In 2008, in front of a packed audience in the atrium of the Royal Courts of Justice, the former Archbishop of Canterbury gave a controversial speech on the accommodation of Shari’a law within the British legal system. Rowan Williams’ views have become part of a wider scholarship on legal pluralism, which refers to the existence of multiple legal systems within one state1. One aspect of his speech has proved particularly contentious with academics. Williams states that in a pluralist Britain, there would need to be a ‘much enhanced and quite sophisticated version’of the Islamic Shari’a Council (ISC) ‘with increased resource[s]’2. I argue that this is a wholly inappropriate suggestion for three key reasons. Firstly, the council is predicated upon fundamentalism, secondly, its so-called ‘scholars’ openly advocate correspondingly fundamentalist views and lastly, this mindset affects the processes undertaken by this quasi-court, which leads to the discrimination of women.
In 1980s, following the arrival of Muslims from former Commonwealth and the Middle Eastern countries, Shari’a councils were established primarily to deal with traditional Islamic marriages and divorces- Nikahand Talaq, which are invalid in British law to this day. In keeping with this trend, the ISC was established in Leyton, East London in 1982, aiming ‘not just to guide the Muslims in matters of their religion and to issue fatwas when needed, but also to create a bench of ulama’3 who would function as Qadis in matters such as matrimonial disputes that were referred to them.
Despite referring to its full-time staff as ‘scholars’rather than judges, it is evident that the council views itself as a court. Indeed, as Machteld Zee notes, the term ‘Qadis’ literally translates as ‘judge’ and has no connotations of scholasticism4. Moreover, on its website, the ISC purports to be an ‘authoritative body with regards to Shari’a law’ which ‘make[s] decisions on matters of Muslim family law’5 and actively provides Shari’a divorces (this function constitutes 80% of its work6). Therefore, its remit extends far beyond providing an academic account of Islamic family law.
Williams openly promotes the ISC, but it is apparent that many of its key members have links to Islamic fundamentalism. For instance, Machteld Zee discovered that its founder, Shaykh Sayyid Mutuwalli ad-Darsh, was involved in a conference whose organisers are strongly affiliated to the International Muslim Brotherhood, which is considered a terrorist group in multiple countries7. Indeed, as Zee notes, many other past and present Muslim Brotherhood leaders spoke zealously at the event, implying that ad-Darsh shares these fundamentalist views. Indeed, two years before his death, he ‘stated that he fully sympathised with the ideas of the International Muslim Brotherhood’8. Moreover, its current secretary, Dr Suhaib Hasan, spent his childhood ‘fully devoted to Jamaat-e-Islami’9 which is an Islamist group akin to the Muslim Brotherhood, with many of his family members also key supporters. In an age where fundamentalist ideology including Islamic fundamentalism is abhorred as the fuel behind terrorism and societal fragmentation, Williams is surely mistaken in promoting a group so strongly associated with these attitudes.
These scholars have openly expressed fundamentalist and generally archaic views, further calling Williams’ suggestion into question. For example, Haitham al-Haddad who is a ‘scholar’ at the ISC stated that ‘Muslims should prevent [non-Muslims] from ruling any country with a law other than the sharia and Muslims should rule the entire planet with this Islamic law’ because ‘the far ultimate aim for Muslims is to have Islam governing the whole world, Islamisation of the whole globe10. Along slightly different but related lines, Dr Hasan argues in favour of introducing the notoriously brutal Shari’a penal system into English law stating that ‘even though cutting off the hands and feet, or flogging the drunkard and fornicator, seem to be very abhorrent, once they are implemented, they become a deterrent for the whole society’11. Thus, the ISC seems to have a far greater political agenda than its description as a ‘council’ suggests, which immediately raises alarm bells with regards to Williams’ proposals, as with such dangerous and extreme views, greater ‘resources’ would only ensure they are propagated to a greater extent.
Furthermore, many council members have expressed morally reprehensible opinions. Indeed, Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, who is the current president of the ISC, noted ‘there cannot be any rape within the marriage. Maybe aggression, maybe indecent activity’ because ‘when they got married, the understanding was that sexual intercourse was part of the marriage, so there cannot be anything against sex in marriage’12, nevertheless conceding that sex without consent is ‘not good’13. Additionally, Haitham al-Haddad actively endorses female genital mutiliation and perceives homosexuality to be ‘a crime against humanity’14.These views are evidently inconsistent with Western Liberal values which begs the question of why Rowan Williams, a Christian leader, is impliedly supporting them. Elham Manea, a Muslim scholar who has researched extensively into the ISC and other Shari’a councils in Britain seems to provide an answer, noting that there is a general Western ignorance surrounding Islam and as such, white Western academics can be fooled into accepting ‘a decontextualised patriarchal interpretation of Islamic law as the standard’15, when in fact it is totally averse to social mores. Therefore, Williams’ suggestion is misguided.
As mentioned in my previous article, these alarming views are readily exemplified through the processes used in the ISC. In particular, the triple talaq rule- where a husband can divorce his wife by saying the word ‘talaq ’– divorce- thrice, while a woman must undertake weeks of arbitration. Moreover, the fact that a woman’s testimony is perceived worth half as much as a man’s and custody often falls to the father even if he has almost no relationship with his children, is symptomatic of these fundamental and traditionalist mindsets and, ultimately have disastrous effects for women: no alimony and the loss of her children.
Although, arguably, headway is being made in rejecting these outmoded viewpoints and embracing a more liberal and equal outlook in regards to Islam and Shari’a law. This is because women are becoming ‘scholars’ on Shari’a councils. Indeed, the ISC has one permanent woman judge. However, Manea noted that of the thirty-odd recognised councils, there are less than ten females sitting on them. Thus, these councils are a long way off from shunning their patriarchal and fundamentalist links to promote a more modern and egalitarian view. In this respect, Williams is wrong to advocate ‘enhancing’ the powers of the ISC when, at the moment, this would only serve to discriminate against women and children.
To conclude, Williams is mistaken in advocating enhancing the powers and resources of the ISC since it is underpinned by a fundamentalist ideology which pervades its rulings which would only be more greatly promoted with such assistance, posing a direct conflict with the Western liberal ideology adopted in Britain today.