Headlines may scream about stoning and hand-chopping, but the main question about sharia law in any western country is whether Islamic courts should judge Muslims in cases such as divorce, inheritance or business.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams caused uproar by suggesting British law adopt some sharia law. Critics decried the idea as barbaric, citing the gruesome punishments meted out in strict Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia.
The archbishop clearly stated in his speech on Thursday that he ruled out such punishments and only wanted some aspects of Muslim personal law, as a way to accommodate Muslims who felt torn between their Islamic and British identities.
But “the devil is in the detail,” as the saying goes.
Sharia law is not a single written code — there are four schools of interpretation for Sunnis, one for Shi’ites and disagreements within them. Men can enjoy more rights than women, a stand that clashes with western concepts of equality.
“Even in a city like Bradford, you have four different schools of sharia law, so which are you going to accept?” Baroness Haleh Afshar, a law professor, told the BBC.
Sharia is a legal code based on the Koran, the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad and centuries of Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh. It is meant to help Muslims in daily life know what Islam says they can, cannot, should or should not do.
The vast bulk of cases handled by sharia courts — both in Muslim and western countries — judge whether marriage, divorce, inheritance and business cases adhere to Islamic precepts.
Williams suggested that verdicts in such cases be accepted as legal, as long as they do not contradict British civil law and sharia does not become “some kind of parallel jurisdiction.”
Many routine sharia verdicts would be ruled out under these conditions or be irrelevant to the civil law system, whose demands the defendants would have to comply with anyway.
In a divorce, for example, a couple must end its marriage in a civil court regardless of any other rules its faith imposes. If believers have stricter rules, such as a bar on remarriage in church for divorced Catholics, that is their private matter.
“What Dr Williams is talking about in practical terms is either superfluous … or it runs the risk of compromising his other key principles,” Simon Barrow, director of the British religious think-tank Ekklesia, argued in an analysis.
The principles of equality and individual rights would rule out many sharia verdicts common in Muslim countries.
In many traditional sharia courts, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man and a daughter has a right to only half the inheritance that a son gets. In child custody cases, men and Muslims usually have priority over women and non-Muslims.
ORTHODOX JEWISH PRECEDENT
While the storm gathered around Williams, several Muslim leaders have thanked him and urged a cooler examination of his proposals, without making clear how they would work.
“His recommendation is confined to the civil system of sharia law and that only in accordance with English law and agreeable to established notions of human rights,” said Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.
Williams noted Orthodox Jewish rabbinical courts in Britain can already have their verdicts recognised by law. But they must comply with British law and can be overturned by a civil court.
Britain requires Orthodox Jews to dissolve a marriage in a “Beth Din” court before they can get a civil divorce. This was to stop husbands from blocking a religious divorce, which means wives cannot remarry in a synagogue.
By Tom Heneghan, Religion Editor, Reuters, Paris