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Sharia courts gaining popularity in UK: sources

40 percent of British Muslims back Islamic law

Despite the recent controversy after the Church of England's top cleric said Sharia law was inevitable in Britain, Muslims have been turning to Islamic courts in the UK in increasing numbers for some time.

There are about a dozen Sharia courts in Britain -- although they have no formal legal status -- and are mainly used to resolve family disputes.

The biggest is the Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton, east London. Since it was set up in 1982, it has dealt with 7,000 divorce cases in accordance with Quranic values.

"We act as a religious court, which means deciding about their dispute and giving them written determination, based on Sharia, Islamic principles and jurisprudence," one of its founders, Mufti Barkatullah, told AFP.

The council is not a substitute for the civil courts but provides an "additional" service, granting or refusing an Islamic divorce -- or talaq.

"People who live in the United Kingdom undertake and abide by the law of the land, but they regard those laws as administrative law, not a divine law," Barkatullah said.

"The matters of marriage and divorce don't fall into the state domain. It is a religious matter.

Even if they have registered a civil marriage or divorce, "their perception is that their religious duties and their religious relationships are not finalized", he added.

Mufti Barkatullah dispenses Islamic justice with Maulana Abu Sayeed and Suhaib Hasan, two scholars who like him, are originally from the Indian sub-continent, and Haitham Al-Haddad, a Saudi.

When AFP visited their small anonymous offices in Leyton, they granted a talaq to a woman who was battered by her husband. He was suffering from mental problems and she had obtained a civil divorce in May last year.

According to Sharia law, the right to divorce is incumbent first on the man. A civil divorce as such is only automatically validated in Islamic law if the man has sought it or given his consent. If not, the woman can begin divorce proceedings or Khula with the council.

The scholars will then look to either get the husband's consent, reconcile the couple or grant the woman the talaq at their discretion if the husband does not turn up in person or is clearly in the wrong.

"We examine the case in the light of the fundamental objectives of the marriage. Once we are sure that the marriage is not functioning, then we say you shall separate," Barkatullah explained.

"First of all, we try to bring them to a common ground. If it is repairable, we'll do the repairing. If it is not repairable, we say leaving it hanging is more harmful than separation."

According to a February 2006 survey, 40 percent of the 1.6 million British Muslims said they would back the introduction of sharia law in majority Muslim areas.

The Islamic Sharia Council said more and more people are now seeking them out.

"If the government doesn't take the political way, then the consumer will have the choice," said Barkatullah.

"If more and more people come to us rather than to a British court, we'll know their choice. That's what is happening, that's what the archbishop is saying: you have to accommodate, it's inevitable."

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams faced calls to resign after saying that incorporating parts of Sharia or Islamic law seemed "unavoidable" in certain circumstances.