Sharia Courts Under British Rule

I recently came across a fascinating book entitled The Handbook of Palestine by H.C. Luke and E. Keith-Roach.  Produced in 1922 by the British Mandate government which had just taken control of the country after a long Ottoman Turkish rule, it’s a fascinating snapshot of the Holy Land beginning its transition to the State of Israel and the other claimants of the land.  I plan to reproduce some of the more interesting parts of the book on a sporadic basis.

In this post we will look at sharia courts in British Palestine.

Arising out of a series of conferences of Moslem ‘Ulema and notables there was established, by the High Commissioner’s Order of the 20th December, 1921, a Supreme Moslem Sharia Council, to have authority over all Moslem waqfs and Sharia Courts in Palestine. The Council consists of a President, known as the Rais al-‘Ulema (Haj Emin al-Huseini, elected in 1922), and four members, of whom two represent the District of Jerusalem, one Nablus, and one Acre. The Rais al-‘Ulema is permanent President of the Council, the four members being elected by an electoral college for a period of four years. Embodied in the High Commissioner’s Order are the regulations, drawn up by a Moslem Committee, laying down the functions and powers of the Council.

When Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams created quite a stir when he stated that sharia law would eventually have to come to the UK.  His remarks, however, should be considered in the context of actual British practice, both in its colonies/mandates (Palestine was the latter) and at home.  Allowing religious courts have some civil powers was both established practice in British possessions and a continuation of the Ottoman millet system.  I will go into non-Muslim courts in Palestine in a subsequent post.

On the other hand, the “election” of Haj Emin al-Huseini (one engineered by British Governor Herbert Samuel) was a strategic mistake.  His authoritarian power holder/power challenger politics and his ideological romance with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis set bad precedents (not difficult in this region) that have poisoned Palestinian politics ever since.

More on this subject follows:

The Moslem Religious Courts have exclusive jurisdiction in matters of personal status of Moslems and Moslem waqfs.

Under the Turkish Government there were Sharia Courts, each presided over by a Qadi, in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Hebron, Gaza, Beersheba, Ramleh, Nablus, Jenin, Tulkeram, Nazareth, Tiberias, Safed, Acre and Haifa. These Courts have been maintained. The Sharia Courts deal with matters of Moslem personal status (marriage, divorce, inheritance, intestacy, constitution of waqf and the like), and in addition to their contentious work deal with a large amount of non-contentious business.

There are Muftis (elective Moslem jurisconsults, whose duty it is to issue, in the form of a fatwa, canonical rulings on points of Moslem religious law) of the Hanafi rite in the above-mentioned fourteen towns, and a Mufti of the Shafi rite in Jerusalem.

There is an appeal from the Sharia Courts to the Moslem Religious Court of Appeal, sitting in Jerusalem and consisting of a President and two members. An Inspector visits the Sharia Courts of the country and reports upon their work.

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