In a landmark decision, a court in the UK ruled according to sharia law for the first time. Before jumping to conclusions, it is worth hearing the pros and cons of this decision. Below, we present them. Please take time afterwards to answer our poll on the subject.
A Muslim woman, Nasreen Akhter, filed to divorce her husband, Mohammed Shabaz Khan. The couple, from Pakistani background, had married 20 years earlier but only according to sharia (Islamic) law and not according to British civil law.
Now that they were divorcing, Akhter wanted the state to recognize their marriage so she could claim half of her husband’s assets in a settlement, which she would have not been able to do according to sharia law.
Many Muslim women at the time of their marriages are ignorant of civil law. They often marry very young, are new immigrants (meaning they are unaware of their rights in a Western country) or have led a life so sheltered as to be unaware of such laws and their concomitant rights.
In addition, many men scam the system by marrying more than one wife (as allowed in Islam) but civilly registering only one of these unions. In some of these cases, when the second, third or even fourth wives have children, they apply for social services and financial support as single mothers with dependents.
In all of these cases, denying that these women are married does a disservice to them as well as to the state.
In this case, the court ruled that their sharia marriage should be recognized by British law since their vows had similar form and expectations as that of a British marriage contract.
(Akhter testified that the ceremony took place in front of 150 people and was conducted by an imam. She further said that the couple considered themselves husband and wife and that her husband “always introduced me as his wife.”)
It seems reasonable that when sharia law conforms to the law of the land, as it does in this case, there is no point in denying its validity. Further, when this condition is met and the underprivileged party stands to lose, such a ruling sides with justice.
Obviously, in cases where sharia law does not conform to the civil law of the country, it should not take precedence, but rather the case should be adjudicated according to civil law.
Although ruling against the “wife” in this case would unfortunately mean that she would most likely be denied her share of the couple’s assets (as per sharia law), recognizing sharia law in a British court sets an unacceptable precedent.
The argument claiming that it is reasonable to rule according to sharia law when it does not contradict secular law presents a “slippery slope” in our politically correct world.
It is all too easy to foresee different aspects of sharia law being brought to the courts for recognition due to the precedent set by this case. Similarly, one can imagine in these future cases that although these sharia laws may not exactly conform to civil law, in the name of “cultural sensitivity” or some such politically correct phenomenon, they should be accepted in a British civil court.
Other major religions conform both in practice and substance to both civil law and religious law. In the case of marriage, for example, Christians and Jews take out secular marriage licenses in addition to whatever the requirements their religion demands. Islam should be no exception.
It is the job of the government to both enforce the law and, perhaps, in cases of immigrant communities, make sure that all its citizens are aware of the law. In any case, the law itself should not be forfeited.
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