English barrister Sadakat Kadri's Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Shari'a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World is an evolutionary look at Islamic jurisprudence that is subtle, generous and — rather improbably — dryly hilarious.
One is tempted to stop here, as the idea of a history of Shariah that's genuinely laugh-out-loud funny ought to be endorsement enough. Or, rather, the only necessary further endorsement might be the extensive quotation of a book that notes, for example, that "pivotal moments had become a disconcertingly regular feature of Islamic history by the middle of the 10th century," or one that describes being at a literary festival and listening to Martin Amis "deliver one of his characteristically ruminative addresses on the state of the world."
But what makes this book so good isn't just that it manages the odd feat of delivering a discriminating, magisterial history of Shariah that's also quite funny; it's that its humor isn't merely incidental. Kadri's tone — gently skeptical, wittily deflationary, and most of all darkly delighted by the absurdities of history — is perfectly consonant with the substance of his project, which is to make the case that the kind of dogmatically purist, soi-disant "traditionalist" Shariah we've come to associate with the Saudis or the Ayatollahs is actually a perversion of a long, flexible, multivocal tradition — one that has, since Quranic times, valued humility and forgiveness over punitive measures.
The early parts of Kadri's book describe the rise of the very idea of legal judgment as one that religious scholars accepted with great hesitation, for they knew that the attempt to couple a divine, inviolable text with the need for immediate solutions to day-to-day pickles could only mean trouble for everybody. But as Islam became a political force, so did the need for legislative and jurisprudential legitimacy, and it was clear enough that this would only come with a religious imprimatur.
The brilliance of Kadri's comedy is that it's nearly always in the murmured service of highlighting the incongruities between revealed wisdom and garden-variety compromise. The ultimate point, I think, is that you can either find it amusing that a ninth century traditionalist "claimed that Muhammad had reviled chess players, cross-dressers, drummers, dice rollers, the janglers of tambourines, singing girls, pigeon fanciers, and the frequenters of seesaws" or you can just despair.
The talent for amusement is the same as the ability to recognize that no path — for "Shariah" simply means "path," as in "path to water" in the desert — set down in the seventh century can be a reliable guide to the perplexed today unless we allow our traditions to be responsive, malleable, soft-tissue things; if, that is, our traditions and our inheritances can serve us rather than the other way around. As Kadri puts it: "Any society that claims to be traditionalist while ignoring actual traditions is at risk of forgetting why continuity matters in the first place, and the notion that history and politics have no effect on legal development is particularly corrosive."
In the end, then, Kadri's book — which moves from a spirited, fast-paced account of the historical development of Islam's legal institutions and hermeneutic strategies to a series of reflective contemporary encounters with the individuals and schools that make these decisions today, chiefly in India, Pakistan, Iran and Egypt — is directed to both American religious conservatives (including those Americans who've drawn up ballot measures prohibiting Shariah law in half a dozen states) and the Wahhabists, whose draconian sanctimony seems to bear little resemblance to the hard-won compassion Muhammad preached.
Kadri's aim is to help us understand that, for nearly 1,400 years, Shariah has been more of a rigorous interpretive practice than a harsh code. He quotes the polls that say that some great percentage of Muslim youths in England would like to see Shariah instituted there, but he remarks that these polls never follow up by asking those youths what, exactly, Shariah means.
Kadri himself is happy to answer this question only in procedural, not substantive, terms: "Assessing the optimal degree of flexibility for Islam would be as difficult as it would be arrogant. Its certainties were a crucial aspect of its early appeal, and resilience has enabled it to resist pressures that would have floored a flimsier faith. But its capacity to accommodate variety and local custom has been no less important, and the only true constant over the years has been flux."
Gideon Lewis-Kraus has written for various magazines and newspapers. His first book, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, is out from Riverhead in May.