporated into British Legal System?

by IMAM DR Abduljalil Sajid
The Muslim Council for Religious and Racial Harmony
8 Caburn Road Hove BN3 6EF (UK) Tel: 01273 722438
Mobile: 07971861972 Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Shari`ah literary means mode and path. However, religiously the term "Shari`ah" is used for the laws of Islam. The word Shari`ah in its various derivative forms is found in five different places in the Holy Qur'an.

Shari`ah is the set of rules derived from 1) the Holy Qur'an which Muslims believe is the word God revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over 23 years, ending in 632 CE, 2) the authentic traditions (Sunnah) of the Prophet (peace be upon him) or example of the Prophet Muhammad, whom Muslims believe was divinely guided and 3) the scholarly opinions (Ijtehad) based on the Holy Qur'an and Sunnah. All Islamic teachings can be divided into two main parts: a) those that relate to the belief-structure of Islam, and b) those that relate to the practical aspects of human life. The former is known as Al-Hikmah (or the philosophy) of Islam and the latter is termed as Al-Shari`ah of Islam. The shari`ah deals with the ideology and faith; behaviour and manners; and practical daily matters e.g all aspects of human life. "To each among you, we have prescribed a law and a clear way". (The Holy Qur 'an 5:48). Shari`ah is a human interpretation of the sacred text of the Holy Qur'an and Sunnah.

The basic and the primary source of the Islamic Shari`ah is the final messenger of God, according to the Muslim belief, is guided by revelation from God (the Holy Qur'an). Mohammad (peace be upon him), according to the Islamic faith, is the source of all true guidance of God for all mankind. A Muslim is commanded to seek God's guidance in all matters all the time. Islamic Shari`ah law prescribes Muslim behaviour in every aspect of life from private matters between the individual and God to relationships with others from the family or the widest community. The legal application of Shari`ah vary from place to place among Muslims based on their personal understanding of Shari`ah commonly known as Fiqh which means legal rulings of the Muslim scholars, based on their knowledge of the shari`ah.

Shari`ah commands its followers to observe the local legal order. Muslims can live anywhere in the world, provided they can fulfil their fundamental religious duties. Muslims must also respect and abide all laws of the land. Islam -Total submission to God does not imply any lesser role for human reason. On the contrary, human reason has a very important and fundamental role to play in the Shari`ah (except that it will be unreasonable for it to overrule Divine revelation). There is no contradiction between the divine rights and the rights of individual, as anchored in the Holy Qura'n. Muslims believe in the dignity and respect of human life, support fundamental human rights, rule of law, and division of power with accountability, universal suffrage, right to vote, right of worship and freedom of speech and conscience.

The main topics discussed in the Shari`ah are:

  • Rules for acts of worship and all rituals e.g Prayers fasting and pilgrimage etc;
  • Rules for family relationships regarding Marriage, divorce, and child care;
  • Rules for social interactions;
  • Rules for human interactions specially dealings with other faiths;
  • Rules for economic interactions;
  • Rules for political interactions;
  • Rules for propagation of Islam;
  • Rules for Jihad fi Sabil-Allah (Struggle in the cause of Islam);
  • Rules for punishments;
  • Rules for edibles, foods and drinks (including ritual slaughtering and hunting);
  • Rules of inheritance;
  • Rules for Muslim etiquette and Islamic symbols;
  • Rules regarding war and peace;
  • Rules regarding Endownments and Charities;
  • Rules regarding Oaths Judicial matters (including witnesses and forms of evidence)

 Two main sources of Islamic Shari`ah

 1-The Holy Qur'an

 2-Sunnah of the prophet (peace be upon him)

 Ideology and faith Sayings
 Behaviour and manners
Practical manners
Articles of worship
Day-to-day activities
Pertaining to family, business,
penal code, government,
international law, and economy.
 Concurrence with others' actions

Characteristics of the Prophet (peace be upon him)

Rulings of the Shari`ah

The rulings of shari`ah for all our daily actions are five: prescribed, recommended, permissible, disliked and unlawful. The distinctions between the five categories are in whether their performance (P) and nonperformance (NP) is rewarded, not rewarded, punished or not punished (see the table). The prescribed (fard) is also referred to as obligatory (wajib), mandatory (muhattam) and required (lazim). It is divided into two categories:

•    Personally obligatory (fard al-'ayn), which is required from every individual Muslim (e.g. salah and zakah); and
•    Communally obligatory (fard al- kifaya), which if performed by some Muslims is not required from others (e.g., funeral prayers).

