Heaven on Earth: a Journey Through Sharia Law

Heaven on Earth: a Journey Through Sharia Law
Sadakat Kadri
Bodley Head, 332pp, £18.99

"Sharia" is a contested word for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Loosely interpreted as God's law and reduced to little more than a set of divinely ordained punishments, it inspires both hope and fear. In recent years, it has come to represent, for many in the west, much of what is wrong with Muslims and their faith. In modern liberal societies such as ours, sharia connotes a medieval religiosity that can seem almost barbaric where matters of human rights and individual freedom are concerned.

The author of Heaven on Earth, Sadakat Kadri, is a qualified criminal barrister with a keen interest in questions of justice and jurisprudence. He writes as if fulfilling a duty. The challenge he has set himself is to write a book that balances his quest for deeper understanding of sharia with a narrative that is informative and accessible to a wide audience.

Kadri writes that it was in the aftermath of the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, when "bellicose assertions" were being made about sharia, that he began to feel there was a void that needed to be filled. The result is this book. It unfolds as a journey, at once physical, spiritual and intellectual, during which Kadri discovers how Muslims understand and interpret sharia as divinely inspired and of continued legal relevance.

Kadri ties past and present in a single, continuous narrative, melding historical fact with personal testimony as he describes the political schisms of early Islamic history and the formation of the Muslim schools of jurisprudence. Occasional mentions of the kind of juristic problems that preoccupied the founders of sharia, such as whether canine saliva was clean or unclean, are welcome reminders that we should not conceive of sharia exclusively as penal law. The later sections of the book deal with recent global events involving Muslims, especially Muslims in this country. Terrorism is discussed but the central issue is the predicament of those who are caught between allegiance to historical understandings of sharia and contemporary notions of human progress.

Kadri focuses on the link between sharia and authority and the question of why the more unforgiving interpretation of sharia holds sway today, when Islamic history has so often shown that rulers and jurists knew that "sins are ultimately for God to judge". The author also recognises how innovative the thinking of early Muslim jurists was in comparison to that of their European counterparts. He insists that no interpretation of sharia has ever been timeless and adduces historical examples of the reluctance of Muslim states to enforce the severe penalties. For instance, there was a single stoning in the entire 600-year existence of the Ottoman empire.

Heaven on Earth is not a historical panorama. It is rooted more in Kadri's encounters with those for whom sharia is simultaneously a problem and a solution. He has travelled the world talking to ordinary Muslims, especially on the Indian subcontinent, where religious conservatism and political pressures have made violent penalties and coercion of the public an unfortunately significant aspect of the religious psyche.

Kadri visits Deobandi madrasas filled with a "thousand years of scholarly certainty". He comes away convinced that these institutions are "manifestations of a malaise rather than a signpost towards solutions". In Iran, the picture is more mixed. There is much hopeful talk of religious freedom for the country's very visible Zoroastrian, Jewish and Christian minorities. Yet many Iranian clerics continue to believe that people are free to convert from Islam only as long as they keep it secret.

Kadri turns to the Quran and classical Islamic law to show that there is more than one way to understand man's relation to God. He concludes that mortals should not play God, because "heaven and hell are beyond [their] jurisdiction", but his arguments are unlikely to change the minds of religious conservatives.

Indeed, the book paints a rather depressing picture, especially for those who fear that the ingenuity and openness of classical Islamic thought is gradually being eroded as the religion is stripped of its richness and compassion in the name of sharia.

Mona Siddiqui is professor of Islamic and inter-religious studies at Edinburgh University

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt