The Mideast and Abroad
- Published on Saturday, 06 October 2012 07:43
What is the Shari’a? How has it been interpreted in history? And, where is the Shari’a a powerful force in the world today? Sadakat Kadri answers these questions in his provocative new book, Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012). His study is based on a rigorous examination of Islamic sources, and extensive travels in South Asia, Iran and the Middle East.
Born in London in 1964, Sadakat Kadri was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and Harvard Law School. He is a practicing English barrister, and he is a member of the New York Bar. He has served as a volunteer for the American Civil Liberties Union. Kadri is the author of The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson (2005).
Kadri’s new book is wise and weighty. It is anchored in Islamic history, which illuminates the present. The Shari’a has guided Muslims for centuries, and it has helped them to adapt to their circumstances in time and place. A willingness to adapt and change is one of the remarkable aspects of Islamic law. As Kadir puts it, “Islamic jurisprudence has not spent the past fourteen hundred years opposed to change; it has been defined by it.”
Sadakat Kadri discusses “Heaven on Earth” with Aslan Media contributor Joseph Preville.
Joseph Preville (JP): What was the inspiration for your new book?
Sadakat Kadri (SK): At its most basic, it was a simple desire to learn. But there was a darker concern. I had written a previous book about Western legal history while living in New York after 9/11, and it was published three months before London’s 7/7 bombings. Extremist interpretations of the shari‘a were in the headlines almost every day, and though my relatives and Muslim friends expressed no doubt those interpretations were wrong, no one seemed to know what Islamic jurisprudence actually said. I wanted reliable information about its origins, evolution, and present-day application.
JP: What challenges did you face in writing Heaven on Earth?
SK: They came from two directions. Some conservative Muslims think it pointless – even dangerous – to scrutinize legal and theological questions through a historical prism. At the other end of the spectrum, there are people hostile to Islam who are determined to reduce the shari‘a to its harshest modern interpretations. I had to steer between both extremes, because both were similarly wrong. One of the great strengths of classical legal scholarship was its capacity to accommodate changing events – and anyone who ignores the impact of history on religious texts is peddling preconceived assumptions about Islam. The passage of time affects the evolution of any set of beliefs.
JP: How did your travels deepen your understanding of the historical diversity within Islamic jurisprudence?
SK: Although the core beliefs and rituals of Islam are fundamental to the faith, their manifestations differ hugely depending on whether one is in (say) Egypt, Iran or Pakistan. The variety is the product of powerful historical currents, and more than a few accidents of circumstance. That drove me to a basic but important conclusion. Although hardliners often argue nowadays that local and national differences are ‘innovations’ that should be suppressed, that overrides actual traditions in favor of theoretical ones – which is dangerous. It encourages individuals to abandon their communal roots, and the long-term damage to Islam could be immense.
JP: What are the best sources for thoughtful people to study Islam and the Shari’a?
SK: The Qur‘an offers an obvious and essential starting point, and it would be conventional then to look at the classical hadith collections and commentaries that form the bedrock of Islamic jurisprudence. But the original sources are more than a thousand years old, and modern readers need guidance – because they are extensive and often contradictory. Fortunately, there are plenty of intelligent, critical Muslim commentators about – for example, Muhammed Abdel Haleem, Khaled Abou el-Fadl, Wael Hallaq, Mohammad Hashim Kamali, Abdullah an-Na’im, and Tariq Ramadan – as well as many talented non-Muslim academics. It’s crucial to read broadly; as can’t be stressed enough in this context, honest curiosity and intellectual rigor are more valuable scholarly qualifications than ostentatious piety.
JP: There is considerable debate on the Shari’a in Europe. Are you encouraged or discouraged by it?
SK: “Debate” is a polite word for it. Muslims are being demonized in certain quarters, and though the demonizers typically portray their hostility as an intellectual stance, the credo-phobia looks very like xenophobia at the receiving end. It routinely ascribes angry, insular, and hateful attitudes to Muslims in general, and it has fostered deeply illiberal laws – measures that criminalize Muslim women for wearing the wrong clothing, for example, and a Swiss ban on minarets. All that said, the controversy might yet have value, if it encourages each side to reflect on the others’ aspirations and fears.
JP: What are your thoughts on the anti-Shari’a campaign in the United States?
SK: It’s ludicrous. Taxpayers’ money has been spent in some two dozen states to outlaw Shari‘a, as though the word alone might topple the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Although the anti-Shari‘a activists claim to be combating violence and misogyny, their campaign is absurdly disproportionate – because devout Muslims are overwhelmingly more likely to think of the shari‘a in terms of day-to-day matters like dietary rules, customary dress, and religious rituals. That raises an obvious question – what motivates the activists? – and at least one answer seems equally clear. They are pandering to post-9/11 fears, with irrational measures that recall earlier efforts to scapegoat Jews, left-wingers and blacks. It’s a shame. US law is not so feeble that it needs institutionalized discrimination to survive.
JP: Has your study given you hope for the future of Islamic societies around the world?
SK: To be honest, it left me uncertain. Religious sentiment draws on easily exploitable emotions, and several ostensibly Islamic governments are promoting legal interpretations that serve their narrow practical interests. The risks are greatest in unstable states that lack political legitimacy, as a consequence of corruption, poverty or military conflict – and there are plenty of them around, unfortunately. At the same time, I sensed a widespread longing for a renewal of the humane and tolerant aspects of Islamic law, and I believe there is every reason to support such a development. Islamic jurisprudence has not spent the last 1400 years opposed to change; it has been defined by it.By Joseph Preville, Aslan Media Contributor