The recommended (mandub) is also referred to as sunnah, preferable (mustahabb), meritorious (fadila), and desirable (marghub fih). Examples are night vigil (tahajjud) prayers, and remembrance of Allah (zikr).

The performance and nonperformance of the permissible/ allowed (mubah) is neither rewarded nor punished.

Nonperformance of both the disliked (makruh) and the unlawful/prohibited (haram ) is rewarded. Performance of the unlawful is punished, but that of the disliked is not punished.

 Rulings of Sacred Law - the Shari`ah
1. Prescribed
 2. Recommended3. Permissible/Allowed
 4. Disliked/Offensive/Detested5. Unlawful/Prohibited
 Other terms:
- Obligatory
- Mandatory
- Required
Personally obligatory, communally obligatory
Performance: rewarded
Non-Performance: punished
 Other terms:
- Sunnah
- Preferable
- Meritorius
- Desirable

P: rewarded
NP: not punished
 P: not rewarded
NP: not punished
 P: not punished
NP: rewarded

 P: punished
NP: rewarded

The Archbishop of Canterbury and Shari'ah storm and its consequences

On Friday 8th February 2008 The Archbishop of Canterbury touched an extremely raw nerve  and paid an extremely heavy price in suffering an unprecedented barrage of vilification normally reserved for the country's Muslim communities. In a lecture on "Civil and Religious Law in England", Dr Rowan Williams dared to float the idea that some role for Islamic arbitration could be recognised within the secular legal system. His core aim, he said, was to "to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state." But it did not prevent an ensuing wave of mass hysteria in the media and from certain politicians, deliberately misrepresenting his views.

The events following the Archbishop of Canterbury's crucial mistake of making an intellectual speech with the word "Shari'ah" in it to an audience that included The Daily Mail amongst its members resembled the knee-jerk reaction more characteristic of men. The deliberate misjudgment of the delicately nuanced utterances of the Archbishop spiraled so scarily out of control that you just know someone somewhere had unsavoury fantasies of a crucifixion. The minute he said "Shari'ah" it was too late for poor Dr Rowan Williams. Cue the clich's of hysterical reporting and scare-mongering. No one is pretending to really understand the entirety of what Dr Williams was addressing: the depths of the complex issues that evoked memories of echoing and dimly lit University lecture theatres couldn't even be fully grasped by an ordinary journalist, so no one will ever know why The Daily Mail thought they had a good chance.

The Archbishop of Canterbury finds himself the focus of almost every newspaper after his comments saying Sharia law in the UK was "unavoidable". The Guardian records the criticism from "across the political spectrum", and the Daily Telegraph says he is caught in a "fierce row" after the comments. The Daily Express goes as far as saying Dr Williams stands accused of surrendering to Muslim extremists. The Sun is direct as ever: "What a Burkha!" is its front page headline.

The row sparked by the Archbishop of Canterbury's comments on Shari'ah law triggers analysis inside the papers. The Mirror explains its literal meaning - "pathway to water" - while the Daily Star describes Sharia law as a "savage religious code of conduct". The Guardian says although brutal punishments have become a potent symbol of Sharia, they are not adopted everywhere in the Islamic world. It says Muslims adopt Sharia in varying degrees, as a matter of conscience.

