Monday, June 04, 2012

Shari'a for Western beginners

Since 9/11, this country has seen repeated outbreaks of nativism and anti-Muslim agitation. More than two dozen states have considered measures to "ban shari'a law." Oklahoma actually passed such an initiative; this popular effort has been tossed out by federal courts twice so far.

Since some people are so exercised about shari'a, it seems as if it would be an obvious course to try to learn what it is. (Not that any such notion seems popular with the Islamophobes.) The British barrister Sadakat Kadri has recently published a volume that aims to provide Western (Christian-acculturated) readers with a description, a history and some explication of contemporary meanings: Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari'a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World. Kadri is well prepared for the project, trained in both English and U.S. law; of Muslim heritage; as well as of South Asian ancestry, so inclined to look at Islamic developments beyond the religion's Arabian peninsula origins.

Simply put, the shari'a is "a path," a notion familiar to anyone in any culture who hopes that God provided directions for human life.

When the Qur'an was first enunciated by the Prophet Muhammad during the 620s, the term "shari'a" conveyed the idea of a direct path to water -- a route of considerable importance to a desert people and at a time when no one systematically differentiated between the world that was and the world that ought to be, Islam's straight and narrow described as much as it prescribed. Scholars would not write about it for at least another century, and half a millennium would elapse before legal theories settled into definitive form … As befits so awesome a phenomenon, the science of studying law jurisprudence, or fiqh came to be considered a duty akin to prayer. No aspect of creation fell outside its scope, and jurists pronounced on questions from the lawfulness of logic to the legal meaning of the moon.

So shari'a amounts to directions to heaven and also for living.

Where Islam seems really different from Christianity is that it is based on a revelation -- the Qur'an -- that the God made to a single historic person, the Prophet Mohammed, all within a short span of well-documented history. Sure, Christians believe and some independent evidence attests that there was a real Jesus, but all surviving narratives of the Jewish Judean peasant come from later writers with complex tendentious agendas. Jesus was a no-count, a condemned agitator; Mohammed conquered tribal foes in documented battles and ruled an Arabian territory. His followers proceeded to conquer the world as it was known to them. Hence Islam's path -- the shari'a -- was entangled with a series of states and governments from its origins, while in some time and places, it has not been so hard for Christians to seek their path aside from or in parallel to various ruling authorities.

Kadri addresses the consequences of Islam's early history for the evolution of shari'a:

… for many Muslims, history has turned into an aspect of faith rather than a subject for debate -- assumed insofar as it supports the conventional view, and sacrilegious if it seems somehow to undermine it. Any account of this period therefore faces some serious problems. Not only is there little way to test the received version of events, but the hadiths [stories of the Prophet] themselves are contradictory. There is plenty on which the biographers agree, to be sure. 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. But the uncertainties quickly multiply. … There are claims that he once envisioned hell to be full of females, and many others that depict him not just comfortable with but delighted by the company of intelligent and opinionated women. He was a man of unyielding rigor, say some, but he is also supposed to have laughed when told that an arrested drunk had staggered free from a flogging, and to have counseled followers against further action. The truth must lie somewhere, but all that can be said for sure is that the descriptions frequently say more about the describers than they could possibly reveal about Muhammad himself.

Out of this half-remembered, often sacralized, history, Muslim scholars adduced the religion's path, the shari'a. And then, being human and living in history, they developed particular culturally appropriate methods to study and elaborate it and followed currents often much influenced by particular immediate necessities. That is, shari'a is tied up with its history and it is not very meaningful to say anything about it aside from that history.

Kadri provides a guide through various times and currents, acquaintance with which is part of many Muslims' cultural heritage. If the debates he leads us through seem obscure, we have to realize we just don't come with the cultural equipment to appreciate what people were so gripped by. This is hardly surprising; contemporary Christians are equally unable to understand why the excited followers the fourth century bishops Athanasius and Arius killed each other over slightly differing words about the nature of God (Athanasius "won" but we don't have to know that these days.)

As has happened in many societies, political and religious turmoil sometimes drew some people toward rigid assurances that they possessed "the one way." One such moment occurred in 11th century Baghdad:

In the hurly-burly of the Abbasid caliphate, attempts to collect, collate, analyze, and apply Islam's revelations and hadiths had developed into a highly sophisticated set of legal doctrines. Sufism preserved a far more basic understanding of the behavior required of Muslims. It invited believers to fall back on their own inner resources to strengthen their faith. It insisted, above all, that the shari'a was bigger than a set of orders; it was a path to salvation, which God had given humanity out of love. The spread of Sufism would enrich Islamic culture immensely, and… it arguably saved it from evisceration.

