Crossing Borders with Shariah: The Role of Islamic Law in German Courts

Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said that Islamic law has no place in Germany. But she was wrong: German courts have long used elements of Shariah in some verdicts. It is an "expression of globalization," says one legal expert.

A Muslim man at a mosque in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg. Zoom
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A Muslim man at a mosque in the Berlin neighborhood of Kreuzberg.

A critical stance against Islam and Germany's Muslim population, it would seem, is an easy way to score political points in the country these days. Indeed, just this weekend, Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer demanded a halt to Muslim immigration to Germany. While opposition politicians have blasted Seehofer, the demand likely won't do him any political harm. According to a recent survey conducted for the mass-circulation tabloid Bild, fully 66 percent of Germans believe that Islam does not belong in Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has likewise sought to cash in on her country's skepticism when it comes to Islam, albeit much less controversially. In a recent speech to a gathering of Christian Democrats in Wiesbaden, Merkel made a plea for more moderation in the country's ongoing debate over integration. But she also insisted that in Germany "it is the constitution that applies, not Shariah law!"

But as it turns out, she is not completely right. Some elements of Islamic law have been applied in Germany for years.

"We have long been practicing Islamic law," confirmed Hilmar Krüger, a law professor at the University of Cologne, in an interview with SPIEGEL. "And that is a good thing."

'Expression of Globalization'

Shariah elements pertaining to family and inheritance law are most often used. Jordanian couples, for example, are married (and divorced) in Germany according to Jordanian law, which is partially based on Shariah. Furthermore, multiple wives in a polygamous marriage, provided the marriages were legal in their home country, have legal rights to alimony, social security benefits stemming from their husband's occupation and a portion of the inheritance should he die.

Most, of course, do not immediately associate such mundane affairs with Islamic law. Shariah is often used as a shorthand to refer to the practice of execution by stoning, as happens in Iran, for example, or the cutting off of a hand in punishment for robbery. Many elements of Shariah, which is based on both the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, are quite a bit duller, however.

A federal court in Kassel, for example, cited Islamic law in a ruling several years ago in which the court found that a widow had to share her husband's pension with his second wife. Another case saw a court in Koblenz granting residency to the second wife of a man from Iraq. A Cologne court forced an Iranian man to pay his ex-wife 600 gold coins in "bride price" (money paid by the groom or groom's family to the bride or bride's family) upon divorce and cited the Shariah system applied in Iran. A court in Düsseldorf arrived at a similar verdict, forcing a Turkish man to pay €30,000 in bride price to his former daughter-in-law.

Mathias Rohe, a lawyer and Islam expert in Erlangen, told SPIEGEL that the existence of parallel legal structures is an "expression of globalization." He said: "We apply Islamic law just as we do French law."

cgh -- SPIEGEL

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