The Sun describing the primate as a "dangerous threat to the nation, who handed al-Qaida a victory." The Express claimed that he had "surrendered to fanatics." Even the BBC news deceptively showed images of Muslims being flogged in a Muslim country as commentary on the speech was being analysed.  In his speech the Archbishop spoke of the way in which the term Shari'ah is not only misunderstood, but is the focus of much fear and anxiety. He also warned that sensational reporting of opinion polls clouded the issue. The unsurprising response attacking Muslims and Islam was articulated as if it was Muslims who wanted their own law, a parallel system. Not only did Dr Williams not advocate a parallel system of Shariah law, but Muslims were vilified for something that someone else did not say. From The Daily Telegraph front page headline "Adopt sharia law in Britain"; The Times "Archbishop argues for Islamic law in Britain"; The Independent's two page headline "Archbishop of Canterbury warns sharia law in Britain is inevitable" with a photograph of Muslim women in the niqab to The Sun's front page carrying the headline "What a burkha" and a woman in niqab giving the two-fingered salute and The Daily Express front page headline "Muslim laws must come to Britain", the media not only responded to something that wasn't, they made sure they portrayed Muslims in a derogatory manner while they were at it.

When the media discuss Jewish rabbinical courts, the Beth Din, which are already established, there is simply no parallel to this kind of reaction. However, among the choristers of vilification some should have known better. The Prime Minister's Spokesperson said, "Our general position is that Sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes." Tory Party's Minister for Community Cohesion and Social Action, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, said, "All British citizens must be subject to British laws developed through Parliament and the courts." Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, Khalid Mahmood, said, "What part of Sharia law does he want? The sort that is practised in Saudi Arabia'Muslims do not need special treatment" Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, said, "Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another." Head of the Catholic community in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, said, "When people come into this country they have to obey the laws of the land. The laws of this country don't allow forced marriages or polygamy." And Shaista Gohir, a member of the Government created National Muslim Women's Advisory Group was quoted on BBC News on Line saying she did not believe there was a need for Shari'ah courts because the majority of Muslims do not want it.

Commentary in The Times even lamented the loss of Christian Sovereignty. One columnist started off on the premise that the Archbishop was wrong to call Britain a secular country, when in fact, the whole point of his speech was to emphasise the exact opposite (which leaves you wondering whether even 2 per cent of our journalists even bothered to read the speech). She then went on to lament the loss of Anglican Church sovereignty that was slowly being encroached by a growing pluralism, to the extent of undermining the monopolistic authority of the current State religion. This echoed the Bishop of Rochester's second most stupid statement of the year: that British law was based on Judeo-Christian values, and only those values. A far cry indeed from the Archbishop's claim that modern liberal democratic law was based on the values of all three Abrahamic faiths.

Archbishop of Canterbury said about the need to explore accommodating aspects of Muslim principles and laws (the heterogeneous collection of texts and forms of reasoning that we call shari'ah) within UK law is relevant to the task of multiculturalising citizenship. He was thinking about how the work of the existing Shari'ah Councils which adjudicate on personal and civil matters such as marriage and divorce might be extended and given legal recognition in the way that their Jewish equivalents have enjoyed for decades or longer. He was quite clear that this was not a matter of separate or parallel legal systems for the Shari'ah tribunals would not be able to go against UK laws, both on specifics such as divorce but also on individual and human rights in general. The decision to go to such Muslim adjudication services has of course to be voluntary by both parties and above all the Archbishop rightly emphasised the importance of gender equality in these contexts. These courts would not have the power to punish or fine individuals and so they have nothing to do with criminal justice but only with civil matters.

