Sitting in one room, a young Muslim woman tells an elderly cleric about the parlous state of her marriage to a 50-year-old man.
‘He oppressed me to the maximum,’ she declares. ‘He is violent, physically, and treats me like a dog.’
The woman — who looks barely out of her early 20s — describes her spouse as verbally and physically abusive about ‘every little thing’ she does.
A distraught wife seeking a divorce at a Sharia Court in London holds her head in her hands as she sits with judge Suhaib Hasan
When the husband’s around, he forces her to wear a headscarf. When he isn’t, which is often, he likes to travel to Tunisia, where she suspects he has secretly married several other women.
For all she knows, she adds, he might have accumulated as many as ten other wives. Fighting back tears, as she finishes this tale of betrayal, the woman glances to the cleric, who has a long white beard, and sits at a raised desk in front of a bookcase full of Islamic texts. Perhaps she’s hoping for a supportive smile, confirming she’s not at fault. Maybe she’s seeking reassurance that the man will hold her misogynistic, wife-beating husband to account.
Instead, the elderly cleric, whose name is Suhaib Hasan, starts laughing. ‘Why did you marry such a person?’ he chuckles.
Down the corridor, another vulnerable Muslim woman is telling a second elderly cleric about her ill-fated marriage. This woman, in her 30s, says that at 19 she was coerced by her family into marrying a Bangladeshi illegal immigrant (who duly gained British citizenship). They had two children, but the relationship foundered.
‘There was a lot of fighting. He threw stuff at me. He put me in debt,’ she says.
The husband, to whom she gave £38,000 during their time together, is now back in Bangladesh, where he’s taken a second wife. The woman has not seen him for four years, and therefore wants a divorce.
But the cleric won’t grant one. Instead, says a witness, he decides to ‘tell her about the “scientific biologic reasons for polygamy” ’.
Finally, the cleric, Maulana Abu Sayeed, makes an effort, in the words of the witness, to ‘persuade the woman towards acceptance of the marriage in polygamous form’.
This being the 21st century, the woman isn’t prepared to play ball. So she leaves unhappy.
Dr Hasan sits with fellow members at a meeting of the Islamic Sharia Council at Regent's Park mosque
Elsewhere, in the same building, a third hearing is taking place, presided over by a much younger cleric, Furqan Mahmood. In front of him sits a nervous-looking Muslim couple, who have several children.
They are, they explain, concerned that their marriage, conducted several years ago, might somehow be invalid. To blame is a technicality of Islamic law: the woman divorced her first husband in the UK courts, but failed to also obtain a religious divorce, or Talaq.
So the couple are worried this inadvertent breach of Muslim custom could, on paper, mean that she is living as an adulteress.
The cleric certainly seems deeply concerned. ‘It is going to be a difficult case,’ Mahmood, who wears long white robes, tells the couple. ‘We are going to ask our scholars to give you the answers.’
One potential way to adhere to the letter of Islamic law would be for the couple to undergo a process called Nikah Halala. This would begin with them divorcing, a step that would allow a cleric to legally declare the woman’s first marriage over.
Then, before re-marrying her second husband, the woman would be required to have a temporary marriage, to a third man.
‘She will need to have sex first [with the third man], divorce him, [and] wait three menstrual periods,’ reports a witness to the hearing. ‘Then she can return to the father of her children.’
This medieval-sounding procedure apparently derives from a passage in the Koran that stipulates it’s ‘not lawful’ for a divorced woman to sleep with her ex-husband ‘until after she marries a husband other than him’.
It us just one of the steps Mahmood may, or may not, now recommend they take.
After the couple leave, the witness asks Mahmood if there will be any ‘consequences’, should they decide against acting on his eventual advice.
‘What?’ he replies. ‘Do you think we are going to stone them to death, or something?’
This remark is, of course, a joke.
However, the same does not apply to the other strange and at times deeply worrying events I have described so far.
They are, instead, among the very serious proceedings documented in a forthcoming book which claims to offer an unprecedented insight into the secret world of Britain’s so-called Sharia courts.
A forthcoming book claims to offer an unprecedented insight into the secret world of Britain’s so-called Sharia courts
Written by Machteld Zee, a Dutch academic, the controversial, 200-page Choosing Sharia carries a detailed description of events that Zee claims took place over three days in 2013, when she was allowed to observe goings-on in two of Britain’s busiest Sharia courts, or councils.
Around 85 such tribunals, usually attached to mosques, are believed to operate in the UK, according to research by the think-tank Civitas.
They are designed to help religious Muslims settle financial, family and marital disputes according to the principles of their faith, as laid down in the 7th century.
