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Sharia Councils Spark Debate In Britain


People in Britain are pressing on a different kind of border. It's the border between religion and the state. Britain's growing population of Muslims include some who use their equivalent of a court system. Sharia councils settle many issues under Islamic law. That includes subjects like marriage and divorce. Now those religious courts are pushing for the government to recognize their decisions as binding. NPR's Asma Khalid reports.

SADIRA JABIN: Yes, yes. Sabatha(ph), that's dirty. Are you tired?


ASMA KHALID: Sadira Jabin(ph) is exhausted. Her thick black hair is tied back from her face. She picks up toys littered across the floor and then tries to put her lively two-year-old daughter to sleep. She's a 25-year-old single mom.

JABIN: Unidentified Girl: (Arabic spoken)

KHALID: She's also a Muslim, and one of a growing number of British Muslims turning to Sharia councils for marital problems. Jabin graduated from Cambridge with a degree in law, secular law. But when she wanted to divorce her ex, she didn't go to the British courts.

JABIN: I wasn't legally married to my ex-husband. I got married in a mosque, and the particular mosque was only registered as a place to pray and not to carry out marriages, which is why it wasn't recognized legally.

KHALID: So, like many Muslims, she turned to a Sharia council. Samantha Knights is a barrister in London who researches issues of religion and law.


SAMANTHA KNIGHTS: You've had, historically, people who have got married in accordance with the laws of their own religion, not gone to have it registered, so therefore it's not valid in the eyes of English law. And what happens when they want to get divorced? I mean, it creates, you know, a huge problem.

KHALID: Lord Phillips, England's chief justice, recently highlighted the problem. He gave a speech at a mosque in East London where he suggested Sharia might have a role in arbitration. But...

NICHOLAS PHILLIPS: So far as the law is concerned, those who live in this country are governed by English law and subject to the jurisdiction of the English courts.

KHALID: So the councils don't have any real power. But Dr. Samia Bano of the University of Reading says Muslim women still use them for a variety of reasons.

SAMIA BANO: They will use a Sharia council in order to gain an Islamic divorce, but use state law for when it suits them, decisions around access to children or financial provisions. So they were very strategic in terms of using the different systems of law.

KHALID: Back in Cambridge, Sadira Jabin agrees. Jabin's not dressed like a typically conservative Muslim woman. Today, she's wearing a hot-pink T-shirt and jeans. She says she went to the council out of necessity. She wasn't officially married to her ex. But she also went out of religious conviction to obtain a khula, or Islamic divorce initiated by a woman.

JABIN: And the thing is, even if I had been legally married when I'd obtained the divorce, without the khula it still means Islamically I couldn't move on. So whatever happens, like, the most important one for me was Islamic khula.

KHALID: Unidentified Man: Sharia council.


KHALID: On a side street in East London sits the Leyton Islamic Sharia Council. It's one of the oldest and largest in the country, established in 1982. Since its inception, the council's dealt with more than 7,000 cases of divorce, a vast majority involving South Asians and marriages not registered in the UK. Once a month, seven to 10 sheiks meet at London Central Mosque to deliberate cases. They all must agree in order to issue a verdict.

SUHAIB HASSAN: (Arabic spoken)

KHALID: Suhaib Hassan, the council's co-founder, recites a Koranic verse on criminal punishment. Hassan says some punishments, like cutting off the hand of someone who steals, would benefit British society. But he insists his council's not seeking to institutionalize Islamic criminal law in Britain.

HASSAN: What we are asking that either some aspects of Islamic Sharia regarding the marriages and divorces should be accommodated in the British law. Our Sharia councils should be recognized by the state in such a way that they are not working as a parallel law system in this country.

KHALID: But in the current climate, just talking about formal recognition incites fear; fear that Muslims are trying to segregate themselves from British society. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.