Response to Khan & Sikander on Islamic courts

Yesterday, Harry’s Place published an article sourced from Gina Khan and one Paul Sikander, attacking Islamic courts and Muslim institutions’ marriage practices. I wrote a lengthy article yesterday, but a bug in my blogging client destroyed it, so this will be rather more brief insha Allah. Simply put, it consists of two so-called secular Muslims preaching to a gallery of anti-religious non-Muslims and spouting a number of familiar generalisations.

Claim: Shari’ah courts are a means of extending clerics’ power

This is the culmination of decades of activism and ideological conditioning by Islamic institutions to incorporate the principles of separate laws for Muslims in the context of British society. More generally, it is a male led movement, disguising itself under the rhetoric of equal rights and superficial notions of ‘multiculturalism’, to embed reactionary religious laws in our society, and beyond that, to increase the influence and power of Islamic values interpreted by male clerics over the lives of Muslims in Britain.

Shari’ah courts in the UK are not part of any attempt to “embed … religious laws”; rather, they are a means for people to settle disputes between themselves, usually about property or marital issues, by their own methods. The judgements have legal force only by virtue of both parties having agreed to accept them. They do not become law, at least not for anyone else. Whether or not it is male led or not, I doubt very much whether these two have canvassed opinions among religious women (as opposed to their favoured women who are not religious) regarding their support for these bodies, because their opinions are of no interest.

Claim: Shari’ah courts are being advanced by “Islamists”, and “non-Islamist” Muslim women oppose Shari’ah courts

Most Muslims go about their daily life without thinking about such things, because their most pressing concerns are to feed their families. Amongst conservatives there is support for the idea of basic sharia arbitration, especially when the denial of them is erroneously generalized by activists like Bunglawala as discrimination against Muslims. On the other hand, all sentient non-Islamist Muslim women are horrified by the long-term consequences of ceding power to sharia-ist men.

This conveniently confuses religious Muslims with Islamists, who are Muslims who support the various Islamic political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Jama’at-e-Islami and Hizb-ut-Tahreer. Most religious Muslims do not support these groups. The point that most Muslims go through life “without thinking about such things” is correct, because courts, by nature, intervene only when things go wrong. It is possible that many non-religious Muslims do not care for Shari’ah courts, but even so, many people who do not pray as much as they should, or who drink alcohol, or do other things not commonly associated with religious Muslim life, would want to conduct important matters, such as marriage, “by the book”.

The question we must ask is how will Sharia judges be operating? There are serious ideological issues to consider as well as legal. Remember Anjem Chowdery (of al-Mujhajiroun) and Omar Bakri; who both claimed to be judges of UK Sharia law. This is the impact of Islamist propaganda.

There is no such thing as “UK Sharia law”, and the authority of either of the two men mentioned - particularly Anjem Chowdery - is very dubious. On the other hand, most of those who sit on Shari’ah panels in the UK have a much greater degree of training, acquired at a traditional Islamic religious school such as those at Dewsbury or Bury in England, or al-Azhar or Deoband (or more than one of these). This is no more than attempt to generate guilt by association.

Mr Bunglawala from the MCB seems to have an issue with the Jewish arbitration system (Beth Din), but they do not impose or contravene with British laws and rights. Above all it is not Judaism that is in crisis, in conflict with democracies, or a threat to Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide. Islam has been brought to a crisis, and the Sharia law legal system is a major issue that cannot be resolved. It is ongoing and problematic.

However, the Beth Din does not rule entirely in accordance with British legal norms; it rules by Jewish law, as Shari’ah courts rule by what they can of Islamic law. Whatever conflicts there are between Muslims and “democracies” elsewhere is of no relevance here; the courts do not deal with terrorism or other matters of criminal law, only with property and marital disputes. I should add that in Israel, radical Haredi elements are indeed trying to dictate to less religious Jews in some places, such as Jerusalem, along much the same lines that Islamist governments do, such as dictating the separation of men and women on public transport; this, however, is not considered a black mark against the Beth Din, or even Haredi equivalents, in the UK, so why should any such conflicts hinder efforts by Muslims to achieve parity with other minority religious groups?

In addition, the presence of arbitration panels - Shari’ah-based or otherwise - is in fact beneficial, not threatening, to the population at large, because it relieves participants of having to go to court, which not only saves them money and time, but saves the courts’ own time, reducing delays for people who do need the courts’ services.

Claim: Muslim institutions do not submit Islamic marriage to British law

A brilliant Barrister who has written to Muslim newspapers about Muslim marriages, Neil Addison, has already shown how Muslim practice is out of step with every other religious community in Britain, including the other main minority religious communities, in refusing to submit marriage ceremonies to British law. This leaves Muslim women and men beleaguered when marriages go wrong and they do not have the same legal rights as all non-Muslims have in a similar situation, all because many parts of the Muslim establishment in Britain refuse to accept the privileging of secular British law over sharia.