Many people wilfully or otherwise misunderstood Archbishop Rowan's position and thought that he was sanctioning the stoning of adulterers, hand-chopping for theft and beheadings for apostasy. Even some of those who recognise that he was not doing so still argue that his intentions here are not relevant for by granting anything to Muslims in this regard he will encourage extremists and unreasonable demands and we will all be sliding down a slippery slope to a Talibanisation of British law. This is scare-mongering on a large scale. To not discuss and concede what is reasonable because someone else might later demand something unreasonable is irrational. It is a kind of political demonisation that may appropriately be called anti-Muslim racism. Not only must such a proposal be considered on its own merits but there is wisdom in discussing and implementing proposals on a gradual basis so one can see how they work in practice and lessons can be learnt. This is not just a matter of pragmatism and practical wisdom. It flows out of the ethics of multicultural citizenship, the imperative to seek the inclusion of marginal groups through dialogue, a commitment to seek mutual understanding and find accommodation. Some of Dr Williams's fellow Church leaders complained about his erudition, saying that it wasn't befitting of clergy or of a public figure. Some of the more intellectual media waxed philosophical and said that the Archbishop should have been a bit more tactful and that this was public suicide. But the Archbishop did not only challenge the feral beasts of the simplistic media hacks, he dared to be erudite in a public atmosphere that is so averse to critical debate. If anything, we need to bring erudition to the general public, not stuff it into a University lecture theatre where only the privileged few have access to it. The Archbishop was not only visionary like a true leader, but withstood the barrage of enemy arrows, like a true hero.

The Archbishop's speech at the Royal Courts of Justice was addressing a largely theoretical politico-legal debate theoretically. He left many open ended questions, in fact, the whole speech was a bunch of questions concerning how pluralism can be brought into a new age, where, instead of sticking to a stringent post- enlightenment paradigm of jurisprudence, the law should be a dynamic dialogue between all stakeholders, until a mutual understanding and equilibrium can be reached that allows for different views within the boundaries of enshrined universal principles that everyone can agree on. Unfortunately, this wasn't understood the first time, so the Archbishop's website had to translate it into 'English.

The Archbishop's speech was not about Islam. It wasn't even about religion. It was about how a lot of different people can live together so everyone is happy - to oversimplify it drastically. Given that the most fervent minority offshoots of today are religious groups (and not football fans), and given that Islam is the largest minority religion in the UK, the speech inevitably used religion, and Islam more specifically, as a case in point of how to balance different minority views in our endless quest for universalism.

The Archbishop got the attention of the world with his heroic daring, especially countries like France. But as the ultra-secular states looked on with amusement, they were hubristically unaware that the Archbishop was at least a century ahead of their childish militant atheism. Some pessimists may have taken issue with what seemed like an almost sickeningly utopian vision from Archbishop. But no matter how soppy, the last thing such depth of vision from such an important public and spiritual figure could ever be is unhelpful.

  If there are any lessons to be learnt, they are that the demonisation of Muslims in the current climate is so widespread, it is impossible to have a serious debate about virtually any issue concerning them, let alone about equal rights or integration. It is no wonder Muslims felt beleaguered when this speech came in the same week of suspicions about the reported police bugging of Muslim MP, Sadiq Khan, and the Government's ceding to ban 81-year old Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi from entering the UK after previously having encouraged him to come to counter al-Qai'da propaganda. An Associate Editor of The Guardian, Seumas Milne, suggests, When politicians and newspapers denounce preachers of hate, it increasingly sounds as though they are talking about themselves.

Religious Communites and Secular Laws:

In a considered and thoughtful speech the archbishop added "We already have in this country a number of situations in which the internal law of religious communities is recognised by the law of the land as justifying conscientious objections in certain circumstances."

Dr Williams made a number of astute points about the issue that in normal times would give everyone food for thought and perhaps initiate a considered debate on the topic of civil law.  The problem is we aren't living in "normal times".  Prepare for lots of ominous warnings about beheadings, limb amputations and stoning and the thin end of the wedge in the gutter press.  The argument is simply too nuanced for their Editors.

Shari'ah is already here in the form of products and services such as sharia-compliant mortgages and food.  Secular law has already been altered to accommodate them.  They provide additional choice to consumers and give the suppliers new opportunities - a rare win-win situation.

The Archbishop alluded to Beth Din courts that are already established in the UK allowing British Jews an option to choose religious law in certain civil law matters instead of secular common law.  In effect the Bishop was arguing why Muslims can't have the same.  Dr Rowan has a case but there are more powerful counter arguments.

Firstly this type of debate plays into the hands of the far-right and their fellow travellers in the Zionist community who are only too willing to portray British Muslims as a dangerous fifth column alien to British values and harbouring hostility to its citizens.  Who are these Muslims demanding this law?  Well hardly anyone actually although some Muslims are more keen than others to contribute to the debate.

