David Jones, Daily Mail, June 1, 2018
What strikes you first is the squalid nature of the women’s stories. Their husbands have beaten and abused them, they claim; lied and cheated, cavorted with prostitutes, become addicted to drugs.
One weeping wife even accuses her spouse of molesting her infant child.
Wearing colourful headscarves and robes, and often clutching handbags stuffed with banknotes to pay the £300 fee for their cases to be decided, this procession of downtrodden women have come before a panel of three judges to plead for their miserable marriages to be dissolved.
Four of the eight petitioners were born overseas — in Ghana, Ethiopia and Pakistan — and two speak such poor English that they find it easier to describe their marital woes in Urdu on this rainy Sunday afternoon in the heart of Birmingham.
We are not in a divorce court. At least, not one with any standing in the civil law of England and Wales.
Convened in a windowless chamber in the city’s huge Central Mosque, decorated with pictures of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and a rather magnificent Moroccan tea urn, this is one of Britain’s secretive sharia law courts.
After much negotiation, I have been granted a rare glimpse into its arcane, controversial workings.
Such is the protective veil surrounding these religious tribunals (or councils, as Islamic jurists prefer to call them) that, as a recent Home Office review conceded, not even the Government knows how many operate in this country.
Sharia courts are proliferating across Britain and are held in many towns and cities with sizeable Muslim communities
Critics regard them as anathema to British values because they ‘keep many Muslims isolated, entrenched and with little social stake in wider British citizenship and life’
One study, by Reading University, put the number at around 30; the think-tank Civitas estimates there could be 85.
What we do know is that sharia courts are proliferating across Britain and are held in many towns and cities with sizeable Muslim communities.
As the Government review states, critics regard them as anathema to British values because they ‘keep many Muslims isolated, entrenched and with little social stake in wider British citizenship and life’.
Largely derived from the Koran, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and other ancient Islamic scholars, it dates from between the 7th and 10th centuries
As I have discovered, these fears are not without justification. Indeed, so many of the country’s 2.8 million Muslims are using sharia courts that they are convened in all manner of places, from mosques to converted houses and shops.
So exactly what is sharia law and how is it dispensed? Among many non-Muslims, any mention of sharia instils fear and repulsion.
An impression has been shaped by stories from countries in the Middle East, South-East Asia and parts of Africa, where it is meted out in its most draconian form, with women flogged or stoned to death for committing adultery on the scantest of evidence, and petty thieves having their hands amputated.
Then there are those sickening internet videos posted by so-called Islamic State, whose barbarity — lest we need reminding — and corruption of Islamic teaching is utterly repugnant to people of the true Muslim faith.
In fact, sharia is a code covering every aspect of life, from the way people dress, eat and handle financial and property matters, to how they behave towards family and others.
Largely derived from the Koran, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and other ancient Islamic scholars, it dates from between the 7th and 10th centuries. One major criticism is that, while the world has changed since then and civil law has moved with the times, the edicts of sharia have remained unaltered.
Sharia law, as practised in Britain, does not handle criminal matters. Under the 1996 Arbitration Act, however, Muslim tribunals are empowered to adjudicate on business and financial disputes, leading to fears that this might be the slippery slope towards wider use of sharia.
A decade ago, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, caused an outcry by suggesting that incorporating elements of sharia into civil law might be ‘unavoidable’, given the increasingly diverse make-up of the British population.
In recent years, amid mounting concern that many young British Muslims are failing to integrate into mainstream society, the Establishment has largely consigned these liberal views to the past.
Influential voices in politics, the clergy and human rights fear sharia is becoming a ‘parallel legal system’ that furthers social division. They fear it runs counter to a basic principle of our democracy enshrined since Magna Carta: that everyone is equal before the law.
In his new book, Reimagining Britain, Justin Welby, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, says sharia should never become part of the British legal system because it is incompatible with our laws. Disquiet has been expressed, too, by the former government integration tsar, Dame Louise Casey, who found evidence that some sharia councils denied women and children human rights by condoning beatings, marital rape and forced marriage.
In British sharia courts, 90 per cent of the petitioners are female and almost all cases involve divorce.
According to the Home Office, there are many reasons for this. About 100,000 British Muslim couples — more than 60 per cent of the total — are not legally married, since they have only undergone an Islamic wedding, or nikah, and failed to register their marriages civilly.
In many cases, this is because they and their families only attach importance to the religious ceremony and see no point in solemnising the union for £46 at a register office.
Some Muslim husbands also reject the idea of a civil marriage, because it gives their wives more legal rights.
As sharia permits a Muslim man to take four wives, it also allows men to practise polygamy without breaking Britain’s bigamy laws.
However, when these unofficial marriages break down — all too often because the wives are mistreated — the consequences for women can be devastating.
