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Islamic law finds a role in Britain

Muslims can seek rulings on family or property issues from Sharia councils, which work in cooperation with civil courts.

June 20, 2008|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — It was a clear case of irreconcilable differences.

The wife said there was no love left in the marriage, she wanted a divorce. The husband insisted that she had been put under the influence of a taweez, a talisman, that had erased her affections for him. He refused to divorce.

"The husband says he has been pushed away from his home because of this taweez business," said Sheik Haitham al-Haddad, a judge in North London's Sharia council, a panel of Muslim scholars gathered in a back room of London's biggest mosque to determine whether the woman should be granted a divorce under Islamic law.

For British Muslims, many of whom have one foot in Piccadilly Circus and the other in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Somalia, the British legal system is available, as it is to all. But it is singularly impotent when it comes to civil issues such as marriage, divorce and other disputes whose dispensation in heaven is often perceived as more crucial than any ruling that might be handed down by an English judge in a horsehair wig.

A tumultuous debate was set off in Britain this year when the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said it was time to consider "crafting a just and constructive relationship between Islamic law and the statutory law of the United Kingdom." Eventually, he hinted, this could mean allowing Britain's 1.8 million Muslims to seek legal recourse in Islamic courts in certain limited cases, such as marriage and divorce, as an alternative to the civil court system.

Little known to the general public, though, is that Sharia is quietly being applied every day in Britain, via Sharia councils that dispense Islamic civil justice in more than half a dozen mosques across the country.

The councils do not involve themselves in criminal law or any aspects of civil law in which they would be in direct conflict with British civil codes. The vast majority of their cases cover marriage and divorce. By consent of all parties, they may also arbitrate issues of property, child custody, housing and employment disputes, though their rulings are not binding unless submitted to the civilian courts.

"It is known that English judges are willing to accept agreements like this that are reached in Sharia courts, as long as it has been put into proper form," said Mohammed Siddique, a paralegal who advises the Sharia council in Dewsbury, in northern England, on the technicalities of British law.

"It saves time and hassle for the court, and it shows that both parties are willing to compromise and reach some sort of agreement."

In some cases, women have no trouble obtaining a divorce in civil court but run into unforeseen difficulties when they approach Muslim scholars to seal it with their blessing.

A few weeks ago, a Somali woman whose husband had been wounded and subsequently disappeared during the turmoil in her homeland several years ago approached the Sharia council in North London. She was accompanied by her neighbor, who had been helping her care for her children, and had offered to marry her if she obtained an Islamic divorce in addition to her civil divorce.

Instead of the expected rubber stamp, the couple got a tongue lashing.

"How do you allow a man who is not your husband to interfere with your life? He's proposing to marry you while you're already married? How come, sister?" Haddad asked.

"Because I haven't seen my husband in eight years," said the woman, looking confused and a little panicky.

"And you, brother," Haddad said, turning to the man, "do you allow this for any one of your relatives, that she is married, and while she is married, you allow someone to interfere?"

"I didn't interfere with her, and Allah knows I didn't interfere," the man said.

The judges told the woman to find a Somali cleric, who might be able to help her prove her husband is dead, or had abandoned her. Should that happen, they said, she could have her divorce, and marry whom she pleased.

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Government officials have raised no objections to the councils, which first emerged in 1982 in Birmingham, because they operate in cooperation with British civil law, and British courts still issue all necessary legal decrees. Those who advocate granting some official status to the councils' deliberations, as the archbishop of Canterbury seemed to suggest, point out that Jews in Britain operate religious courts whose rulings, when all parties voluntarily participate, are recognized under civil law as a form of binding arbitration.

"Almost everything, Muslims living in Britain, or other societies that traditionally have not been Muslim societies, can arrange for themselves. They can arrange to have food slaughtered in halal fashion. They can set up Islamic financial instruments. They can build mosques. The one key area where there's a vacuum regards the access of women to divorce," said John R. Bowen, professor of anthropology at Missouri's Washington University, explaining the need for the Sharia councils.

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