In the autumn of 1347, the Black Death arrived in Egypt. In the 18 months that followed, mosques turned into mortuaries across North Africa and the Levant. By the time the pestilence had subsided, up to a third of the Muslim world lay dead. Theologians delved into their books and found a comforting spin: infection was a blessing from God, they pronounced, and all believers touched with it were bound for paradise.
The hordes who fled their villages to escape the disease were apparently unconvinced. So too was an Andalusian scholar named Ibn al-Khatib, whose observations showed it to be spread by human contagion, not the hand of the Almighty. Proof taken from the traditions, this man retorted to the jurists, had to yield to the perception of the senses.
Such collisions between revelation, reason and force of circumstance are central to Sadakat Kadri’s fascinating journey through the centuries of Islamic law. As Kadri, a human rights barrister, points out, at least 11 of the world’s 50 or so Muslim states possess constitutions which acknowledge Islam to be a source of national law. There are two true theocracies — Iran and Saudi Arabia — but the aftermath to the Arab spring is strengthening the hand of those who would wish that number to grow.
In Heaven on Earth he skilfully weaves history with travelogue to guide the reader into this most contentious and topical of territory. Although part of the book’s importance lies in its avoidance of overt polemic, his enquiries are always steered by contemporary concerns, whether writing of seventh-century Arabia or 21st-century Pakistan.
The narrative traces the centuries of Islamic global advance which followed Muhammad’s revelations. This calls for a broad brush, for the shari’a seeks to encompass all aspects of the sacred and profane: to be, as one 14th-century jurist put it, ‘the absolute cure for all ills … the pillar of existence and the key to success in this world in the Hereafter’. His story therefore encompasses politics and war, alongside the dryer details of legal doctrine.
By the standards of the time, the shari’a was a radical presence — and by modern liberal ones, Kadri implies, a progressive one. Muhammad frequently warned against economic injustice and in an alms tax and inheritance rules forged the basis for a kind of welfare state. Women were treated far from equally, but the law allowed them to vindicate property rights and annul unhappy marriages. Slavery was proscribed for fellow believers and emancipation praised. Christians and Jews were to be tolerated, if tapped for their wealth. A case can be made for the early Islamic courts system as a progenitor of trial by jury and aspects of the English common law.
Kadri describes stepping into many a seminary on his journey through the Islamic world and finding the topic of conversation turn instantly to the doctrinal controversies of the first Islamic centuries. This may explain the early chronological focus of his book. Yet it is a shame that he deals only briefly with the history of attempts since the Enlightenment to meet the challenges of modernity within the framework of Islamic law.
This is, however, the implicit theme of his detailed exploration of contemporary shari’a, based on wide-ranging interviews and travels from Turkey to Pakistan. It takes in such surprising details as cyber-muftis who ruminate on ancient hadiths to pronounce on the rights and wrongs of updating a Facebook page and the library catalogue of a Deobandi college at Lucknow which features Enid Blyton and Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
His closest attention, however, is reserved for two of the most controversial aspects of shari’a in the world today: the questions of religious plurality and criminal punishments. Kadri draws unfavourable comparison between the law as it has been applied throughout most Islamic societies of the past and at least some of its manifestations now. The horrendous corporal punishments for which the shari’a is most notorious — stoning, for instance — were little used until three decades ago and remain confined to a handful of Islamic states.
Kadri approaches these themes with unstinting humanity and intelligence, as well as great fluency. Some will feel that he pulls his punches in the face of the depressing developments of recent times. Yet the real value of the book consists in its broad eschewal of controversy. The question of the place of shari’a, domestically and internationally, will become all the more divisive in years to come. Kadri offers the basis of a more informed debate, even if its fractiousness seems unavoidable.
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