It has been proposed by certain pockets of Islamic groups that Sharia law should apply, alongside the British legal system, to Muslims in predominately Muslim areas. Sharia law derives from the teachings of the Koran and from Sunna (the practice of the prophet Mohammed), and is implemented to varying degrees in different Islamic countries – from the beheadings of Saudi Arabia, to the relatively liberal social mores of Malaysia. A poll last week revealed that 40% of British Muslims want Sharia law introduced in the UK, but what would the effects of such a bifurcation of judicial systems in this country be? And is it right to accommodate the law for 2.7% of the UK’s population?

Former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett has already proposed that a parallel legal system such as this would be ‘catastrophic’ for social cohesion in Britain. “I think this is very dangerous because the Archbishop [of Canterbury] used the term affiliations,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “We have affiliations to football clubs, to cricket teams, to all sorts of things that aren’t central to our citizenship and the acceptance of that in terms of a common society. We don’t have affiliations when it comes to the question of the law.” He postulates that when it comes to equality under the law, it is essential to be rigorous in terms of making sure people do not find themselves excluded from it because of cultural or faith reasons.

However, Faizul Aqtab Siddiqi, a barrister and principal of Hijaz College Islamic University, Warwick, said this type of court had advantages for Muslims. “It operates on a low budget, it operates on very small timescales and the process and the laws of evidence are far more lenient and it’s less awesome an environment than the English courts,” he said. Mr Siddiqi has predicted that there would be a formal network of Muslim courts within a decade.

To many in the West, talk of Sharia law conjures up images of the floggings, stonings, amputations and beheadings carried out in hard-line Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, the form practised in Britain is more everyday; focusing mainly on marriage, divorce and financial disputes. These latter issues are actually already presided over in Muslim communities by Sheikhs in Sharia councils situated around the UK, and for most Muslims it is this Sharia law that is important to be recognised. Having said this; Channel 4’s documentary ‘Divorce: Sharia Style’, aired last weekend, provided Muslims in favour of the introduction of Sharia law in the UK with an open forum to express their opinions, and viewers may have been a little perturbed by Sheikh Hassan’s plans for the implementation of the law: “we know that if Sharia laws are implemented then you can change this country into a haven of peace. Because once a thief’s hand is cut off, nobody is going to steal. If only once an adulterer is stoned, nobody is going to commit this crime at all. There would be no rapist[s] at all. This is why we say that, yes, we want to offer it to the British society. … And if they don’t accept it, they would need more and more prisons.” Clearly this view can in no way account for all Muslim thinking on the matter but it does seem that some senior Muslim clerics are pressing for the introduction of Islamic penal law with its often brutal punishments with little consideration of how it would coexist with the English judicial system.

On the whole Britain is not intolerant of Sharia law in the UK: there are already many Sharia councils all over England, offering advice over divorce settlements and personal religious problems, which work successfully for British Muslims who already live their lives by two sets of laws. When it comes to issues such as divorce, many British Muslims feel it must be granted in the eyes of their religion and not just in the eyes of British law. But even with the introduction of Sharia divorce law in the West there have been problems. The Rt Rev Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, who holds dual British and Pakistani citizenship, said Britain should learn from the example of Canada, where Muslim women’s groups managed to crush attempts to introduce Islamic law in matrimonial cases. Homa Arjomad, a Canadian Muslim, has founded the internet site ‘International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada’, demanding a “separation of religion from the content of the Canadian Judicial System”. The site quite explicitly suggests that it is very important to defend freedom, democracy and women’s human rights from such cultural relativism.

It seems that if there is disagreement over the introduction of this law even within the predominate Muslim areas it is intended to preside over, then there is no hope of the general public and English judicial system accepting the law as a parallel to their own. The existence of Sharia councils in this country is already what is called a “constructive accommodation” of aspects of the Muslim law, and to create an alternative law altogether in this country would most certainly compromise the weight of British law, with an incremental cost to British culture.