Shariah law in the UK? Part 1

Sensationalism? Picture from The Sun newspaper, UK:


Yesterday evening I attended a lecture given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, entitled ‘Islam in English Law’. My initial interest in his talk stemmed from the fact that I believed it to be historical in nature. I was wrong. The day before his lecture there was a report in the Times Online entitled “Does Islam fit with our law?”, which foreshadowed that the talk was likely to be focused on the incorporation of aspects of Islamic law into the English legal system.

Upon reading the Times Online report the immediate question that occurred to me was, just why should the common law of England and Wales incorporate aspects of any religious law? While it is true that the common law has its roots in Christian tradition it has, over a period of hundreds of years, been divorced of any allegiance to any religious doctrine or dogma. The result is that the common law of England and Wales today is very much a secular law, and all the better for it. As an example, in the England of olde, one would not be infringing the law when discriminating against or persecuting religious minorities, including Catholics, Jews and Muslims. Today, this could hardly be said to be the case.

Of course, the common law is not perfect. No one claims it to be so. Indeed, the greatest strength of the common law is its openness to change. The common law as it stands today is a testament to man’s powers of logic and reason. Religious law in contrast is characterised by an unswerving allegiance to tradition and dogma, with any modifications to suit the demands of modernity viewed as a cop out. This of course forms part of a wider struggle between tradition and modernity.

My primary objection to the application of religious law outside of the personal sphere (by which I mean imposing only on one’s self) does not stem per se from the fact that religious law is supposed to have been ordained by God. Instead it stems from the fact that religious law, in comparison to its common law cousin, is much more rigid and less amenable to change.

Would a law once again influenced by dogma and tradition be sufficiently dynamic and diverse to cater to the needs of a diverse population? Further, would chaos not ensue should all religious communities want their own laws in place?

These thoughts formed the basis of a question that I emailed to the organisers of the lecture in the hope that the Archbishop would answer it.

And answer it he did, for that was precisely what his lecture was centred on.

Today, the Archbishop has been overwhelmingly condemned by most quarters (including prominent Muslims) for the comments he made last night and he is featured in the headlines of many of the major British newspapers, not to mention all the tabloids – “Victory for Terrorism” says The Sun (not our theSun, but the British newspaper). He even made it to the pages of a Malaysian newspaper.

I will discuss my thoughts on his lecture in the second part of this post which will be up tomorrow.

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