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.
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:
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:
Elsewhere in the book, Kadri seeks to present the Western counterpart of this kind of judicial conservatism:
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:
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.
This is fascinating book. Highly recommended.