What is Sharia Law? Everything you need to know about the courts in C4’s Extremely British Muslims

Your beginner's guide to the Muslim legal system in the UK

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Here’s a side to the three million British Muslims not normally seen on TV: their simple, everyday lives. Although headlines are often filled with slightly scary mentions of Islam, we’re rarely afforded an exploration into an average day for its followers.

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That’s where Channel 4’s new documentary Extremely British Muslims comes in. The three-part series focuses on how Islamic laws and customs shape love lives, upbringing and identity in the Muslim community of Birmingham’s Central Mosque.

And as the series progresses, you’ll hear a certain word used increasingly often: Sharia…

What is Sharia Law?

Basically, it’s Islam’s legal system. And it covers a huge part of a Muslim’s daily lives, containing everyday rules about hygiene and dress code, as well as more serious laws about marriage and economics. 

Where does it come from?

It’s predominantly derived from Islam’s key religious text, The Quran, which Muslims believe contains laws from the word of God and examples from the life of the prophet Muhammad. Sharia law can also be a result of fatwas, the rulings of Islamic scholars. 

Do all Muslims follow Sharia Law?

That’s not the easiest question to answer as there are many interpretations of Sharia Law, with some seen as taking a relaxed approached, while others adopt a more hard-line outlook.

And just to complicate things, not all Muslims actually know the rules of Sharia law – the rulebook is just too big to remember. In fact, the Imams (priests) at the Birmingham Mosque have to run a daily telephone helpline for Muslims who are unsure about the laws.

The Birmingham Central Mosque

Are there ‘Sharia courts’ in Britain? 

Not exactly. While there are many tribunals and councils dealing with Sharia, they aren’t courts of law. They make decisions purely on a religious basis.

Some councils can use legally-binding negotiation sessions to resolve disagreements between people, but they can’t overrule regular UK courts. And they can’t make any decisions that goes against what UK law states.

Oddly, nobody actually knows how many of these councils there are in the UK, but a study from the University of Reading only found 30. 

So, can you have a Muslim wedding, but not be married in UK law?

Yes. Getting married in your religion doesn’t necessarily mean you are married in the eyes of the state. And vice versa, marriage paperwork outside Islam doesn’t have to be recognised inside the religion. 

Why wouldn’t a Muslim just get married in a religious and Civil service at the same time?

Although many many Muslims do get married in both UK and Sharia law, some see only Sharia important to marriage and believe that no human command can supersede Sharia law.

Does Sharia allow men to instantly divorce their wives?

Bit controversial this: yes, it does. Many believe that the husband simply has to say the Arabic word for “divorce” three times (the so-called triple talaq) to break it up. After that, the marriage undergoes a three months cooling-off period, an idda. If the couple hasn’t reconciled during the idda then the marriage is off.

And what can women do?

This is controversial to say the least, but women can’t dissolve the marriage so easily: instead, they have to apply for divorce through a Muslim council. Not only does this cost £225, but the councils are usually all men: Birmingham’s divorce council is the only one in the country with a female judge on the panel.

Can Sharia councils issue punishments?

Despite the anxiety surrounding this, Sharia councils in the UK have no need to issue punishments. They only deal with family and some business disputes.

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Extremely British Muslims is on Channel 4 at 10pm on Thursdays