Religious Courts and Tribunals: Sikh View

Religious Courts and Tribunals: Sikh View

Gurmukh Singh OBE

The main aim of religious courts is to propagate own religious codes. They can stall progress towards egalitarian legal systems based on fundamental human rights.


A seminar later this month (January, 2009) will "explore Religious Courts and Tribunals, with particular reference to the Arbitration Act".

We are invited to give a Sikh view regarding these developments.

There are likely to be further discussions and briefings about "Religious courts & tribunals" in view of Islamic Sharia becoming part of UK law. There was an uproar when Archbishop Rowan made the headlines, suggesting that he saw no harm in parts of Sharia law being recognised by UK law. In fact, settlement of disputes before Islamic arbitration tribunals, are already recognised by UK courts.

Despite the apparent legal safeguards, this is a slippery slope to an unjust and unequal society in which religious zealots are winning the day. We can continue to speculate how this would affect our own future in this country, but let us look at the Sikh view about religious courts.

Sikh view

I am not qualified to discuss this issue "with particular reference to the Arbitration Act". I can only make an attempt to look at it from the perspective of Sikh ideology and tradition and leave it to legal colleagues to pick up any points they see relevant for future reference.

Main points;

  • There are no religious courts in the Sikh religious tradition. Settlement of disputes in the Darbar of Guru Sahiban (Guru Persons) cannot be regarded in the same category as formal religious courts held by Muslim Kazis applying Sharia law and dishing out extremely cruel punishment sometimes. Also, there were other theo-political reasons for the Gurus, especially Guru Hargobind Ji and Guru Gobind Singh Ji, holding temporal courts and defying Islamic religious courts of the time. Those reasons would not be relevant in today's civilised societies. They did not hold "religious" courts as such, which applied some sort of religious code like Sharia.
    Gurmattas would be about interpretation of Gurbani guidance. Sarbatt Khalsa tradition is also about political (miri related) decisions agreeing tactics and Khalsa strategy (e.g. Khalsa army objectives in the 18th Century). Inter misl disputes were settled at the fringes of such gatherings when the Sardars embraced each other in the Guru's presence. Such conciliations ("samjhautas" & "sulahs") were not based on any fixed religious code. As elsewhere, it is also the Indian tradition to ask a family elder, a pious person, or a village "panch" (regardless of religious background) to settle disputes. Village "panchayats" were simply the village elders ("panch") sitting together. Family and land disputes were brought before them for settlement. These days the "panchayats" are elected.
  • The fact that Sikhee does not recognise ordained priesthood would also have a bearing on the Sikh religious position on the question of religious courts. There are no ordained priests and there cannot be any religious arbitration tribunals.
  • Sikhee(ism) guides but does not prescribe or legislate. Sikh religion believes in general guidance by Guru Granth Sahib, based on universal human values but leaves "legislation" to temporal systems in which Sikhs would participate most actively to establish the ideal egalitarian regimes in which no one inflicts pain on another (Sikh concept of "halemi raj").
  • Sikh reht is continual interpretation of Gurbani, the Guru's Word, by the Khalsa Panth. Even in religious matters Khalsa Panth ("miri" or temporal aspect of Guruship) agrees the code of conduct and changes it, if necessary according to time and place. It is not prescribed by the Guide Eternal, the Guru ("piri", religious or spiritual aspect of Guruship). Otherwise, the Guru could have prescribed the Sikh Reht Maryada or laid down a detailed religious law code like Sharia.
  • Sikh history shows that religious courts can be used as a means for propagating social injustice inherent in the (mis)interpretation of orthodox religious ideologies. Sikhs would oppose such retrograde trends in the societies they live in.
  • Sikh religious and historical tradition would be strongly apposed to the current trend in the UK to legally recognise agreements (saalsi faisla or samjhaota) reached through "religious" courts and tribunals; because such "agreements" may have been reached under religious and/or social pressure (i.e. under duress). For example, the rights of certain groups like women may not be fully protected because a religion may not recognise these rights.

Other related factors

The main aim of religious courts is to propagate own religious practices. They can stall progress towards egalitarian legal systems based on fundamental human rights.

Most orthodox religions are based on strict religious codes. The priests made the laws and assumed almost unlimited powers next to the rulers; and sometimes even greater powers over life and death than the rulers. An outstanding example is the case of the Hindu youth Hakikat Rai excecuted by a "seminar" of leading Islamic religious scholars of northern India circa 1500, when the ruler (Nawab of Lahore) would have let him off for suggesting parity between Islam and Hinduism ! We know of the Muslim zealot Sheikh of Sirhind who issued religious orders ("farmaans") to Islamic rulers in India and the middle east, which were obeyed. He was the cause of Shaheedi of Guru Arjan Dev Ji via emperor Jehangir. Sikhs have suffered the most cruel tortures and executions handed out as "judgements" by religious courts. They cannot possibly support the incremental return of such systems under whatever pretext, in the plural societies they live in.

Arbitration is as old as civilisation and religious courts are part of orthodox religious traditions. Beth Din or Jewish courts already exist. Recently we are seeing Islamic clerics (Kazis or Mullahs), resplendent in white robes, flowing beards and neat turbans being shown during peak time TV in documentaries about the backdoor entry of Sharia courts into the English legal system. They sit as panels of Islamic arbitrators (more like judges) in spacious well furnished rooms, at locations in UK, settling disputes according to Sharia law.

In the meantime, alarmist press reports like the one in the "Daily Express" (26 Nov p. 30) about Islamic Sharia becoming part of UK law stir up extremist elements in the multicultural UK society we live in. The impression given is that Islamic extremism is being used to lever huge concessions.

From a religious perspective, Sikhs should oppose such trends returning legal powers to the priest, which can threaten the cohesion of the British plural society.

(Hamra jhagra raha na ko-oo
Pandat mula(n) shaaday do-oo)
(GGS 1158)
I have no quarrel with anyone. I reject both, the Brahmin Pandits and the Maulavis.
GGS p 1159

And we also reject religious courts by the priestly class. Such courts are outdated and out of context in the 21st Century


It will be useful to understand some relevant Panjabi word-concepts which may not always have exactly the same meaning as the English words.

Jhagra = dispute

Saalsi faisla = arbitration; settlement of a dispute by a middleperson (called saals or vichola) or a panel of elders etc.

Samjhauta (karauna) = reconciliation; settlement; (the word is also used for pact, treaty or accord, with which we are less concerned here.)

Sulah (karaoni) = can have the same meaning as "samjhauta" but would be used more in the context of bringing about peace between two warring parties.

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