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Islamic courts meet every week in the UK to rule on divorces and financial disputes. Clare Dwyer Hogg and Jonathan Wynne-Jones report on demands by senior Muslims that sharia be given legal authority
Amnah is a modern British Muslim. She is dressed in a denim skirt and her head is covered in a hijab. Poised and self-assured, she has come to meet Dr Suhaib Hasan, a silver-bearded sheikh who sits behind his desk, surrounded by religious books.
“But why would I have to observe the waiting period?” she asks him. “What are the reasons?” There is an urgency to her questions.
“These reasons don’t apply to me, that’s what I’m very confused about. If you could give me the reasons why I have to wait three months, then I’ll understand.”
Amnah is going through a divorce and is baffled at being told that she must wait for three months to remarry, considering that she hasn’t seen her estranged husband for two years.
She twists her sock-clad toes into the carpet, grasping one hand with the other in her lap, and fixes Dr Hasan with an intense look. He meets this with a simple reply: “These rulings are all in the Koran. The rulings are made for all.”
Amnah has little choice but to comply: Dr Hasan is a judge, and this is a sharia court — in east London. It sits, innocuously, at the end of a row of terrace houses in Leyton: a converted corner shop, with blinds on the windows, office- style partitions and a makeshift reception area.
It is one of dozens of sharia courts — also known as councils — that have been set up in mosques, Islamic centres and even schools across Britain. The number of British Muslims using the courts is increasing.
To many in the West, talk of sharia law conjures up images of the floggings, stonings, amputations and beheadings carried out in hardline Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, the form practised in Britain is more mundane, focusing mainly on marriage, divorce and financial disputes.
The judgments of the courts have no basis in British law, and are therefore technically illegitimate — they are binding only in that those involved agree to comply. For British Muslims who are keen to follow Islam, this poses a dilemma. An Islamic marriage is not recognised by British law, and therefore many couples will have two ceremonies — civil for the state, and Islamic for their faith.
If they wish to divorce, they must then seek both a civil and an Islamic divorce.
Dr Hasan, who has been presiding over sharia courts in Britain for more than 25 years, argues that British law would benefit from integrating aspects of Islamic personal law into the civil system, so that divorces could be rubber-stamped in the same way, for example, that Jewish couples who go to the Beth Din court have their divorce recognised in secular courts.
He points out that the Islamic Sharia Council, of which he is the general secretary, is flooded with work. It hears about 50 divorce cases every month, and responds to as many as 10 requests every day by email and phone for a fatwa — a religious verdict on a religious matter.
Dr Hasan, who is also a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain on issues of sharia law, says there is great misunderstanding of the issue in the West.
“Whenever people associate the word ‘sharia’ with Muslims, they think it is flogging and stoning to death and cutting off the hand,” he says with a smile.
He makes the distinction between the aspects of law that sharia covers: worship, penal law, and personal law. Muslim leaders in Britain are interested only in integrating personal law, he says.
“Penal law is the duty of the Muslim state — it is not in the hands of any public institution like us to handle it. Only a Muslim government that believes in Islam is going to implement it. So there is no question of asking for penal law to be introduced here in the UK — that is out of the question.”
Despite this, Dr Hasan is open in supporting the severe punishments meted out in countries where sharia law governs the country.
“Even though cutting off the hands and feet, or flogging the drunkard and fornicator, seem to be very abhorrent, once they are implemented, they become a deterrent for the whole society.
“This is why in Saudi Arabia, for example, where these measures are implemented, the crime rate is very, very, low,” he told The Sunday Telegraph.
In a documentary to be screened on Channel 4 next month, entitled Divorce: Sharia Style, Dr Hasan goes further, advocating a sharia system for Britain. “If sharia law is implemented, then you can turn this country into a haven of peace because once a thief’s hand is cut off nobody is going to steal,” he says.
“Once, just only once, if an adulterer is stoned nobody is going to commit this crime at all.
“We want to offer it to the British society. If they accept it, it is for their good and if they don’t accept it they’ll need more and more prisons.”
These sentiments, and the vast cultural gulf they expose, alarm many in the West and go to the heart of the debate about the level of integration among Muslims living in Britain and their acceptance of British values.
Dr Hasan’s cause is not helped by the fact that, last December, he was named by the Policy Exchange think tank as being linked to a mosque, the Al-Tawhid in Leyton, east London, which was accused of propagating extremist literature — although the evidence for this has since been challenged.
Many are uncomfortable with the idea of linking sharia to civil law in Britain. In The Sunday Telegraph earlier this month, Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, wrote: “Attempts have been made to impose an “Islamic” character on certain areas?… There is pressure already to relate aspects of the sharia to civil law in Britain. To some extent this is already true of arrangements for sharia-compliant banking but have the far-reaching implications of this been fully considered?”
There are also issues around the Islamic approach to equality and human rights that make integration with British law problematic and contentious.
Sharia judges in this country deal mainly with divorce — khula. In Islamic law, a husband can divorce his wife in the presence of two witnesses without having to go through an official system.
He can even merely utter the word “talaq” — meaning “to release” — to gain a divorce, whether or not the wife accepts it. She has no such right and must go through the processes of sharia, entreating judges to grant her divorce.
“The introduction of sharia law in Britain raises complex questions, as some of its basic tenets are incompatible with the fundamental principles of our liberal democracy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” says Baroness Cox, a leading human rights campaigner.
