Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari'a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World

Apr 20, 2012

In the wake of the terrorist attacks and wars of the last decade, for many non-Muslims "shari'a" has become both a loaded word and an all-encompassing explanation. But the history and practice of shari'a is actually complex and varied, as Sadakat Kadri discovers.


JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs, and I would like to thank you all for joining us.

Our speaker is Sadakat Kadri, who has written a book that is not only fascinating, but, if you have read today's New York Times book review, you will know, among the many accolades, it said that it is thorough and admirable. Congratulations again.

The title, Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari'a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World, speaks for itself.

Who among you is not alarmed at the mere mention of shari'a, the law of God and the basis of Islamic jurisprudence? Many, I would imagine, and why wouldn't you be? We've all heard about how savage the enforcement of shari'a can be. After all, it is a medieval system of religious laws that stipulates things like stoning, cutting off limbs, whipping, and all sorts of other highly unpleasant stuff. And it tends to be utterly unfair to the fairer sex.

The truth, of course, has little to do with these sound bites. It was shortly after 9/11 and the London subway attack that Mr. Kadri began to realize that many in the West held some of these views about Islamic law. But he also knew that they were not quite accurate, and even misleading. Critical questions, he writes, were going, not just unanswered, but unasked. Most importantly, he wanted to know what gave the men who were so loudly invoking shari'a the right to speak in God's name?

Heaven on Earth is a book he wrote to address these questions, to shed light on what shari'a means and the arguments around it. In it, Mr. Kadri traces shari'a from its historical beginnings, looking at events that informed the creation of Islamic jurisprudence right up to and including the present day. On his journey he visited such places as India, Pakistan, Egypt, and Iran, in order to find out how the prophet Muhammad's teachings have gradually evolved.

While shari'a is often thought of as draconian, especially as practiced in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, Mr. Kadri shows that in truth it is richly varied, with a fluid tradition that has for most of its 1,400 years of existence tried to meet the demands of a changing world. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, we have become more aware of shari'a and its impact, especially as the reintroduction of it appears to be the longstanding goal for many of these Islamist movements.

However, it's not just in the Middle East that this phenomenon is being seen, for, in fact, shari'a's intrusion into many Western legal systems is becoming more controversial than ever, and that includes the United States. Accordingly, a look at this consistently misunderstood but essential part of Muslim life is a subject that needs to be further explored.

I have asked Mr. Kadri to be our guide, who, with his wit and analytical skill, can, I am confident, shed light on the story of Islam's foundation and its expansion, exposing the tension between text and context.

Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to our guest today. Mr. Kadri, thank you for joining us.


SADAKAT KADRI: Thanks very much to all of you for coming, and thanks to the Carnegie Council for inviting me today. It's an honor, and it's somewhat daunting to be invited to speak to you today.

But truth be told, I'm actually relieved just to be here at all. When I got to JFK and explained to the immigration officer that I was about to launch a book on Islamic law, the look on his face wasn't particularly pleased. I suspect that that's just his professional demeanor.

But for quite a few weeks, I've been having nightmares about the explanations that I would have to give to Homeland Security officials about what exactly I was doing here in the United States, because the very word "shari'a," we all know, we have heard, is something which does instill fear in a lot of people. It has a certain reputation.

I'm going to start with the etymology of the word. The word itself is entirely unexceptional. In Arabic it means "a path," in fact "a path to water," which in seventh-century Arabia was obviously a pretty important path to the Arabs. The metaphor is a path towards salvation. In the book I say that the closest English equivalent is "straight and narrow." There's also an almost precise Jewish equivalent, which is the Halakha, which is "the path to be walked." It's a spiritual concept rather than anything else.

