Sadly, when it comes to the topic of Shari’ah, the measure of a book’s success is merely that it leave you with an impression of Muslim humanity. Rarely is a word so frequently used and yet so commonly misunderstood.
Islamophobic discourse rarely changes in any meaningful way; indeed, it remains quite similar to the anti-Semitism it disingenuously claims to have foresworn. But superficially, Islamophobia rapidly mutates, sniffing out whatever Arabic words its untalented bigots can find—throwing them against the wall, and seeing which most creeps out the mainstream. “Hijab.” “Minaret.” “Taqiyya.”
These days, Shari’ah’s the unlucky winner; the next term that stands in for a total threat to Western civilization, the urgent fear inside Islamophobia. Given the level of venom, ignorance, and brashness, it is disappointing how few resources are available to change the conversation.
Enter London Review of Books contributor Sadakat Kadri whose new book might help us talk about Shari’ah. Heaven on Earth is the kind of book that can appeal to the curious, as well as the intellectually serious—that strange product which actually leaves you knowing more about Islam than you did before you started.
Kadri’s book is smart, fun, wide-ranging, well researched, and remarkably thorough for its length, though I had, as you’ll see, several criticisms. Overall, however, his book is successful in that it does leave you with an impression of Muslim humanity, and impressively outlines Islam’s formidable complexity and spiritual richness. There are too few writers who want to do this, and fewer still who can pull it off.
If you had to briefly define Shari’ah, how would you do so?
There’s no better definition than the word’s source. It once described a direct path toward water—a very valuable route to seventh-century desert Arabs—and though people properly argue about human interpretations of Islamic law, the word ‘shari’ah’ is most usefully understood in terms of the original meaning given it by believers: a divinely-sanctioned path toward salvation.
What, in the course of writing this book, most surprised you? Disappointed you? Did you think you’d end up with the book you’ve written?
Writing is a process, not just an efficient method of conveying information, and when I first put finger to keyboard I had no idea if I would finish the book, let alone how it would end. Like so many other people, I was initially inclined to think of Islamic law narrowly, in terms of commands and sanctions. As my perspectives deepened, I was pulled in two opposing directions.
It became important to emphasize the way in which devout Muslims regard God’s law as a guide to all aspects of life, so that fair-minded non-Muslim readers might better appreciate why opposition toward ‘shari’ah law’ is liable to be perceived not as an intellectual stance, but as bigotry. But the expansive and fluid parameters of Islamic jurisprudence held another, very different kind of surprise.
It turned out that those Muslim states that are most vocal about enforcing God’s will typically avoid or sideline their own laws—even punishments—as though clemency and a willingness to accommodate change were somehow shameful. That points toward a phenomenon which, I suppose, came as my greatest disappointment: the way that hardliners have managed in just a few decades to associate the shari’ah in so many people’s minds with rigidity, discrimination and brutality.
You describe the “expansive and fluid parameters of Islamic jurisprudence.” Can you elaborate a little bit on this?
Although the Prophet Muhammad himself died in 632 C.E., Islamic law continued to evolve for centuries. It was one-and-a-half centuries before Muslim jurists began systematically to address the two interlinked questions that are central to any legal system: how to decide between two different arguments concerning a rule; and how to resolve cases that are not explicitly covered by clear rules in the first place.
In the years since then, countless thousands of scholars have spent their lives struggling to interpret God’s law (a task known as ijtihad), with prolific results. Islamic jurisprudence governs many matters that many Westerners would not consider ‘legal’ at all, from diet and etiquette to prayer, and it has incorporated many ways of accommodating change.
One example is the Sunni view that a consensual interpretation of the shari’ah might allow for departures from previous understandings; another is the assumption that God’s rules have a goal (the maqasid al-shari’ah) and that this higher purpose might override their literal wording. The dynamism is liable to surprise anyone who associates Islam with rigidity, but it should not; adaptability has been key to its endurance over the last 1400 years, and it is why the religion has taken root in every continent on Earth.
