Sharia law compatible with human rights, argues leading barrister
Sadakat Kadri said religious courts such as the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, could serve the community as a whole.
Sadakat Kadri told the Guardian that so-called "sharia courts", such as the Muslim arbitration tribunal, could serve "the community as a whole" by putting Sharia on a transparent, public footing and should be more widely accessible to those who want to use them.
Kadri said they played a role in safeguarding human rights: "It's very important that they be acknowledged and allowed to exist. So long as they're voluntary, which is crucial, it's in everyone's interests these things be transparent and publicly accessible. If you don't have open tribunals, they're going to happen anyway, but behind closed doors."
In 2008, Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, sparked controversy when he appeared to suggest that sharia law should be more widely adopted.
In fact, under the Arbitration Act 1996, the rulings of religious bodies, including the Muslim arbitration tribunal, already have legal force in disputes involving matters such as inheritance and divorce.
Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, has long opposed the use of sharia in the UK, and argued the rule of law "must not be compromised by the introduction of a theocratic legal system operating in parallel".
He said: "There can be no convincing case made for it to have even a toe-hold in western societies that have developed a mature and far superior legal system. I regard any legal system based on a theocratic model as being dangerous and innately unjust. There is no escaping the fact – whatever interpretation you put on it — that sharia treats women differently from men"
But Kadri, a barrister and contemporary of Barack Obama at Harvard Law School, stresses the ability of sharia to adapt and change. He sets out the history of sharia in a book, Heaven and Earth, to be published next week. He describes the slow development of sharia law, which many assume to be derived directly from the Qur'an, in the centuries after the death of Muhammad.
"After 7/7," he said, "people were saying the sharia is all about violence, it's all about chopping people's hands off, it's all about stoning adulterers to death. Others said it's nothing to do with that, Islam is a religion of peace. Clearly both of those things were true at a certain level, but very early on I just realised no one had a clue what sharia said about this or that."
Sharia, which means "path" in Arabic, is the name Muslims give to a wide-ranging collection of ethical and legal principles that believers are expected to observe. It includes prohibitions on certain foods and alcohol, as well as the obligation to visit Mecca and give to charity.
"I'm not a theologian," said Kadri. "But this is my interpretation of Islamic history. There's a mistaken belief that Islamic law is a vast unchanging body of rules – 1,400 years of Muslim history shows that little could be further from the truth."
"It's really important that the Muslim community engage with its actual history, as well as idealised traditions. If that's to take root, critical engagement with the past among young Muslims will be crucially important."
Kadri points out that many of the punishments associated in people's minds with sharia law have only been applied very recently. "I try to show how it's only really in the last 40 years, since Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, but more especially since the Iranian revolution in 1979 that the idea of enforcing Islamic rules through national laws has come to the fore. Before 1973, it was only Saudi Arabia which actually did that."