The UK’s independent review of Sharia councils
In May, the UK government launched an independent review of the application of Sharia law in England and Wales amidst concerns that Muslim women are falling victim to discriminatory decisions by Sharia councils across the UK.
Sharia councils were first established in the UK in the early 1980s to provide religious guidance and deliver fatwas – an Islamic religious ruling – to the growing Muslim population and help resolve religious aspects of matrimonial disputes. The latest estimates by think tank Civitas suggest at least 85 councils operate across the country today, but there is no form of regulation or oversight of their activities and processes.
Dr Amra Bone, a lecturer in Islamic Law and Islamic Studies, presently teaching at Cambridge Muslim College having previously taught at Birmingham, Warwick and Bristol University, is currently the only female Sharia council panellist in Europe and has served on the Sharia Council at Birmingham Central Mosque since 2005.
She believes these councils provide a vital service for Muslim women in the UK – indeed around 90 per cent of the people that use the councils are women. ‘In Islam, it’s not just marriage that takes place in the sight of God; the divorce itself has roots in religion,’ she says. ‘People come to us who have already had civil divorces but want a religious divorce as well and we endorse that divorce from a religious perspective.'
‘‘This review could bring forward recommendations to institutionalise Sharia councils and certainly there’s a clear need to regulate and monitor what they’re doing and how they’re doing it
Javaid Rehman, professor of Islamic Law, Muslim Constitutionalism and International Human Rights Law at Brunel University
Many Sharia councils offer arbitration and mediation services. Bone isn’t personally involved in the preliminary mediation, but as a member of the panel she engages, on a voluntary basis, in the last possible stage of mediation and, in cooperation with the clients, helps to decide whether a marriage is workable or should be dissolved.
She stresses there is no compulsion for women to use the voluntary service offered by the councils and for any financial or custody issues, her council automatically refers women to the civil courts. For some people working through the civil courts is sufficient, but she notes it is not always an option, either due to the financial costs involved or the fact that these courts may not recognise the religious marriage. Women may also feel that civil courts don’t provide the necessary religious endorsement of the divorce, she says.
However, Bone acknowledges that not all councils are as transparent about their processes: ‘Our council has been doing very well in the sense of giving equal opportunities and rights to both men and women. I am aware though, that there are councils where they don’t have quite the same understanding of these equal rights. As far as the review goes I think it’s good to bring processes in line with the best practice we are striving to establish in our council.’
Diana Hamade Al Ghurair, attorney-at-law and founder of International Advocate Legal Services in Dubai and Membership Officer of the IBA Arab Regional Forum, believes the review is overdue: ‘The review in my opinion is quite urgent and necessary as I see in practice many UK Muslim citizens advised wrongly on Sharia in the UK by Muslim councils to the extent where they are at times at risk of being found guilty of breaking the law or rendered in conflict with Sharia by the UAE courts.’
‘Sharia is open wide to interpretations and unfortunately misinterpretations, which, although it is what renders it valid for all times and places, does also put people at risk of being misinformed and misled into believing that certain fatwas are legally correct, which may not be the case,’ she adds.
Examining Sharia in context
The government’s independent panel includes academic and religious experts in Islamic law, as well as several family law specialists, including Anne-Marie Hutchinson QC, former Chair of the IBA’s Family Law Committee and the Women Lawyers’ Interest Group. Bone says this is encouraging, as a contextual knowledge of Islamic law is vital to understanding how and why Sharia councils operate.
‘We are fortunate on our panel to have people who understand the underlying principles of Sharia based on equality, fairness and justice,’ she says. ‘Women are not treated as dependent, but as equal, so we treat them equally because Qur’anic guidance talks about doing things that are ‘customarily right’ and, of course, doing things now that are ‘customarily right’ may be very different to what it was like a thousand years ago because our society has changed so much.’
Indeed, as Bone sees it, a large part of the resistance to, and criticism of, Sharia councils is down to this lack of understanding. ‘I think there’s a lot of ignorance on the part of some politicians who don’t seem to understand that we agree there is only one law of the land,’ she says. ‘I don’t even like the term Sharia law because Sharia in Arabic just means ‘the way’ or ‘God’s way’ and in Muslim countries, Sharia is Islamic law rooted in God’s way. But, when you try to translate the wording into English, it doesn’t really make sense. A fatwa has no weight unless it is upheld by the judicial system in a country. Thus the religious opinions provided by Sharia councils have no authority unless the clients voluntarily choose to accept them. Hence it cannot be a parallel legal system.’
Javaid Rehman, professor of Islamic Law, Muslim Constitutionalism and International Human Rights Law at Brunel University, believes the review will help expose gaps in Sharia councils’ practices. ‘This review could bring forward recommendations to institutionalise Sharia Councils and certainly there’s a clear need to regulate and monitor what they’re doing and how they’re doing it,’ he says.
Rehman believes the gender balance of many panels is also an issue that needs to be addressed. ‘Sharia councils are, if not exclusively, predominantly male-dominated,’ he says. ‘When it comes to settling disputes this is where I think there’s a real issue if you only have male scholarly people on the council. I’m also not sure what qualifications some of them have outside of religion, so they should be properly certified. We can’t afford for the misinformed to undermine the work of these councils.’
Hamade agrees the review will help address some of these issues. ‘I do believe a review of the practices in place by Sharia councils will help assess their credibility and a set of rules where a synthesis between Sharia and civil laws will be required to legitimise UK Muslims’ personal affairs matters.’