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Sharia Courts Should Not Be Recognised Under the Arbitration Act

Sharia courts should not be recognised under Britain’s 1996 Arbitration Act, according to a new report from independent think-tank Civitas.

According to Denis MacEoin, author of Sharia Law or ‘One Law For All’?, sharia courts operating in Britain may be handing down rulings that are inappropriate to this country because they are linked to elements in Islamic law that are seriously out of step with trends in Western legislation that derive from the values of the Enlightenment and are inherent in modern codes of human rights. Sharia rulings contain great potential for controversy and may involve acts contrary to UK legal norms and human rights legislation (p.11).

Sharia law is a distillation of rulings that purport to represent the divine diktat in all worldly affairs. It provides injunctions for the conduct of criminal, public and even international law. Marriage and divorce, the custody of children, alimony, sexual impropriety and much else come within its remit. Sharia courts claim authority over the private lives of individuals in a way that is contrary to the British tradition where, as David Green points out in his introduction, ‘in our legal system no punishments can be applied to individuals who fail to live up to religious requirements’ (p.4).

The fact that so many sharia rulings in Britain relate to cases concerning divorce and custody of children is of particular concern, as women are not equal in sharia law, and sharia contains no specific commitment to the best interests of the child that is fundamental to family law in the UK. Under sharia, a male child belongs to the father after the age of seven, regardless of circumstances. Thus, in October 2008 the House of Lords ruled that sharia was incompatible with human rights when a Lebanese woman sought asylum in the UK because, if she had been sent back to Lebanon, she would have been ordered to hand over her son to a violently abusive husband (p.47).


Most reports on sharia courts cite five, working in London, Manchester, Bradford, Birmingham and Nuneaton. However, in his research for this report, Denis MacEoin has uncovered at least 85, operating largely out of mosques. It is extremely difficult to find out what goes on in these courts, so MacEoin reproduces a range of fatwas issued by popular online fatwa sites, run out of or accessed through mosques in the UK, and in some cases, as was revealed in the earlier Civitas report Music, Chess and Other Sins, even from UK Muslim schools. These online fatwas can give a good indication of the rulings of sharia courts in Britain.

‘Among the rulings … we find some that advise illegal actions and others that transgress human rights standards as they are applied by British courts. Here are some examples: a Muslim woman may not under any circumstances marry a non-Muslim man unless he converts to Islam; such a woman’s children will be separated from her until she marries a Muslim man; polygamous marriage (i.e. two to four wives) is considered legal… a husband has conjugal rights over his wife, and she should normally answer his summons to have sex (but she cannot summon him for the same reason); a woman may not stay with her husband if he leaves Islam; non-Muslims may be deprived of their share in an inheritance… a wife has no property rights in the event of divorce… sharia law must override the judgements of British courts; rights of child custody may differ from those in UK law… taking out insurance is prohibited, even if required by law; there is no requirement to register a marriage according to the law of the country… a Muslim lawyer has to act contrary to UK law where it contradicts sharia … women are restricted in leaving their homes and driving cars… sharia law of legitimacy contradicts the Legitimacy Act 1976; a woman may not leave her home without her husband’s consent (which may constitute false imprisonment); legal adoption is forbidden… a woman may not retain custody of her child after seven (for a boy) or nine (for a girl)… fighting the Americans and British is a religious duty; recommendation of severe punishments for homosexuals… a woman cannot marry without the presence (and permission) of a male guardian… an illegitimate child may not inherit from his/her father.’ (pp.70-72)


As the barrister, Neil Addison, explains in his foreword to the Civitas report, those who argue that sharia rulings should be incorporated into the British legal system often confuse mediation with arbitration.

  • Mediation leads to an agreement rather than a judgement. It does not rely upon the application of legal rules but aims to find common ground between parties. A mediator cannot impose a mediation decision.
  • Arbitration is a trial before a judge with the power to enforce a ruling through the civil courts.

The revelation that sharia rulings or fatwas are being enforced through state courts by the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal (MAT) has alarmed many, especially as the Arbitration Act, under which this takes place, specifically excludes divorce and childcare cases. These are the very areas in which sharia rulings cause most concern, since, as David Green says, ‘there is a good deal of intimidation of women in Muslim communities and the genuine consent of women could not be accepted as a reality’ (p.4). David Green calls for the exclusion of sharia courts from recognition under the Arbitration Act of 1996.


In 2004 the Canadian province of Ontario was planning to impose legally binding arbitration according to Islamic law. A furious debate followed led by Muslim women who argued that they had gone to Canada to get away from sharia law and the coercion it embodied. They won, and in February 2006 religious-based arbitration was ended. (p.6)


As David Green says in his introduction, equality under the law, regardless of race, gender or religion, is the bedrock of Western civilisation: take it away and you disrupt the whole edifice.

‘Under most interpretations of Islam a person who leaves the faith is an apostate who can be put to death. While this threat remains, it cannot be accepted that sharia councils are nothing more than independent arbitrators guided by faith. The reality is that for many Muslims, sharia courts are in practice part of an institutionalised atmosphere of intimidation, backed by the ultimate sanction of a death threat. The underlying problem is that sharia law reflects male-dominated Asian and Arabic cultures. It cannot therefore be accepted as a legally valid basis even for settling private disagreements in a country like ours, where our law embodies the equal legal status of everyone, regardless of race, gender or religion. Our system is based on moral and legal equality or it is nothing. Moreover, further encouragement of sharia law, far from helping integration, will undermine the efforts of British Muslims struggling to evolve a version of Islam consistent with a tolerant and pluralistic society.’ (p.5)


As Denis MacEoin says in his conclusion:

‘The introduction of sharia law into this country is a recipe for a dichotomous legal system that holds Muslims and non-Muslims to different standards. This is not a matter of eating halal meat or seeking God’s blessing on one’s marriage. It is a challenge to what we believe to be the rights and freedoms of the individual, to our concept of a legal system based on what parliament enacts, and to the right of all of us to live in a society as free as possible from ethnic-religious division or communal claims to superiority and a special status that puts them in some respects above the law to which we are all bound.’ (p.73)

Notes for Editors

Civitas is an independent social policy think-tank. It receives no state funding either directly or indirectly and has no links to any political party.

For more information contact: 020 7799 6677

Sharia Law or ‘One Law For All’? by Denis MacEoin, foreword by Neil Addison, is published by Civitas, at £10.25 inc. pp. ISBN: 978-1-906837-08-2. Buy from Amazon.


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