Shariah Law in Britain: Alive and Well
Tuesday 26 February 2008
By Mohammed Al Shafey
London, Asharq Al-Awsat- For many years the Shariah Council in Tottenham, North London, was headed by Omar Bakri, the leader of the UK-based Islamist organization al Muhajiroun [disbanded in 2004] and the founder of the extremist group al Ghurabaa. Bakri left London for Beirut after the July 7 London bombings in 2005.
On a weekly basis, the council used to operate quietly, holding evening sessions that consider Khul’ divorce cases [whereby a couple can divorce against the husband’s will if all the wife’s financial rights are relinquished], in addition to regular divorce and inheritance cases. Most of the visitors of this court are adherents of the fundamentalist trend (Londonistan: pejorative term for trend), or are women seeking Khul’ divorce or ‘brothers’ who want to divorce their wives and marry other women under Shariah law and in accordance with the Sunnah practices.
The media was denied entry into the small courtroom, which also had other branches in local cities, such as Birmingham, Bradford and in Leyton, East London. However, what remains of these councils, evidence proves over 10 exist in Britain, only came into the spotlight after the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, made a statement calling for an “accommodation” with parts of the Islamic legal code in Britain last month.
His words were met by anger and widespread condemnation and many politicians criticized his position, including British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. British law does not recognize the provisions of Shariah, which is why the government did not waste time to remind the Archbishop that civil law is what prevails in the country.
However, this disagreement fuels a larger controversy surrounding the integration of British Muslims who number approximately 1.8 million in Britain. This issue has become especially more pertinent following the 7/7 bombings in which four extremist British Muslims targeted the British underground system killing 52 people. And yet, the Archbishop of Canterbury tackled a subject that he considered to be inevitable, and in doing so, touched upon a topic that is largely concealed. For a considerable amount of time, British Muslims have depended on an unofficial legal system that adopts Shariah law to resolve various disputes that are non-punitive in nature.
Of the 10 Shariah councils in Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) in Leyton is the most prominent. Since its inception in 1982, the council has addressed over 7,000 divorce and Khul’ cases in accordance with Shariah law. One of the heads of the MCB, Sheikh Suhaib Hasan, who is also a member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, is a widely respected figure among the Muslim community stated, “We act as a religious court, that is, we issue rulings in writing based on Shariah law and Islamic jurisprudence after considering the case.”
Sheikh Suhaib Hasan who graduated from Medina, Saudi Arabia, studied under the late Mufti of Saudi Arabia Sheikh Abulaziz bin Baaz and a number of esteemed clerics in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He believes that the Archbishop’s statements were widely and greatly misunderstood. Dr. Hasan also added that he feared that Archbishop Williams would try to “amend” his words only to try and calm the situation.
Sheikh Suhaib, 55 years, added that the Archbishop has been unjustly criticized and that his statements should be considered in a different light, furthermore affirming that the British media had exaggerated his words. As a Muslim community, Dr. Suhaib said, we want to see the application of Shariah rights in some areas related to personal status, such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and the rights of other wives [in polygamous marriages]. We are not seeking to sever the hands of thieves or stone adulterers – we never meant to implement this, he said.
“We examine all cases in light of the objectives of the marriage institution,” said Sheikh Suhaib, “when we can ascertain that the marriage cannot succeed, then we rule it permissible to separate. However, if there are grounds for agreement then we reconcile the couple. In the case of irreconcilable differences, we tell the couple that not taking a decision is more detrimental than separation.”
According to Sheikh Suhaib, a large part of the problem lies in the fact that people are unaware of the extent of the presence of Shariah elements amongst Muslims in Britain and other European countries.
Dr. Suhaib and a committee comprised of seven to 10 Muslim clerics who represent the four traditional Sunni schools; Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanafi, and Hanbali and the school of Ahl al Hadith [the compilers of the prophetic tradition] examine over 50 divorce cases annually at the MCB and settle disputes between couples worldwide, including Denmark, Ireland, Holland, and Germany. Sheikh Suhaib also revealed that various Shia Muslims have turned to them to resolve marriage, divorce, and inheritance disputes.
This committee convenes once a week at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Regent’s Park, London, to examine reports that have been prepared by local judges who are affiliated to the council and who practice in Birmingham, Bradford and Leyton and other cities, according to Sheikh Suhaib.
The hadith often cited in Khul’ divorce cases is one that is attributed to al Bukhari and it recounts that the wife of Thabit Bin Qais Bin Shammas came to the Prophet and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! I do not blame Thabit for any defects in his character or his religion, but I cannot endure to live with him and I am afraid that I (being a Muslim) may become ungrateful (or behave in an un-islamic manner) for Allah’s Blessings.” After which the Prophet asked, “Will you return his garden to him?” She said, “Yes.” And thus she returned the garden to her husband and the Prophet told him to divorce her.
