For the first time, the Islamic Sharia Council has granted access to a newspaper to observe the entire sharia legal process in Britain. Over several weeks, the author was allowed to witness the filing of complaints, individual testimony hearings and the monthly meeting of imams, or judges, where rulings are handed down.
Sharia has been operating in the UK, in parallel to the British legal system, since 1982. Work includes issuing fatwas – religious rulings on matters ranging from why Islam considers homosexuality a sin to why two women are equivalent to one male witness in an Islamic court. The Islamic Sharia Council also rules on individual cases, primarily in matters of Muslim personal or civil law: divorce, marriage, inheritance and settlement of dowry payments are the most common.
However, sharia is also being used informally within the Muslim community to tackle crime such as gang fights or stabbings, bypassing police and the British court system. A few hardline leaders would like it to be taken even further. One religious leader said that Britain should adopt sharia punishments such as stoning and the chopping off of hands to reduce violent crime.