Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The history of Sharia detailed in Kadri's Heaven on Earth

From The Week of April 22, 2013

Humanity's relationship with the unknown has had a long and thorny history. For our minds are not predisposed to logic. They have not evolved to bring patience and reason to bear as weapons against the mysteries of the world. Rather, they have evolved from a violent and tribal foundation that perpetuated the species long before we possessed language, let alone a written system with which to express it. With this in mind, it is understandable that science is far more alien to us than god. For, when assessing the beauty of a flower, who among us has the skill and the rigor to tease out the biological and botanical truths that make it so when it is so much easier to credit its glory to god? And yet, we must understand this deficit and overcome it. If we do not strive for better answers than the ones that rely purely on spiritualism, then the thorny, and often tragic, result is what Sadakat Kadri describes in so much detail in his engaging history of Sharia.

Descending from both the Quran, Islam's holy book, and the Sunnah, the deeds and declarations of Islam's prophet Mohammed, Sharia is a collection of codes of conduct that define, for Muslims, the standards and obligations of the good life. From laws to economics, from the duties of prayer to the dictates of divorce, Sharia provides a societal tapestry that, in knitting together the public and private spheres, creates, in theory, a harmony amongst Muslim lands, all of which must adhere to these codes to be considered righteous. It provides for charity and mutual obligation. It implements safeguards against the excesses of aristocracy while protecting the underprivileged. It unites the rights of the individual with his or her obligation to the greater good, remarkable sentiments considering that they emanate from the relative intellectual darkness of the seventh century.

For all its virtues, however, for all that it provides the building blocks of a moral society, Sharia is an ever-moving target, a school of ethics that, in the centuries since the death of its progenitors, have been constantly re-interpreted by a series of powerful Islamic scholars. The views of these men have, over the years, been taken up by their adherents and organized into schools of thought and belief that often stand in opposition to one another. Without a centralized, authoritarian body to act as the final arbiter on the understanding of, and implementation of, these disputes, these schools have been allowed to perpetuate, making impossible the unity of Sharia's promise. Some of these disputes are merely doctrinal, having only a passing effect on the lives of those who live under its sway, but some are not only consequential, but severe, leading to the enshrinement of violent views that have fuelled the clash of civilizations.

Narrating both Sharia's history and its consequences, Heaven on Earth is a fascinating and multi-faceted work that endeavors to educate its readers on the nature of this codified morality and to weigh up what responsibility it bears for modern Islamic fundamentalism. Mr. Kadri, a lawyer and journalist by trade, approaches this sensitive topic systematically, resurrecting the towering figures of Sharia's past and using their views as a means of describing the evolution of Sharia and its application. Consequently, in the work's first part, the reader is exposed to not only well-known figures like Mohammed, but the men, Ahmad ibn Handal and Ibn Taymiyyah to name but two, who endeavored to interpret him and whose writings were in turn deployed by their followers as a means of justifying their view of the world.

In the work's second part, Mr. Kadri leaves behind this dense but edifying history and returns the reader to modern day where Sharia is more often used as a means of exercising power than it is as a code of ethics for an honorable society. Mr. Kadri explores the views of fundamentalists and their organizations, leaving no doubt in the mind of the reader that their vehemence is less an outgrowth of Islam than it is a byproduct of individuals who find, in hate and violence, a comforting sense of power and order that helps them explain the cultural and economic dominance of the west. Galvanized by Islamic scholars reacting to the Western sin of colonialism which has had a profoundly deleterious impact on the Islamic world, they seek justification to punish and castigate outsiders while holding their own adherents to impractically high standards of conduct and belief. This is the work's most potent section. For it deals directly with issues western societies grapple with every day, providing context to what otherwise seems so senseless.

There are flaws here. Mr. Kadri's work assumes that its readers have a pre-existing familiarity with Islam. Moreover, it moves through history at an almost dizzying pace, leaving the reader little time to grow accustomed to changing mores. Both of these problems would have been solved by lengthening the chronicle and providing the reader with a more leisurely swim through the tides of history. But these are minor gripes in what is otherwise a document that has resulted from extraordinary research.

Sharia's clash with western ideas of society and human rights will never entirely end. For these two traditions have taken entirely different evolutionary tracks which have caused them to place different values on commonly held ethics. God and secularism, obligation and individual rights... These are oil and water, leaving the rest of us to try to learn what we can as a means of better understanding our world and our fellows. To that end, Mr. Kadri's work does us all a service. (4/5 Stars)

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