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Q&A: what is sharia law?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 08 February 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury says its integration into British law is "unavoidable". But what exactly is sharia law?

Q. What is sharia law?

A. Derived in part from the Koran - but also from the teachings of Mohammed and rulings of Islamic scholars known as fatwas - sharia law is a moral system for living. In short it provides a legal and social code for Muslims. It means a "pathway to water".

Q. Is there a single sharia law?

A. No. Broadly there are five schools of sharia law around the world and the differences come down to how literally the texts are interpreted. There is one Shia and four Sunni interpretations. Iran, for example, follows the Shia Jaafari school while north African countries follow the Maliki doctrine.

Q. Why does sharia law get such a bad press?

A. "The term itself has become controversial because although it encapsulates a broad set of values and principles, it is the punishments that people focus on, and we see references to flogging, amputation and stoning," says Dilwar Hussain, a researcher at the Markfield Islamic Foundation in Leicestershire.

"In certain extreme cases, in certain countries, these do happen, but they are the least important parts of sharia."

"The overarching objective of sharia is to establish justice. These punishments are sometimes applied unequally for men and women, rich and poor. For example in some places rich people can get cleverer lawyers to get them out of the court, and in that sense there is unequal access to the law."

Q. What did the Archbishop say?

A. He argued in a lecture to the Royal Courts of Justice that no only was the adoption of some aspects of sharia law in the UK inevitable, it was the right thing to do for the sake of social cohesion.

"It seems unavoidable and, as a matter of fact, certain conditions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law, so it is not as if we are bringing in an alien and rival system."

Q. What has been the response?

A. Some - including the Ramadhan Foundation and the Institute of Islamic Political Thought - have welcomed the Archbishop's comments. But others have been hostile.

Culture secretary Andy Burnham said: "This isn't a path down which we should go. The system, the British legal system, should apply to everybody equally. You cannot run two systems of law along side each other. That in my view would be a recipe for chaos, social chaos,"

Meanwhile Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, shadow minister for community cohesion, told Channel 4 News: "There must in this country be one system of law which recognises under the freedom of law religious practices - which British law already does. But we must all be subject to one law as citizens of this country."

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