Prof Mona Siddiqui speaks on the role of sharia in British society

Newnham College welcomed Prof Mona Siddiqui OBE to give the annual Jane Harrison Lecture, in the 90th year of its institution. Prof Siddiqui is Professor of Islamic and Interreligious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is well known as a public intellectual, and a speaker on issues around religion, ethics and public life. Her lecture for Newnham College was titled ‘Does sharia really have no place in British public life?’

Prof Siddiqui gave a nuanced exploration of the meaning of the term sharia, popularly misunderstood to mean ‘law’ in the standard judicial sense. She argued that the word sharia is arguably the most contentious word within academic, social and political debates about Islam – especially Islam in the west. Yet sharia must be understood in all its complexity of interpretation and development, as part of piety and worship rather than any single code of law.

In 2016, Prof Siddiqi chaired an independent Home Office review into the application of sharia in England and Wales, focusing on whether and to what extent the application of sharia by sharia councils may be incompatible with the law in England and Wales. This lecture used the research done for this report, alongside some of the reactions to it, to explore how sharia is observed, and retains its primacy in Islamic practice and worship but cannot and should not be seen as a parallel legal system in the UK.

Prof Siddiqui’s discussion of the role of sharia councils in Islamic marriage and divorce, and of the importance of civil marriage, was particularly thought-provoking. She discussed changing trends in the attitudes of younger, British-born Muslim women, and the wider impact on families and society. The event concluded with a lively question and answer session.

The Jane Harrison Memorial Lecture has been hosted by Newnham since 1928. It was created to honour the memory of Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) who studied and lectured in Classics at the college, and was renowned for her public lectures on Greek art and for her unconventional and outspoken views. She wrote on a variety of topics, from the Russian language and literature to women’s suffrage and herself.

The College was delighted to hear Prof Siddiqui continue this 90-year-old tradition of distinguished speakers tackling important subjects.