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Inside the secret house of SHARIA LAW; EXCLUSIVE BRITAIN'S FIRST OFFICIAL COURT IS UP AND RUNNING IN THE HEART OF THE MIDLANDS Britain is not civilised enough for extreme Islam punishments, says head of college.

Byline: BY JEANETTE OLDHAM

A MUSLIM college in the Midlands is running the UK's first official sharia law court.

The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal has already used sharia law to decide the outcome of more than 100 civil disputes between Muslims across the UK since it opened its doors last December.

The tribunal, which operates alongside the British legal system, was set up by scholars and lawyers at Hijaz College Islamic University in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.

The Archbishop of Canterbury prompted controversy when he said use of certain aspects of sharia law seemed "unavoidable".

And recently, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, said there was no reason why it could not be used for contractual agreements and marital disputes.

But in some Muslim countries punishments handed out under the legal system have included beheadings, public floggings and thieves' hands being chopped off.

Faisal Aqtab Siddiqi, a commercial law barrister and head of Hijaz College, who has sat in judgment at a number of the tribunals, said British society was not ready for such punishments.

But he added that if society became more 'civilised' then those who broke the law should expect to receive the highest degree of punishment.

Last night, the Bishop of Rochester, the Right Reverend Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, who was born in Pakistan and has both a Christian and Muslim family background, said he was concerned that people might feel coerced into accepting sharia-based arbitration.

Dr Nazir-Ali, who himself converted from Islam to Christianity, warned that recognising the tribunals could lead to discrimination, particularly against Muslim women.

Cases already heard in Nuneaton include an inheritance dispute between three sisters and their two brothers, a divorce and a neighbour dispute.

In the inheritance case the men were given double their sisters' inheritance.

The divorce hearing ruled that a Somalian woman should be granted an Islamic khula (annulment) despite her husband's strong objections.

And in the neighbourhood dispute the tribunal ruled that the losing party - a group of young Muslim graduates - should teach the winning party, who had young children.

The college opened as an Islamic school for boys in 1994 and has since grown into an internationally renowned campus. It teaches Islamic studies and Islamic law alongside a secular education of GCSEs and A Levels.

Between 10 and 15 tribunals are held each month in an informal oface at the college, which occupies the former stately home, Higham Hall.

The court conducts its groundbreaking business just a stone's throw from a Muslim equivalent of a mausoleum, containing the 'grave' of the college's founder - the only building of its kind in Europe.

Islamic scholars and lawyers sitting on the tribunal use only sharia law, derived from several sources including the Koran, to decide a wide range of civil disputes involving issues such as divorce, inheritance, and tenancy.

But unlike unofacial sharia courts, which have operated on an ad-hoc basis from UK mosques for some time, the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal does have binding legal status.

Its proceedings are operating in tandem with the British legal system, and decisions challenged by the losing party will be upheld by a county court bailiff or high court sheriff.

The Nuneaton-based tribunal cannot force anyone to come within its jurisdication. But once someone agrees to settle a dispute at the tribunal, he or she is bound in English law to abide by the court's decision.

This is because under English law people may devise their own way to settle a dispute before an agreed third party.

Mr Siddiqi says it does not advertise its services, and that clients come through word of mouth.

He told the Sunday Mercury: "Under sharia law a decision is given credence in the eyes of God.

As long as the parties have submitted to the tribunal's jurisdiction, a county court bailiff or high court sheriff can enforce our decisions.

"If the losing party objects, the winning one has to apply to the county court or high court who will enforce the tribunals' decisions, as long as they are reasonable.

"The county court or high court can then get an attachment of earnings order, or put a charge on a property to send bailiffs round, or the High Court can impose anes, but the matter wouldn't come back to us.

"We have been told that as long as our decisions our reasonable then the county court and high court will endorse them and uphold them.

"We are part of the alternative dispute resolution system. Our tribunal is like others in the immigration sector or construction industry.

"Ultimately, what we decide will be upheld by the British courts as long as both parties willingly agree to submit to our jurisdiction in the arst place.

"We can therefore, for the arst time, offer the Muslim community a real and true opportunity to settle disputes in accordance with Islamic sacred law with the knowledge that the outcome as determined by the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal will be binding and enforceable."

The only exception to the rule that both parties must submit to the court's jurisdiction is in divorce cases. The tribunal can grant a Muslim woman an annulment irrespective of the husband's wishes. This is to enable her to marry again without being considered to be living in sin.

The court also has the power to order parties taking part to pay compensation to the winning party. The most it has handed out in a single case is pounds 500,000, and the least pounds 50.

No criminal matters can be considered by sharia arbitrators and no corporal punishment can be imposed. The tribunal can, however, adjudicate on cases of domestic violence - with a requirement to pass details to the police.

Mr Siddiqi said women often fare better than men under sharia law.

"People look at Islam, at how barbaric it is," he said. "But in in-heritance matters it's always been against the man and in favour of the woman.

"In the case of the sisters and brothers, we gave the brothers twice what their sisters got. But under Islamic law the brothers remain liable to provide Fnancially for their sisters. The women can keep their share for themselves and invest it however they wish.

"The women in this case fared better than the men.

"In the case of the Somalian woman, her husband kept pronouncing that they were divorced but he couldn't do that.

He duped her into thinking they were divorced, then kept revoking it.

"Although she was also married to him under British law, therewas no need for her to get a British divorce. She was able to get an islamic one much quicker."

And in deciding on a long-running dispute between two Muslim neighbours of different nationalities, Mr Siddiqi said: "The losing family were a family of graduates, whereas the winning family had young children.

"So rather than making the loser pay his neighbour to make up for what happened, we chose a way that would help him to support his neighbour. The graduate was able to teach his neighbour's young children about the sciences and give them religious instruction.

"We haven't heard that it hasn't worked."

jeanette.oldham@ sundaymercury.net

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MIDLAND CENTRE: students in the grounds of Hijaz College; IN CHARGE: Faisal Aqtab Siddiqi is head of Hijaz College in Nuneaton, main picture and left
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Sep 7, 2008
Words:1215
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