The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Sharia Debate

Sheila Musaji

Posted Feb 12, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Sharia Debate

by Sheila Musaji

After carefully reading the full text of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lecture,  believe that his comments have been misunderstood.

They are certainly not treasoncraven, bonkers, a reason to “sack” him,  or as Christopher Hitchens has said, a reason to say “To Hell With the Archbishop of Canterbury”.  The Archbishop certainly wasn’t saying as John Gibson suggested on Fox News:  “What the archbishop was proposing — in effect — was the unfairness of Sharia law toward women be institutionalized for Muslim women under British law.”  And, the Archbishop is not as Robert Spencer called him, “Archdhimmi” of Canterbury

Bringing an existing system under British law makes sense.  As Osama Saeed points out“Shariah already exists in the country - I’m married under it, eat meat slaughtered by it, and bank according to it. In some cases, the law even had to be changed to accomodate this e.g. the removal of double stamp duty for Islamic mortgages. Obviously Williams was talking about such simple matters.”

Personally, I believe that is was heroic.  He knew he would be going into the lion’s den of public opinion and he went anyway. 

“In fact the rather dense 6,322 words that Rowan Williams delivered in his lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice were careful and scholarly, as you’d expect. What he wanted to do, he said, was “to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state”. The tabloids don’t do teasing out. Their style is brute force and the slap round the face.”  Steve Dube

As the Archbishop pointed out  in his clarification, this discussion about religious accommodation within the law does not only have to do with Muslims, it also effects Christians:  “While the law had so far provided space for conscientious objection on religious grounds ... there are signs that this cannot necessarily be taken quite so easily for granted as the assumptions of our society become more secular”. 

And as Abdal Hakim Murad has pointed out: “A storm in a teacup, then? Not quite. The issue of how faith is acknowledged in law will continue to be a tricky one, and not just for Muslims. For instance, one recent poll showed that nine percent of Americans think that the Bible should be their country’s only source of law, and that percentage is growing.”

The aspects of Sharia that he seems to be referring to those are matters of family law (for example marital disputes) and personal financial issues (these are civil and not criminal law) that would come under the same principle as existing religious courts that sometimes operate as arbitration courts within bounds set by civil law, and are only used where all parties to a particular dispute or issue consent.  The Archbishop pointed to the fact that there is already tolerance for religious laws of other communities in Britain, and that religious courts already exist.  The Jewish Beth Din is such an example.  No one is required to use any arbitration court, it is simply available for those who wish to use it as long as it does not conflict with state law.

As noted by Claire Dyer “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s message was not that there should be one law for Muslims and another for the rest. What he seemed to be positing was that the secular legal system should accommodate the traditional sharia councils which exist around the country, dealing with family and other disputes. One model could be the Beth Din, the rabbinical courts set up by a UK statute more than 100 years ago, which means they are recognised within the legal system.”

And, as Yahya Birt has pointed out“The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent intervention on the recognition of Shariah in English law has sent the country into a spin. His address on “Civil and Religious Law in England”, which calls for “interactive pluralism” in law, is far from being a call for legal and cultural separatism. [1] However alarmed the reaction has been, there is simply no question of separate or independent courts; rather, the aim, it seems, is to bring existing informal Shariah courts under the purview of English law.”

If those who are reacting viscerally to this discussion would stop and think for a moment, when the state allows a church, synagogue, or mosque to perform marriage ceremonies and recognize marriages so performed as legal under the law,  that is recognizing a religious authority within the existing law.  Only an Islamic authority can say whether or not a particular food item is halal or not, and only a Jewish authority can say whether or not something is kosher. 

And, as Asim Siddiqui has pointed out“As for family and finance law: Let’s deal with the latter first, the UK is already amending its finance laws to allow sharia-compliant products such as halal mortgages and Islamic bonds. Why? In part to attract the billions of petro-dollars floating in the cash-rich Gulf. That’s a law driven by the commercial global realities to keep London as a premier financial capital; it’s hardly the makings of Londonistan…”

