TOWARDS CONCEPTUALISING USER-FRIENDLY SHAR’IA COUNCILS
Rajnaara C. Akhtar1
Cultural and religious diversity has increased across Europe and the wider world in recent decades making legal pluralism a reality in many jurisdictions and a challenge to formal judicial systems. There are a number of reasons for the presence of new complex social identities, and globalisations and advancements in new technologies are certainly two causes. Greater ease in communication and mobility are changing the world. What does this mean for the state legal system, and in particular, how have British Muslim communities responded to their own needs for faith based dispute resolution mechanism? This paper is centred on findings from an in-depth exploration of pertinent questions investigating whether British Muslims can demonstrate understanding of obligations and methodology relating to Islamic family laws, and how dispute resolution using faith based ADR mechanisms is viewed and engaged with. The empirical research, conducted during my doctorate studies concentrated on the exercise of Islamic family law in Britain, dispute resolution and faith based ADR mechanisms such as the Shari’a Councils. The study investigated the approach to Islamic family law and dispute resolution of a sample of 250 British Muslims aged 18-45, primarily British-born, university educated and practicing their faith or understanding their religious obligations. Empirical research was undertaken using both quantitative and qualitative research methods; this provides an insight into younger generations of British Muslims and the transformative processes of the Islamic legal traditions impacting on the application of religious laws. The existence of Shari’a Councils is reflective of the fact that Islamic family laws have great normative influences on the lives of Muslims, with consequences for the formal legal system. They reflect the existence of legal and socio-legal needs particular to this religious group and highlight the pressures for formal and informal mechanisms which respond to these needs. Informal faith based ADR provide a recourse to what is deemed to be an authoritative dispute resolution body, however, this study highlights the lack of confidence British Muslims have in these institutions, while simultaneously recognising that they are a necessity to provide ‘expertise’ in the relevant dispute areas of marriage and divorce. The uneasy compromise accepts their existence as being necessary but highlights their imperfection in the current form. Public scrutiny of Shari’a Councils within the popular media and political discourse has clearly influenced British Muslim opinion with many respondents within this study formulating views based on perception as opposed to interaction. Thus, this paper conceptualises transformations towards user-friendly Shari’a Councils.