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Last Updated: Monday, 11 February 2008, 16:24 GMT
The view from inside a Sharia court
Dan Bell
BBC News

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For many people Sharia courts are seen as brutal institutions where zealots in hardline Muslim states pass down draconian punishments.

But there are already Sharia courts operating throughout Britain in ways that have very little to do with the stereotype.

One of them is the Islamic Sharia Council, which is run from a threadbare converted corner shop on a backstreet in Leyton, east London.

Its backroom is piled from floor to ceiling with brown cardboard boxes and shelves packed with richly-decorated tomes of Islamic law.

The room, which looks like a hard-up solicitor's office, serves as the council's courtroom and mediation centre.

An unshaven young man reaches across the desk and holds the hand of his cleric as he pleads for a second chance with his wife. The young man's eyes are red and swollen from crying.

Forced to divorce

The cleric, Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, quietly tells him he has no power to force his wife to reconsider.

"He has come to us to ask for help, but if the woman is adamant and she doesn't want to reunite, what can we do?" says Mushtaq Bux, until recently general manager at the council.

It is a scene as dramatic as it is indicative of how far this Sharia court is from the common stereotype.

Since opening in 1982, the Islamic Sharia Council has given advice on everything from inheritance settlements to whether or not Muslim women are allowed to wear wigs.

But the vast majority of their cases are to do with divorce, and in particular with releasing women from bad or forced Islamic marriages.

In every situation our motto is: reconciliation first
Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed

The divorce applications stem from the misuse of Islamic laws on marriage and divorce by husbands.

Under some interpretations of Sharia law, men can have up to four wives and are given the primary right of divorce, or talaq.

This means he can leave one wife and remarry, but refuse to give the first wife a divorce, and yet still feel he is living in accordance with his faith.

In the eyes of the community his wife is still married, and because women are only allowed one husband at a time, she is left unable to remarry and move on with her life.

These women in so-called "limping marriages" come to the Islamic Sharia Council who write to her husband and try to convince him to give her a divorce. If he refuses, after about three months they annul the marriage.

Sheikh Sayeed, president of the council, is adamant these interpretations have nothing to do with the true message of Islam.

I am not doing it for any financial gain in this world; I am doing it for immense reward from the Lord Almighty in the hereafter
Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed

He says they are a "tribal or traditional interpretation of Islam. Not incorrect interpretation of sharia - no interpretation of sharia.

"In every situation our motto is: reconciliation first. So we try to reconcile, but in cases where a marriage was enforced on a girl against her wishes, against her own opinion, we don't want to negotiate.

"What we do is, we try to make their guardians, their parents, understand the Islamic position, and also we tell them what is the position of British law on marriage."

Najma Ebrahim, a former coordinator with the Muslim Women's Helpline, which received 2,000 calls a year, 70%-80% of which are from women with marital problems, says the council is providing a vital service.

'Outcast in society'

She says: "It's very important for [the wife's] self, for her healing. Her faith - her fate - is important to her, so when she goes to the council and gets that decision, at least for her she knows she is not doing something wrong."

Suhaib Hasan, the secretary of the council, says: "If she remarries without taking the divorce, she would be an outcast in society.

"This is why she has to have an authority where she can get the solution of her problems."

No-one knows how many Sharia courts there are in the country, and not all will follow such liberal interpretations of Sharia.

I feel I could at last do some real good thing in the practical life of people
Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed

There is no regulation of the councils and no formal qualifications are needed to preside over a Sharia court. Some imams are highly educated scholars like Sheikh Sayeed, others less so.

For Sheikh Sayeed, his work at the Islamic Sharia Council provides for a deep need in the community.

In the back room of the council, he explains with pride what it means to him.

He says: "I feel I could at last do some real good thing in the practical life of people.

"I am not doing it for any financial gain in this world; I am doing it for immense reward from the Lord Almighty in the hereafter, so it fills my heart with all these riches".

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