They cannot go to civil divorce courts, where they might expect equitable rulings on such matters as child custody, the division of assets and ownership of property.
Instead, they are at the mercy of sharia courts, often presided over by imams and scholars who have come to Britain from deeply patriarchal countries with cultures and traditions far removed from the British way of life.
One woman whose story sheds worrying light on the sharia court system is NHS staff nurse Ayesha Khan, 29.
Her Pakistani grandparents moved to Bradford to find work decades ago, but Miss Khan, born and raised here, is a modern Yorkshire woman, forthright and fiercely independent.
Within her community, however, she says it can be enormously difficult to break free of certain centuries-old cultural traditions.
So, in 2013, her father told her she must marry a local man he had chosen for her, but whom she didn’t know, and she had to obey him.
‘To start with, things were fine,’ she told me. ‘But then [her husband] became jealous and controlling, the domestic abuse and violence started and it got to the point where I ended up in hospital.’ She added bravely: ‘It wasn’t much, just a broken nose and a lot of bruising.’
Two years ago, she approached the Sharee Council (as it is called) in nearby Dewsbury, expecting that, on hearing her story, it would swiftly grant her a divorce.
As she had only undergone an Islamic wedding and the marriage had not been registered civilly, this was all she needed to be free of her brutish husband. Yet it was the start of a frightening ordeal.
Chaired until recently by the grandfather of Britain’s youngest convicted terrorist, Hammaad Munshi, who was 16 years old when he was arrested after police found a guide to making napalm on his computer, the court is in the predominantly Muslim Savile Town district of Dewsbury, a hotbed of fundamentalism.
The jurists on its sharia council are said by some Muslim critics to be mentored and financially supported by Saudi Arabian Wahhabi fundamentalists and I am told that they have a reputation for delivering hardline and misogynistic judgments.
Their rulings, however, carry such great sway that they are sought by Muslims from across Britain.
On the day of Miss Khan’s case, she was aghast to find that her husband — against whom she had a restraining order granted by a British court — had also been called to give evidence.
‘I’m not a person to be intimidated, but I was that day,’ she said of the traumatic hearing. ‘I was the only woman in the room and it was very scary sitting at this circular table with my husband and being questioned by scholars. They didn’t speak proper English, which made it even worse.
‘I tried to explain what he’d done, but they just grilled me and made me out to be a liar. My husband made out it wasn’t as bad as I was saying.’
Incredibly, she says, the judges told her to ‘forget’ what he had done and go back to the man who beat her.
‘To the elders hearing my case, the bottom line was that I should forgive him. But I had gone way past that stage.
‘The process was so distressing. They wanted to know all the ins and outs of the marriage, and I had to fight to get my point across. They were obviously more on my husband’s side.
‘They just kept saying, “You need to make up! You need to make up!” But it was way too late for that, and I don’t believe I should have had to justify myself to anybody when there was domestic violence involved.’
The elders refused to grant her a divorce, telling her they needed to deliberate further and that this would be a ‘lengthy process’. She remained in limbo for months.
Desperate to move on with her life, she eventually abandoned the case at Dewsbury and approached a sharia council in Bradford, which claims to interpret sharia in a more progressive manner.
It is presided over by Harun Subhaalni, a personable young religious teacher from a wealthy Bradford Kashmiri family who drives a vintage white Rolls-Royce and hears cases in a rented former estate agent’s office.
Miss Khan says Subhaalni, who is in his 20s, treated her with empathy and quickly granted the divorce.
However, his claim to offer a modern alternative to the brand of sharia handed down in Dewsbury is rather undermined by the shockingly patriarchal posts I found on his council’s Facebook page.
‘The rights of the husband upon his wife are greater than the rights of the wife upon the husband,’ began one, said to have been taken from the Koran. ‘Man is caretaker of his wife and household. He is responsible for all her affairs. He is responsible for training, direction and discipline if needed.
‘It is an essential right of man over his wife to be obeyed so long as his comments do not conflict or contradict the commands of Allah the Almighty … righteous women are devoutly obedient.’
There was even a dire warning for any wife who refuses to accede to her husband’s sexual demands. ‘If a husband calls his wife to his bed but the latter refuses to fulfil the call (for any reason other than a lawful one) which drives the man to be upset with his wife, then the angels will curse such a wife until she gets up in the morning.’
When I asked Mr Subhaalni how these chauvinistic messages squared with his contemporary, British interpretation of sharia, he said that they had been posted by his stand-in, who did not share his interpretation of the Koran, while he was away sick last year.
He has since removed them from the website.
However, there is no doubt some of Britain’s sharia courts hold fast to these ancient beliefs and administer rulings accordingly.
