NEW DELHI (AP) -- Islamic courts have no legal authority in India, the country's Supreme Court ruled Monday, saying Muslims cannot be legally subject to a parallel religious authority.
Individuals may abide by Shariah court rulings if they wish, but cannot be legally forced to do so, Judge C. K. Prasad said.
"No religion is allowed to curb anyone's fundamental rights," he told the court, giving the decision of a two-judge bench. Indian law does not recognize Shariah court rulings, he said.
The court was responding to a petition filed in 2005 by a lawyer who said the Shariah courts should be disbanded for running a parallel judicial system in a country with 150 million Muslims among its 1.2 billion population.
Islamic courts wielded considerable influence in Muslim-dominated areas, and people often felt powerless to oppose their rulings, the petitioner Vishwa Lochan Madan argued.
The Supreme Court rejected Madan's request to disband the Shariah courts, saying there was no point if their "fatwas" -- or edicts -- had no legal sanction. People were still free, however, to voluntarily consult an Islamic court for arbitration in personal matters.
Muslim leaders denounced the ruling, and encouraged India's Muslims to continue to consult the Shariah courts on issues like marriage, divorce or inheritance.
"This is a malicious propaganda which is going on against religious beliefs," said Kamal Farooqi, a member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. "We are for Shariah courts, and we are spreading it all over the country."
India has a judicial system inherited from British colonial rulers, but has long allowed different religious communities leeway in handling their own personal issues and disputes.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his new government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, had promised during its election campaign to bring a common legal code for all Indians.
Madan's petition had cited as an example a case in which a Muslim woman was raped by her father-in-law. A Shariah court ordered her marriage annulled and demanded she live with her father-in-law. The case caused outrage in India after the court ordered the mother of five children to leave her husband.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.