February 11, 2008 / 1:34 PM / 12 years ago

Muslim scholar backs beleaguered archbishop

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s leading Islamic scholar believes Anglican leader Rowan Williams has been profoundly misunderstood in his comments on sharia, but fears he will try to “correct” himself solely to quell the furore.

The Archbishop of Canterbury sparked outrage last week when he suggested it was “unavoidable” that at some point in the future aspects of Islamic law would be introduced in Britain, home to around 1.8 million Muslims.

The government was quick to make clear that British law was supreme in the land, and tabloid newspapers launched vitriolic campaigns against Williams, the spiritual leader of the 77 million strong Anglican Church, calling on him to resign.

But Sheikh Suhaib Hasan, the secretary of the Islamic Sharia Council, a panel of Britain’s top Islamic scholars who decide on hundreds of Muslim marriages and divorces each year, said Williams was being wrongly vilified and should explain himself.

“I have listened to his speech and I think people are so ignorant that they cannot understand what he was saying,” Hasan, a Pakistan-born Muslim who studied jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia before coming to Britain 31 years ago, told Reuters.

“Because he’s been so totally misunderstood, he should try to explain himself. He should not withdraw from his comments, that will just make it worse.

“If I believe something then I stand by it. The archbishop is the same. He should not disassociate himself from what he said if he thinks it’s true.”

Williams, who has not spoken publicly since he made his comments, is expected to address the issue when he opens a meeting of the Church of England’s General Synod on Monday.

“NO SHARIA CRIMINAL LAW”

A large part of the problem for Hasan is that few people seem to realise how integrated elements of sharia already are among Muslims in Britain and other European countries.

He and a panel of seven to 10 Islamic scholars hear about 50 divorce cases a month at the Islamic Sharia Council, formed 25 years ago, sometimes settling disputes with couples as far afield as Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands and Germany.

As well as divorces and the division of dowry when a marriage ends, the panel rules in disputes over inheritance, contractual disagreements between Muslim landlords and tenants and sometimes between employees and their employer.

Even if a problem — such as divorce — has been dealt with in a British civil court, many Muslims like a sharia settlement as well so they feel they have done their religious duty.

“As far as marriage goes, we complement the work of the civil court,” said Hasan. “Even after getting a civil court decision, for some people their conscience is not clear until they have an Islamic court decision as well.”

Hasan, 55, is frequently called upon to give evidence in British courts as an Islamic scholar, helping the civil courts give balanced judgments in cases involving Muslims.

Lawyers often send Muslim clients to Hasan, believing a sharia court will be a better place for settling disagreements.

For Hasan, some melding of the two systems, especially among religious Muslims in civil cases, is inevitable and necessary.

“Sharia is used widely throughout Britain every day — it should be no surprise to anyone that elements of it are inculcated into the British legal system,” said Hasan.

The other misunderstanding, he says, is that people immediately jump to the conclusion that sharia means chopping off hands and public executions. He is adamant that there is no desire to introduce sharia criminal courts in Britain.

“There are 57 Muslim countries in the world and only two or three of them impose full sharia criminal law. Why on earth would we want to have that here?” he said. “This is Britain, it would be totally unacceptable.”

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