Update: in November 2014, under pressure of public opinion, the Law Society withdrew the offending advice note.
That’s my friend Ramin Forghani from Iran, standing next to Maryam Namazie, carrying a placard outside the Law Society offices in London. He knows that what he is doing, and what he is about to say, could get him killed.
Imagine that you want to write your will according to sharia law, which in England you are perfectly entitled to do. You can go to your friendly neighbourhood Imam to discuss the matter, ask him to explain what is actual law, and what mere custom, talk about the various different interpretations available), and consider how best to apply them to your own family circumstances. This could be quite a long conversation; there are at least six main traditional schools of sharia jurisprudence, to say nothing of modernisers like Musawah who seek to accommodate Islamic practice to present-day principles of equality.
Or you can go to your solicitor, who handles all your ordinary legal business. And if that solicitor follows the guidance issued by the Law Society, he will simply tell you that sons inherit twice as much as daughters, adopted and illegitimate children do not inherit at all, neither do divorced spouses, and marital status is defined according to religious marriage and not according to the law of the land. Tough, by the way, on your orphaned grandkids; in the Law Society’s version of sharia law “it is not possible to inherit under Sharia rules by a deceased relative.”
The Law Society has no more authority to issue guidance on sharia law than your dentist has to issue guidance on backache. In doing so, it has committed the typical outsider’s error of regarding the most uncompromising form of a religion as the most authentic. It has taken sides in a fierce internal debate within Islam, where it has neither competence nor standing nor expertise. It cites as an authority the Islam Channel, which has allowed presenters to say that rape is legitimate within marriage and that a husband can beat his wife, although knocking a tooth out is going too far. It also cites the Salafist Dr. Muhammad al-Jibaly, whose web page on inheritance incidentally advocates lashing for fornicators and stoning for adulterers. Its specific guidance reflects Dr. al-Jibaly’s views, despite the fact that these are far from universally accepted within the UK Islamic community and indeed, by Muslim lawyers practising within the UK. On the same web page Dr. al-Jibaly also forbids, except within marriage, “anything leading to zina [fornication], such as looking, touching, flirting, kissing, and so on.”
Even if it were the case (as it is not) that al-Jibaly’s views on sharia were beyond dispute, it is not the job of the Law Society to give out guidance in how to apply his pernicious principles. And even if the guidance were thoroughly praiseworthy, which it clearly is not, it is wrong in principle and dangerous in practice to graft any kind of religious law onto the practice of general law, which is the only role of solicitors in a secular and plural society such as ours.
There is worse to come. The Law Society has an event scheduled in June, and already sold out, as a forerunner to future seminar series on Islamic law. This event will count towards solicitors’ mandatory hours of Continuous Professional Development, and will offer sharia training on family and children, among other topics.
No wonder, then, that on Monday 28 April One Law for All and other organizations protested outside the Law Society’s offices in London. And that Change.org is carrying a formal petition to the Society, which you can sign here. But what has this got to do with Ramin? Let him speak for himself:
I’m here on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society. I know that the legal system in Scotland is separate from England and Wales. But I’m Iranian and I well know that what happens when the barrier between Religion and legal system gets destroyed. Iran sharia law sentences apostates like me to death and now the Law Society has written guidance for it. Secularism acknowledges religious freedom and that means keeping a distinct barrier between it and the legal system. That’s a shame that in this country which is famous for secularism, the Law Society has done guidance on sharia law, a religious system. The Law Society is not in a position to write guidance for sharia as a religious legal system. Even if it was, there is a huge debate on sharia law in Muslim countries at the moment and the Law Society has chosen the most outdated, the most reactionary version of it. Shame on them.
Comment is superfluous.
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For more background, and to join the petition to the Law Society to stop promoting discrimination, see here. The One Law for All letter to the Law Society, with list of signatories, is here. For more on the Law Society’s future plans in this area, see here. For the extremely revealing correspondence between the Law Society and Lawyers’ Secular Society, and further background, see here and links therein. Disclosure: Ramin and I are both on the board of Scottish Secular Society. An earlier version of this posting appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.
 Salafis are an extreme literalist sect, often identified with the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, who do not acknowledge or follow any of the four schools of thought to which other Sunni Muslims adhere.