At the same time, it’s always important to remember that justice requires not only that appropriate rules exist, but that they are applied consistently. That means the legal fluidity comes with a risk—the possibility of arbitrary enforcement. Anyone concerned with the operation of Islamically-inspired judicial systems consequently bears a heavy responsibility, because flexibility can easily facilitate manipulation and unfairness.
You also point out how this expansive and fluid Islamic jurisprudence has been challenged and even undermined in several Muslim majority countries, often in the name of Islam. Why do you think this is happening? And do you think that Shari’ah has been irreversibly tarnished by this?
Countries from Somalia to Pakistan have been ravaged in recent decades by coups, revolutions, and wars. In the ensuing fear and uncertainty, religious scholars have gained considerable influence—perhaps because they seem to offer explanations for the instability, perhaps because of the uniquely reassuring nature of a faith in God. Those scholars have certainly had their supporters, but their ascent has also had one very regrettable effect.
Certain jurists have been able to yoke extremely harsh interpretations of Islamic law to the machinery of modern government. They have focused on a narrow range of punitive and discriminatory measures, ignoring fundamental aspects of the Prophet’s message, like his stress on progress, justice and mercy—and the effect has been to enshrine very one-sided conceptions of Islamic justice.
The process is deeply corrupting. Ostensible piety is not the same thing as political wisdom—and when scholars exploit God’s moral authority for short-term gain, they create unrealistic expectations that can end up bringing not just politics but religion itself into disrepute.
That said, I don’t believe that the shari’ah is irredeemably tarnished by such machinations. As I’ve already suggested, the word is best reserved to describe the divine guidance to which Muslims aspire. It’s crucial, however, that believers do not allow a natural respect for the shari‘ah and religious scholarship to degenerate into uncritical deference. Some scholars do not hesitate to characterize their personal opinions as expressions of God’s eternal will, and whether they are being cynical or honest, their claims to divine inspiration merit very careful scrutiny.
As should be obvious, people do not speak for God just because they say they do.
We hear so much about differences between Islam and the West, as crude as such language is. But you note that the English jury system may have roots in Islamic law as it developed in North Africa. I think readers would be fascinated to know how Islamic law has influenced, or shares similarities with, Western legal traditions.
That specific link you mention is extremely tenuous—the juries of common law tradition are much more likely to have reached England via the Vikings—but the fact that the Maghreb was using twelve men good and true to decide cases more than a thousand years ago recalls a deeper point. Every system of criminal justice strikes a balance between two imperatives—the urge to condemn wrongdoers and the concern not to punish in vain—and the techniques to pursue those goals typically evolve in similar forms across different cultures. One consequence is that there are fundamental similarities between the legal aspirations recorded in the Qur’an and hadiths and those expressed by later Western jurists: the notion that judges should act only on clearly expressed testimony, for example, or the principle that they should strain to avoid mandatory punishments (haddood) and always credit defendants with the benefit of legal doubt (shubha).
There are also specifically Muslim institutions that seem to have made their way into European legal systems; most notably, a reviewing court known as the nazr al-mazalim, which the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II used as a model for a new (but very durable) system of administrative courts on the Continent. Other scholars have noted important similarities between Islamic endowments (awqaf; sing. waqfv) and the equitable trusts that first entered English law during the Crusader era. At the same time, there have been more malign overlaps, driven by the ubiquitous hope of suppressing sin.
One good example involves torture. Islamic jurists seem to have been extremely hostile to the practice until the 1300s—a period when inquisitorial systems of justice were taking hold in Europe—and one Western historian has attributed the shift to the influence of Spanish and Sicilian canonists on their Muslim counterparts. True or not, the coincidence serves to recall an important truth: the claim to act in God’s name is no guarantee against injustice.
