Book review: Sadakat Kadri's "Heaven on Earth"

What is justice?

This brilliantly written book on Sharia law by the Indian-born British lawyer Sadakat Kadri has been a huge success in Britain. "Heaven on Earth" provides readers with a comprehensive overview of the history of Sharia law from its origins to the present day, as well as the difficulties faced in its application. Now that it has been published in German translation, Stefan Weidner takes a look at this successful book

Without attempting to gloss over the facts, the author begins by contradicting the widely held belief in the West that Sharia law is basically about the implementation of brutal, pre-modern corporal punishment.

Originally, the word Sharia denoted the "path to the water hole", which was then used in a figurative sense to mean the "path to a good (Muslim) life". It is important to note here that Sharia law is a concept and not a clearly defined body of legal rules that exists detached from particular legal schools and individual interpretations (such as those provided by the Salafists). The best translation of the term would therefore be something along the lines of "religiously sanctioned justice."

Sharia law did not come into existence at the same time as the emergence of Islam in the first half of the seventh century, but only developed in the two centuries that followed. It has since – even to this day – been subject to numerous changes. The Koran itself is far from being the sole foundation for Sharia law. Over time, the so-called Hadith literature, which provides accounts of the words and deeds of the Prophet, has also served as a legal basis.

Ibn Taimiyya: no room for interpretation

A distinctive feature of Sharia are the four legal schools, which base their authority on their respective founding fathers and various and, in part, locally established lines of tradition. Positioning themselves beyond the bounds of these legal schools are the Salafists, who, by circumventing the historical development of the Sharia, claim to offer direct access to the early period of Islam. Their position is that the traditional texts can be taken literally and that there is no room for interpretation. This line of thought can be traced back to Ibn Taimiyya (1263–1328).

Cover of Sadakat Kadri's "Heaven on Earth" (source: Vintage)
"It should be stressed that the book makes no scholarly claims. However, on the basis of its balanced account of the subject matter and the fact that it is truly an engrossing read, it is currently the most recommendable book available on Sharia law," writes Stefan Weidner

The legal fundamentalism of the Salafists, however, has only become popular in recent times. Although this fundamentalism dominates the current discourse on Islam, it only shapes actual legal practice or politics in exceptional cases. According to Kadri, even in countries where Sharia law officially applies, attempts are usually made to avoid the most severe penalties (the so-called Hadd punishments).

In Nigeria, for example, a legal fiction was devised in order to spare a pregnant widow the accusation of engaging in extramarital intercourse and the subsequent sentence of stoning. It is claimed that the pregnancy could have lasted a number of years, thereby allowing for the possibility that her former husband, who died many years previously, could still be the biological father.

Such legal decisions are taken in the conviction that the establishment of absolute justice is not a matter for human beings, but rather can only be accomplished by God, especially seeing as how the apparently fixed legal provisions are in need of interpretation.

When, for example, the Sharia, in the form of a precept from the Koran, demands that the hand of a thief must be chopped off, it is still necessary to first define the notion of theft. Does theft include tax evasion? As this problem demonstrates, it is practically impossible to establish absolute justice and it is therefore often better to practice mercy, as recommended by the Koran. This has been the prevailing practice throughout history.

Muslims should categorically reject barbaric punishments

Quite correctly, Kadri states that nowadays, it is not sufficient to avoid barbaric punishment simply by tricks of interpretation or introducing legal fictions. Muslims should bring themselves to fundamentally reject such punishment. Kadri's differentiation between divine and earthly justice could thereby serve as a good basis for argumentation.

Kadri cites British statistics that indicate that almost 50 per cent of Muslims hold a positive opinion of Sharia law. This does not mean, however, that they are all fundamentalists. What they understand to be Sharia can vary hugely, just like the confusing variety of Islamic legal opinions expressed on Internet forums and in the form of online fatwas.

An Indonesian immigrant to Canada, for example, can obtain advice from an online fatwa issued by his sheikh in Indonesia, while his equally Muslim Syrian neighbour can ask for advice from a sheikh somewhere in the Arab world. Not unsurprisingly, the advice often differs. One could interpret the author's conclusion as meaning that for most devout Muslims, Sharia means nothing other than justice. However, how justice is defined in each individual case can quite naturally be very different.

The book's presentation of its topic benefits from the personal observations of the author as well as his lively style. It should be stressed that the book makes no scholarly claims. However, on the basis of its balanced account of the subject matter and the fact that it is truly an engrossing read, it is currently the most recommendable book available on Sharia law.

Incidentally, it also demonstrates how German Islamic scholars still have to overcome their reservations in dealing with a public that sincerely yearns for an impartial presentation of Islam that is not written in a dry and inaccessible academic style.

Stefan Weidner

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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