The Independent explains why Sharia law is much better than British law. However, Hibah Khan's problem starts with the fact that British courts recognize her Sharia marriage in Pakistan. They would also recognize her divorce in Pakistan, but for some reason she prefers getting a divorce in a British Sharia court, apparently without the consent of both sides.
She bring quite a few problems with her Sharia marriage, but she explains it all away as something that is 'un-Islamic' and anti-Sharia, a philosophy she does not apply to anything the British do. As for her previous marriage - it was annulled by a Sharia court. Was it ever registered in Britain? She doesn't say, and the Independent doesn't ask.
When Hibah Khan wanted a divorce, she turned to a sharia court. Her case would have concluded swiftly and happily – if the ruling had been allowed to stand...
Tucked away in Leyton, east London, is Britain's oldest sharia court. Entirely innocuous, there are no signs promoting its presence, nor anything in its façade to suggest the gravity of the decisions made within its four walls. Once a corner-shop, and haphazardly arranged into an office space with the help of temporary partitions, it is now the site of hundreds of judgments each month based on the requirements of Islamic law. Yet, in the 25 years since its inception, it has not presided over any of the stereotypical cases associated with sharia law – not one hand has been cut off, norfornicator flogged. Rather more prosaically, penal law is never addressed – the fatwas (judgments) all concern personal issues such as divorce, financial arbitration, family disputes and inheritances.
It is here that Hibah Khan, 38, is currently trying to divorce her husband. She was brought up in England and her parents instilled in her both western and Islamic values. She met her husband on a holiday in Pakistan. "He was good-looking, educated – a doctor – and we had similar backgrounds," she says. "We liked each other and kept in touch." A year later, in late 1990, they got married in Pakistan. "I decided that following our wedding I would move there," she says. "I was in love, excited, and although I was working as an accountant in London I wanted a change; I was pretty naive."
The differences began to surface immediately. On the wedding day itself, the groom's family shocked Khan by demanding a dowry. "In Islam, the groom is meant to give a gift to the bride," she says. Although she had been married before, at the age of 21, she'd never lived with her then-husband and the marriage was annulled through a sharia court. "My new husband had said that he didn't mind about me being divorced, but once we were married it was clear he thought my family and I should be very grateful that he had married me. That really shocked me. I was very independent, living and working in London, and then there I was, living in a village to please my in-laws."
The couple started arguing and not long after the wedding, Khan's husband declared he was going to take a second wife. "Again, people think this is Islamic," says Khan, "but they don't know that there is small print. In Islam, you should have one wife, but if you have a second, you have to live with her equally and divide your earnings equally. What man can do that?" Her husband then had an affair. "I forgave him because I'd just given birth to our first child. The harder I tried, the more he thought I was desperate to be married to him." Then Khan became pregnant with her second child. "I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown," she says, "So I returned to England and started seeking a divorce."
The court in Leyton where Khan's divorce is now being heard is one of dozens, also known as councils, across Britain. The judgments made there are informed by the teachings of the Koran, but have no basis in British law; modern British Muslims can therefore find themselves working within a legal system that they feel does not fully understand the rigours of their faith. Much in the way a Jewish couple will seek a religious divorce from the Beth Din court, some Muslims turn to sharia for an Islamic divorce.
It is a far cry from the raging debate prompted by the comments from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when he implied in a lecture earlier this month that the adoption of parts of sharia law will be "unavoidable" in this country's legal system.
Faced with outrage and claims that he was opening a door to extremist Islamic punishments and a parallel legal system, Williams insisted he was simply addressing an issue that had to be debated, and that, "Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together" about the relationship between law and religion. Calls for his resignation quickly ensued – including from two members of the Church of England synod – though the Prime Minister came out in support, praising Williams' "great integrity".
Khan's case illustrates a flaw in the dual-legal system. "Even though my marriage was never registered here, and my husband has never even been to the UK, my solicitor tells me the Islamic marriage certificate is recognised by the British government as legitimate, but the Islamic divorce certificate is not." So Khan now has to seek a divorce through British law as well as the one she is currently seeking through the sharia court.
Ironically, when the row over sharia law first came up in Britain, many people argued it would make life more difficult for women, since it has a poor reputation for upholding women's rights. In Khan's case, the problem seems to be the British court. It sent a petition to Khan's husband and gave him two weeks to answer. They heard nothing. If he was resident in this country, they would send bailiffs to present the petition in person, but because her husband lives in a different country, it is up to Khan to ensure he receives it.
"I have to find someone in Pakistan to send the petition to, and get them to take it to my husband, take a photograph of him, and sign an affidavit. But I don't know where he is. And I'm scared of posting the petition because Pakistan is having elections, and things are a bit unreliable there. The only thing holding me up now is the British court. It's causing so much stress. I don't know where to go, who to ask or why this is happening."
Meanwhile in the sharia court, progress is being made. "I have one more meeting, then in three months I will be a free woman," says Khan. "The thing is, some people practise Islam according to the way their forefathers did. But in Islam the learning is never-ending – you're always finding new ways, always interpreting. In this light, the current argument about sharia law in Britain is a pity: it's sad to see people saying anti-Islamic things when they haven't read what the Archbishop's lecture was about.
"There are laws here which are close to sharia already. Look at the benefit system and disability allowance: that's basically the Prime Minister – the leader – looking after his people. In sharia law, it says the leader of a nation has to look after the people. Whereas, is [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf giving benefits to his people? No.
"The sharia council has been brilliant – they've really helped me, and I'm relieved someone out there is listening," she adds. "I respect the laws of this country, but for me, marriage vows are sacred, and being married by Islamic law, having an Islamic marriage, is first and foremost.
"The sharia court is a very important part of the law, and the council is such a help to our Muslim community. People who have a negative attitude say that it is barbaric, but really, it is moderate Muslims, rather than the extremists, who are the ones who turn to it. It has allowed me to have the chance of freedom, to take up teaching, and start being happy with my life again."
Hibah Khan's name has been changed to protect her identity
Crime and punishment: What is sharia law?
Sharia is the body of Islamic religious law based on the Koran, Muhammad's teaching, the actions of his followers, and centuries of precedent.
Liberal Muslims say sharia law is not a static code but is open to interpretation, while more hardline followers claim the laws are eternal and should be followed to the letter.
Penal law is only a small part of sharia. The flogging of drunkards and adulterers and cutting off of thieves' hands is perhaps the
best-known aspect of sharia law to non-Muslims, but most of the laws are concerned with prosaic issues, from financial arbitration to divorce and personal hygiene.
Sharia law is not legally binding in Britain. However, there are a dozen sharia courts in Britain, which operate out of mosques and deliver judgments on personal law, including divorce and financial issues.
Britain's oldest sharia court is in Leyton (judges Abu Saeed and Suhaib Hassan, pictured below). In operation for 25 years, it has Charity Commission status, issues around 10 fatwas (judgments) a day and hears around 50 divorces a month.
Source: The Independent (English)