Islamic law finds a role in Britain

Times Staff Writer

It was a clear case of irreconcilable differences.

The wife said there was no love left in the marriage, she wanted a divorce. The husband insisted that she had been put under the influence of a taweez, a talisman, that had erased her affections for him. He refused to divorce.

“The husband says he has been pushed away from his home because of this taweez business,” said Sheik Haitham al-Haddad, a judge in North London’s Sharia council, a panel of Muslim scholars gathered in a back room of London’s biggest mosque to determine whether the woman should be granted a divorce under Islamic law.

For British Muslims, many of whom have one foot in Piccadilly Circus and the other in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Somalia, the British legal system is available, as it is to all. But it is singularly impotent when it comes to civil issues such as marriage, divorce and other disputes whose dispensation in heaven is often perceived as more crucial than any ruling that might be handed down by an English judge in a horsehair wig.


A tumultuous debate was set off in Britain this year when the archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said it was time to consider “crafting a just and constructive relationship between Islamic law and the statutory law of the United Kingdom.” Eventually, he hinted, this could mean allowing Britain’s 1.8 million Muslims to seek legal recourse in Islamic courts in certain limited cases, such as marriage and divorce, as an alternative to the civil court system.

Little known to the general public, though, is that Sharia is quietly being applied every day in Britain, via Sharia councils that dispense Islamic civil justice in more than half a dozen mosques across the country.

The councils do not involve themselves in criminal law or any aspects of civil law in which they would be in direct conflict with British civil codes. The vast majority of their cases cover marriage and divorce. By consent of all parties, they may also arbitrate issues of property, child custody, housing and employment disputes, though their rulings are not binding unless submitted to the civilian courts.

“It is known that English judges are willing to accept agreements like this that are reached in Sharia courts, as long as it has been put into proper form,” said Mohammed Siddique, a paralegal who advises the Sharia council in Dewsbury, in northern England, on the technicalities of British law.

“It saves time and hassle for the court, and it shows that both parties are willing to compromise and reach some sort of agreement.”

In some cases, women have no trouble obtaining a divorce in civil court but run into unforeseen difficulties when they approach Muslim scholars to seal it with their blessing.


A few weeks ago, a Somali woman whose husband had been wounded and subsequently disappeared during the turmoil in her homeland several years ago approached the Sharia council in North London. She was accompanied by her neighbor, who had been helping her care for her children, and had offered to marry her if she obtained an Islamic divorce in addition to her civil divorce.

Instead of the expected rubber stamp, the couple got a tongue lashing.

“How do you allow a man who is not your husband to interfere with your life? He’s proposing to marry you while you’re already married? How come, sister?” Haddad asked.

“Because I haven’t seen my husband in eight years,” said the woman, looking confused and a little panicky.

“And you, brother,” Haddad said, turning to the man, “do you allow this for any one of your relatives, that she is married, and while she is married, you allow someone to interfere?”

“I didn’t interfere with her, and Allah knows I didn’t interfere,” the man said.

The judges told the woman to find a Somali cleric, who might be able to help her prove her husband is dead, or had abandoned her. Should that happen, they said, she could have her divorce, and marry whom she pleased.


Government officials have raised no objections to the councils, which first emerged in 1982 in Birmingham, because they operate in cooperation with British civil law, and British courts still issue all necessary legal decrees. Those who advocate granting some official status to the councils’ deliberations, as the archbishop of Canterbury seemed to suggest, point out that Jews in Britain operate religious courts whose rulings, when all parties voluntarily participate, are recognized under civil law as a form of binding arbitration.

“Almost everything, Muslims living in Britain, or other societies that traditionally have not been Muslim societies, can arrange for themselves. They can arrange to have food slaughtered in halal fashion. They can set up Islamic financial instruments. They can build mosques. The one key area where there’s a vacuum regards the access of women to divorce,” said John R. Bowen, professor of anthropology at Missouri’s Washington University, explaining the need for the Sharia councils.

Under many interpretations of Islamic law, men can easily obtain a divorce -- known as talaq -- by simply declaring their intention three times. A woman, however, usually needs the pronouncement of a Muslim judge who is a scholar in the field of Islamic jurisprudence.