But its rise was paralleled by a simultaneously regressive development in the field of jurisprudence. [The scholar] Al-Ghazali would be widely recognized among Sunnis in years to come as a mujaddid, or "renovator," of the law -- a sort of judicial superhero that God sends once a century to clean up the mess that has accumulated since the last one came by. But the darker side of that admiration was an implicit suggestion that he was the last great interpreter of the shari'a. Within a decade of his death, a claim that would become famous in Islamic legal history was recorded for the first time: an assertion that the "gate" through which a scholar had to travel to understand the law had closed and that jurists would never again be able to gain fresh insights into God's will.

It was the kind of apocalyptic observation of which gloomier Muslims had long been fond, and the scholar who jotted down the remark thought it untrue, but it developed a life of its own. Over the next few centuries, Sunni scholars began to treat the insidad bag al-ijtihad (closure of interpretations gate) as a historical fact rather than a poetically pleasing way of saying that jurists were no longer as good as they used to be. Some argued that attempts to interpret the shari'a were not just doomed but presumptuous. Conservatives still invoke the phrase in madrassas today, as and when they think it necessary to explain why settled legal questions should not be revisited.

Elsewhere in the book, Kadri seeks to present the Western counterpart of this kind of judicial conservatism:

As a law student at Harvard in the late 1980s, I had learned that many American conservatives consider the Founding Fathers of the United States to be possessed of incontestable wisdom. Some went further, arguing that God had manifested His will through their deeds. According to certain lawyers, that could oblige judges to interpret the federal Constitution according to its eighteenth-century meaning, or even require that they consider founders' views when resolving contemporary legal controversies: limits to the death penalty, for example, or governmental restrictions on free speech. Back then, I had felt that the deference to ancient vocabularies and dead people's thoughts had the whiff of a seance about it. Pinning down a person's meaning and motives is hard enough when he or she is alive. The collective intention of a large and diverse group of the deceased is difficult to conceptualize, let alone know. The traditionalist approach toward interpreting the shari'a does not, on its face, look very different….

So, okay, Islam comes with -- is -- a large, complex body of law, derived in historical time from a revealed text and through experience in diverse, tumultuous empires (empires later largely subjected to Western colonialism) -- what meaning does any of this have for today?

Kadri traveled extensively in Muslim lands, emphasizing particularly India, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as the Middle Eastern states that come to mind when imagining the Muslim world. What he found were different cultural and political currents as well as, in some places, a resurgence of what seemed archaic hard-line interpretations of law. He describes the multiplication of justifications for the killing of innocents in the course of individualistically proclaimed jihad as innovations arising from an unhappy stew of ignorance and injustice. And he sees hope for more balanced interpretations in unlikely places. I will not attempt to summarize but here are some suggestive fragments of his thinking:

It does not take many weeks of traveling the Islamic world to realize that there is no single Muslim approach to reason, revelation, or modernity. Groups of believers have developed numerous strategies to choose between aspects of religion they consider fundamental and others they think fake. … There is no simple answer. Islam recognizes no figure equivalent to the pope, capable of resolving earthly disputes with presumed infallibility, and though arguments about religion continue to have tremendous political ramifications, the sacred struggle to understand the shari'a -- ijtihad -- has always been proper to scholars rather than state officials. … The relationship between scholars and states was tested to the breaking point by the collapse of Islam's last empires. Emigration, partitions, and war have reshuffled believers around the world since then, and Islamic ideas and aspirations are more diverse today than at any time in history. And the trust that scholars once enjoyed among believers has begun to crumble in the fractious new world of nation states. … The idea has spread that people should work out problems for themselves -- simply by reading the Qur'an, perhaps, or by thinking hard about what the Prophet, his companions, and the salafs of seventh-century Arabia would have done.

… The phenomenon is illustrated most clearly by the spread of Islamic legal activity across the electronic media. Activists have been exploiting communications technology since the late 1980s, when taped sermons first began to circulate. Radio, cable, and satellite channels are now noisy with televangelist sermons and chat shows, and anyone with an Internet connection can access an e-Qur'an and a hadith database. … The globalization of confusion might one day homogenize interpretations of Islamic law -- or curdle them -- but whether it does more ultimately to promote harmony or disharmony, the consequence so far has been a moral maelstrom. The muftis often attempt empathy, but their typical response to a cry for help does not exactly meet the questioner halfway. Two Muslim mothers who have fallen in love with each other after being abandoned by their husbands are told that "the solution to this disastrous situation is total separation." An Arab resident in the United States whose American husband has turned against Islam is advised to seek an annulment and immediately leave "that doomed land." A newcomer to the faith, struggling against a penchant for pornography, is urged to "conjure up images of hellfire" and to contemplate what it would be like to die addicted to masturbation. ... Technological changes to the organization, retrieval, and distribution of religious knowledge stand to alter ideas about faith at least as much as the shift to a written culture once did. It was futile in the ninth century for traditionalists to complain that books were an innovation. It is peculiar that the modern heirs of their traditionalist legacy act as though online Islam raises no novel moral questions at all.

