By Clare Dwyer Hogg and Jonathan Wynne-Jones
Islamic courts meet every week in the UK to rule on divorces and financial disputes. Clare Dwyer Hogg and Jonathan Wynne-Jones report on demands by senior Muslims that sharia be given legal authority
Amnah is a modern British Muslim. She is dressed in a denim skirt and her head is covered in a hijab. Poised and self-assured, she has come to meet Dr Suhaib Hasan, a silver-bearded sheikh who sits behind his desk, surrounded by religious books.
· The origins and obligations of sharia law
"But why would I have to observe the waiting period?" she asks him. "What are the reasons?" There is an urgency to her questions.
Dr Suhaib Hasan is pushing for personal sharia law to be integrated into the British legal system.
"These reasons don't apply to me, that's what I'm very confused about. If you could give me the reasons why I have to wait three months, then I'll understand."
Amnah is going through a divorce and is baffled at being told that she must wait for three months to remarry, considering that she hasn't seen her estranged husband for two years.
Alan Note: the waiting period is to ensure that the divorced wife (which is how the sharia refers to her) is not pregnant from the former husband when she remarries.
She twists her sock-clad toes into the carpet, grasping one hand with the other in her lap, and fixes Dr Hasan with an intense look. He meets this with a simple reply: "These rulings are all in the Koran. The rulings are made for all."
Amnah has little choice but to comply: Dr Hasan is a judge, and this is a sharia court - in east London. It sits, innocuously, at the end of a row of terrace houses in Leyton: a converted corner shop, with blinds on the windows, office- style partitions and a makeshift reception area.
It is one of dozens of sharia courts - also known as councils - that have been set up in mosques, Islamic centres and even schools across Britain. The number of British Muslims using the courts is increasing.
To many in the West, talk of sharia law conjures up images of the floggings, stonings, amputations and beheadings carried out in hardline Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
However, the form practised in Britain is more mundane, focusing mainly on marriage, divorce and financial disputes.
The judgments of the courts have no basis in British law, and are therefore technically illegitimate - they are binding only in that those involved agree to comply.
For British Muslims who are keen to follow Islam, this poses a dilemma. An Islamic marriage is not recognised by British law, and therefore many couples will have two ceremonies - civil for the state, and Islamic for their faith.
If they wish to divorce, they must then seek both a civil and an Islamic divorce.
Dr Hasan, who has been presiding over sharia courts in Britain for more than 25 years, argues that British law would benefit from integrating aspects of Islamic personal law into the civil system, so that divorces could be rubber-stamped in the same way, for example, that Jewish couples who go to the Beth Din court have their divorce recognised in secular courts.
He points out that the Islamic Sharia Council, of which he is the general secretary, is flooded with work. It hears about 50 divorce cases every month, and responds to as many as 10 requests every day by email and phone for a fatwa - a religious verdict on a religious matter.
Alan Note: some such "requests" in other countries pose questions such as "is a young girl's urine clean or unclean"? A cleric replied to this that a boy's urine is considered clean in Islamic sharia law but a young girl's is dirty. Go figure.
Dr Hasan, who is also a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain on issues of sharia law, says there is great misunderstanding of the issue in the West.
"Whenever people associate the word 'sharia' with Muslims, they think it is flogging and stoning to death and cutting off the hand," he says with a smile.
He makes the distinction between the aspects of law that sharia covers: worship, penal law, and personal law. Muslim leaders in Britain are interested only in integrating personal law, he says.