Islamic Law: An Introduction to Sharia in the UK

Shariah Courts in Britain

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the UK and its legal system – Shariah also spelled Sharia – is increasingly becoming a part of the UK judicial system.  In 2008 the Government sanctioned five Shariah courts to operate in this country, ruling on a range of civil matters including financial disputes and divorce.  The rulings of these courts are now enforceable in the English Legal System.  British Courts can now enforce Shariah judgements!  It is for these reasons we need to know more about this legal system.     

What is Shariah?

It is the system of laws within Islam. There are three Basic Sources for Shariah Law.  One major source is the Islamic holy text – The Koran, the other is the Sunnah – which is the custom and practice of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad.  The other source, known as Fatwas, are the rulings of various Islamic scholars on certain matters. It is different from the common law of England and Wales in many ways. First and foremost Shariah deals with all aspects of a Muslim’s life, and not necessarily just in terms of relations between private parties or between a private party and the state. In other words it deals with both matters that are both private and public in nature.

Within the Sunni Branch of Islam there are four schools of thought which are known as “madhab”. The Sunni branch of Islam schools of thought are Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, and Hanbali.  Shiite Islam – found mainly in Iran – has its own school of thought called the Jafari Madh’hab. Many Shariah practitioners spend decades studying Shariah law and usually within the respective Madhabs.  

How is Shariah Law actually practised?

It can deal with many aspects of a Muslim’s daily life. The whole objective of Shariah is to promote social welfare. These aspects of daily life that promote social welfare are separated into two categories which are necessities and needs and comforts.

Many of the topics covered by Shariah law involve situations in the daily life of Muslims that can seem very ordinary and commonplace to the outside observer. However, Muslims simply wish to ensure that their actions comply with Islamic law and rites.

What are types of Shariah Law Rulings?

Islamic Shariah law has a very ancient tradition and is complicated in many respects and involving various schools of thought. However the basic essence of Shariah can be placed in five easily definable categories.

Firstly there are obligatory actions; these must be carried out with good intentions in order to attain a reward from God. Then there are recommended actions and these are actions that should be carried out. Thirdly, there are disliked actions which are simply not considered good or proper in the eyes of God. Fourthly there are forbidden actions which are not allowed whatsoever. Lastly, there are permitted actions which are neither advocated nor prohibited but can be performed (basically mundane actions as described above).

How is Shariah Law practiced within the UK Regulatory and Legal Framework?

There has been a great deal of controversy devoted to the idea of Shariah law as practiced in the UK, as evidenced by the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William’s comments regarding the application of Shariah law into the UK legal system. Baron Phillips, President of the Supreme Court of England and Wales, has stated that such punishments as stoning, flogging, and amputation of hands will be deemed absolutely unacceptable. However, Shariah law should have a place in terms of alternative dispute resolution, and in many ways already does. In the UK it mostly deals with family affairs and there is also a growing need for it in terms of Shariah finance.  

Shariah Law within the Family

There are two main UK organizations that deal with matters related to family Shariah law. The first one is the Islamic Shariah Council that deals mostly with marriage related problems. There is also the Shariah Council UK which also deals with matters related to marriage and divorce as well as providing services such as mediation, judicial consideration and conciliation. The justification for the use of Shariah law within family matters comes from S. 4 of the Arbitration Act 1996. Accordingly, S. 4(2) allows “the parties to make their own arrangements by agreement but provide rules which apply in the absence of such agreement.” In S. 4 (3) it is stated that it does not matter if the law applicable to the agreement created by the parties is the Law of England and Wales (also Northern Ireland) or isn’t. It is also stated in S. 4(5), an applicable law to which the parties have agreed upon is sufficient if it is a law other than the law of England and Wales or as the case maybe, Northern Ireland.

Shariah Compliant Finance Regulation in the UK

The Financial Services Authority (FSA) is the regulator that regulates the financial services industry in the United Kingdom. The FSA’s attitude towards Shariah finance is that they will not provide any hindrances for it, nor will they provide any encouragement. This is because the FSA is secular in nature and not a religious regulator. However there are certain issues regarding Islamic deposits and whether they can be compatible with UK savings accounts.