updated 10/14/2010 4:49:05 AM ET 2010-10-14T08:49:05

A leading Muslim cleric has sparked controversy in Britain by claiming that it is impossible for men to rape their wives.

Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, who is president of the Islamic Sharia Council, told a website that "sex is part of marriage" and suggested that husbands who commit such acts should not be prosecuted.

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"Clearly there cannot be any rape within the marriage," he told The Samosa website. "Maybe aggression, maybe indecent activity... Because when they got married, the understanding was that sexual intercourse was part of the marriage, so there cannot be anything against sex in marriage. Of course, if it happened without her desire, that is no good, that is not desirable."

Sayeed runs Britain's largest network of Islamic sharia courts, The Independent reported.

Rape within marriage has been illegal in Britain since 1991.

Sayeed told The Samosa that if husband "does something against her wish or in a bad time" that he "may be disciplined, and he may be made to ask forgiveness. That should be enough."

When contacted by The Independent, the cleric added: "In Islamic sharia, rape is adultery by force. So long as the woman is his wife, it cannot be termed as rape. It is reprehensible, but we do not call it rape."

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Cheshire police Chief Constable Dave Whatton criticized the comments.

"The majority of rapes do not take place through strangers attacking women late at night but between acquaintances and within marriages and partnerships," he told The Independent.

Inayat Bunglawala, chairman of Muslims4UK, added: "Sheikh Sayeed's comments are woefully misguided and entirely inappropriate. Rape — whether within marriage or outside it — is an abominable act and is clearly against the law."

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