Shariah Courts in Britain
July 13, 2009 6:30 AM
by Dr. Irfan Al-Alawi
International Director, Center for Islamic Pluralism, UK
Recent reports on the operations of Shariah courts in the UK, such as that of Edna Fernandes in the July 4th London Mail on Sunday (www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1197478/Sharia-law-UK--How-Islam-dispensing-justice-side-British-courts.html often cobble together many fragments of prior and flawed reportage and analysis. But they miss the main point: traditional Islam holds that Shariah cannot be introduced into non-Muslim countries, and that Muslim immigrants are required to obey the laws and customs of non-Muslim countries in which they seek to reside. This principle dates to the life of the Prophet Muhammad and cannot be legitimately challenged.
We believe Muslims have no need for the importation of Shariah law into Britain or elsewhere in the West. According to our survey, the majority of British Muslims follow the established guidance requiring their obedience to Western authorities, and prefer to live under Western legal standards than under Shariah. Shariah is absent from most Muslim countries except in limited matters having to do with prayer, diet, charity, male circumcision, and similar exclusively personal matters, or is used as an instrument of tyranny as in Saudi Arabia and Iran. Certainly, many Muslim immigrants came to Britain to escape abuse that was carried out against them under the pretext of Shariah. If there is anything useful in Ms Fernandes’ reportage, it is that it highlights the continuing scandal of radical Islamist activities in the UK, which the British authorities should not accommodate and, indeed, should ban. Moderate Muslims should be mobilized in the struggle against ‘parallel Shariah’ and other forms of Islamist ideological manipulation in the West.
While my colleagues and I in the Centre for Islamic Pluralism (CIP) condemn Britain’s ‘parallel Shariah’ institutions, we would be remiss if we did not point out that these courts have been present in the UK for years, and have previously been exposed at length in such London dailies as The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The Sunday Times, as well as on British TV Channel 4.
Ms Fernandes’ reportage begins at the Islamic Shariah Council in Leyton, UK, which was previously described in The Guardian in 2007. We consider this bogus religious court to be part of the ‘Muslim marriage mafia’ that preys on disadvantaged women seeking so-called ‘Islamic divorces.’ Typically, these unfortunates are forced to go to the Leyton Islamic Shariah Council because they were married in Pakistan but their weddings were not registered in Britain. Without registry of the relationship in the UK, they cannot obtain divorces under British authority. The members of the ‘marriage mafia’ offer the seekers of divorce an ‘Islamic solution,’ usually for a high price.
Unfortunately, however, Ms Fernandes was plainly taken in by her interviewees. She refers to ‘Islamic divorce’ when marriage and divorce in Islam are contractual relationships, not sacramental bonds. As we note in our study, a Muslim marriage or “Nikah is not a religious institution; a specific Islamic marriage ritual or covenant is never described in the Qur’an or other sources in the Sunnah. Rather, nikah is an agreement between parties whose assets are inventoried in the nikahnama or contractual document, and the relationship can, in traditional Shariah, be nullified by the action of either party. While a marriage ceremony may be held, and it is considered sanctified by the presence of an imam and recitation of blessings, the ceremony itself is not a sacrament. The interjection of alleged religious authority into the dissolution of a nikah is a gratuitous development introduced by Islamist ideologues. Proponents of dissolving a nikah through Shariah tribunals do not address religious aspects of this practice.”
Ms Fernandes is further misled, when she praises the UK Shariah councils, writing “sharia is being used informally within the Muslim community to tackle crime such as gang fights or stabbings, bypassing police and the British court system.” But such an intrusion of Shariah into ordinary British law should be forbidden. The Mail on Sunday account of Shariah in Britain includes much that is good and some that is new, but what is good is not new and what is new is not good. Ms Fernandes states that the Shariah Councils issue fatwas or religious opinions condemning homosexuality, which is forbidden in Islam, and limiting the status of women as legal witnesses; but these are old rules that are seldom restated in new fatwas.
She treats Sheikh Hassan of the Regents Court Mosque Shariah Council, the pioneer of Shariah in the UK, as a benevolent, soft-spoken, grey-bearded jurist who just happened to have studied in Wahhabi-dominated Saudi Arabia and who surrounds himself with Islamic legal volumes and copies of Qur’an. The Mail on Sunday reporter then quotes kindly Sheikh Hassan’s remarks on hudud, or physical punishments under Shariah, as follows: ‘People say it’s harsh, but we say it’s a deterrent. In Saudi Arabia very few hands are cut. People will not commit the crime as they know the punishment is so horrible, unlike the UK system where people are jailed and the prison system does not work.’
It is, firstly, an absurd lie to claim that ‘few’ horrible punishments are carried out in the Saudi kingdom, where beheadings are a regular public occurrence. Second, Sheikh Hassan’s comments on this topic are old news. Last year he told British TV Channel 4, ‘We know that if Shariah laws are implemented then you can change this country into a haven of peace. Because once a thief’s hand is cut off, nobody is going to steal. If only once an adulterer is stoned, nobody is going to commit this crime at all. There would be no rapist[s] at all. This is why we say that, yes, we want to offer it to the British society. … And if they don’t accept it, they would need more and more prisons.’
In addition, CIP’s recent and extensive study, A Guide to Shariah Law and Islamist Ideology in Western Europe, 2007-09 [available as a free downloadable .pdf at www.islamicpluralism.org/CIPReports/090515shariahreport.htm] includes an examination of these so-called courts.
Centre for Islamic Pluralism, www.islamicpluralism.eu
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