There is also the thorny issue of community cohesion.  There are problems with some Muslim communities in Britain living an insular existence and not integrating easily.  A separate civil legal system could make the issue of integration more difficult.  There has been a lot of talk about values lately when discussing the issue of "British identity".  The legal system is one of the key elements of a shared value system.  It should be applied equally to everyone and without prejudice.  Exceptionalism would promote an "us and them" attitude and increase resentment to Muslims even further.

Another additional issue is one of sanction.  Although the debate focuses on civil law the practical issue of sanction still arises.  How would judgements by Sharia courts be enforced if a party failed to comply?  Who would pay for those courts?  Islam has several schools of thought.  Which one should have Sharia courts?

Lastly a contentious but little debated issue is that Muslims that emigrated to Britain came here in the knowledge that sharia law does not operate in Britain and they came here anyway and have managed to live their lives without the need for its establishment.  How many Muslim countries actually operate a proper system of sharia law?  How can we expect a non-Muslim country to do something Muslim countries have not managed to? There are more pressing issues facing Britain's Muslims.

Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said "there's one law for everybody and that's all there is" was dangerous. Under English law, people may devise their own way to settle a dispute in front of an agreed third party as long as both sides agree to the process.
Sharp questions lead to sharp answers. In all our communities there is misinformation, ignorance and fear of that which is little known. Occasional suspicion readily deepens into a rut of distrust, which can lead to anxiety and antagonism; so ends all hope of understanding between communities and mutual appreciation.

Two organisations have come together to generate discussion with a quite different dynamic. The Temple Church in the heart of legal London and the Centre of Islamic and Middle East Law (CIMEL) at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London are sponsoring a series of lecture-discussions on Islam in English law. The sponsors are telling every ticket-holder that an important part of the series is the opportunity for people from different backgrounds to meet. "Please make the most of this opportunity, from this first evening, by introducing yourself to those sitting around you," they say.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, launches the series this Thursday with a foundation lecture on civil and religious law in England. The discussions are part of the 2008 Temple Festival, a year-long mix of music, art, drama, history and law events to mark the 400th anniversary of James I granting the Inner and Middle Temples freehold of their land.

English law and Islamic law differ in principle and in application. English law has been shaped in large part by the principles and history of Christian culture, but acknowledges no duty of obedience to any revelation, scripture or doctrine ascribed to God. In current practice, it attends closely to the rights and freedoms of the individual and protects them against curtailment from the state or from corporate power.

It is the prime duty of all Muslims to follow, as much as they are able, the traditions of Islamic law, which include the principles imparted by Allah to the Prophet Muhammad. Islamic law has tended to protect and strengthen the community in which, it is intended, the individual can then live a devout, good and ordered life.

The English court system aims to free litigants – and especially, vulnerable litigants – from the pressure that people powerful in a local community can bring to bear; Islamic councils draw strength from the insights that local and personal knowledge can offer.

English family law does not accept the validity of decisions of the many Islamic Shariah Councils that have grown up; there is vigorous debate as to whether it should. Intolerant actions of militant Islamists have affected the debate on the exercise of human rights – an issue behind the question of the validity or morality at Guantanamo Bay.

At times the two systems have seemed in direct conflict. In 2001, the European Court of Human Rights in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights declared that Islamic law "clearly diverges from convention values, particularly with regard to its criminal law and criminal procedure, its rules on the legal status of women and the way it intervenes in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts".

In 2001 the European Court of Human Rights stated that Sharia clearly diverged from the human rights values enshrined in the European Convention. In 2005 concerns about human rights and women's rights led to a storm of protest in Canada, when the attorney-general of Ontario proposed to adopt Sharia-based law to settle Muslim family disputes over divorce and child custody. The proposal was quashed on the grounds that there should be one law for all Canadians, amid fears that Islamic tribunals could lead to discrimination against women.

The claim cries out for discussion. We too readily imagine two incompatible and impermeable systems of law squared up for conflict with each other. But it is a matter of genuine disagreement how wide or deep is the gulf between the two systems – and both are evolving.

