As a PhD Candidate researching Sharia councils in the United Kingdom, I was in the fortunate position to gain access to several of these institutions, which are normally barred to the public. It was a great experience and I am thankful to my hosts for having me as a visitor.
In part one of my blog series on Sharia councils, I highlighted my visit to the most fundamentalist Sharia council; the Islamic Sharia Council in Leyton, London. In part two of this blog series I focused on the Sharia council hosted by the Birmingham Central Mosque, which is known for its liberal approach. In this third blog I write about the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal, which is located in Nuneaton, a small town near Birmingham, and which is a part of a spiritual community, called Hijaz.
The Hijaz Community
Surrounded by trees, I walked for minutes along a path leading to the spiritual centre. A young bearded man was fixing holes in the pavement. When I arrived on the premises, I noticed the large mausoleum for Allama Muhammad Abdul Wahab Siddiqi ( 1942-1994), a spiritual guide - who, as I later read on the website, “[a]t the tender of age of 3 […] had mastered to recitation [sic] of the Holy Qur'an […]”. Before coming to Europe, he enjoyed a successful life in Pakistan, studying various subjects and succeeding in business. The Hijaz website tells us that “it is also a matter of great inspiration that the Shaykh was not only a Murshid (spiritual guide), and an Alim (scholar), but also a journalist, an author, an academic, a lecturer and a political scientist as well as a keen sportsman.”
He also visited the Netherlands, as “[t]he Shaykh worked relentlessly to defend the true understanding of classical Islam […] His dialogue and presentation was so immensely packed with substance that the opponent could rarely produce a comeback during debate. In 1989 the Shaykh gave a challenge for an open public debate with the leaders of the Qadiani movement in Holland. However the leaders of the Qadiani movement refused to engage in debate with the Shaykh knowing his abilities in theological debate, articulate manners and vast knowledge.”
I had an appointment with his son, spiritual leader Shaykh Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi (picture), the principal and founding trustee of the Hijaz community: “Hijaz serves as a centre of intellectual and spiritual activity that is developing strategies and programmes to revive the faith and practice of the Muslim community and to spread the Prophetic way of life to the wider society.” The Arbitration Tribunal is part of this global movement, of which around sixty members live permanently on the sixty-two acre terrain.
I was welcomed warmly by a young woman, who – to my great surprise – pronounced my Dutch name perfectly. It soon became clear that as a result of the Shaykh’s visits, many of the residents come from The Hague, where these Dutch Muslims found themselves drawn to the inspirational teachings of Shaykh Siddiqi. They speak very highly of their leader, who receives a high degree of respect from his followers.
Barrister and Islamic scholar Faiz-ul-Aqtab Siddiqi has an impressive office. It is filled with book cases, beautiful carpets, comfy sofa’s and the biggest flat screen monitor I have ever seen. He is on the phone passing through a name for a newborn in South Africa.
When he hangs up, he explains the arbitration model to me. The Muslim Arbitration Tribunal functions in a fundamentally different way to other Sharia councils in the sense that they do Islamic divorces as well, but their ‘core business’ is arbitrating commercial disputes under the Arbitration Act 1996. Two private parties sign a binding agreement prior to the hearing and the tribunal consists of a minimum of two arbitrators – a UK qualified solicitor or barrister, and an Islamic scholar. This way, the outcome is in line with both “the Laws of England and Wales and the recognized Schools of Islamic Sacred Law” (art. 8 (2) of the Procedure Rules of the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal), and leads to a contractually binding arbitration award.
In my quest on learning the relationship between Sharia councils and state laws, I ask him if a secular judge ever reviewed such an award, which I am told has not been the case. I ask him about the somewhat confusing final article of their procedural rules, article 23: “No appeal shall be made against any decisions of the Tribunal. This rule shall not prevent any party applying for Judicial Review with permission of the High Court.” Siddiqi tells me there haven’t been appeals as his clients are “satisfied customers who consider it a serious matter”.
Later, Chief Crown Prosecutor Nazir Afzal tells me on the phone that the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal is known to deter parties from seeking appeal, even though individuals do have an inalienable right to challenge the award in court, which is codified in article 58 of the Arbitration Act.
Yet, when correctly regulated by the Arbitration Act, the Crown Chief Prosecutor sees no problem in the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal using alternative dispute resolution regarding local property disputes, especially when parties are equally matched.
Afzal spoke to the Tribunal a few years ago on their approach regarding women seeking religious divorces. He suspected that the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal discouraged abused women from seeking help, which means they are perpetuating serious harm: “if a woman wants a divorce, they will say you will disgrace your family”. Earlier, Siddiqi had told me that “marriage is a commitment, you can’t sleep around like cats and dogs, you have to have reasons to finish the contract”.
The Shaykh seems confident in his arbitration model. He tells me other Muslims will not be able to copy his method, but that they are free to do so. Meanwhile, he is branching out to other cities. He informs me that soon, Dutch Muslims will not have to travel all the way to the United Kingdom, as the Nurul Islam Mosque in The Hague will have its own Muslim Arbitration Tribunal.
After kindly been served lunch, the young Dutch woman who had welcomed me walked me out and we chatted a bit. I told her what a great job I saw the young man doing on fixing the pathway, making it an even more beautiful and serene place. She tells me that the work is necessary, as members of the new right-wing extremist movement, the English Defence League, keep blasting holes on their pathway, making sure the people of the Hijaz community don’t feel welcome. It is a striking fact which confronts us with the reality of the tensions that exist in a multicultural society.