To supporters, including many on the Left, such courts provide a unique and valuable service to the Muslim community by helping its members stay true to Sharia law, a legal system derived from the Koran and the rulings of Islamic scholars, known as fatwas.
In keeping with the principles of multiculturalism, critics of Sharia courts therefore almost invariably find themselves accused of Islamophobia.
That hasn’t silenced them, however. Indeed, recent years have seen growing concerns that Britain’s Sharia courts are fostering extremism, undermining human rights and creating a parallel justice system whose basic principles conflict with the law of the land. To this end, Home Secretary Theresa May recently promised a review of Sharia courts to ensure they support ‘British values’.
And last Thursday, a coalition of 150 women’s rights groups and campaigners presented a petition to David Cameron urging the Government to ban them from hearing divorce and other family cases on the grounds they are ‘denying vulnerable women and children access to equality and human rights’.
Last week, meanwhile, a House of Lords committee considered a Bill by Baroness Cox, a crossbench peer, that would force Sharia courts to ensure their rulings are compatible with the Equality Act. It would, among other things, prevent them from stipulating that men can be preferred over women in inheritance and property disputes.
Against this feverish backdrop, Machteld Zee’s book, which is based on her PhD thesis and will be published in January, makes explosive reading.
Two women Muslim women apply for a divorce in front the Sharia Court judge Sheikh Haitham Al Haddad
The 31-year-old academic, who describes herself as an atheist, was permitted to observe hearings at the Islamic Sharia Council (ISC), the country’s busiest Sharia court, based in a converted corner shop in Leyton, East London. The experience — one of the most detailed academic studies of Sharia courts ever printed — led her to conclude they are condemning Muslim women to ‘marital captivity’ and failing to properly protect victims of domestic violence.
‘In a toxic mix of religious fundamentalism, culture and tight-knit communities, Sharia councils uphold the theory and practice of the stronghold men have over women,’ she wrote.
During one controversial ISC case, for example, she says a qadi, or judge, refused to intervene even though a woman said her husband was effectively blackmailing her by denying her a divorce unless she gave him £10,000.
In another, she claims that she observed a male judge dealing with an abusive husband. The man was not referred to the police, but instead told to put things right by swearing on the Koran not to mistreat his wife any more.
During a third hearing, Zee saw a judge declare that divorces granted in British courts are worthless to proper Muslims. ‘A secular judge does not do religious divorces,’ she quotes him saying. ‘Can a kaffir [non-Muslim] come in and judge Islamic matters?’
Zee says the vast majority of the cases involved women seeking to divorce absent husbands, due to the fact that under Islamic law, men only need to say ‘I divorce you’ three times to separate from their wives — while women need the sanction of clerics, whom they must pay for the privilege.
‘Sharia councils exist so that Islamic fundamentalists can promote their ideology whilst at the same time making money by letting women buy their freedom,’ she observes.
In minority communities, Zee argues, Muslim women feel heavy cultural pressures to settle personal and family disputes via Islamic rather than normal courts. And, almost invariably appearing before male judges, they often disadvantage themselves in the process.
For example, the first ruling made in 2008 by the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal in Nuneaton (Britain’s first Sharia court whose judgments complied with the Arbitration Act, making them legally binding) involved an inheritance dispute between three sisters and two brothers.
The tribunal found, in accordance with standard Sharia principles, the male heirs should be given twice as much money as the women.
Despite her critique of what she regards as institutional misogyny, Zee describes the judges in Leyton as ‘very friendly’.
‘The problem is not that they were mean, but that the foundation of their justice acts in a system of Sharia Islamic law, in which the principle focus is making women dependent on their husbands and clerics,’ she says.
According to Zee: ‘One judge said: “Under Islam, we should reconcile marriages even if there is violence.” They don’t care. It was shocking: they would have you cling to a marriage.’
It should, at this stage, be stressed that the Islamic Sharia Council takes issue with many of Zee’s conclusions, and says it vigorously disputes her version of events with regard to several of the cases she witnessed. A representative denied that the ISC condones domestic violence, and said allegations that its judges favour men are ‘absolute rubbish’. She added that it intends to file a formal complaint with the University of Leiden, where Zee works, calling for her PhD to be withdrawn in light of ‘serious factual inaccuracies’ in her account.
It’s impossible to say with 100 per cent certainty who is right, however, because the ISC (whose hearings are usually held behind closed doors) forbade the academic from recording her visit. Zee’s account is instead based on detailed written notes. Yet even without her testimony, an extended look at some of the senior figures behind the ISC does raise a host of unsettling questions.