The series on Islam in English law is not designed to reach clear, prescriptive answers to all the questions that its speakers will raise. It is meant to be a forum for the discovery, on all sides, of people, ideas and ideals that seem alien and threatening.

Last month, when Dr Williams spoke in the House of Lords on religious hatred and religious offence, he talked of an "argumentative democracy" in which, quite apart from the law's sanction, public controversy should not be debased – or effectively silenced – by thoughtless and (even if unintentionally) cruel styles of speaking and acting.

The setting for the rest of the series is significant. The Temple Church was built in 1185 by the Knights Templar, who was vital in the Crusades to the viability of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. In past centuries it represented the gulf between Christendom and Islam; the sponsors are now using it to help to heal the divisions it was built to foster.

They have just installed a window in the church to mark the anniversary, bearing the motto of James I: "Blessed are the peacemakers." That is what the sponsors, through honesty and courtesy and without delusion, hope to be.

What is Shariah?

The law of Islam (called the SHARIAH) derives basically from: (a) the teachings of the Holy Qur'an; (b) the authenticated sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and the precedents he set, collectively called the Sunna, or 'Tradition'; (c) the consensus of learned opinion, explicit or implicit (called ijma`); and (d) reasoning by analogy (called qiyas), to help Muslims decide how to deal with new situations that arise in new places or with the passage of time. In general, if any action is not prohibited by the Shariah, it is permissible to Muslims; however, some permissible actions are less socially acceptable than others.

Shariah is not a divine Law. It is a human interpretation of the sacred text.In Islam, all aspects of natural life have been God-willed, therefore, the ultimate purpose of all creation is the compliance of the created with the will of the creator. Islam is neither a purely otherworldly religion nor one that focuses too much on worldly affairs. Muslims seek the best of both worlds. Islam is simultaneously a creed, a set of ethical norms, a social order, and a way of life. Wherever they are, Muslims are expected to actively contribute to the common good and to show solidarity with their brothers and sisters in faith, worldwide Shariah is derived from both the Holy Qur'an, as the word of God, and the example of the life of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (Peace and Blessings of God be upon him) . Sharia is a legal and social code for Muslims to live by. Islamic Sharia law is Muslim's legal system which covers all aspect of a human life. However, Shariah does not offer a fixed set of rules, and there are several differing interpretations. But it has proved controversial in the West for the extreme nature of some of its punishments. 

In fact, parallel systems do exist in several countried such as Canada, South Africa and some parts of Germany. In some, Shariah exists as an alternative system, and in others it has been incorporated into the existing legal code. In some countries where the majority of people are Muslims, family laws are based on Shariah laws. According to a 2006 Mori poll in Britain, 92% of Muslims now want Personal Laws of Sharia (marrriage birth, death, and inheratance) to be a part of British law in predominantly Muslim areas. Muslims places of Worship are protected under the British legal syatem in terms of planning permission and use of the land but Muslim places of worship commonly called Masjid –Mosque are not fully protected like Church.

Muslims can already decide to have disputes settled according to Sharia in private arbitration, but they cannot ignore or abandon the basic human rights and responsibilities entrenched in the laws of this country, the lawyers said. They also gave warning that moves towards recognising aspects of Sharia could lead to a dual legal system. 

What does Shariah cover?
Western law confines itself largely to matters relating to crime, contract, civil relationships and individual rights. Sharia is however concerned with more. Sharia rulings have been developed to help Muslims understand how they should lead every aspect of their lives according to God's wishes. 

What does Shariah cover in practice?
Islamic Shariah cover all sorts of things in daily life. For example, many young Muslims ask themselves what they should do if colleagues invite them to the pub after work or college. Many people would of course make up their own mind about the appropriate course of action. But others may turn to a Shariah scholar for advice. So Shariah covers a lot of very mundane and banal daily issues where observant Muslims want to ensure they act within the legal framework of their faith.

So how are Shariah rulings made?