In fairness, when I visited, Mr Subhaalni appeared to handle the steady flow of women who came into the office seeking advice on a variety of family, property inheritance and marital issues (he also conducts religious marriages and even provides an Islamic dating service) with care and professionalism.
Although he charges women £300 for a divorce (male petitioners don’t need to pay a fee), with concessions for refugees and those on benefits, he insists he is ‘a rich man’ from a wealthy family and is not doing it for the money.
He said that he returned to Britain after studying in Pakistan and Egypt and found that sharia councils here ‘were failing us’. ‘We’d go to mosque and we’d have an imam speaking in Urdu to British-born youngsters who don’t understand what they’re saying and only have links to Pakistan through their grandparents. How can we put these imams in charge of preaching and dispensing the law to the community?’
He bemoaned that fact that British citizenship was not being taught. ‘The first tenet of sharia is that Muslims must comply with the law of the land they live in, so I want to bring our council up to a standard where we can deal within the law.’
He says the services of his council — which has conducted 76 divorces and 46 marriages since December — are in such demand that he hopes to move to bigger premises.
Mr Subhaalni told me: ‘We’ve made this a hub for everybody [not just Muslims] and do a lot of work in the community.
‘For example, when people come out of prison, we mediate with their families to get them back home. We have a service to stop young people being forced into marriages.’
He contrasts such activities with the Dewsbury sharia council, which he says is woefully out of touch with young British Muslims and is driven by money. ‘It asks for a bank statement before anything else,’ he says, ‘and takes the side of those who can pay.’
Officials in Dewsbury refused to comment on this criticism. Nor would they allow me to witness one of their hearings — which is why it was so fascinating for me to gain access to Birmingham Central Mosque.
Whatever may occur behind the closed doors of other, more secretive sharia courts, here the judges’ compassion was undeniable.
Then again, this court is unique in being chaired by a woman — Dr Amra Bone, an erudite Islamic studies lecturer thought to be Britain’s only female sharia judge.
The long-serving court administrator was also a woman, Saba Butt — a rare feminine presence — and the proceedings were being observed by a young lawyer keen to set up what he believes will be the first official sharia council in Manchester.
The women who came before them were pitiable to behold.
One, who had been raised by her non-Islamic grandmother, described in a Brummie accent how her husband had deceived her into marrying him by saying he owned a garage. In fact, he was a former criminal who, she claimed, had sexually abused one of her children.
Disturbingly, one of the elderly male judges still saw fit to ask her whether she might consider returning to live with him. ‘After the sexual abuse, there is no chance I will let him near my child again,’ she replied, seemingly appalled at the very question.
Dr Bone intervened to say the divorce had been granted. The wife would simply have to wait for three menstrual cycles to pass, in accordance with sharia law, then she would be free to remarry.
The next case involved an Ethiopian whose husband came to Britain in the Nineties as a child refugee. They had married in Addis Ababa in 2003, and he brought her back here to get her a UK visa.
However, he left her to live with his brother and sister-in-law, going back and forth between the UK and East Africa, where he secretly took a second wife and consorted with mistresses.
Whenever he returned, she would become pregnant and she now had five children aged between five and 15. She, too, was granted a religious divorce.
What she didn’t seem to grasp was that, as she had married a British passport-holder, her marriage was also valid civilly — so before she was free to remarry, she needed a civil divorce. The judges patiently explained this to her.
As one of Britain’s oldest established sharia councils, Birmingham is also asked to adjudicate on marital disputes from overseas. This can make it difficult for the parties to appear in court personally.
During my visit, the panel debated whether it might be in order to hear cases and deliver judgments via Skype.
Dr Mahmoud Akhtar, a white-bearded scholar from Huddersfield, expressed reservations. Dr Bone was broadly in favour, as long as people’s identity could be verified. But she later told me this innovation was ‘unlikely to happen any time soon’.
Perhaps not. Yet we might think the very notion of dispensing sharia by Skype deeply ironic, given the ancient origins of Islamic jurisprudence and accusations that it is far removed from modern British values.
Yes, I had certainly been impressed by what I saw in the Birmingham mosque. But if we are to uphold these British values, surely we must adhere to one universal law — a law under which everyone, regardless of their gender, ethnicity and religion, is treated equally?
Concern at the rise of sharia in Britain is not confined to Establishment figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Women’s rights groups and leading feminists, including countless Muslims, are campaigning to reform these courts and even have them closed — and with good cause, as I shall show in part two of my investigation, to be published soon.
When judges can order a battered wife from Yorkshire to return to her brutal husband, one understands why such critics passionately believe sharia law belongs to another time and place, and is utterly incompatible with the freedom and equality we cherish.
Ayesha Khan’s name has been changed to protect her identity.