Recently, Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England, delivered a speech about the inevitability of having an Islamic legal system implemented in Britain. His words caused a media frenzy, as some individuals and organizations politicized his statements, shifting the focus from a legitimate social and legal debate to a perceived struggle between Islam and the West.
But the vision presented by Archbishop Williams is one that is both civilized and contemporary in outlook. It will contribute to resolving crises that many sons and daughters of the West who adhere to various religions (including Islam), face. The negative responses to Archbishop Williams’ vision serve to perpetuate conflict rather than open the doors of dialogue.
Because of the burgeoning population of Muslims in Western countries (including immigrants, their children and converts to Islam), Muslim jurists have extensively studied their status in the West, deriving rulings and publishing works specifically pertaining to them. On the forefront of this movement are Shi’a jurists. This is exemplified by the verdicts of the Grand Jurist Sayyid Ali Al-Seestani in his book of verdicts entitled “A Code of Practice for Muslims in the West,” compiled by Dr. Abdul Hadi Al-Hakim. The pages of this book contain many principles and laws that clarify issues of “citizenship” and “assimilation” pertaining to the countries in which Muslims reside. The book aids and guides Muslims to participate in all aspects of society that contribute to ensuring their rights while living contentedly, peacefully, and securely with fellow citizens and residents.
A great number of Muslim jurists, especially those jurists of Shiism, go as far as making it impermissible to break the laws of the country in which the Muslim resides. This verdict is one that is very obvious, as it is based on the Islamic principles of not imposing upon others and not upsetting the order of the society in which one lives.
As for the visitor to a country, Western or otherwise, his receiving a visa is equivalent to a covenant or contract allowing the individual a visitation that is contingent upon adhering to the general laws of the country he will visit. Therefore, jurisprudence dictates adherence to the laws placed by society through its dependence on the country’s constitution, as well as other sources of law.
As for civil and religious rights regarding the family and the relationship between husband, wife and their children and so forth, some of the Islamic laws may not agree with the laws put in place by society itself. For such issues there are only two solutions: The first is to place conditions within the marriage contract, in much the same way as one would adhere to stipulations in a business contract. This would resolve any issues that may arise due to problems within both family and work relations. Whether in the disbursement of owed funds for a dowry, the division of inheritance among the inheritors, or otherwise, all contractual agreements must be honored. This can be done without breaking the laws of the province, state or country in which the person resides.
The second solution is for civil courts to agree to the religious liberties of all people, allowing the people to refer to their own ideologies and religious scholars to do what they can to resolve any issues. Rather than having any controversy around possible “alternative” legal systems, this would simultaneously respect the general laws and allow those who are religious to perform their religious and ideological duties freely. This, of course, would be in direct cooperation with and in association with the courts of the place of residence.
Archbishop Williams’ belief that introducing aspects of Islamic law in Britain is unavoidable is one that displays wisdom and foresight. He alludes to the fact that the courts do not necessarily acknowledge the ideology behind certain binding religious contracts (such as marriage). In such cases, there is absolutely no contradiction between accepting the laws and the acknowledgment of its religious facets. Shi’a jurists following Seyyid Seestani join the Archbishop in his clear call that “Britain needs to face reality,” however; we would like to present a more precise statement. We do not say that citizens do not depend greatly on the laws of Britain, but rather that citizens need some degree of freedom that guarantees their spiritual and religious security. This can be done by including some of their religious requirements alongside the country’s placed system of laws. This is not something that is impossible to achieve. It has, in fact, already been implemented for followers of other religions. It has also been implemented in some states within the United States, and has proven to be successful in helping in the development of the social fabric, as alluded to by Archbishop Williams.
The topic of the Archbishop’s speech and the point he made therein do not compromise the integrity of the British legal system in any way. In fact, the notion that this great nation makes room for a plurality in its laws (as long as British law is the supreme law in courts) by engaging important segments of the population is consistent with progress. Rather than embellishing certain points and leaving out others in order to twist his words, his nuanced argument needs to be taken for what it is: a wise, realistic, and visionary commentary on Britain’s legal system and the challenges it faces.
Sayyid M. B. Kashmiri is a religious scholar and Director of the Imam Mehdi Association of Marjaeya (I.M.A.M.), the liaison office of Ayatullah Sayyid Ali Seestani for North America.