Dig into its annual reports, for example, and you’ll find that a troubling proportion of the organisation’s most senior male clerics — many of whom sit on its small board of trustees — have, over the years, appeared to support and promote Islamic fundamentalism. One has even expressed a desire to turn Britain into a Sharia state and impose Islamic law on all its citizens.
The controversial, 200-page Choosing Sharia carries a detailed description of events that Zee claims took place over three days in 2013, when she was allowed to observe goings-on in two of Britain’s busiest Sharia courts, or councils
Take, for example, the late Shaykh Sayyid Matawalli ad-Darsh, who founded the ISC (which is a registered charity) in 1982, stating that he wanted to create ‘a quasi-Islamic court’.
Born in Egypt in 1930, he came to the UK in the Seventies as the imam of the Regent’s Park Mosque, which later became notorious for its links to extremism.
During his career there, he became a noted proponent of fundamentalism, saying in one documented lecture that ‘there is no minimum age’ for marriage because ‘the guardian of children, both male and female, has the right to conduct a marriage agreement on their behalf’.
Two years before his 1997 death, when he was a trustee of the ISC, he gave an interview saying he ‘fully sympathised’ with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organisation whose links to extremism are currently the subject of a review ordered by David Cameron.
Asked about al-Darsh’s background, the ISC refused to comment because ‘he is no longer here to defend himself’, but stressed it ‘does not support his views on child marriage’.
Take also al-Darsh’s successor as president of the ISC, the aforementioned Maulana Abu Sayeed, who remains one of the organisation’s three trustees to this day. A cleric who sits in judgment over the marital disputes heard in its courtrooms, he made headlines in 2010 by telling an influential blog that men who rape their wives should not be prosecuted, because ‘sex is part of marriage’.
‘Clearly there cannot be any rape within the marriage. Maybe aggression, maybe indecent activity,’ he said.
Abu Sayeed added that women who say they have been raped should not immediately go to the police. Many of them are lying, he claimed, ‘because they have got this idea of so-called equality, equal rights’.
Asked about those outwardly misogynistic comments, the ISC said: ‘Maulana Abu Sayeed is a deeply respected scholar. He was quoting traditional Islamic discussion regarding rape within marriage.’
Then there is Shaykh Suhaib Hasan, the ISC’s co-founder who remains a trustee, sits in judgment in its courts, and was also observed by Zee. In 2007, he made headlines following a Channel 4 documentary called Divorce Sharia Style, in which he appeared to express a desire to impose Sharia law on the UK.
‘If Sharia law is implemented, then you can turn this country into a haven of peace,’ he argued, ‘because once a thief’s hand is cut off, nobody is going to steal. Once, just once, if an adulterer is stoned, nobody is going to commit this crime at all.’
More recently, Hasan appeared on YouTube giving a talk about The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, a hoax document about Jewish world domination which is often quoted by Islamic fundamentalists and other anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.
When asked about Hasan’s world view, the ISC’s representative claimed his comments on Sharia ‘were in the context of an academic discussion of classical Islamic law’, and denied that he really supports the ‘introduction of Sharia law in Britain’.
They added: ‘Shaykh Hasan has completely retracted his views on the Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion since he learnt that it is a hoax document.’
Finally, there is Shaykh Haitham al-Haddad, who was a trustee of the ISC until last year, serving as its treasurer.
Often dubbed a hate-preacher, — which he denies — he has been quoted saying that ‘Muslims should rule the entire planet with Islamic law’ and can be seen on YouTube describing female circumcision as an ‘honour’ and arguing that ‘Islamic law has no minimum age for marriage’.
He openly criticises ‘the scourge of homosexuality’, and has had talks at a number of universities postponed and cancelled.
He has also been quoted calling Jews ‘the descendants of apes and pigs and the enemies of God’.
Here, then, are just four of the supposedly even-handed men who have sat at the busiest of Britain’s 85 Sharia courts, making life-changing decisions that affect the future of hundreds of often vulnerable Muslim women each year.
Asked how their comments reflect on the Islamic Sharia Council, a spokeswoman stressed that the organisation takes extremism very seriously, and denied it condones spousal abuse.
She added that three of the Leyton court’s seven judges have recently been replaced ‘after complaints were made’ about them.
One of them, it turns out, was al-Haddad, ‘whose views do not in any represent the ISC’.
But Suhaib Hasan and Maulana Abu Sayeed seem harder to shift.
Earlier this year, they became the registered owners of the Council’s Leyton headquarters — proof, critics will no doubt observe, of where power in this increasingly controversial system of justice really lies.