Like any legal system, Shariah is complex and its practice is entirely reliant on the quality and training of experts. There are different schools of thought, which consequently lead to different rulings. Scholars spend decades studying the law and, like with Western law, an expert on one aspect of Sharia is no means the authority on another. Islamic jurists issue guidance and rulings. Guidance that is considered a formal legal ruling is called a Fatwa.

Do people go to Shariah court?
Shariah courts exist in both the Muslim world and in the Western world. In the Muslim world the criminal courts and their punishments are of course drawn from the rules of Shariah. In the West, Muslim communities have established Shariah courts to largely deal with family or business disputes. The Internet has become a popular way of seeking a ruling with scholars. Some of the guidance to Muslims in the west which has been considered most outlandish has come from these sources, particularly where the scholar has no knowledge of the realities of western life.

Why is Shariah mentioned in the same breath as public executions?
Of all the issues around Islamic law, this remains the most controversial in Western eyes - and its presentation the most infuriating for Muslims. Muslims say the Western world misrepresents Shariah by focusing on beheadings in Saudi Arabia and other gruesome punishments. The equivalent, they say, would be a debate about the history of Western law focused on America's electric chair.

Some modern Muslim scholars say that while Shariah includes provisions for capital and corporal punishment, getting to that stage is in fact quite difficult. The most famous Muslim thinker in Europe, Tariq Ramadan, has called for a moratorium on these penalties in the Muslim world. He argues that the conditions under which such penalties would be legal are almost impossible to re-establish in today's world.

So what kind of Shariah are we talking about in the UK?
The key issues are family law, finance and business. In practice many Muslims do turn to Sharia guidance for many of these day-to-day matters, particularly family disputes. British Laws  permit Halal food as required by Shariah and  places of worship such as Mosques be established. Religious Faith schools also receive state funding in Britian and many European countries. our British Parliament passed Shariah act s in 1937 and 1939 for Indian Muslims. Some wanted the same laws to apply here in the UK for British Muslims.

And how does Shariah work in practice?
Muslims are increasingly looking to the example of Jewish communities which have long-established religious community courts. These "courts" are legally recognised in English law as a means for warring parties to agree to arbitration. The law sees this as a practical way of helping people to resolve their differences in their own way, without clogging up the local courts.

Has any western nation allowed Shariah to be used in full?
South Africa and Canada is widely reported to have come some sort of laws  for Muslims. But its proposals were little different to the existing religious arbitration rules here in the UK. Experts considered establishing Shariah-related family courts to ease the burden on civil courts - but said these would have to observe the basic human rights guarantees of Canadian law.

What about Sharia and women?
Some Muslim women in Britain are concerned about how their rights are protected. Take marriage for example. Muslims only consider themselves truly married once they have conducted the Islamic ceremony, known as the nikah. In some cases, this means that there is a cultural view that the British civil ceremony, which enforces legal rights under the law, is not important. Some mosques are alive to this issue and now demand to see a marriage certificate as a condition of the nikah. Others do not. Many women want Muslim leaders to do more to ensure their rights are protected under British law.

Down the ages religious authorities of all types have argued that the laws which they believe to be divine should be incorporated into the secular legal system, and in many countries religious and secular laws are interwoven. For example, British law prohibits blasphemy and also insists that all state schools have a daily act of worship of a broadly Christian character. So the demand for official recognition of the religious rules of minority communities such as Muslims, Jews, Hindus or Sikhs may seem like a logical move. However it raises some difficult questions.

The problem with an accommodation to sharia is manifold. Firstly, there is no universally agreed system of sharia. In many of the Muslim countries where sharia is in force it disadvantages women and minorities and contradicts principles of human rights.  Furthermore, a debate might bring existing shariah councils under public scrutiny to ensure that they operate under British law. The second main objection to accommodation with sharia is the fact that while there are considerable numbers wanting to avail themselves of Islamic codes, many ordinary Muslims want to embrace the West and adapt their faith and customs to Britain. Tariq Ramadan, a very significant moderate reformer, points to the fact that western law can already be seen by Muslims as compliant to more progressive notions of sharia.