“In most other European countries, there is no such council or judge. Many imams are approached at the mosque and asked, ‘Can you give me an Islamic divorce? And they have to say, ‘I have no standing to do that,’ ” Bowen said.

Suhaib Hasan, who sits on the North London council, said it tries to complement the work of the British civil courts. At the same time, he said, the Sharia council offers divorces that are cheaper and quicker than those available in the British courts, though a civil decree is still needed for legal dissolution of the marriage, and in the case of any property or child custody disputes.

“A woman can get a divorce from the civil court, but she will still come to us,” he said. “Why? Because she has to satisfy her conscience as well. And in this way, we are providing a service to the Muslim community, and complementing the British legal system.”

Shawzia, a 32-year-old physician who obtained a khula, the Islamic term for when a woman ends a marriage, through the London mosque this year, said her civil divorce didn’t feel sufficient.

“Before this happened, I didn’t consider myself divorced, spiritually,” she said. “I couldn’t move on with my life. I needed completion. I still felt married.”


The Sharia council in Dewsbury operates in a former pub that has been converted to a mosque and Muslim school.

“Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim”-- In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate” -- one of the three judges intones as they begin their deliberations, which drift between Urdu, Arabic, Gujarati and English, depending on the people who appear before them.

The day’s business begins with a man who is having an affair after 25 years of marriage; he is willing to divorce, but only if he gets to keep half the house. The wife, wearing a long dress over trousers and a scarf, is sitting nervously at the side of the room. The men sit together around a large table: her father, her husband and the judges.

She says she deserves the whole house; it is only right, she says, in light of her husband’s infidelities.

But that, the judges advise, is too much. She can continue living in the house, and her husband will continue paying the mortgage, but once it’s sold, he ought to get half the proceeds. She is reluctant, but agrees.

A nervous young nurse comes in next, her father and brother waiting outside. She says she was married to her first cousin in Pakistan by family arrangement when she was 13.

“Were you forced into this marriage?” asks one of the judges.

“No, I wasn’t forced into it. It’s just the way families do it,” she says.

“But they don’t allow that in Pakistan. Have you got a marriage certificate with you?” asks one of the council members, Moulana Ilyas Dalal, who is also a chaplain at a prison.

She produces a marriage certificate that states she was 16 at the time of her wedding, but the birth date printed in the corner of the same certificate would mean she was actually 13 -- suggesting that her age was inflated by whoever filled out the form in order to comply with Pakistani law.

“My God. Wow. And then what happened?” Dalal says.

The girl says she became pregnant while she was still in school. Her husband, she says, began beating her, and she swallowed 150 sleeping tablets in an attempt to end her life.

She returned to Britain to have the child, but her husband didn’t join her for five years, largely because she hesitated to apply for a British visa on his behalf because of his behavior. When he arrived, she says, he began to sexually abuse her young son, at which point she reported him to the British authorities and sought a divorce.

“I thought he was really changed. He was so nice. If I’d have known for a second he was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have called him over,” she says.

Now, her husband is living with another woman in Pakistan, and she wants a divorce.

Have the couple tried raazi nama -- a process of reconciliation, aided by the family, the judges wonder?

At least nine times, she says, though the process has been made especially difficult because her sister is married to her husband’s brother and has been “brainwashed” by the husband’s family.

“I’m done. I’ve been doing raazi nama for the last 10 years. That’s it. I’m done,” she says. “Now he’s applied for contact with my little boy, and I’m not losing my son to him. No way.”

Because the child abuse case is in the British criminal court system, it will have to be resolved there, the judges say. But if the woman writes a letter to the Sharia council certifying that she has tried and failed to reconcile the marriage, the judges say, she can be granted an Islamic divorce.

Back in London, the judges there foundered over what they saw as the irrelevant issue of the taweez. The husband said he had paid about $10,000 to have the spell undone, but it seemed to have been wasted money.

“It seems these taweez people are just going into business now, one doing taweez, the other undoing taweez,” said council member Hasan, with just a trace of irritation.

“We cannot take into consideration taweez in deciding Sharia matters,” said the council president, Mohammed Abu Said.

What to do? Call in the parties, see who might still love whom.

“A meeting should take place,” Hasan declared, and the judges flipped to the next document in their thick stacks of troubled lives.