Shari’a and the archbishop

Patrick Sookhdeo Patrick Sookhdeo is the director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity and was for 22 years International Director of the Barnabas Fund. Sookhdeo is an outspoken spokesman for per
01 April, 2008 5 min read

Shari’a and the archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury has suffered much criticism for recommending that elements of Islamic law should be adopted in the UK. Some of this criticism has been uninformed but the best analysis of the subject we have seen is that provided by Dr Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund – whose response we reproduce below.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued in a lunchtime radio interview on Thursday 7 February 2008 that the adoption of Islamic law (shari’a) in Britain is unavoidable. In the evening he gave a lecture at the Royal Courts of Justice (organised by the Temple Church and the Centre of Islamic and Middle East Law at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies).

The main argument in his lecture seemed to be that in a plural multi-faith society the concept of one universal law for all citizens must be adapted to accommodate the reality of other law-traditions in minority communities. He elaborated especially on the Muslim community in the UK and on Islamic law, and argued for an accommodation between English law and Islamic law – so that either law system could be used to resolve disputes over marriage, divorce, inheritance and other matters.

Utopian view

While the archbishop has the best of intentions in wanting to create greater cohesion and harmony in British society, his suggestions seem sure to result in the exact opposite. He seems to be taking multiculturalism to an extreme, extending it to the legal system of the state, and thus creating new arenas for conflict and hostility.

His view of shari’a is utopian and naïve. He has claimed that shari’a is not the monolithic system of detailed rules which most Muslims consider it to be, but rather an expression of universal principles being implemented flexibly according to context by means of ijtihad (individual effort at interpretation).

While this expresses what liberal Muslim reformists would like to see happen, the reality is that for the vast majority of Muslims shari’a is still viewed as God’s immutable divine law regulating all areas of life.

Furthermore, it discriminates against women (for example, in divorce and inheritance) and against non-Muslims. It lays down a multitude of penalties, including imprisonment, beating, annulment of marriage, disinheritance and death, for Muslims who leave their faith.

Severity of Islamic law

Even Tariq Ramadan, who is referred to positively in the archbishop’s lecture, could not bring himself to advocate changing the strict hudud laws of shari’a which demand stoning, amputation and flogging. The most he could suggest was a moratorium on these punishments for the time being, until a perfect Islamic society arises that could implement these laws in a fair and just manner.

For this innovation he was severely attacked by many famous Islamic religious scholars from across the Muslim spectrum, who accused him of bordering on heresy. They claimed that the hudud laws are immutable and that severity is a valued hallmark of Islamic shari’a.

The archbishop excludes hudud punishments from the areas of shari’a which he recommends to be practised in the UK. However, had he a fuller understanding of shari’a, he would realise that no hard and fast line can be drawn between these two areas of shari’a because of Islam’s apostasy law.

The array of punishments for leaving Islam include not only death, but also matters of family law – the very part of shari’a which the archbishop wants to see applied in the UK, such as annulment of marriage, loss of access to children, and loss of inheritance.

Vulnerable individuals

Dr Williams is aware of the danger that the introduction of state-sanctioned shari’a courts could encourage the most conservative and radical elements in Islam and disadvantage vulnerable individuals within the Muslim community such as women.

Nevertheless, he seems to be blissfully confident that those who will implement the new structures are bound to be enlightened practitioners of the ideal reformed shari’a he has in mind. Experience, of course, reveals that it is the more ‘repressive and retrograde elements’ (as he calls them) who usually come to the fore and take over such institutions – backed by the almost unlimited resources of oil-rich Wahhabism and the various forms of Islamism it supports.

Wherever shari’a has been given expanded space in the legal systems of Muslim states, it has inevitably led to infringements of the rights of vulnerable groups such as women and children, non-Muslims, converts from Islam to other religions, and non-orthodox Muslim communities such as the Ahmadiyya and the Bahai. It has also negatively affected the intellectual debate, narrowing the limits of freedom and threatening dissenters with shari’a sanctions.


Dr Williams seems to be so concerned about the fragmentation of British society that he is willing to have shari’a embedded in British law so as to appease Muslim demands and give the Muslim community the feeling that British society is really inclusive and sensitive to its demands.

He has been persuaded that shari’a is essential for Muslims’ identity and well-being and that it is inhumane to expect them to live without it. In the name of multiculturalism, tolerance and political correctness, he is happy to erode long established principles of equality before the law and individual liberty accepted as basic in Western societies.

Embedding shari’a in British law would negatively impact many vulnerable members of the Muslim community – women, children, secularists and liberals. They would all face increasing pressure to comply with traditional shari’a norms.

Once shari’a was in place, community and religious pressure would make it exceedingly difficult for them to opt to be judged by English law. The archbishop also ignores the many Muslims who have fled repressive shari’a states to find refuge in a free and democratic British society. The empowerment of shari’a courts will endanger their newly found liberties.

Privileged position

The process of setting up a system of shari’a courts recognised by the state and its civil law will help those Muslims in Britain who appear to be working to develop a network of loosely-knit Islamic autonomous regions – a de facto non-territorial Islamic state.

Seemingly innocent and gracious concessions to such demands on shari’a contribute to building up an Islamisation trend which could become unstoppable. Many Muslims also hope that ultimately Britain will grant Islam, its scriptures and its founder, a privileged and protected position immune from criticism, a position not granted to other religions.

Yielding to such demands would gradually erode the hard won freedoms and rights which are at present part of British society. It would open the door to a totalitarian and discriminatory system that denies individual rights and seeks to control both the public and the private spheres in ways typical of Muslim states.

The increasing application of shari’a would profoundly change the character of British society in ways which hitherto would have been considered completely unacceptable.

Creeping Islamisation

The fact is that Britain has already gone a long way down the Islamisation road. Many informal shari’a courts are operating in the Muslim community; there is a parallel shari’a compliant financial system; shari’a regulations such as those to do with halal food, Islamic dress and gender segregation in physical exercises are complied with in schools and educational institutions. Some of these regulations also operate in public services such as the police, the NHS and the prison system.

The addition of shari’a courts whose sentences are binding and enforceable by the civil legal system would take Britain much further along the Islamisation track, which is the long-term goal of many Muslim organisations.

Contrary to the archbishop’s expectations, it will narrow the space for free discussion and legitimate criticism, limit the freedoms and rights available to individual Muslims, and empower the more traditional, Islamist and radical tendencies in the Muslim community.

Furthermore, for the many Anglicans and other Christians living in contexts where shari’a is being applied and causing untold misery and suffering – for example in parts of Nigeria and parts of Sudan – the Archbishop of Canterbury’s suggestions are not just unwise, but insensitive to the point of callousness.

Patrick Sookhdeo is the director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity and was for 22 years International Director of the Barnabas Fund. Sookhdeo is an outspoken spokesman for per
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