Religious Law

Religious law often raises very interesting questions about the way in which a specific country views and supports its religions. In most cases, religious law works alongside the mainstream law to provide guidance to individuals; however, there are times when religious law collides with traditional law and the concepts come into conflict.

What is Religious Law?

Let us first consider what exactly religions law is. For many religions, religious law is thought to be a higher body of understanding in which reality and knowledge is defined by God and is applicable to all human beings. This is, of course, a rather simplistic view of religious law as there are many different religions, each trying to establish their own concepts and ideas as to what religious law should include.

A further interesting area of religious law is that of the code of morality and ethics which is largely avoided by traditional law. Religious law is thought to include this type of code of conduct and is governed ultimately by the relevant God of the religion in question.

Religious law is derived from two primary sources: the civil law tradition as followed by Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox religions and the more customary basis such as Sharia law that is more akin to common law principles.

Types of Religious Law

One of the main difficulties facing anyone trying to argue that there is an established overarching code of religious law is that there are so many different types of religion. Each religion has its own idea of what the religious law should contain and, as such, it is virtually impossible to establish one agreed set of religious law principles.

It is worth noting that there are some state religions, i.e. religions that have been endorsed by the state. Based on this recognition and as depicted clearly in Canon law, it is possible to see the importance of religious law. With this type of religious law, it was considered suitably important by the state as to have its own court system, known as the Ecclesiastical Courts. Alternatively, there are the secular states in which religious law has no bearing on the state. In this case, the state aims to retain a neutral stance in so far as religion is concerned.

Surprisingly, the UK operates a Canon law approach where religious law, specifically Christianity, is recognised as supreme. This has been somewhat overshadowed by the growing complexity of traditional law; however, the importance of religious law in this case cannot be ignored.

Other countries treat religious law very differently, notably Islamic law. Islamic law is one of the few religious laws that appear to hold a greater significance than the related traditional laws. In fact, Islamic law (known as Sharia) is considered as the most influential religious law and is recognised as a legal system alongside common and civil law.

How Does Religious Law Interact with Other Law?

The interaction of religious law and traditional law is always going to be a difficult area to comprehend. Emotions run high in relation to religious law, and in many countries, there are conflicting belief systems adding to the problems. In almost all cases of religious law, the underlying issue is that a legal document of some description is one of the sources of law referred to by the traditional law.

The way and the extent to which the religious law is then worked into the traditional law vary dramatically. For example, the religious law of Judaism know as the Halakha takes a hugely important role in countries with Jewish populations. Whilst the religious law of Halakha is not the primary source of law in any country, it is possible for two Jewish individuals to agree to take a matter to a Jewish court for adjudication, thus effectively agreeing to be governed by religious law.

With such differing views on religion and the way in which religious law should impact on the traditional law, it is not surprising that the two opinions regularly collide. In the case of the UK, religious law has now been incorporated into the regulations and legislation where appropriate and it is this legislation that is the ultimate guidance when it comes to the law of the land. Religious law can only be relied upon solely when both parties agree, as is the case with Halakha.

Religious Law - Dealing with Hatred

There is, of course, a more sinister side to religious law that has to be mentioned. Many countries are now forced into ensuring that they have an anti-hatred law due to the conflict between many religions.

Many of these laws have been developed to try and mitigate the current terrorism problems that are largely thought to be rooted in religious disharmony. Whilst this may be seen as a negative view of religious law, it is generally regarded as being essential to prevent infractions or religious disagreement. In the UK, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 was brought into force on 1 October 2007 to deal with any situation in which someone or a group of people are guilty of stirring up any form of hatred against another on the grounds of religion.

This, although not strictly speaking a religious law, should not be ignored as it reveals the vital part that religion can take in the forming of the laws of a country.


Religious law as both a source of law and as an influencing factor on the development of traditional law is a topic that cannot be ignored. In some cases, religious law is central to the traditional laws of the country, typically in Islamic or Jewish countries. In other areas, such as the UK, religious law is rooted in the history of the law, although more traditional methods of interpretation and precedent have taken a more important role in modern society.

Religious law as a source of law is essentially the main consideration, although it is also wise to bear in mind that religion can also be the reason for the development of other legislative instruments. A prime example of the importance of religion is the anti hatred religious law that was recently established in the UK to deal with religious disharmony.

Religious law, as a whole, is a vital element of most legal systems and should not be ignored as either a source or an influencer of modern legal practices.