“There is no equality before the law between men and women and between Muslims and non-Muslims; and there is no freedom to choose and change religion.”
Ibrahim Mogra, chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain’s inter-faith committee, admits that to non-Muslims some laws may seem harsh on women. Those who are married to a man with a number of wives can be treated badly, for instance. But he insists that sharia is an equitable system.
“It may mean that a woman married under Islamic law has no legal rights, but the husband is required to pay for everything in marriage and in the case of a divorce all the woman’s belongings are hers to keep.”
In fact, Sheikh Mogra argues that sharia in Britain would give rights to women. “A Muslim man can take a second wife under sharia law and treat her as he wants, knowing that she has no legal rights in Britain. It means that she is regarded as no more than a mistress and he can walk out on her when he wants.”
Critics warn, however, that in giving even parts of sharia law official status, Britain would be associating itself with a system that in many ways was intolerable according to Western values.
Professor John Marks, author of The West, Islam and Islamism, points out that apostates from Islam can suffer severe punishment, even honour killings.
“There are more violent cases that are being related to people who choose to convert from Islam,” he says.
A survey by Policy Exchange found that 36 per cent of young British Muslims believed that a Muslim who converted to another religion should be “punished by death”.
“This clearly goes against the laws of our country. If they come to live in this country they should live by our laws,” says Prof Marks.
Haras Rafiq, the executive director of the Sufi Muslim Council, points out that Muslims are anyway divided on the correct interpretation of sharia law. He is particularly critical of those who support the strict penal law.
“Things like stoning are being used as a deterrent, but this is reinterpreting the Koran in a rigid and extreme way that misses the spirit of what is being said.”
Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of some form of recognition of sharia in Britain is that it would help to regulate a system that operates beyond the law.
The Government has expressed concern about imams who may be using the Koran to justify fatwas that clash with British law.
Leaders of four major British Muslim groups published a government-backed report in 2006 that accepted that many imams were not qualified to give guidance to alienated young people.
They agreed to set up a watchdog aimed at tackling extremism and monitoring mosques, but Yunes Teinaz, a former adviser to the London Central Mosque, warns that one of the greatest problems is the imams who arrive in Britain unable to speak English, and with no regard for British law.
“The absence of anyone regulating the mosques and sharia courts means that they can act as a law unto themselves, issuing fatwas that breach people’s human rights because they have no knowledge of the law,” he says. “They can take people’s money despite having no proper qualifications, but worse they can harm the communities that they are in.”
Zareen Roohi Ahmed, the chief executive of the British Muslim Forum — one of the four groups on the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Body — concedes that sharia courts in Britain are still poorly organised.
“They need development — the government should be supporting them to deliver their service more effectively,” she says.
“If sharia courts can be supported to be more professionally run and to have female involvement as well on the decision-making panels, then I think they can work quite effectively and meet the needs of Muslims.”
She suggests that existing systems need to be supported and a wider range of scholars and academics involved to put more thought into making the rules and regulations applicable to today’s society.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, points out that during British rule in India, Muslim personal law was allowed to operate and sees no reason why it wouldn’t work now.
“Sharia encompasses all aspects of Muslim life including personal law,” he says. “In tolerant, inclusive societies all faith groups enjoy some acceptance of their religious rules in matters of their personal life.
“I am sure some day our society here will also be more at ease with its Muslim community and see the benefit of allowing such rights to those who prefer this.”
Back in the court in Leyton, the plight of Amnah is typical of the challenges facing Muslim women in Britain who are seeking to abide by the traditional Islamic teaching, but find themselves victims of the system as a result.
The husband she seeks to divorce is untraceable, but she married him in a purely Islamic ceremony so now she must fight to gain her freedom.
She met him on an Islamic matrimonial website, then discovered that he wasn’t everything he had claimed to be.
“I found out he was stealing money from me,” she says, adding that her husband had lied about having a job and a visa for the UK.
“So how come you married such a person who is not of your standard?” Dr Hasan asks quietly, leafing through the notes of her case.
“I made a mistake,” Amnah says, simply. “Basically this man lied to me from the beginning until the end. Not only did he fool me, he fooled my family.”
Despite Amnah’s protestations and questioning, Dr Hasan goes on to explain that the methods and rules set out in the Koran are for very practical reasons.
A recently divorced wife must wait three months to remarry to give enough time for her ex-husband to know that she is not carrying his child. “This is for all,” he says.
“There is no exception to this rule, in the sharia there is no exception, you have to accept it.”
He takes down a copy of the Koran from a shelf and points to the chapter and verse that spells out the lengths of iddat — the waiting period — in detailed terms.
There are different lengths for widows, for wives whose husbands have authorised the divorce and for wives whose husbands have not. There is even a rule for pre-pubescent girls.
For Amnah, it is clear that the answer has thrown up further problems for her. “Another quick question,” she says. “Because I’m going through a divorce now, is it right for me to have found someone or should I have waited?”
The man may not, Dr Hasan replies, clearly state his wish to marry her — he may subtly make his intentions known, as in “once you are free from marriage, remember me”, but no, not propose. That is not allowed in the Koran.
Amnah thanks him with deference, and leaves. Coming through this religious court is the only way she will be truly at liberty to remarry but, for now, she must wait.
(Posted on January 22, 2008)