February 9, 2008 / 4:09 PM / 12 years ago

FACTBOX - What is sharia law?

(Reuters) - Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the world’s 77 million Anglicans, is facing calls to resign for suggesting that the introduction in Britain of some aspects of sharia — or Islamic law — was unavoidable.


Sharia is the body of Islamic religious law based primarily on the Islamic holy book, the Koran, as well as the words and actions of the Prophet Mohammad.

It is a legal framework that regulates both public and private life. Sharia covers a broad range of issues including worship, commercial dealings, marriage, inheritance and penal laws.

Sharia has been demonised by some in the West, primarily for its criminal legal aspects, which can include punishments like amputation of a hand for theft or the stoning of adulterers.

Women’s dress is another much-debated aspect of sharia. Some believers interpret it as requiring a woman to wear a full-length robe that also covers her face, and others insist it simply refers to modest dress.


In a BBC interview, the archbishop of Canterbury referred to the use of sharia in some personal or domestic issues.

Already today, some aspects of sharia are implemented in Britain. For example, a Muslim wife or husband wanting a divorce can take their case before a sharia scholar for a ruling, in much the same way as Orthodox Jews have long done in Britain with Beth Din courts.

Once someone has agreed to settle a dispute in the Beth Din, he or she is bound under English law to abide by the court’s decision.

In the United States, too, sharia has been applied locally to Muslims in some court cases involving domestic issues such as child custody and inheritance.


Some people in the West are concerned because of perceptions that sharia, in both its civil and criminal aspects, may be unfair to women. Many Muslim women disagree and say that the code, introduced 14 centuries ago, is liberating for women.

High profile sharia cases have included the case of a woman in Saudi Arabia who was sentenced to lashes after being raped, because she was found guilty of being alone with men to whom she was not related. She was later pardoned.

Saudi Arabia enforces an austere, puritanical interpretation of Islam.

Editing by Caroline Drees

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