Even in Muslim-majority countries the introduction of sharia law has not been without its pain for minority groups.

The third main objection is that accommodation would lead to further demands. That is absolutely inevitable, since questions to do with the separation of "church and state" are largely new to Islam. While Christianity and Judaism recognise the truth in "rendering unto Caesar", it is resisted by mainstream Muslim countries. Sharia law trumps civil law every time. So, significantly, this would open up the problem of competition between British and sharia law if the time ever came that they operated side-by-side. Some Muslim interpreters of sharia believe that it supersedes secular law and assume that its "God-given" status would lead to its replacing civil law. Reports that sharia has been used to settle some criminal matters is already a considerable concern.

Finally, you would not think from media reports that Muslims constitute less than three per cent of the population. Most Muslims are heartily sick of being in the spotlight.

It seems as if we are suffering more from Muslim-mania - an unhealthy obsession with all things Islamic, and a paranoid fixation with looking at the world from behind a veil. Muslims make up about 3 per cent of the population yet we seem to be obsessed with them.

Stop demonisation of Muslims and hatred of Islam
Father Madigan says: "The greatest shame of the last century was the killing of millions of Jews by Christians conditioned by their own long tradition of anti-Semitism and seduced by a virulently nationalist and racist new ideology.

"The last 15 years in Africa have seen millions of Christians slaughtered in horrendous civil wars by their fellow believers. A Catholic missionary is dozens of times more likely to be killed in largely Catholic Latin America than anywhere in the Muslim world."

British arm of the Society of Jesus, a leading Jesuit scholar says: "Let us not be misled into thinking either that Muslim-Christian conflict is the world's greatest conflict, or even that war is the most serious threat to the human future." Father Dan Madigan SJ, founder of the Institute for the Study of Religions at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome and member of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with Muslims, says history shows that Islam is by no means the greatest threat to mankind.

'Legal pluralism', is the law's own brand of multiculturalism.  It means a legal system which allows other culturally specific legal systems to operate within it. Religious and ethnic minority courts are already a reality in the UK.

The issues
  • Britain has many minority communities that are not Christian, and some of them believe that they should have their own religious courts or institutions to make decisions according to their customs and traditions.
  • Not all the members of Britain's minority communities belong to, or want to be ruled or guided by, religious institutions.
  • Some religious groups already have some form of court system which operates alongside the mainstream legal system, such as the Jewish Beth Din and the Islamic Sharia Council.
  • Within minorities there are different interpretations of religious law, so the rulings of one court or council may not be recognised by another. This is why, for example, in a recent case a woman who converted to Judaism through a Beth Din in Israel was not recognised as Jewish by a Beth Din in Britain.
  • In an ICM poll of British Muslims carried out in February 2006, 40% said they would support the introduction of Sharia in predominantly Muslim areas of Britain.
  • Women and other vulnerable members of minority communities are often disadvantaged by traditional forms of mediation, since they have less choice about whether or not to submit to their rulings.

Many members of minorities prefer to resolve conflicts in religious courts rather than 'washing their dirty linen in public' in a mainstream court where they might be exposed to hostility or be misunderstood.

Will Muslim populations in the West succeed in ending the tradition of one law for all, replacing it with the concept of "legal pluralism"? Here and there, official and unofficially, Islamic law, the Shari'a, is making advances. In Italy, for example, hudud punishments have included the cutting of limbs by vigilantes acting on behalf of unofficial qadis.Polygamous marriages are making headway in many countries. Survey research has found considerable interest among British Muslims to the Shari'a into Britain. Here are the results of four different surveys in the period 2004-07:

  • Back Shari`a courts to settle civil cases among Muslims, so long as penalties do not break the law: 81 percent.
  • Support there being areas of Britain which are pre-dominantly Muslim and in which Shari'a Law is introduced: 61 percent.
  • Prefer to live under Shari'a law: 60 percent.
  • "If I could choose, I would prefer to live in Britain under Shari'a law rather than British law": 88 percent.

This is one of the most profound issues to face Western societies.

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