Defending Muslim Law From Those Invoking It

Defending Muslim Law From Those Invoking It
‘Heaven on Earth,’ by Sadakat Kadri

There are good ways and bad ways to die. Then there was the death afforded, around A.D. 750, to a Persian political adviser named Ibn al-Muqaffa. His limbs were dispatched from his body, and he was forced to watch as they were roasted slowly in an oven.

This punishment was visited upon Muqaffa in part because he’d committed blasphemy. He’d apparently suggested that the Shariah — God’s law under Islam — be codified into written rules to facilitate a just society.

It’s hard to blame him for his longing. As Sadakat Kadri notes in “Heaven on Earth,” his thorough and admirable new book about the history of Islamic law, the Koran authorized the punishment of just four crimes: theft, fornication, false witness and waging war against Islam.

How was a practical government to rule about everything else? To a citizen with a land dispute or a medical malpractice claim, jurisprudence could seem as arbitrary as a Ouija board’s spirit message.

Like so many people who have been gruesomely tortured throughout history, Muqaffa’s real offense was to be ahead of his time. Islam did slowly develop a written form of the Shariah — an Arabic word whose meanings included, in a phrase that must have seemed especially lovely to a desert people, a direct path to water.

Today the confusion, Mr. Kadri makes plain in “Heaven on Earth,” is how to interpret this wide-ranging series of edicts, some from the Koran and many others based on hadiths, which are reports about the Prophet Muhammad written more than a century after his death. Scholars have sets of interpretations; increasingly freelance jihadists have their own.

The author declares more than once, in contempt of the repressive and violent who interpret the Shariah selectively, that “claiming divine authority is not the same as possessing it.”

Mr. Kadri, a Muslim by birth, was born in London. He is a half-Finnish and half-Pakistani English barrister with a master’s degree from Harvard Law School, where he overlapped with Barack Obama. He is nearly as multicultural as one man can get without falling over.

His previous book is “The Trial: A History, From Socrates to O. J. Simpson” (2005). He’s an alert writer with an alert interest in tolerance: he has done work for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Kadri’s background gives him a grounded and many-angled perspective on Islamic law. He finds a great deal to admire in it, and he is deft at dispelling myths. Stoning, for example, is not mentioned in the Koran as a punishment for adultery.

In his reading of the Shariah, he finds rationality and flexibility. His argument is with recent hard-liners who, he writes, “have turned Islamic penal history on its head.”

He is furious that fundamentalists “have associated the Shariah in many people’s minds with some of the deadliest legal systems on the planet.” He calls them traditionalists who ignore tradition. He is disgusted that warped opinions “are mouthed today to validate murder after murder in Islam’s name.”

It can be dangerous work for journalists and scholars to single out aspects of Islam for criticism. At times in this book you sense the author going well out of his way to lay down extravagant praise, like palm fronds, before proceeding with mild cavils.

Prior to parsing conflicting accounts of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, he writes: “No one has ever denied that Muhammad was tall, dark-eyed, handsome, fragrant, lustrous, well mannered, soft-spoken, modest, firm of handshake and purposeful of stride.”

“Heaven on Earth” is broken down into two sections: “The Past” and “The Present.” The first of these is longer but not better. At times it’s an arid if colorful march through Islamic history and jurisprudence.

There are so many sieges and beheadings, viziers and ayatollahs, dervishes and hermits, ascetic priests and deranged mystics, caged falcons and cheetahs on leashes and magicians and astrologers that the elements of this rolling thunder review can blur your vision. The material seems to have mastered its author rather than vice versa.

Stick with Mr. Kadri. It’s the essayist in him, not the historian, you will respond to. He was inspired to write this book, he says, by Sept. 11 and by the London bombings of July 7, 2005. (He was a commuter in London that morning.)

In the aftermaths he longed for answers to simple questions: “Where was the Shariah written down? To what extent was it accepted that its rules had been crafted by human beings? And what gave the men who were so loudly invoking it the right to speak in God’s name?”

He explores these complicated issues with probity but also good humor. He quotes the ninth-century writer al-Jahiz on the topic of sexual morality thus: “How near is what God permits to what he forbids!”

He provides detours into topics like the hadiths that offer opinions on “the value of toothpicks, the importance of trimming mustaches and the geographical location of the Antichrist.” He interviews a women’s rights lawyer in Lahore, Pakistan, who cheekily refers to fundamentalists as “fundies.”

Mr. Kadri is eloquent on the differences between Shariah and fiqh, or the study of Islamic law. “Attempts to critique the Shariah are liable to be perceived by devout Muslims as a denunciation of God rather than an argument,” he writes.

He continues: “The rules of fiqh, on the other hand, can never be more than a human approximation of the divine will.” Islam, he points out, has no figure like the pope to appeal to in order to resolve disputes.  MORE:  SOURCE