Islamic Law: Sharia Law in the UK

Sharia law is the law of the Islamic religion and is derived from the Koran. It is increasingly running parallel to the UK’s own judicial system. There are around 30 Sharia ‘councils’ in the UK but these are not Sharia courts of law.

The Sharia councils’ decisions are based on Islamic religious laws and cannot overrule the UK courts, or make decisions that are contrary to UK law.

What is Sharia law?

It is the system of religious laws within Islam, of which there are three basic sources: The Koran; the Sunnah (the custom and practice of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad; and fatwas (rulings of Islamic scholars). Sharia deals with all aspects of a Muslim’s life, ranging from family and financial matters, to personal hygiene and clothing. However, it is very complicated – with many different interpretations of Sharia law.

How is Sharia Law actually practised?

It deals with just about every aspect of a Muslim’s daily life. The whole objective of Sharia is to promote human welfare. Given that sharia law covers and informs all areas of the daily life of Muslims, it is effectively a code of living. Muslims fast, perform their religious prayers and rituals, and avoid certain meats, and so on, to comply with Islamic law and rites.

The basic essence of Sharia can be placed in five categories defined by Islamic scholars as follows.

Firstly, there are obligatory actions which must be carried out with good intentions to attain a reward from God. Then there are recommended actions which 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; and lastly, there are permitted actions which are neither advocated nor prohibited but can be performed.

Where issues arise, the Sharia councils give legal rulings to Muslims, and provide them with advice based on their interpretation of Sharia law. They have no force of law in the UK.

How is Sharia Law practiced within the UK regulatory and legal framework?

There has been a great deal of controversy around sharia law as practiced in the UK, as evidenced by the previous Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William’s comments regarding the application of Sharia law into the UK legal system.

However, Sharia law has been afforded a place in UK society by government and offers alternative dispute resolution for Muslims. Section 1 of the Arbitration Act 1996 allows parties “… to agree how their disputes are resolved, subject only to such safeguards as are necessary in the public interest”.

In the UK, Sharia law is mostly applied in the context of family matters. However, there have been growing concerns that Sharia councils are operating in a discriminatory, illegal and unacceptable way towards women, and a government inquiry was launched last year.

There is also a rapidly developing practice of Sharia finance in the business world.

Sharia law within the family

There are two main UK organisations dealing with matters related to family Sharia law. The first is the Islamic Sharia Council that deals mostly with marriage related problems. There is also the Sharia Council UK which deals with matters related to marriage and divorce, as well as providing services such as mediation, judicial consideration and conciliation.

Sharia compliant finance regulation in the UK

The Financial Services Authority (FSA) regulates the financial services industry in the UK. The FSA’s approach towards Sharia finance is that it will neither hinder, nor encourage it on the basis that the FSA is secular in nature. However, there are certain issues regarding Islamic deposits and whether they can be compatible with UK savings accounts.

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Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

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Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.