Sheikh Suhaib stated that the MCB committee sends three letters to the husband over the duration of a few months and the case lasts from nine to 12 months. In the Khul’ cases, he said, we usually ask the wife to return the jewelry, gifts and money to her husband before declaring Khul’.
“It is the right of every women to demand Khul’ at any given day during her marriage,” he said and revealed that there had been cases, without mentioning names, of British Muslim women being married against their will to men in Pakistan and India.
He added, “The Muslim Council of Britain is recognized and overseen by the Charity Commission [for England and Wales], which monitors our work and has approved our code after six years of carful review. Sheikh Suhaib stressed that all the judges working in the MCB are volunteers and that the institution is not funded by any external or internal parties – with the exception of the fee paid by the parties involved in the divorce or Khul’ cases who pay approximately GBP £250.
Renowned figures who served on the council include, the late Dr. Sayid al Darsh, who was the former Imam at Regent’s Park mosque and who was also a founding member of the MCB, and presently include Sheikh Moez al Arab, Haitham al Haddad and Ahmed Oweiss from Somalia.
Aside from the divorce cases, the MCB also legally resolves disputes over inheritance, in addition to differences in contracts between owners and tenants and sometimes even considers conflicts between staff and employers. In some cases, divorces are first resolved in British civil courts, however; many Muslims still resort to Shariah law as well.
Dr. Suhaib disclosed that the Shariah council has succeeded in concluding many Khul’ divorce cases between Muslim couples due to the chronic problems that afflict some wives. “With regard to marriage, we complete the civil courts’ work. Even after a given civil court issues its ruling, some people’s conscience is still not laid to rest and they insist upon seeking a ruling from Islamic courts as well. This is why some people record civil marriages at the registry office then record their marriage at the mosque.
When asked if there were any women judges among the committee members, Sheikh Suhaib said that they had not encountered a woman who was qualified to occupy the aforesaid position.
Dr. Suhaib said that quite often, lawyers refer their clients to him based on the belief that the Islamic court would be a better place to resolve the differences. He believes that it is essential to merge the two systems [the British civil law system and Islamic Shariah], especially for devout Muslims, he said. He also cited an incident in which he was physically assaulted by a husband whose wife had filed for divorce.
“Shariah is implemented on a large scale in Britain on a daily basis,” said Dr. Suhaib, “it should not come as a surprise if some of its elements were incorporated into the British legal system,” he added.
“The great misunderstanding is that when people hear the phrase ‘Shariah law’ they immediately think of amputating hands and public execution,” said Sheikh Suhaib, furthermore stressing that there is no desire among the Shariah jurisprudents to establish Shariah criminal courts in Britain.
“There are 57 Islamic states worldwide and only two or three of these nations enforce the Shariah penal code – so why would we want to do that? This is Britain and such a thing would not be tolerated,” he said.
“Shariah will never replace civil courts, which are indispensible, however it intercedes to complement the rulings and either approve or reject divorce from an Islamic standpoint. [Muslims] abide by the law of the land, however they consider it to be administrative law not a religious one,” Sheikh Suhaib stated.
“Matters of marriage and divorce are religious in nature, they are not state matters,” he said, “When people resort to civil law, they feel that they have not fulfilled their religious duty.”
In a small office that bears no sign in Leyton, Sheikh Suhaib Hasan meets with Maulana Abu Said, Sheikh Haitham al Haddad and Mufti Barakatullah, all of whom are representatives from the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent, to issue the rulings.
Recently, the committee issued a ruling for divorce in favor of a woman who was subjected to domestic violence at the hands of her husband who was mentally disturbed. She obtained a civil divorce in 2007, but she also needed to divorce in accordance with Shariah law, wherein the right to divorce is the husband’s prerogative.
In cases where the husband refuses to divorce, women can initiate proceedings at the MCB. The council attempts to obtain the husband’s approval to conclude the divorce proceedings, or to reconcile between the couple. It can also provide the women with divorce if the husband fails to attend hearings or if he has committed a grave error.
An opinion poll published in May 2006 found that 40 percent of Britain 1.8 million Muslims support the adoption of Shariah law in regions with Muslim majorities.
According to members of the MCB, the number of people who turn to the council to resolve their disputes is steadily increasing.
“When more people choose us over the British courts it is an indication of their preferred choice. This is what is currently taking place and this is what the Archbishop meant when he said that measures should be taken and that it was inevitable,” said Sheikh Suhaib.