Although it would sometimes be easy to assume from Western media coverage that [harsh] Qur'anic penalties [like amputations for theft] are integral to Muslim life, the reality is very different. They are theoretically applicable in fewer than a dozen of the fifty or so states with majority Muslim populations -- most of which made them lawful less than thirty years ago -- and their application in practice is exceptional. As a matter of history, they have been just as uncommon. Stonings are recorded just once in [hundreds of years of] Ottoman legal history, for example ...

Reading Heaven on Earth it would be easy to think -- oh, he's predicting that Islam will experience some kind of Reformation. And that would be not at all what Kadri has written in this book. That thought applies the historical framework in which Westerners (many of us Christian) developed our cultures to people who come up within a very different historical frame. Islam and understandings of shari'a have mutated and developed as times have changed; that process is not over. But Islam will create its own direction, not replicate how other faiths have come to terms with modernity.

Kadri does offer some thoughts on the future of shari'a in the wake of the Arab Spring, the current uprisings against various local dictatorships. He feels little confidence that fundamentalist interpretations of shari'a might not be reinforced by new popular energies; after all, law takes its legitimacy from a perception of its justice and Arab Muslims perceive a gnawing injustice on their terrain.

Insofar as new regimes are able to entrench themselves and accommodate popular expectations, they will be better positioned to assert a Muslim ruler's traditional prerogatives -- including the right to restrain individuals from waging war on their own account. But that comes with a crucial qualification. Representative governments do not control the sentiments of their citizens -- they channel them -- and one particular issue has to be addressed if governments are to recover their lost authority. That issue is the Palestinian question.

Every significant doctrinal escalation of the last three-quarters of a century, from the validation of assassination to the redefinition of suicide, has been catalyzed by the dislocations set off during the dismemberment of Palestine in 1948. Vast refugee camps still distort the demographics of the Middle East, and Israel's slow-motion annexation of the West Bank since 1967 causes fury to seethe unabated. It is no coincidence that the regional group best placed to benefit from fair elections is one that is steeped in anti-Israeli sentiment -- the Muslim Brotherhood -- and the democratically proven popularity of another grassroots movement, Hamas, is a reminder that enfranchisement can simply allow anger to be vented more efficiently.

Even if new governments acquire greater credibility and use it to pragmatic effect, the consequence could be simply that scholars dare acknowledge the minimal truth that jihad is given a bad name by certain brutalities -- the murder of octogenarians, for example. Uninventing the modern theories that legitimized the brutalities is going to take work. It demands imaginative leaders and urgent policy shifts on Arab and lsraeli sides alike. But the prize is great, and the alternative is dire.

This is fascinating book. Highly recommended.


tina said...

How good is Kadri's Arabic? His knowledge of Arabic is not mentioned. His being a Muslim doesn't mean that he really knows Arabic and can explain words.
It is interesting that he didn't name the countries where the "[harsh] Qur'anic penalties" are applied. Maybe because some/many are linked to and protected by the USA.
Who in the USA is speaking about the horrors of Saudi Arabia and its Sunni religious fanaticism? We are tired of the support your country gives to that Kingdom. Kadri doesn't seem to want to talk about it. What about the repression of Christianity in Saudi Arabia; the fact that it is forbidden not only to build a Church but even to bring in a children book that mentions Jesus? and who speaks about the repression of all the other Muslim sects who have other religious laws?

janinsanfran said...

Kadri clearly has some Arabic; how much I could not testify.

He writes extensively about the horrors of Saudi legal practice and the modern development of Islamic fundamentalism. I chose not to emphasize that because globablly there are many other facets of Muslim legal practice and we in the US tend to focus on the most appalling, failing to understand that there are millions of other Muslims living perfectly normal and tolerant lives. I wouldn't want people to take Franklin Graham (for example) as representative of US religion and it is no more fair for us to focus on wackjob mullahs. Though there are still Franklin Graham and the wackjob mullahs out there hurting people in the name of their idea of God.

tina said...

of course he has some Arabic since he reads the Quran. But any Arabic dictionary has more about the linguistic roots of Sharia than what i read from Kadri.
The problem is that when people choose "to focus on the more appalling", it is not said that it exists in Saudi Arabia thanks to the encouragement and protection of the USA. This should be emphasized and talked about and talked about. This is what i think is the duty of progressive people in the US and not just to say that: ooh all Muslims are not that awful!
The most awful are the way they are with more than a little help from the USA!!
Sorry to be so crude, but seen from Beirut it is like that. I hope that it is being talked about and that it is me who is not aware of what the good people in the US are saying.

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