Shari’a gets a lot of bad press in the UK. This is mostly due to the Western association of it with harsh punishments imposed by the most extreme interpretations of it, which take places in strict countries such as Saudi Arabia.
This association makes people concerned that practices seen as discriminatory against women, homosexuals and corporal punishment might be enforced here in the UK.
But unbeknown to most, there are many, more liberal, interpretations of Sharia, and also many aspects that don’t make the headlines, such as the financial aspect of Shari’a, which Islamic Finance lawyers resolve.
Shari'a law in the news
In a round of scaremongering, Nigel Farage, former UKIP party leader, announced on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme in January 2015 that there were “80 practising Shari’a courts around the United Kingdom”.
But is this true? What did he mean by Sharia ‘court’? Do they have any authority?
We think it’s time for some myth busting. First up…
What is Shari’a law?
Shari’a is the body of law derived from the Quran and from secondary religious sources known as the ‘Hadith’. What is unique about Shari’a jurisprudence is that it is not confined to a specific country or state. As it is a body of law drawn from religion, it resides within the individual just as religious faith does; a Muslim is expected to abide by Shari’a wherever he or she lives in the world.
This explains the appearance of Muslim Arbitration Tribunals, which we assume is what Farage meant by ‘Shari’a courts’. With Muslim communities now making up roughly 5% of the UK population, the government deemed it only fair and necessary that these British citizens have the right to resolve certain issues with accordance to their faith.
But how does Shari’a work with English law?
Unlike much of the media suggests, Muslim Arbitration Tribunals are only allowed to operate within the realms of English law. In terms of divorces, the divorce will not be recognised unless a court of English law signs it off; if a judge sees it as unfair it will not be legalised, because Shari’a does not have the power to overrule family law.
MAT’s are regulated, unlike unregulated Shari’a councils or Imams (prayer leaders in mosques), which Muslims felt forced to turn to before their creation.
‘The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal was established in 2007 to provide a viable alternative for the Muslim community seeking to resolve disputes in accordance with Islamic Sacred Law. Under the remit of the Arbitration Act 1996, MAT acts as an effective, efficient and unique Alternate Dispute Resolution organisation which deals with Islamic Sacred Law within the context of the English Legal System.’
Section 1 of the Arbitration Act 1996 states “the parties should be free to agree how their disputes are resolved, subject only to such safeguards as are necessary in the public interest”.
Thus, the only legal authority that MAT’s have is when it is voluntarily granted by both parties, and even then English law may overrule that.
So, what’s the conclusion?
Shari’a is not becoming a parallel body of jurisdiction in the UK; it only ever applies to willing parties who feel personally bound by their faith and even so can be invalidated by English law.
Lord Phillips, the Lord Chief Justice, explained in a lecture:
“In some countries, the courts interpret sharia law as calling for severe physical punishment… There can be no question of such courts sitting in this country, or such sanctions being applied here. So far as the law is concerned, those who live in this country are governed by English law and subject to the jurisdiction of the English courts.”