Sharia and other religious courts

British muslims praying
BBC Radio 4’s Law In Action
Sunday 10 Feb 2100 GMT
On Radio 4 and online

Law in Action has carried out an investigation into the workings of religious courts in Britain and this is being rebroadcast in the wake of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s comments about the relevance of Sharia law in Britain.

Members of some of Britain’s religious or ethnic minorities are turning to their own parallel legal systems to sort out disputes.

‘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.

However, as Law in Action has discovered, it is more than just a theory.

Religious and ethnic minority courts are already a reality in the UK.

Sharia councils

The main activities of the sharia councils we have spoken to are the giving of religious advice and the dissolution of Muslim marriages in cases where the husband does not agree to the divorce.

One sharia council we spoke to, the Mahkamah Council of Jurists, also settles civil law disputes on matters such as contract and negligence.

Its decisions are recognised as enforceable in English law as long as they are reasonable.

In this respect it is operating in a way similar to that of the Jewish courts in Britain (Beth Din) and to other courts of arbitration.

Although, as far as we know, none of the sharia councils deals with matters of criminal law, Faizul Aqtab Siddiqi of the Mahkamah Council of Jurists told us that he believes ‘there is a case to be made under which the elders sit together and reprimand people of the community to get them to change.’

What Law in Action really said about Islamic law in Britain.

Law in Action’s original broadcast resulted in considerable press coverageabout what Law in Action did and did not reveal about the existence of sharia (Islamic law) courts in Britain.

We would like to clarify a few points for those who have not had a chance to listen to the programme in its entirety.

We have not discovered the existence of sharia courts dispensing criminal justice in Britain. The only alternative criminal court which we know of uses Somali customary law.

Those who use the court are Muslim but the court does not apply sharia law.

The court seeks to reconcile victims and perpetrators by asking those found guilty to pay a sum of money to the complainant.

The court does not apply punishments such as stoning, amputation and beheading.

Read more about the Law in Action investigation:

Law in Action’s regular broadcast is on Radio 4 at 1600 GMT on Tuesdays. Or subscribe to the Law in Action podcast (see links on right hand side) for a regular insight into topical legal issues.

Law in Action – Sunday 10 February

On the programme:

  • Presenter Clive Coleman visits a Jewish court, the London Beth Din. He hears from the court’s registrar David Frei about how the court works and the wide range of civil disputes it deals with;
  • Our reporter Innes Bowen speaks to Aydarus Yusuf who facilitates an unofficial criminal court in South East London using traditional Somalian law; and
  • BBC reporter Nasreen Suleaman speaks to a British Muslim woman who used both a mainstream court and a sharia council to obtain separate secular and Islamic divorces.

To discuss the issues raised, Clive is joined in the studio by:

Dr Prakash Shah

Dr Prakash Shah is one of the guests in Law in Action

  • Dr Prakash Shah, Senior Lecturer in law at Queen Mary University of London and author of Legal Pluralism in Conflict (pub Routledge Cavendish 2005)
  • Jonathan Greenwood, a solicitor specialising in Jewish law
  • Faizul Aqtab Siddiqi, a commercial barrister, Principal of Hijaz College Islamic University and a member of the Mahkamah Council of Jurists
  • Cassandra Balchin, spokesperson for Women Living Under Muslim Laws and co-author of Recognizing the Un-Recognized: Inter-Country Cases and Muslim Marriages & Divorces in Britain (pub. Women Living Under Muslim Laws, January 2006)Do you know of any other alternative courts in Britain? If so, please let us know.

    E-mail address: [email protected]


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