But people tend not to care about the etymology these days. It's not a word that people really have opinions about at the moment. It's a word that they have stances about. Some of those stances have, of course, been adopted by Muslims. As has already been mentioned, some of those stances are pretty nasty. I'm going to get on to those in a moment. But, first of all, I want to talk about some of the other stances, because they extend beyond Muslims. Some non-Muslims have ideas about shari'a law that are extremely rigid, as rigid as those of any hidebound Islamist.

That's certainly true on my side of the Atlantic. Back in late 2009, Switzerland banned the construction of minarets because of fear that shari'a was spreading. Several countries, most notably France, have stopped women from wearing veils, insisting that they are oppressed by the wearing of veils, even if they loudly protest that they are not.

Over here, of course, the alarm has been even greater. You have legislators over here in some two dozen states who have tabled measures to officially ban courts from taking note of the shari'a. They have been acting as though the country faces a greater threat than pretty much at any time in its history. There have been, as I say, some two dozen attempts since 2010. They were kicked off by a move in Oklahoma in late 2010 to ban courts from taking account of the shari'a. It was justified by its sponsors as a preemptive strike against an imminent onslaught of shari'a law.

More recently, you have Newt Gingrich, who made his opposition to the shari'a a central plank of his presidential campaign, most recently in January, when he was asked in South Carolina if he might ever support a Muslim candidate for the presidency. I don't know what he actually thinks, but what he claimed is that he might one day support a Muslim for the presidency, so long as the Muslim concerned committed in public to giving up shari'a.

That kind of panic is objectionable on all sorts of levels. Back in England, where we actually still have an established church, the Church of England, it has been against the law since the 1820s to require someone to publicly disavow religious beliefs before they can be fit to stand for public office. A requirement that people disavow beliefs because they are unpatriotic has a certain history in this country as well. I don't need to tell you that. That's what gives McCarthyism a bad name.

And though I did come across other places while I was traveling where it was insisted that people do express their religious beliefs and disavow certain religious beliefs, they weren't in countries which, I would imagine, Newt Gingrich would regard as being worthy of emulation. Iran was the preeminent example of that kind of country.

But putting aside the objections that I obviously have and that I suspect many of you have got to that kind of panic, there still is an important practical question, which is, why have they gained headway?

The reason is pretty simple. It's because people have been persuaded that the shari'a isn't spiritual, that in fact it's political, that it's some kind of a blueprint, a shadowy strategy for power that Muslims really have to abandon, at least if they want Newt Gingrich's presidential endorsement.

But the truth is that it isn't like that at all. It isn't a list of commands. Although there are hardliners who argue differently, and although there are regimes which do portray it as a list of commands, that approach pays scant or no regard to Islamic history. I'm going to talk about that. But before I do, I just want to say a little bit more about what actually caused me to write the book.

You have heard that I started thinking about it after the 7/7 bombings in London, the bombings of the 7th of July 2005. In fact, it actually goes back further.

I was here on September 11, 2001. I was living in downtown Manhattan. I had arrived in July to write my last book, which was a history of the criminal trial in the Western legal tradition, from Ancient Greece to the modern United States [The Trial: A History, from Socrates to O. J. Simpson]. I wound up renting an apartment in Greenwich Village, and it boasted a great view of downtown Manhattan. So I literally watched the towers come down on September 11. I was as shaken up as all of you I'm sure were, if you were here in the United States, and as most people were around the world.

Over the next few months, there were claims and counterclaims about Islam and about whether such activities could be justified under Islamic rules. People did talk even then about law. I wondered about that, but I was writing a book about Western law. So even though I did wonder about it, it just remained a curiosity. There were plenty of things that I had to get on with. I was researching things like witch hunts and torture, all sorts of odd episodes in Western European history. They were finding some rather unfortunate parallels as the "War on Terror" proceeded in this country.

When I eventually got around to writing the introduction of that book, my first book, I specifically made that clear in the introduction. I said, "Whether the quality of Western justice is better or worse than that of other cultures is a question that I happily duck."

