But tucked away inside a building that also offers ample accommodation for prayers, classes and social functions is a tiny room where justice is dispensed with no less seriousness than in the official courts.
Here in Leyton High Road, in London’s East End, and in nearby premises previously used by the Islamic Sharia Council of the UK, some 10,000 cases have been dealt with during the past 27 years. The workload is increasing and senior Muslim scholars who administer the system believe it is only a matter of time before Sharia is formally accepted within the framework of British law.
But this growth has generated fierce criticism in some quarters. A report by the think-tank Civitas earlier this year claimed 85 Sharia courts were operating in the UK, sometimes giving the Muslims who turn to them illegal advice on matrimonial and divorce issues. Its allegations are firmly challenged by the council, but Britain’s Conservative opposition is expected to impose restrictions if it takes power next year.
For Sheikh Haitham al Haddad, one of the council’s most senior members, the work of such tribunals can be “complementary to the civil courts” and in certain cases find solutions that would be beyond the established legal system.
He suspects the hostility of some non-Muslims is based on confusion with such punishments as the stoning of adulteresses, amputation of thieves’ hands and flogging for drinking alcohol.
British public concern has been heightened by demonstrations in which militants have demanded the full application of Sharia.
As a devout Muslim, Sheikh Haddad, born in Saudi Arabia to Palestinian parents, considers physical punishment consistent with Islamic teaching, but points out that this is a philosophical issue that has nothing to with the council, which deals purely with civil disputes.
“We are not asking for the flogging of people for drinking or stoning for adultery,” he said. “These things simply have no place in our discussions.”