Over the last week or so, we have seen some politicians and parts of the media running yet another scare story about Muslims and Shariah. I think this shows the deep anti-Muslim prejudice in parts of British society, and the work that Muslims need to do to explain their beliefs better.
On 13 March 2014 the Law Society published a practice note “Sharia Succession Rules.” A practice note is non-binding guidance intended to enable solicitors to do their job (which is to serve their clients and to serve the court) more effectively and efficiently. The practice note explains some the drafting issues that solicitors need to bear in mind when drawing up a will under English law for a client who wishes his estate to pass under the rules of inheritance set out by the schools of Islamic law based upon religious guidance in the Quran and Hadith.
On 23 March 2014 Sadikur Rahman, a solicitor and a member of the Lawyers Secular Society, wrote a piece in The Telegraph “Sharia law for wills – and then what? – Law Society guidelines will aid discrimination against both women and non-Muslims”. As a lawyer he correctly understood that the guidelines have no legal force and that solicitors will simply be enabling clients to put their wishes into a will. However he expressed unhappiness that solicitors will be helping their clients to discriminate, as he saw it, against certain groups of people.
After the legally accurate but hostile piece in The Telegraph, we then had poor quality pieces in many parts of the media, such as the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, implying that Shariah was becoming part of the UK legal system. Aidan Burley MP called for an enquiry into Shariah law on his website. Baroness Cox was quoted by The Telegraph “This violates everything that we stand for,” she said. “It would make the Suffragettes turn in their graves.”
As far as I am aware, nobody has yet proposed burning the Law Society’s President at the stake for heresy, although the Lawyers’ Secular Society has threatened to sue the Law Society.
If a person domiciled in England dies, under English law their estate devolves under the intestacy rules. The Government’s website has a useful page which you can use to work through the rules. Obviously (or perhaps not obviously given the furore mentioned above) the intestacy rules apply identically to everyone who dies without a will, regardless of the deceased’s religion.
If you make a (valid) will under English law, your estate passes exactly as specified in the will, subject to some exceptions such as “irrationality” (discussed in this article in The Barrister magazine) as well as some statutory overrides set out in Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.
Subject to the limits on testamentary freedom mentioned above, in my will I can leave my estate as I wish, regardless of whether anyone else approves of that or not, and regardless of my motivations. I may be motivated by personal dislike of some or all of my family members, by my religious views or my political views. The courts do not care.
Accordingly, a Muslim who wishes to have his or her estate pass under his or her will according to the Shariah inheritance rules as they understand them has always been free to do so. Equally if they do not wish to follow the Shariah inheritance rules, they are free to ignore them. The task of the solicitor is always to enable his client’s wishes to be put into their will effectively. The practice note makes the solicitor’s task easier by reminding him of various provisions that such a Muslim client may require, such as excluding adopted children from inheritance. However what gets written into the will is always ultimately what the client requires, not what the solicitor thinks the client should do.
As I outlined in my Conservative Home piece “What Shariah really means to Muslims” Shariah is a great deal more than just a legal system.
What the brief explosion of vitriol over the practice note demonstrates is the intense prejudice against Shariah amongst some parts of the media and some politicians. It is fine for people to disinherit their relatives and leave their estate to a dogs’ home, but wholly unacceptable for any Muslims to have their estate devolve as they believe God requires.
How did we get this way?
Non-Muslim Britons were not born hating Shariah, since at birth they knew nothing about it! They primarily gain their knowledge of Shariah from what Muslims say about it.
Those Muslims who rabbit on about Shariah requiring chopping off hands for trivial thefts, stoning people for adultery, killing people for blasphemy or for changing their religion, can hardly complain when non-Muslims conclude that they don’t want to see Shariah anywhere near Britain. Conversely Muslims who do not regard such practices as correctly representing Islam today (or even in the past in certain cases) need to make their voices heard.