Book review: Heaven On Earth - A Journey Through Shari’a Law

BEFORE going into some of the more intriguing and memorable aspects of Sadakat Kadri’s intellectually nimble and rigorously researched book, it is probably better to foreground these features with his more important, myth-dispelling conclusions.

Shari’a means literally “way” or “path”, and although parts of it have evolved into a legal code, others advise on apects of life that we would normally consider extra-judicial. For the most part, as Kadri eloquently expresses it, shari’a “offered ordinary people relatively predictable solutions to straightforward problems” – which financial services to buy, how to deal with inheritance disputes, the correct prayers for the dead and such like.

The interconnection between a religiously inspired indication of how to live a good life and the evolution of legal injunctions and punishments is vexed in every culture: the Bible, for example, tells us to honour our mother and father, but is silent on the mandatory sentence for possession of a class-A drug. Given the extensive history and competing schools of shari’a, it is unsurprising that Kadri can reveal unexpected instances that will bemuse those whose view of shari’a is derived from tabloid scaremongering. For example: which religious figure first asserted the rights of transsexuals to undergo gender re-assignment surgery? The answer, which may cause some consternation, is the Ayatollah Khomeini.

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Kadri, a human rights lawyer, structures his enquiry into the nature of shari’a through two journeys. In the first section of the book he charts the historical development of shari’a (and along the way provides the most succinct overview of the differences between Sunni and Shi’a Islam).

The second journey takes him through contemporary countries where shari’a is, to some extent, enshrined within that country’s legal code (Pakistan, Iran, Egypt), to the madrasas where versions of shari’a are taught and to a meeting in East London of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, a branch of the “radicalised” Party of Liberation. The overwhelming point that he makes is that shari’a is not like Stair’s The Institutions of the Laws of Scotland or the Napoleonic Codex, but an ongoing debate with regional and philosophical nuance and variation.

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The Qur’an itself listed four haddood, or sins which necessitated punishment: theft (punishable by amputation of the right hand), fornication (punishable by a hundred lashes), false accusation of fornication (punishable by eighty lashes) and “waging of war against Islam or spreading of disorder in the land” (for which there was a range of reponses, from decapitation to exile). To construct a penal code involved qualifying these with the more frequent injunctions to clemency and forgiveness (the first two of the 99 names of Allah are Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim, “the exceedingly compassionate” and “the exceedingly merciful”) and looking at the stories of the life of the Prophet Muhammad (the hadiths) for guidance on matters such as proof and repentance, and a sanctioned attitude towards other behaviours – drunkenness, treatment of prisoners, alms-giving and so forth.

Kadri traces a fault-line running through the evolution of shari’a which manifests itself as the difference between Hanafites and Malakites, between Mu’tazilites and Hanbalites, between Ibn Sina and al-Ghazali. Without wishing to render two-dimensional what are complex systems of belief, there is a sliding scale over the extent to which reason and tradition are regarded as legitimate sources of theological authority. Each side was capable of descending into conservatism; and one of the uncomfortable lessons of this book is that the “rational” thinkers were every bit as capable of oppression and even torture as the “traditionalists”. Knox-like though the intransigent ibn Hanbal can appear, it is difficult not to admire his fortitude and refusal to disavow his beliefs (even if the apocryphal story of a golden hand holding up his trousers while he was whipped seems credulity-stretching).

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The modern travelogue is both illuminating and perplexing. Kadri has some hair-raising encounters – a guard who took him to meet an elusive mufti in Karachi was later shot as a covert al-Qaeda operative – but the general tone is that situations are rarely as clear-cut as their media manifestations. In Qom, in Iran, he attends a debate between “a Jew, a Catholic, a Zoroastrian, a Grand Ayatollah and a humanist”, though “none delivered a punchline as good as the set-up”, and the disjuncture between the liberalism of some theology in Iran and the bellicosity of its current president is striking.

Kadri presents an admirably clear-eyed picture of the most inflammatory topics, such as the stoning of adulterers. The determination with which its defenders insist it is an inalienable part of Islamic justice is equalled by the scarcity of its actual application and the inordinate lengths some judges go to in order to avoid carrying it out. As he writes, “it cannot be right that Muslim judges have to resort to scientific impossibilities” – such as five-year pregnancies – “to commute death sentences”. It is a bizarre paradox: the harshness of the stricture generates a plethora of loopholes; just as there are more tax-avoidance strategies for millionaires than for paupers.

Islam has always adapted to a rapidly changing world. A desert rebellion became a global empire, and the challenges it faced changed with it.

The current rise of digital technologies provides both specific problems, and systemic alterations. For example, one online user of a shari’a question service (IslamQA) asked about the legitimacy of updating Facebook: after citing hadiths, the “cyber-mufti” concluded it would be a positive sin to do anything else. But the “cyber-mufti” itself is something new. The concept of ijma, or consensus among scholars, has always had a privileged place in Islamic jurisprudence. The likelihood of unanimous agreement – or even guaranteed expertise – in cyberspace seems remote.

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Kadri is a precise and stylish writer, as good on explicating abstruse arguments as he is at conjuring vivid scenes (such as the book’s opening description of the court of the king of the jinns in Badaun).

Given how heated debates about shari’a have become, and given how glancing the intellectual engagement with it is on the part of some of the most strident voices, this brave and sane book could not be more timely.

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• Heaven On Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law, by Sadakat Kadri, The Bodley Head, 332pp, £18.99