I must admit I was somewhat disappointed with the turn the book takes, from a general overview of the evolution of Islamic law, as a tradition, to a much narrower focus on jihad and terrorism. Considering the Gallup poll numbers, which indicate that the more religious a person claims to be, the less tolerant they are of militancy and violence, how do you explain your moving from how Muslims conceive of Shari’ah to a narrower and more securitized frame of Shari’ah, which seems to exclude many Muslim experiences of Shari’ah outside certain crisis areas, like Pakistan and Afghanistan?
Structuring any book presents challenges, and one that addresses a subject as vast as the shari’ah demands that an author make choices. It would have been nice to synthesize experiences from a much broader range of Muslim countries, but organizing five months of travel was arduous and expensive enough, and reducing a broader range of countries into a readable book would have taken time and money I did not possess.
Traveling from India to Egypt seemed to offer a fairly simple way of linking my south Asian heritage with the history of the regions where Islamic jurisprudence came of age. A less tangible motive also helps explain the book’s trajectory. Although it is no bad thing to recognize the diversity and benign qualities of Muslim life—and I hope my book does that throughout—I thought it crucial to focus on points of friction, because those are the matters that are causing greatest damage to inter-communal relations today. That means, regrettably, devoting attention to conflict—not just the ‘jihad and terrorism’ you mention, but also the harsh attitudes toward criminal justice, gender politics and religious toleration that have been hardening of late in some ostensibly Islamic states.
Another writer might well have struck a different balance, but that would simply have drawn criticisms from the opposite direction. In that context, it is perhaps worth pointing out that a few critics have suggested that I devote too little attention to malign interpretations of the shari’ah, and some have even called me an apologist for extremism. So it goes. Ultimately, I can only really say that, in my view, it seemed important to address controversies head-on and to undercut the many people (Muslim as well as non-Muslim) who might otherwise claim that I was ducking difficult issues.
You make much of [14th-century Islamic scholar] Ibn Taymiyya and his influence on contemporary extremism. I would, however, argue that extreme voices only care for Ibn Taymiyya insofar as he gives them ammunition; they don’t care for his ideas, rarely understand him, and frequently only use him as so much window-dressing. Sadly, this also seems to be the case with thinkers like Qutb—perhaps it is not that thinkers produce extremists, but that the conditions that produce both the extremists and their intellectuals which should be worth more concern. How do you see this relationship between ideas and actions?
Your assessment of the extremist debt to Ibn Taymiyya is correct. He was a rigorous and charismatic thinker, whereas many of the men who nowadays cite his influence lack his familiarity with Muslim and non-Muslim texts, and they fail to engage except at the most superficial level with the historical background to his writings. The second aspect of your question—relating to the circumstances that allow the seeds of extremism to bear fruit—opens up a multitude of issues, but one simple point is easily stated: political crises have played a fundamental role.
I try to show that throughout my book. My treatment of Ibn Taymiyya is rooted in an account of the upheavals set off by the Mongol invasion of the Muslim world, for example, while later chapters repeatedly emphasize the contemporary impact of colonialism, the partition of Palestine, corruption within Muslim states and military aggression from outside them. And though certain scholars have struggled hard and well to meet the challenges, it is important to acknowledge that others have exploited one of Islamic jurisprudence’s great historical strengths—its flexibility—for short-term political advantage.
I’m going to continue with the medieval scholar, Ibn Taymiyya, for it seems many in the West often present monocausal explanations of contemporary Islam—and largely in order to link Islam to terrorism (or, perhaps, terrorism to Islam). I’m not convinced by the portrayal of Ibn Taymiyya you present, especially where you note his radical return to the salaf, or the early generations of Muslims. Islamic law is a vigorous conversation across societies and centuries, which always returns to the earliest generations for its proofs and ideals—it has no other common ground, in a sense. How then is Ibn Taymiyya any different? What makes him “radical”?
