A meeting of the Sharia Council of Britain at its east London headquarters Getty
Yesterday, I spoke briefly on BBC World Service Radio about Sharia Council courts in Britain, which coincided with an inquiry started by the Home Affairs Select Committee in Westminster on those councils. I thought it was worth further explaining my views in a post to engage the readers of my blog, and hopefully, the wider public.
The idea behind Muslim Law Councils (Sharia Courts) may sound reasonable and fair, as it offers religiously permissible solutions to resolve domestic issues and social dilemmas that affect the British Muslim community within an Islamic framework of Islamic Sharia. The question begs, however, which community shall this be applied to? And which Sharia? Advocates for such councils portray the matter as if there is one Sharia framework that has simple clear concepts, which can be easily applied in practice. They also portray Muslims as if they are one unified happy community. But the truth is far from that.
First, there is no monolithic community. British Muslims are tremendously diverse with a wide variation of cultures and beliefs that are intertwined with Islamic laws. In fact, some lifestyles are not necessarily Islamic. Each community has transplanted ideas and practices from their native countries and would like to implement them to varying degrees here in Britain.
Second, if we surveyed Muslims about their understanding of Sharia, the results will actually surprise many. The concept of Sharia varies even in native Muslim countries. The legal codes of countries that identify themselves as “Islamic,” such as Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan and Saudi Arabia vary considerably in actual practice. Meanwhile, some Muslim countries opt for more lenient interpretations of Sharia based on the goals of Sharia, known in Arabic as “Maqasid.” As such, there are many legal and religious pitfalls, even with the concept of Maqasid from Sharia, as I explained in this post.
Third, pious British Muslims simply do not know how those councils would implement their faith. It is estimated that around 20 to 30 of the councils operate across Britain, which settle disputes using an Islamic religious law. Nonetheless, those councils do not declare many important details. For example: What version of Islamic law, what school of Islamic jurisprudence do they follow? What are the rights guaranteed to women in divorce and inheritance cases managed in those councils?
In short, some Muslims may want the psychological comfort that their social and domestic issues are governed by the guidance of their faith, but they fail to realize the complexity of translating their intention into a solid, transparent, and fair practice in Britain. There are many, often conflicting, interpretations of Sharia. Implementing a modern version of Sharia is a minefield even in native Muslim countries. Therefore, it is disingenuous to play the anti-Islam card while campaigning for Muslim law councils in Britain. The last thing Muslims want are courts that rubberstamp regression under the auspices of Islam.