Sharia Wills – What I don’t know

I am intrigued by the recent debating around sharia wills and The Law Society’s first issuing guidance to solicitors early in 2014 and then removing its practice note from its website in November 2014.

Seemingly among the loudest of critics of the guidance were Muslims or people with Muslim backgrounds. They appear to have been applauded by a wide range of groups.

Sara Khan (@sarakhaninspire) and We Will Inspire posted this:

http://www.wewillinspire.com/inspire-statement-on-the-withdrawal-of-the-law-societys-practice-note-on-sharia-wills/

Southall Black Sisters posted:

http://www.southallblacksisters.org.uk/law-society-withdraws-sharia-wills-practice-note/

Both bodies have been cited by many tweeters. Many firms have posted news of the removal of the practice note from The Law Society website. Why?

Why has there been so much jubilation? Why have the news media trumpeted the news?

For that matter why did everyone talk about “creeping sharia” when The Law Society published the practice note in the first instance? Why did Government, through Chris Grayling, jump up and down?

I am not a Muslim. I have read little of the Qur’an yet my little knowledge of Islam and Islamic values teaches me that in the strictest interpretation of sharia codes women are legal equals to men. They may be perceived to have different roles but they are legal equals. So where do we get the idea that women are suppressed and downtrodden according to sharia law?

Women may be treated badly in some cultures or societies that embrace Islam but where in sharia law is the justification for ill-treatment?

Coming back to sharia wills, when The Law Society first issued its guidance nothing changed in the secular law of England and Wales (or within the UK as a whole). Nothing changed. In secular law a man need not treat his wife equally in his will. He can leave her out altogether. In secular law if a man is married to a women who had a child out of wedlock he is not required to bequeath anything to that child. In secular law if a man “disowns” a sibling because he has in some way dishonoured the family, perhaps he has become a jihadi extremist, he is not obliged to leave him anything in his will.

In the media debate on sharia wills – that’s the debate that informs and educates secular UK – there is an error of omission. OK, it was an oversight. However, the media are always right and ignorance is not a legal defence. I wouldn’t have known from my reading of this story in any of the tabloid “gospels ” that sharia actually leaves women with a good financial settlement.

In Islam a woman’s financial assets are hers and hers alone. In respect of succession there are no sharia financial obligations to her children. Sharia finance obligations remain with the menfolk. Thus when a father bequests to his sons they at some point in the fiuture will have obligations to their children.

Illegitimate children are the sharia responsibility of their natural fathers. Our secular expectations are similar. Our society expects fathers to take financial responsibility for children left with estranged partners.

Other issues with sharia succession rules may be less easy to fathom but clearly the succession rules are based on reason which is not alien to the secular world.

I am not a legal expert but I know enough to know what I don’t know. That means I know when I need to start asking questions. Sadly our secular prophets appear not to possess that knowledge. What’s worse when challenged, these prophets tend to respond with hostility.

I can see the problem. People who are possibly suspicious of Islam may genuinely be unware of what underpins Islamic codes. It is quite clear in this sharia wills debate that many Muslims are themselves not best informed and consequently struggle to debate meaningfully.

There is a paradox in this debate. Religions exist because in the very distant past good practice was taught and passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth. There was no writing and possibly few ways to pass on understanding. In any event only a few people could read so they were dependent on what was said to them. Practices were learnt by rote and followed as a matter of habit. Much the same is true today.

If I had to level one complaint at The Law Society it may be that it tried to provide too much information without explaining the sharia context for the information it was providing.

Lastly the irony lost on feminist movements who believe that they have won a moral victory is that nothing changed when the practice note was first published by The Law Society and significantly nothing changed with it’s subsequent withdrawal. Seemingly people were in the dark when they first complained to The Law Society and nothing has changed. The same people are still in the dark.

Of course I may have this all wrong.

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