This is partly true; some mosques do require people to have a registry office marriage before they conduct a religious marriage, others have the facility to conduct a legal marriage (I contacted some mosques about this issue, and I was told by people at one mosque that the council was unwilling to facilitate official marriages at mosques), but others will indeed conduct religious marriages only. In defence of this practice, it allows couples who wish to be together but not settle down and start a family (because both are in college, for example) to do so with religious sanction and a clear conscience, and a registered mosque marriage at least makes the arrangement public, which the alternative - a marriage conducted in someone’s living room - would not. As for when such arrangements break down, it may well cause some legal trouble, but so would the breakdown of a cohabitation arrangement between two non-Muslims (and they have no Shari’ah court to settle any dispute).

As for polygamy, which the article claims “is perpetuated by the reluctance of the Islamic establishment in Britain to submit their marriage laws to secular British law”, I invite them to provide proof that the Islamic “establishment” is promoting polygamy. While I do not dispute that unofficial plural marriage goes on, both here and in other non-Muslim countries where registering polygamous marriages is illegal, I suspect that they are more likely to be “living-room” affairs or conducted by mosques which are not connected to “the establishment”. I should add that in Islam, the conduct of weddings is independent of the state, even in an Islamic state; the fact of an agreement between the two parties, in the presence of the required witnesses, establishes a marriage. No document is required (or otherwise, how would marriage be established in desert communities, where illiteracy is the norm?).

Claim: the government should listen to secular women

In fact, they need to start listening to Britsh Muslim women like Shaista Gohar, Diane Nammi and ex-muslim women Ayaa Hirsi Ali and Maryam Nawaazi..who all strongly oppose Sharia law. Plus how are these courts going to be monitored and how can measures be taken to stop discrimination of women in these kangaroo courts when Islamists make no scope for any kind of progress to create change within their interpretations of Sharia law, in regards to family law and the rights of Muslim women. To us Sharia law is medieval.

The authors have misspelled the names of all four of these women: Shaista Gohir, Diana Nammi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (or Magan), and Maryam Namazie. The government already has a Muslim Women’s Advisory Group (MWAG), whose members are listed here, and include Shaista Gohir as well as other women, including some of a more religious tendency; as for Maryam Namazie, she is a member of an Iranian and Iraqi communist sect which demands that youths under 16 be prevented from being taught religion or participating it, and that the Arabic script be replaced with the Latin one for languages like Kurdish and Persian. Despite the fact that a few of their activists (Houzan Mahmood is another) are the toast of sections of the western liberal establishment, they should not be treated as liberals, or representative of anyone but themselves.

Claim: opposing Shari’ah courts is not anti-Muslim

To suggest that it is anti-Muslim is a cheap rhetorical trick employed by Islamists to mask their real agenda of special privileges and social control, and to paint Muslim opponents of sharia as being in some way traitorous or complicit in mainstream society’s discrimination against Islam.

Again, we have the confusion of Islamists and ordinary religious Muslims. Most Shari’ah panels are not run by Islamists. The description “traitorous or complicit in mainstream society’s discrimination against Islam” is fairly apt for one of the two individuals behind this article, who is best known for running to the Times to shrill a lot of generalisations about backward Pakistani men and mosques “importing jihad”. As for Paul Sikander, who is he? Pretty much every hit for his name (and there are less than two pages on Google of unique hits) leads to this one article attacking the MCB’s education proposals, suggesting that children might be prevented from taking part in art activities because “the men of the MCB” said so, when in fact, the MCB did not call for schools themselves to prevent children taking part, but merely stated that parents might object, and that they have good religious grounds to object.

It’s true that not everybody who opposes Shari’ah courts hate Muslims, or condone discrimination or violence against us, we often find that they support other religions’ arbitration panels and oppose ours. We often see Jewish and Christian religious councils accepted until Muslims want the same, at which point the talk turns to either abolishing religious arbitration altogether, or to why Jews and Christians merit it while Muslims do not, when Jewish and Christian religious law is no more likely to be favourable to women than Islamic law, and is in some cases less so (divorce is a well-known example; Jewish law requires a husband’s consent to divorce, without exception, while Catholicism refuses it altogether).


This article is nothing more than a manifesto by two extreme secularists who, I am sure, are not alone in their dislike of “male clerics”, but I am sure that their opinion does not represent that of most Muslims, male or female, religious or otherwise. It makes claims to speak for the interests of women, but I do not believe that the authors have bothered to canvass the opinions of Muslim women other than those in their social circle. Much as with the hijab laws in France, I expect that they propose to inconvenience those they do not care for - religious Muslims - in favour of those they do. They want the authorities to listen to them, and them alone, when they represent an extreme view and do not seem to respect those who disagree with them, hence the broad generalisations. While it is the prerogative of anyone who does not want the services of a Shari’ah arbitration panel not to use them, whether because they oppose Shari’ah or because they do not trust the impartiality of one particular panel, they provide a service which is a necessity for those who do use them.

Possibly Related Posts:


You may also like...