Shari’ah Soup for Archbishop

For seeming to call for the adoption of the Shari'ah in Britain, Archbishop Rowan Williams, head of the Anglican Church and Britain's highest ranking cleric last week became the recipient of wicked public ridicule - the type only reserved for "Muslim extremists". For daring to envisage that the Shari'ah would soon become part of Britain's laws, the government disowned him, some public commentators called for his immediate dismissal, and others recommended that he be tried for treason. Even his friends could not come out in his defence and the man has been left to carry his own cross, so to say. Most reactions to Williams' "proposals" have been passionate, hysterical and unreasoning.

By these, we mean both Williams' fellow religionists who, it seems, would only be placated by his head on a platter, as well as the Muslims who have impulsively hailed his "proposal" as the best thing to happen to Muslims in contemporary times. Yet, this writer believes that muslims ought to be a little more circumspect in their choice of heroes. If we pause to put the archbishop's comments in their proper perspective, and if we take time to examine the situation of Muslims in Britain vis-a-vis the application of the Shari'ah, we should come to the conclusion that the controversy is both unnecessary and irresponsible. Quite contrary to general perception, the archbishop did not mount a campaign for the wholesale adoption of the Shari'ah in Britain. He merely observed that the application of some parts of Shari'ah law to resolve marital and financial disputes by Muslims in Britain "seems unavoidable". His reasoning was that since "(c)  ertaiR provisions of Shari'ah are already recognized in our society and under our law ... it's not as If we're bringing in an alien and rival system".

In other words, the archbishop was merely calling attention to the fact that already, British Muslims were successfully applying the Shari'ah to settle their civil disputes, and that the British legal system would lose nothing if it officially recognizes these "underground courts" (our coinage). We should immediately note, as Williams also pointed out in the "offending" interview, that the British legal system allows orthodox Jews in Britain to refer their disputes to the Jewish courts called the Beth Din, rather than conventional British courts. Jewish law is used to settle their disputes, not British law. The law which recognized the Jewish courts was passed 100 years ago (yes, you read right, one hundred years ago).

The British government (which says that allowing Shari'ah would undermine the "cohesive society it is trying to build) and Williams' other critics do not seem to note the irony here. Clearly, something must be fundamentally wrong with the democratic country which claims to allow equal rights and opportunities for all peoples, if a right that orthodox Jews have freely enjoyed for over a hundred years will now break the country into pieces when "permitted" to Muslims. In fairness to the archbishop, he was not addressing the rabble who impulsively brayed for his blood. He was actually giving an academic discourse described as a 'careful exploration of the limits of a "unitary and secular" legal system and how, in an increasingly diverse society, it might be able to accommodate religious claims'. But even in this academic discourse, the archbishop failed to address the fact that the Anglican faith remains the official faith of the British state to the exclusion of all other beliefs, or even that British common law is based on canon (or church) law, which Britain's multicultural majority must now bow to, like it or not.

Those who insist on a purely secular approach to law would be better educated to see the fallacy of their arguments if Williams could also spare time to highlight this and other incongruities in the very foundation of the British legal system. As for the Muslims hailing the archbishop to high heavens, we should remind them that the Williams did not forget to stress that "nobody in their right mind" would support the application of the penal aspects of Shari'ah in . Britain. Now, those of us the archbishop classifies as not being in our right minds would advocate for the application of every aspect of the Shari'ah, in Britain, and elsewhere. Our Shari'ah is not a social ideology bifurcated along the lines of "private" vs. "public" life, or "religious" vs. "secular" rules to be applied at convenience. Rather, it is a complete way of life, a whole set of irreducible commands of which we simply cannot pick and choose, as the archbishop intends.

Of course, we do recognize e that the Muslims of Britain cannot today apply the penal aspects of Shari'ah under the existing order, but we do pray that that day would soon come, for the good of all. Interestingly, the Muslim Council of Britain, the organization identified as the United Kingdom's most prominent Muslim organization opposed Dr Williams' vision, claiming that this would lead to a dual system of laws in Britain, and that the council does not wish to see this happen. Of course, serious Muslims in the UK would simply ignore the council and note that even before Williams spoke, there were according to the BBC, "already an estimated 30 Shari'ah courts in Britain handing down judgments on civil matters".

What this means is that where there is a will, as the proverb says, there must be a way. People who are serious about the observance of the totality of their faith would not wait for politicians to point the way. Indeed, the Trojan horse in arguments for official recognition is that once the British (or any other legal system which claims precedence over the Shari'ah) "allows" you to apply the Shari'ah in their own courts, the Shari'ah would be deemed as inferior to these laws and would be interpreted subject to such laws. This means that where there is any conflict, those laws would prevail over the Shari'ah. Do we really want that? If you are a Muslim in the UK (or elsewhere) reading this, know that you don't need an Archbishop to tell you that you must apply the Shari'ah to all your dealings. More importantly, you must know that you can legitimately apply the Shari'ah, even now. You don't need to go through the government's court system .to have this done.

Let them call it arbitration, alternative dispute resolution or whatever. In societies where the Shari'ah is not recognised officially (including southern Nigeria), all you require is

(a) a desire to apply the Shari'ah,

(b) an agreement with the other party that the rules of the Shari'ah be applied exclusively to resolve your dispute, and

(c) someone trustworthy and knowledgeable - whether based in your country or not - to act as adjudicator. You don't need an archbishop you see; all you require is a will, and you can stay on the Shari'ah ways.

This article was culled from the publications ofDeen Communication Limited