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A reflection on the "Shariah wills" hysteria


31 March 2014. Updated 11 May 2020 to remove some links no longer available.

Last week I read an article in the Telegraph newspaper, online, "Islamic law is adopted by British legal chiefs - Solicitors told how to draw up Sharia-style wills penalising widows and non-believers." I found this article misleading and very annoying. In my view the writer was wrongly objecting to the Law Society publishing guidelines intended to help Muslim clients ensure their estates were left in accordance with Islamic religious principles as understood by the client.

I was in Paris when I first became aware of the issue, but still took action by retweeting something from Tell MAMA.

Creeping Sharia Through the Law Society, No Just Bad Journalism: @mehdirhasan @Mohammed_Amin @SarahAB_UK

— TellMAMAUK (@TellMamaUK) March 23, 2014

After returning to the UK, I issued my own tweet:

Scaremongering Telegraph article about Law Society's practice notes on Islamic wills.

— Mohammed Amin (@Mohammed_Amin) March 24, 2014

Afterwards I had some more Twitter correspondence. However I wanted to set out my views at greater length, which I did during the weekend on a piece published on the Conservative Home website, reproduced below.

I believe the incident demonstrates the visceral hatred that some non-Muslims in Britain have towards Shariah. Apart from needing to be challenged, this hatred should also cause Muslims to ask themselves why these non-Muslims think the way that they do. I address that issue in the final section of my piece.

Subsequently I was pleased to see the piece "Sharia wills: the facts" posted on the Law Society's blog pages on 7 April 2014 by Ismaeel Waseem. [Sadly this is no longer available. Update 11 May 2020.] He is a trainee solicitor at Carter Law, specialising in Islamic law and makes the same points about that I do about testamentary freedom under English law.

Mohammed Amin: A reflection on the “Shariah wills” hysteria

Mohammed Amin is Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is also a chartered accountant and a chartered tax adviser. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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.

The story

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.

The facts

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” 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.

The message

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.

Reader comments

The piece received a number of comments. The website has since deleted them as part of its housekeeping. Some readers appreciated the point that Muslims were simply seeking to exercise the testamentary freedom that English law gives to every citizen. Other comments displayed the visceral anti-Shariah prejudice that caused me to write the piece.


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