UNITED KINGDOM: Lambeth Palace clarifies archbishop's Sharia comments

February 9, 2008

Following a strong reaction in the media and elsewhere to the Archbishop of Canterbury's remarks indicating that certain aspects of Islamic Sharia law should be introduced into the British legal system, Lambeth Palace issued a statement February 8 saying that Dr. Rowan Williams made no such proposals.

Williams' comments about civil and religious law in England came during a February 7 BBC Radio 4 World at One interview and as part of a lecture for the Temple Festival Series in London later the same day.

"The Archbishop made no proposals for sharia in either the lecture or the interview, and certainly did not call for its introduction as some kind of parallel jurisdiction to the civil law," the Lambeth Palace statement said. "Instead, in the interview, rather than proposing a parallel system of law, he observed that 'as a matter of fact certain provisions of sharia are already recognized in our society and under our law.'"

When the notion was put to him that "the application of sharia in certain circumstances if we want to achieve this cohesion and take seriously peoples' religion -- seems unavoidable," Williams indicated his assent, Lambeth acknowledged.

While the British press has criticized the archbishop's comments and highlighted on front pages some interpretations of Sharia that have resulted in amputations and floggings for theft and adultery, the Lambeth Palace statement notes that "Williams called for a 'constructive accommodation' with Muslim practice in areas such as marital disputes, while stressing, 'nobody in their right mind would want to see in this country the kind of inhumanity that's sometimes been associated with the practice of the law in some Islamic states; the extreme punishments, the attitudes to women as well.'"

The archbishop opened his lecture, the Lambeth statement says, "by noting importantly that the very term sharia is not only misunderstood, but is the focus of much fear and anxiety deriving from its 'primitivist' application in some contexts. As such he said that sharia is a method of law rather than a single complete and final system ready to be applied wholesale to every situation, and noted that there was room, even within Islamic states which apply sharia, for some level of 'dual identity', where the state is not in fact religiously homogenous."

He explained that his core aim was to "to tease out some of the broader issues around the rights of religious groups within a secular state" and was using sharia as an example.

He concludes his lecture with the comment "if we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of 'deconstruction' of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment."

The lecture, which was given before an audience of about 1,000 people and which was chaired by the Lord Chief Justice, was the first in a series of six lectures and discussions which are being given by senior Muslim and other lawyers and theologians at the Temple Church on the general theme of "Islam in English Law."