The Archbishops comments don’t come out of thin air as he has been concerned for some time with consensus and integration of various communities into Western (particularly British) society.  A lecture that he gave at a Building Bridges conference in Singapore recently sets the stage for the current sharia comments that have caused such an uproar.  In that speech he said“Does disagreement about truth necessarily mean the violent disruption of social co-operation? I shall be arguing that it does not, and that, on the contrary, a robust view of disagreement and debate between religious communities may play a major role in securing certain kinds of social unity or cohesion”.  ...  “The notion that social unity can be secured by a policy of marginalising or ignoring communities of faith because of their irreducible diversity rests on several errors and fallacies, and its most serious and damaging effect is to give credibility to the idea of a neutral and/or self-evident set of secular principles which have authority to override the particular convictions of religious groups… this amounts to the requirement that religious believers leave their most strongly held and distinctive principles at the door when they engage in public argument: this is not a good recipe for lasting social unity”.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has opened an important discussion.  This was expressed well by the Muslim Council of Britain:  “British Muslims would wish to seek parity with other faiths in particular the followers of the Jewish faith in the United Kingdom in facilitating choices for those who wish, as Muslims, for their personal relationships to be governed by a Shariah civil code. This legitimate aspiration requires full discussion in an atmosphere of understanding and tolerance. It is worthy of note that already enshrined in English law are provisions for Islamic Shariah compliant finance which have become very popular and now enable billions of pounds of fresh investment to come into the UK.  ‘Our common mission to live in cohesion and harmony is better served when men of conscience and authority speak out for justice and equal opportunity. Silence is much more likely to engender prejudice, injustice and inequality. On the issue of giving individuals choice of law but only in private and personal matters, we call, as does the Archbishop, for a mature debate in an environment that reflects mutual respect.”

MUST READ ARTICLES to fully understand this issue:

In Defense of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dave Cole

Rowan Williams says some sharia in Britain is unavoidable

BBC Q&A on Sharia

Anglicans: Canterbury’s idea is like Beth Din

Law needs to accommodate religious legal codes such as ‘Sharia,’ Canterbury says

Religious courts already in use

Is Sharia law a recipe for chaos?

Muslims reject sharia hysteria

Reactions in quotes to sharia law row

Bishop of Oxford - A response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Sharia comments

It’s all very well to be sensitive to Islam, but we cannot ignore the suffering of women, Deborah Orr

Archbishops comments twisted

Sharia, do our rulers understand what the law is?

Church moves to the defense of the archbishop

Archbishop in shock as he faces demands to quit 

Sharia laws and theories vary among world’s Muslims, Tom Heneghan

Lambeth Palace clarifies archbishop’s Sharia comments

Archbishop sorry for ‘unclarity’ but insists Sharia debate right

Archbishop defends right to raise Islamic issues

Anglican church leaders back the Archbishop

United Reformed Church has issued a statement backing his statements

Archbishop of Canterbury concerned about statements him

Archbishop of Canterbury’s Remarks: We Need a Thoughtful Discourse, Not Hysterical Discord, Muslim Council of Britain

Deferring to a higher law, Alexander Goldberg

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Trouble with Shariah, Yahya Birt

Comments by Abdul Hakim Murad

Reinventing sharia, Asim Siddiqui

Our Shariah is their Halakha

Yusuf Smith responds to Melanie Phillips criticism of the Archbishop

Ignorance and bigotry unleased by Archbishop’s speech, Yusuf Smith

Sharia sensibilities, Ayesha Khan

Williams and Sharia, Osama Saeed

One Man’s Sharia, Zahed Amanullah

Sharia delusions in Canterbury, Mona Eltahawy

Muslims seek Beth Din advice

Reaction to Sharia comments blasted by Muslims

Integrating Islam Into the West

Some articles posted on TAM in the past relating to this issue in some way

Islamic sharia and Jewish halakha arbitration courts, Sheila Musaji (written when debate was happening in Canada)

Sharia and contemporary issues, Abdul Basit

Sharia and Fiqh: Understanding Ijtihad *, Abu Munir Winkel

Pakistan : The Meaning of a Moratorium, Tariq Ramadan

Shariah and Religious Absolutism, Farzana Hassan

Are Opponents of Shariah Anti-Islam?, Farzana Hassan-Shahid

Are Sharia Laws and Human Rights Compatible?, Emran Qureshi and Heba Raouf Ezzat

Notion of Shura, Shura and Democracy, Dr. Tariq Ramadan

Islamic Government” - An Oxymoron, T.O. Shanavas

Building New Medinas In These Sceptered Isles, Jonathan Birt

Against the Reduction of Islam to Governance, S. Parvez Manzoor

Answering Questions from American Muslims, Grand Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gomaa

Fatwas, Their Acceptability and Their Relevance, Asghar Ali Engineer