A leading barrister has called for the UK to become more Sharia-literate, while arguing that Islamic law can be compatible with the toughest human rights legislation.
Sadakat Kadri said so-called “sharia courts”, such as the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, could serve “the community as a whole” by putting Sharia on a transparent, public footing and should be more widely accessible to those who want to use them.
Kadri said they played a role in safeguarding human rights: “It’s very important that they be acknowledged and allowed to exist. So long as they’re voluntary, which is crucial, it’s in everyone’s interests these things be transparent and publicly accessible. If you don’t have open tribunals, they’re going to happen anyway, but behind closed doors.”
In 2008, Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, sparked controversy when he appeared to suggest that Sharia law should be more widely adopted.
In fact, under the Arbitration Act 1996, the rulings of religious bodies, including the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, already have legal force in disputes involving matters such as inheritance and divorce.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, has long opposed the use of Sharia in the UK, and argued the rule of law “must not be compromised by the introduction of a theocratic legal system operating in parallel”.
He said: “There can be no convincing case made for it to have even a toe-hold in western societies that have developed a mature and far superior legal system. I regard any legal system based on a theocratic model as being dangerous and innately unjust. There is no escaping the fact — whatever interpretation you put on it — that Sharia treats women differently from men.”
But Kadri, a barrister and contemporary of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School, stresses the ability of Sharia to adapt and change. He sets out the history of Sharia in a book, Heaven and Earth, to be published next week. He describes the slow development of Sharia law, which many assume to be derived directly from the Qur’an, in the centuries after the death of Muhammad.
“After 7/7,” he said, “people were saying the Sharia is all about violence, it’s all about chopping people’s hands off, it’s all about stoning adulterers to death. Others said it’s nothing to do with that, Islam is a religion of peace. Clearly both of those things were true at a certain level, but very early on I just realised no one had a clue what Sharia said about this or that.”
Sharia, which means “path” in Arabic, is the name Muslims give to a wide-ranging collection of ethical and legal principles that believers are expected to observe. It includes prohibitions on certain foods and alcohol, as well as the obligation to visit Mecca and give to charity.
“I’m not a theologian,” said Kadri. “But this is my interpretation of Islamic history. There’s a mistaken belief that Islamic law is a vast unchanging body of rules — 1 400 years of Muslim history shows that little could be further from the truth.”
“It’s really important that the Muslim community engage with its actual history, as well as idealised traditions. If that’s to take root, critical engagement with the past among young Muslims will be crucially important.”
Kadri points out that many of the punishments associated in people’s minds with sharia law have only been applied very recently.
“I try to show how it’s only really in the last 40 years, since Colonel [Muammar] Gaddafi in Libya, but more especially since the Iranian revolution in 1979 that the idea of enforcing Islamic rules through national laws has come to the fore. Before 1973, it was only Saudi Arabia which actually did that.”
Top five sharia myths
That amputation is a typical punishment for theft in Muslim countries
Of the world’s 50 or so Muslim-majority states, only about half a dozen allow for amputations and at least one of those countries — Pakistan — has never carried out the penalty in practice.
That veiling is mandatory under Sharia law
Women are simply advised by the Qur’an to wear modest clothing and — like men — to lower their eyes and maintain their chastity.
That suicide bombing is permissible under Sharia law
Most interpreters of the Qur’an understand it to forbid suicide. The first suicide bombing by Muslims was carried out in 1983 during the Lebanese civil war.
Stoning is mentioned in the Qur’an
Stoning is not mentioned as a punishment in the Qur’an. It was institutionalised on the basis of hadiths (reports about Muhammad) which were themselves not written down until more than a century after his death.
Capital punishment for apostasy is mentioned by the Qur’an
The Qur’an repeatedly warns believers who abandon their faith that they will have to account to God in the afterlife but it does not provide for their punishment on earth. Again, it was hadiths that later served to justify the death penalty. —