Even the intellectually open and liberal-minded among non-Muslims have questions and concerns about the faith and culture founded by the Prophet Mohammed nearly 1,400 years ago.
London barrister Sadakat Kadri may be perfectly placed to provide many of the answers. Kadri, 48, was raised in the U.K. by an Indian-born father and Finnish mother, and was educated at Cambridge and Harvard. After writing a book on the history of the legal trial in the West, and in the wake of events of the past decade that thrust radical Islam into the spotlight, he decided to focus on the development of sharia, Islamic law.
The result of his labors is “Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Sharia Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 384 pages, $28).
The book, part travelogue, part history, is neither an apology for Islam nor a debunking of it, but rather an attempt by a respectful but critical insider to understand Islamic law today by looking at its past − that is, at the history of Islam itself. If the message of Islam is divine, it is humans who have interpreted it and who continue to do so, and Kadri places some of the most important of those thinkers in their crucial historical context. Haaretz spoke with Kadri by phone from New York, where he was finishing up a U.S. book tour.
You write that you came up with the idea for the book after the 7/7 terror attacks in London in 2005. Did that event have more meaning for you than 9/11?
Not really. I was actually living in New York at the time of 9/11, and the attacks affected me deeply. But my reason for being there was that I was writing a book about the history of Western criminal trials, and though I toyed with the idea of bringing in an Islamic angle, I had a contract to deliver that book.
What’s more, though I was born a Muslim and consider myself Muslim, I myself knew next to nothing about the substantive content of sharia. “The Trial” came out in April 2005. Three months later, I’m back in London, we get the bombings of 7/7, and arguments I’m familiar with from New York start all over again. Some people are saying, Islam is all about peace, it comes from the word “salaam,” which means peace; others say, no, it’s all about war, the bombers themselves justify their actions in terms of Islam.
Having just written a book about the origins of Western jurisprudence, I was curious to find out what history says about those arguments. Even if they’re only interpretations, there’s got to be some clear basis on which the interpretation is being carried out. But once I started asking questions, I quickly realized how little most people know about Islamic history. Even my father, who’s a lawyer, didn’t really say more than that the sharia was God’s law. Of course he took the view that you don’t blow yourselves up for the greater glory of God. But beyond telling me that the Koran and the hadiths [reports about the Prophet] forbid suicide, he couldn’t point me to the sources.
That’s why the first half of the book takes the form not just of a legal history, but a history of Islam. Ideas about justice are the product of centuries of change − no matter what legal interpreters sometimes claim. Although there are controversies about the early years of Islam, there’s no real controversy about what Muslims were writing about their own history and law between the 9th and 12th centuries. And those are crucial years. It’s a very small number of rules that are written down during the 7th century. The vast majority of legal writing begins in the 9th and the 10th centuries.
But weren’t those who were writing in the 9th and 10th centuries trying to base their work on what was happening in those early years?
Yes, it’s completely true that people in the 9th and the 10th centuries are looking back to the 7th century. The time of the Prophet is regarded with great reverence, in much the same way as some people in the United States look back to the founding fathers for guidance. But exactly the same problems that apply to original intent in the United States apply to Islam.
One can be as respectful and idealistic as one wants about the past, but it’s always fallible human beings who are trying to establish what happened then, and what its contemporary consequences should be. And there are many different interpretations of the hadiths. The ideas that women can lead prayers and sit in judgment on the sharia are both perfectly acceptable in the 9th and 10th centuries, for example. They fall by the wayside subsequently, because there is a move toward conservatism. But they are in play during that time, so it’s nonsense to say they aren’t part of Islamic legal tradition, as some modern hard-liners argue.
When did things become frozen?
Well, there’s a distinction between Sunni and Shia Islam. The Shia say that it’s constantly possible to reconsider the sharia − and despite the rigidity one associates with Iran, say, Shia clerics can always potentially practice legal reinterpretation, or “ijtihad,” meaning the struggle to interpret God’s law − it’s connected to the word “jihad.” Among some Sunni Muslims, it is conventionally said that the “gates of ijtihad” closed about 1,000 years ago. But that’s just never been true. It’s a claim that was created in hindsight.
Where does the legal thinker Ibn Taymiyya fit into the picture?
Ibn Taymiyya was born and came of age at the time of the Mongol invasions, the turn of the 14th century. The descendants of Genghis Khan had stormed in and destroyed the caliphate, and were threatening the entire Muslim world.
He himself became a refugee at the age of 6. Ibn Taymiyya basically reformulated ideas of jihad, justifying self-defense against the oppressive invader, against the occupier. It was a pivotal moment, because the Mongol advance was finally halted during his lifetime, so he’s got an honored place in Islamic history.
But he also justified all sorts of hard-line interpretations of Islam, by saying what we need to do is go back to what Muslims did in the 7th century, to what the Salafs [ancestors] did. He didn’t create Salafism, but he allied it to this punitive attitude vis-a-vis the sharia. In fact, Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings just simmer below the surface, until they are revived by the Wahabis in the 1700s.
And then people going on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina take those ideas back home with them, for example, to India, where they form an important ideological underpinning for the 1857 rebellion against British rule. By this time, the real struggle in the Muslim world is against colonialism. And so Ibn Taymiyya begins to make headway among 20th-century Muslim anti-colonialists, and in the context of the partition of Palestine and post-1948, he’s kind of a go-to guy galvanizing ideas of jihad against Israel.
Do you mean that one of the contexts in which jihad has taken on a military understanding is in the response to Zionism?
The idea that jihad can be a military struggle has always been around. There are at least four types of jihad: jihad of the tongue, hand, heart and sword. But jihad of the sword gets a new spin in the 14th century through Ibn Taymiyya, when the idea that you could defend yourself against the invader becomes important for the first time. After the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258, this new idea of jihad as self-defense emerges, primarily through Ibn Tamiyya. It is then revived in response to foreign rule − during the 18th-century Saudi rebellion against Ottoman rule, for example, in the context of Muslim opposition to the British in India, and then in the context of resistance by Hassan al-Banna [founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] in the ’20s − which gets us toward the Zionist issue.
Because as far as the Muslim world is concerned, Zionism is just another form of colonialism.
Now I know that this is very contentious in Israel. But this is how it’s perceived in the Muslim world. And after 1948, all these interpretations of jihad evolve again, as a new idea takes hold. Jurists have historically characterized jihad as a collective obligation that must be directed by a Muslim ruler, to safeguard against freelance jihadis. But post-’48, that limitation falls by the wayside. When the Arab countries fail to stop Israel, they lose legitimacy. And what you get subsequently is a whole bunch of individuals and groups who take it on themselves to fight the jihad − who say it’s a personal obligation, binding on everyone, regardless of caliphs or rulers.