Shariah Councils in Britain are ‘archaic’, ‘incompetent’ - and increasingly popular

by - 24th April 2013

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, Muslim InstituteA leading Muslim spokesman has denounced Britain’s proliferating shariah councils in the wake of a BBC Panorama documentary broadcast 22 April.

Dr Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, founding Trustee of the Muslim Institute, who champions women’s causes including marriage reform, told Lapido: ‘The Shariah law was put together in the ninth and tenth centuries.  People want to apply it in twenty-first-century Britain without realizing that they are living in different times.’

He said council adjudicators were ‘full of enthusiasm but lacking competence. They can do nothing right. They simply do not understand the issues.’

This comment indicates a level of oppression faced by Muslim women from a stagnating system with links across the world, particularly in UK which unlike many Muslim countries, does not protect women from shariah’s excesses.

It has been claimed by sources in the Muslim Women’s Network that Muslim women are more oppressed in Britain than any Muslim country in the world, since their domestic rights under shariah are not upheld by the state.

An extensive investigation by the BBC has exposed the fact that despite the negative interference of self-styled Islamic law bodies – so-called ‘shariah councils’ - in the lives of married Muslim women seeking divorces or other family counselling services, they are increasingly used.

The BBC concentrated its analysis on the Islamic Shariah Council, based in the East London district of Leyton, noting an increase in January 2013 in recourse by Muslim women to the ‘councils’, which have no legal standing in Britain, for dissolution of their marriages.   

In addition, some Muslim men consult with the ‘councils’ for mediation in business disputes and similar civil disagreements.

The Islamic Shariah Council of Leyton claims to be – and is described by the BBC as – ‘Britain’s oldest Islamic council’, having been established in 1982.  

However, one of its component bodies, the Shariah Council at the London Central Mosque in Regents Park, made a similar claim, dating its activities to the 1970s.   The Regents Park council was featured in a 2008 television documentary, ‘Divorce Shariah-Style’, broadcast by the UK’s Channel 4.   The activities of the Leyton council were previously described in the London Guardian in 2007.

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The website of the Leyton council reveals that its financiers include the Muslim World League, a Saudi-based international institution long dedicated to the spread of Wahhabi extremism, and the Wahhabi Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith.  In addition, a £2 million donation was provided for erection of the Regents Park Mosque by the then king of Saudi Arabia, Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz (1904-75). 


The BBC noted a 2009 report that 85 shariah councils were then operating in Great Britain. The Leyton council claimed they had handled 7,000 shariah cases between the time they opened their doors in 1982 and 2009.  The website of the Islamic Shariah Council now asserts having rendered more than 10,000 judgments. 

In traditional Sunni Islam, shariah cannot be introduced as a legal standard for all in non-Muslim countries.  Among emigrants to the Dar ul Harb (House of War as non-Muslim countries are properly known), shariah applies only to personal matters such as diet, form of prayer, charity, and burial, and, in most cases, male circumcision. 

Muslims who move to non-Muslim lands are enjoined to accept the laws and customs of the country to which they have gone, or return to Muslim territory.  Attempts to introduce a ‘parallel shariah’ legal system in Western communities are therefore new and radical.

Among British Muslim women and UK political leaders, opinions on shariah vary.  The BBC quoted the Iranian and Kurdish Women's Rights Organisation (IKWRO), a reputable charity, as opposing the spread of shariah courts in Britain.   IKWRO complains about the male domination of the courts, and calls for their complete prohibition from the UK. 

Baroness Caroline Cox, an independent member of the House of Lords, has introduced the Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill regulating shariah activities, which is working its way through the parliamentary system.  

Baroness Cox’s legislation would specifically ban gender discrimination in arbitration, which is crucial since shariah courts in Britain typically reflect a fundamentalist view holding women inferior to men.  The Cox bill further provides that ‘Any matter which is within the jurisdiction of the criminal or family courts cannot be the subject of arbitration proceedings.’   Shariah councils frequently present themselves as ‘arbitration’ services.


But the BBC has also reported, ‘As a demand for Shariah thrives, a number of British law firms are starting to tap into the booming market.  Muslim Lawyer Aina Khan has launched one of the first Shariah departments at her London-based law firm.’

Eight-century lawyer: Suhaib Hasan of Leyton

More recently, the BBC conducted an interview with Suhaib Hasan of the Leyton Islamic Shariah Council, in which Hasan was shown trying to save a Muslim marriage by telling the man and wife to remain together for a further month. 

In a subsequent secret filming, Hasan and his wife, who is a counsellor for the Leyton body, advised a female undercover reporter not to go to the police to complain about her husband beating her.  According to Hasan, reporting abuse to the police is a final measure that would force the woman into a women’s shelter.  Instead, the victim should appeal for family intervention, according to the shariah representatives.  That advice contradicts British law.

Appeals for divorce decrees before shariah councils in the UK make up the overwhelming majority of their activities.  Most are based on women getting married in Pakistan or elsewhere by nikah or Islamic contract, without registering their marriages with the British civil authorities. 

Nikah weddings take place usually in mosques, but these are not recognized in civil courts unless the mosque registers for a registrar to attend.  Very few have done so, leaving women in limbo.

Because their relationships are not recognized in UK civil law, they cannot appeal to the British courts for divorce.  In the 2009-2013 a report by the Centre for Islamic Pluralism, A Guide to Shariah Law and Islamist Ideology in Western Europe, noted: ‘British Muslim women who cannot obtain divorces in regular courts are drawn to Shariah councils operating in East London’.

It claims these run under the direction of dogmatic clerics from the Wahhabi and Deobandi sects.

Dr Siddiqui, who with the Muslim Women’s Network has campaigned for nikah reform and mosque registration, notes that even Regent’s Park Mosque has not registered to perform the civil marriage contract, rendering weddings conducted there unrecognizable in English courts.

He said:  ‘In Greater London there are only two mosques (Croydon and Southall) which are registered for civil ceremonies. Interestingly, even Regent's Park mosque is not one of them.

‘Mosque committees do not consider that providing a service to the community is one of their responsibilities.

‘Change will only come when older trustees give way to younger people, men and women, in mosque management.’