Mythbuster 4: Sharia Law’s Taking Over Britain

Mythbuster 4: Sharia Law’s Taking Over Britain

This week we investigate the myth that Britain is becoming overrun with Sharia courts, there are communities in the UK that have been allowed to live under religious law which sits outside of and supersedes British law and that religious courts in the UK are something new. And rather than be worried about religious courts, maybe we should be more concerned about media sensationalism and exaggerations about the presence and impact of Sharia courts.

A Daily Mail article writes

‘The concept of judicial equality has come under severe pressure, due to the increasing official acceptance of Islamic Sharia law. No longer do we have a single legal code in our society.’

The truth is Jewish courts have functioned in Britain for centuries and the Catholic Church has the oldest continuously functioning legal system in the western world. So how have people managed to abide by two sets of laws for all this time? The answer is religious individuals have the right to practice their religion however they choose unless there is a British law against it. Which is pretty much common sense, praying = legal, wearing religious clothing = legal, training pigeons to attack atheists, probably illegal, groping pensioners at the post office, almost definitely illegal. Lord Hope said “it has long been understood that it is not the business of the courts to intervene in matters of religion”, adding “It is just as well understood, however, that the divide is crossed when the parties to the dispute have deliberately left the sphere of matters spiritual… and engaged in matters that are regulated by the civil courts.” In rare circumstances, civil law and religious law collide. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams said ‘The issue of whether Catholic adoption agencies would be forced to accept gay parents under equality laws showed the potential for legal confusion.’ Dr Williams also noted that civil law accommodated the anti-abortion views of some Christians.


A paintin of an 18th century law court
18th Century Sharia Law court

We’ve all heard alarmist stories of extremists who wish to introduce Sharia law in Britain. For these (incredibly few) fundamentalists (who seem to garner huge media attention), Islam is considered a template for life. Apparently, now “critics fear Britain’s Islamic hard-liners will now try to make Sharia law the dominant legal system in Muslim neighbourhoods.” There seems to be no mention of the fact that most Muslims do not approve of this or the idea that Islam is intrinsically anti-Western, anti-woman or anti-modern. Interestingly, the most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, for all its problems, has had secular government since its independence in 1949.

A report by Civitas has asserted that there are at least 85 Sharia courts in Britain, if you are reading the newspapers however, you probably think there’s one on every street corner, along with binge-drinking hooded teenagers and asylum seeking foxes. But what do these courts do? “Sharia Courts serve as alternative forums for dispute resolution which apply Muslim legal and ethical principles as well as the cultural norms of local communities.” Their three main functions are reconciliation and mediation, issuing Muslim divorce certificates and administering Islamic family law.

The Daily Mail writes
Islamic sharia law courts in Britain are exploiting a little-known legal clause to make their verdicts officially binding under UK law in cases including divorce, financial disputes and even domestic violence… the fundamental principle of equal treatment for all – the bedrock of British justice – was being gravely undermined.

And now for the truth. The Arbitration Act 1996 is a piece of legislation that gives all parties the option to resolve their disputes outside the courtroom in minor civil and criminal matters. Many people utilise this option because arbitration is faster, more cost effective and less adversarial than litigation. Oddly enough, the Arbitration Act 1996 does not simply allow people to run riot making their own laws and settling disputes like ‘Lord of the Flies’. The right to a fair trial for example, is safeguarded by the Human Rights Act 1998. The Human Rights Committee have stressed that this right applies to arbitration by religious courts:

An image of an Islamic Text
Photograph of an Islamic Religious Text courtesy of Islamic Gallery at British Museum

Article 14: It must be ensured that such courts cannot hand down binding judgments recognized by the State, unless… such courts are limited to minor civil and criminal matters, meet the basic requirements of fair trial and other relevant guarantees of the Covenant, and their judgments are validated by State… and can be challenged by the parties concerned in a procedure.

No religious court has the right to decide on criminal matters of any seriousness. When it comes to criminal cases like domestic abuse, the problem occurs when women are unaware of their rights under British law or when a woman is pressured by family, friends and community leaders into allowing their abuse cases to be dealt with in a Sharia court illegally, there, many women are pressured to submit to unfair rulings.


Similar to Islam, Judaism is perceived by many as a religion of law. The sources of Halakha (Jewish law) are contained within Hebrew Scriptures and a variety of documents, commentaries and codes. As with other religions the interpretation of Jewish law varies amongst the different branches of Judaism from Orthodox to Masorti, Reform and Liberal. Each branch has their own rabbinic authority that interprets Jewish law for their synagogues, which can ‘span from the traditional to the progressive both in their practices and attitude to Jewish law’. The country’s main Beth Din (a rabbinical court of Judaism used by Reform Jews) at Finchley in north London oversees a wide range of cases including divorce settlements, contractual rows between traders and tenancy disputes.

An image of Jewish Luhoth

Media attention has also been given to the trapping of women in Orthodox Jewish marriages because of religious laws. Orthodox Jews must receive a ‘Get’ to be divorced – a Jewish document authenticated by a Rabbi – but only the husband has the power to grant a Get and if he refuses his wife becomes an Agunah; a chained wife. In Israel, “rabbi detectives” (like Sherlock Holmes but Jewish) are trained to find reluctant husbands who may even face a prison sentence if they refuse to ‘release’ their wives. This is not the case in Britain because under British law, legally these women are divorced. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to women that do not receive these and they and their future children may be shunned by the community they were raised in. However, in Beth Dins, a more liberal branch of Judaism, Rabbis will sometimes issue a Get regardless of whether they have the husband’s permission.


You don’t often hear the term ‘Christian law’, although the term ‘canon law’ is sometimes used. It is also often reserved for the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches. G. Arthur notes, “the Methodist and United Reformed Churches have set up structures of varying flexibility that act like Canon Law“, as have the Baptists.

an image of Jesus on a stained glass window
Jesus stained glass

The Code of Canon Law is the central and coordinating compilation of the Western (or Latin) church and is the primary source of reference for Catholic canon law. The Code outlines specific processes for the resolution of disputes or offences within the community.

Canon law affects virtually every aspect of the faith life of over one billion Catholic Christians around the world. The law of the Catholic Church “springs from the will of Christ, but its minute and detailed rules come from human agents… that is, the pope and the bishops”. Most Christian groups have rules which are binding, locally and internationally, and their laws come from the Bible and other sacred texts as well as rules developed by religious groups themselves.

Religious courts have existed in Britain for centuries, coinciding with and never replacing civil law. There are also significant differences between religious branches and even regional variations. The nature and role of religious courts also evolves over time in conjuncture with changes to religious interpretation, social needs and civil law. As for Muslims wanting to take over the world with Sharia law, well I think I could count on my fingers and toes how many Muslims would approve of that. According to Fareed Zakaria “Catholic Popes combined religion and political power for centuries in a way that no Muslim ruler has.” Double standards for women in religious courts is a problem but it seems that some critics are less distressed with the injustice some women face, and more concerned with the presence of Sharia courts. It’s also important to remember that British courts allow for alternative dispute resolution in civil matters and a small amount of minor criminal cases, where the religious and non-religious may have their disputes settled in a religious or alternative court.

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