Of course you’re right that appealing to Islam’s origins is an integral aspect of the faith. As I observe at one point, “respect for the salafs, the first generations of Muslims, is perfectly conventional among believers.” What made Ibn Taymiyya so remarkable was his re-evaluation of the legal significance of consensus (ijma)—specifically, his claim to identify ancient views about the shari’ah which trumped contemporary jurisprudence that he found disagreeable—along with his attempt to put traditionalism to relentlessly punitive purposes.
That led him to argue (for example) that certain members of Shi‘a sects were non-Muslim heretics who merited execution, and it inspired his student Ibn Qayyim to propose that the Prophet and his Companions had approved of torturing criminal defendants. In my opinion, a man who developed novel concepts of legal interpretation that facilitated such conclusions can properly be called ‘radical’.
We hear a lot about Islam, identity, and Europe, but rarely is much of it particularly helpful. Though your book talks about the Muslim majority world frequently, what challenges and opportunities do see for Muslim (minority) communities in the West? (You can take that to mean the United Kingdom, Europe, or the West more generally.)
This question is an important one. Classical interpretations of the shari’ah and Islam’s place in the world were developed in an era when Muslim rulers were supreme and the faith was unquestionably dominant. Any assessment of the place of modern Muslim minorities has to take account of this historical background, because it provides the context for perspectives that are sometimes wrongly presented as timeless. But the questions relevant to the lives of ordinary Western Muslims today do not concern their superiority or inferiority in relation to other faiths—still less, the management of a medieval empire.
The fundamental challenge is the same one that everyone else faces: how best to live alongside people who hold different beliefs. That calls for mutual respect—and though that imposes society-wide responsibilities, Muslims can play their specific part by drawing on their communal history. Tolerance and diversity have been valued by Islamic scholars for more than a thousand years, and Muslim institutions have flourished alongside those of other faiths for just as long. Assessing the reasons for that heritage and developing new ways to honor its spirit would benefit everyone.
Some people say the Arab Spring killed al-Qaeda; do you think that’s true? Do you think the Muslim world, by which I mean not just Muslim countries but Muslim communities and institutions, has the resources and intellects to fight off extremism?
Only a fool, a fanatic, or a politician would presume to predict the future of the Arab Spring and the fate of al-Qaeda. The emergence of semi-democratic regimes in North Africa has certainly undermined the central assumption of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s organisation—the belief that significant change will only come through violence—but though al-Qaeda is looking increasingly sect-like, its foundations have not collapsed. Murderous attacks are still committed in its name, and the resentments that allowed it to mushroom over the last two decades continue to seethe. It remains to be seen whether changes in the Middle East will draw the venom, or fuel yet more grievances.
That said, even if it is too soon to write the epitaph to extremism, I don’t doubt that Muslims have both the motive and the capacity to contain its surge. They make up the majority of victims, after all, and the resilience of Muslim social and family structures make it relatively easy to say when a co-religionist is stepping too far out of line. The most crucial factor is one that outsiders to the faith easily ignore. The overwhelming majority of Muslims hold instinctively conservative views about what can be done in God’s name—and though a commitment to Islam is considered threatening by some non-Muslims, devout believers are often effective critics and vigilant opponents of religious extremism.
If you were to run a madrasa, what changes would you make? What books, ideas, courses—or whatever else—might you suggest?
When I visited Islamic colleges in India and Pakistan, my experience was frequently disappointing. Although teachers and students acknowledged the importance of open-mindedness, their attitude toward the wider world was characterized by suspicion; and though they spoke with pride of Islam’s past, their familiarity with Muslim scholarship typically did not extend beyond a handful of well-known religious works. It was a long way from the ninth-century heyday of Islamic power, when Baghdad scholars translated hundreds of foreign texts—on topics from Athenian philosophy to Zoroastrian theology—and a revival of that confident and critical tradition would be no bad thing.
That’s a tall order, to be sure, because most madrasas are struggling just to teach impoverished pupils the rudiments of literacy, but some basic aspirations would be welcome. It would be nice if students were encouraged to understand the beliefs of non-Muslim communities, and taught not just to venerate tradition, but also to think through actual historical events.