Why sharia is so misunderstood

12 February 2008

Sharia is complex, and needs to be aligned with the process of civil law, says Mona Siddiqui

Less inflammatory: Dr Williams was talking about banking, not beheading REUTERS

Less inflammatory: Dr Williams was talking about banking, not beheading REUTERS

Religious voices are either ignored or sensationalised; they are rarely heard with careful consideration. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice, in which he mentioned both sharia and Britain in the same breath, has evoked blistering attacks from an array of political and religious voices.

To hear the leader of the Anglican Church call for any sort of “constructive accommodation” of Muslim practice is more than many can bear, especially in our current climate. When the head of the Anglican Communion directs his attention to Islam in the UK rather than pronouncing on a moral vision for Christianity, many hear nothing other than alarm bells.

One could legitimately ask: did the Archbishop really not expect that any serious consideration of sharia and its possible place in Britain would be construed by many as a threat to both British society and its Christian heritage.

Despite the tolerance we all value in Britain, public debates on Islam often associate Islam as a faith with Islamism as an ideology. When you compound this with the big stories of the past few years, such as the Danish cartoon crisis, the veil issue, and then the teacher and teddy bear fiasco, it is hardly surprising that much of the public has developed an intolerance of any Islam-related issues.

Not only does Islam appear increasingly like an idiosyncrasy in the West, but most of the stories related to the faith conjure up medieval and barbaric images, completely at odds with Western notions of individual freedoms. This is why, despite his attempts to qualify and explain the complexities of sharia, many in the media could see little beyond chopping off of hands and stoning of adulterers.

The problem with starting any conversation on sharia is finding exactly where you begin. Misleadingly, but commonly translated as “Islamic law”, the term has become synonymous with penal law, and stripped of its broader ethical dimensions and the fluidity of juristic reasoning.


As contemporary Muslim scholars attempt to contextualise the debates on Islamic law and ethics, they are constantly battling against the bloody-mindedness of some Muslim states, which refer to sharia as God’s law, but only as a tool for self-interest and political expediency.

God’s law must be simple to be implemented. Unfortunately, this sentiment is also rife among many Muslims in the UK, who feel that all aspects of sharia can and must be applied without due considera-tion of time, place, and individual moral agency.

Yet the argument is even more complex than that. The Archbishop is right to say that aspects of sharia are already in place here, and, while some are accepted, even encouraged, others are condemned for disregarding individual human dignity. For example, sharia-compliant financial packages, while regarded by many Muslims as little more than wordplay on the term interest, are nevertheless on the increase. Our own Prime Minister sees the lucrative fallout from such religious convictions, as London veers to becoming the financial epicentre for such ventures.

In the area of personal law, most Muslims marry according to their religious law, and register their marriage under the civil law of the land. For decades, the two systems have existed side by side, and there is nothing here that contradicts the law of the land or the faith; no principle is being violated here.

But, if arranged marriages are premised on adult consent, forced marriages ignore this premise, and should be seen as nothing less than a crime against the state and the individual.

The problem is not in the existence of religious law, but in the nebulous status of certain aspects of religious culture. Many in the legal profession are aware that Islamic divorce proceedings must be done in the framework of both religious and civil law. However, they are also aware of the dangerous position this leaves women who become victims caught between two legal systems.

Two different conversations must be held here. The first is about how an Islamic process can be aligned with a civil process — which would be both possible and desirable on all sides. A second, more important conversation, is about those who administer the religious sharia institutions.

These are mostly men for whom women still bear the burden of honour in society. While they may appear to be independent arbitrators, narrow and conservative thinking or religious morality often underpins their pronouncements — the complexities of modern life rarely feature in their decisions.

Muslims have once again been put on the defensive: some distancing themselves from the Archbishop’s words, and some doubting his very intentions in raising such issues. But, having worked closely with Dr Williams on several occasions, my feeling is that he had the courage as a senior public figure and theologian to start a debate that many are too scared or simply too arrogant even to contemplate.

Mona Siddiqui is the Professor of Islamic Studies and Public Understanding at Glasgow University.

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