Back in 2008 when Dr Rowan Williams, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested officially sanctioning Sharia law in Britain could improve community relations, uproar ensued. In the years since "Sharia courts" have never been far from tabloid headlines, but all too often the facts are lost in outrage. The reality is Sharia courts - or more accurately Sharia councils have been operating in the UK since the 1980s, but very little has been understood about how they operate.

Sharia councils are able to provide advice to those Muslims who voluntarily choose to use them to resolve civil and family disputes. Sharia law is Islam's legal system. It derives from the Koran and the Hadiths, the sayings and customs attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, as well as fatwas - the rulings of Islamic scholars.

Currently, Sharia principles are not formally addressed by or included in Britain's laws. However, a network of Sharia courts has grown up in Islamic communities to deal with disputes between Muslim families.

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