LONDON// Flanked by Islamic bookshops in one of the shabbier corners of London, the modest facade of the Masjid Tawhid bears no resemblance to the solemn grandeur of the Royal Courts of Justice in the centre of the capital. But tucked away inside a building that also offers ample accommodation for prayers, classes and social functions is a tiny room where justice is dispensed with no less seriousness than in the official courts.
Here in Leyton High Road, in London's East End, and in nearby premises previously used by the Islamic Sharia Council of the UK, some 10,000 cases have been dealt with during the past 27 years. The workload is increasing and senior Muslim scholars who administer the system believe it is only a matter of time before Sharia is formally accepted within the framework of British law. But this growth has generated fierce criticism in some quarters. A report by the think-tank Civitas earlier this year claimed 85 Sharia courts were operating in the UK, sometimes giving the Muslims who turn to them illegal advice on matrimonial and divorce issues. Its allegations are firmly challenged by the council, but Britain's Conservative opposition is expected to impose restrictions if it takes power next year.
For Sheikh Haitham al Haddad, one of the council's most senior members, the work of such tribunals can be "complementary to the civil courts" and in certain cases find solutions that would be beyond the established legal system. He suspects the hostility of some non-Muslims is based on confusion with such punishments as the stoning of adulteresses, amputation of thieves' hands and flogging for drinking alcohol. British public concern has been heightened by demonstrations in which militants have demanded the full application of Sharia.
As a devout Muslim, Sheikh Haddad, born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents, considers physical punishment consistent with Islamic teaching, but points out that this is a philosophical issue that has nothing to with the council, which deals purely with civil disputes. "We are not asking for the flogging of people for drinking or stoning for adultery," he said. "These things simply have no place in our discussions."
Some 85 per cent of the cases heard in Leyton, he said, concerned the dissolution of marriages and divorce arrangements. Inheritance matters and the declaration of fatwas on a range of matters covering Muslims' working and domestic lives accounted for most of the remainder. The decisions of the council's hearings - Sheikh Haddad insists they are not courts - are widely respected in the Muslim community. Except in cases where a spouse, usually the wife, has been abandoned, both parties agree in advance to accept the findings. But he acknowledges that uncertainty about the legal status of the proceedings was a cause for concern. "It is one of our biggest problems that there is no formal recognition of Muslim personal law within the judicial system," he said. "But we are talking to politicians and to people in the churches in the hope that Britain will make some accommodation for our work. That would make it easier for the legal system generally, and easier for us."
Close to central London, the council also holds monthly sessions at the Central Mosque in Regent's Park and The National was invited to hear a succession of cases being considered by a panel of six, chaired by Sheikh Suhaib Hasan, the council's president. People involved in disputes sometimes make personal appearances, but on this occasion none was present. In one case, a Nigerian woman's husband had taken "another wife", though it was not clear from the information read out whether this was a bigamous marriage - in the eyes of British law - or an affair. "I have no intention of denying him everlasting peace," the woman wrote. "Indeed my utmost desire has been for him to find peace and happiness."
She did, however, want a divorce. Perhaps in a moment of levity, Sheikh Hasan suggested that an abandoned woman's wish for him to have "everlasting peace" might mean she wanted him to die. Another panel member, Dr Khurram Bashir, insisted her words should be taken "at face value". Hearing that the husband would agree to a divorce, the panel agreed to ask the woman to confirm that she would observe his four conditions, including assurances that she would neither "taunt" him nor visit his new home. In another case, where a man was suspected of withholding consent to divorce because of a dispute over money, the panel said the financial details should be left to the civil courts.
Broadly, UK law allows the council, and the separate Muslim Arbitration Tribunals permitted under a law passed in 1996, to make binding and enforceable decisions provided both parties consent to the process and the outcome is not in conflict with the law of the land. Religious and academic opinion is divided. The head of the Church of England, Dr Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, has suggested the law should be amended to recognise certain aspects of Sharia. But there is concern, especially about rulings or fatwas made in "unofficial courts", tribunals operating without the Islamic Sharia Council's endorsement and whose numbers are in dispute.
Dr Denis MacEoin, a specialist in Arabic and Islamic studies who wrote the Civitas report, gave the following examples from his research of rulings made: ? a man was allowed to divorce his wife without telling her about it "provided he does not seek to sleep with her" ? pronouncing it a religious duty to "fight the Americans and British" ? advocacy of severe punishments for homosexuality ? disapproval of a woman's recourse to fertility treatment
? forbidding a woman to stay with her husband if he leaves Islam Dr MacEoin said: "If put into practice, they would undermine UK law by allowing a single community to play fast and loose with British law and customs. They are divisive, many of them are discriminatory against women and non-Muslims, and they deeply undermine the freedoms that all British citizens are entitled to enjoy." But speaking on the eve of his departure to perform the Haj in Mecca, Sheikh Haddad said the report was flawed. "There are not 85 Islamic courts in the UK. There are only one or two that call themselves council and the maximum number of others we can establish is 15. As for the Muslim Arbitration Tribunals, I would say less than a handful."
No illegal advice was given, he said, and there was no attempt to run a parallel legal system. "But there is more and more need for Sharia bodies to deal with cases where Muslim law is respected by all the relevant parties. We need these bodies to be recognised - I believe in time that this will happen." firstname.lastname@example.org