I might have wanted to duck the question; the question wasn't going to duck me. Three months after the book was published in England, we had the 7/7 bombings over there. Fifty people were killed. And the whole cycle started again.

You had claims and counterclaims about Islam. You had claims and counterclaims about whether it was justified under Islamic law. There were the hardliners who said, "Yes. We're fighting a legitimate war of self-defense," or some such arguments. You had plenty of Muslims who said, "No. This is completely wrong. Islam is by definition a religion of peace. The word comes from 'salam.' The word comes from 'peace.' So therefore it can't be justified under Islam."

That didn't make that much sense to me either. It simply assumed what it was trying to prove.

Then you had people opposed to Islam who said, "This is justified under Islamic law. This is actually what Islam is all about. Muslims do want to kill people, and we should never forget that."

Those kinds of people, to me, in a strange way—this is a personal thing—I was almost more disturbed by those people. I have grown up as a British Muslim. The undifferentiated attack against all Muslims as being terrorists, even though I could understand the fear and even though I could understand the concerns, just did often to seem to shade into a contempt for Muslims as a group.

So there were all these things playing. I didn't understand what this idea was about. I was concerned about the dynamics at play, both, obviously, from the hard-line Muslims, who I thought were bringing Islam into shame and disrepute, but also, on the other side, from people who seemed to be equating Islam with terrorism. Even though there was clearly a link between the religion and the activities—because the killers themselves claimed to be acting in the name of Islam—it didn't seem right to take them at their word.

As a barrister, as a lawyer—I'm a practicing lawyer in England—with an eye for legal history, I thought to myself, "Well, there must be a book in this." I wanted to know what the shari'a really meant. I started asking people. I asked members of my family. I asked Muslims that I knew. No one seemed to have any real answers. People said, "Well, the shari'a is God's law. It's God's law. It's what you should do."

I said, "Yes, but what should you do? Should you blow people up?"

They said, "No, no, no, of course not."

I asked where was it written down that you should or that you shouldn't do these things? No one knew. Some people said the Koran. But when I tested them on that, it turned out that it wasn't really in the Koran. There were hadiths as well, oral traditions about the prophet. There were opinions of lawyers. It was a nebulous kind of idea. It was written down somewhere, but no one seemed to know exactly where it was written down.

It was at that point that I decided to investigate the matter further, decided that it would probably make for a book. Luckily enough, it turned out that I was right.

But the answers were so elusive that it took me four years to even begin to pin them down. I hope have had some success. Only you can be the judge of whether I have.

What I found out over those four years was that the shari'a is a legal tradition, which is about as elastic and malleable as any legal tradition can be. The best way of illustrating that is to read a couple of paragraphs from the prologue to my book. I hope you'll bear with me. It's not very long, just a couple of paragraphs:

"When the Koran was first enunciated by the prophet Muhammad during the 620s, the term 'shari'a' conveyed the idea of a direct path to water—a route of considerable importance to a desert people—and at a time when no one systematically differentiated between the world that was and the world that ought to be, Islam's straight and narrow described as much as it prescribed. The fourteenth-century Syrian jurist named Ibn Qayyim set out traditional ideas of its scope well. This is what he said:

'It is the absolute cure for all ills. It is life and nutrition, the medicine, the light, the cure, and the safeguard. Every good in this life is derived from it and achieved through it, and every deficiency in existence results from its dissipation. If it had not been for the fact that some of its rules remain in this world, this world would have become corrupted and the universe would have been dissipated. If God wished to destroy the world and dissolve existence, he would void whatever remains of the shari'a's injunctions. For the shari'a which was sent to his prophet is the pillar of existence and the key to success in this world and the hereafter.'

"As befits so awesome a phenomenon, the science of studying law—jurisprudence, or fiqh—came to be considered a duty akin to prayer. No aspect of creation fell outside its scope, and jurists pronounced on questions from the lawfulness of logic to the legal meaning of the moon. They hypothesized fantastically unfortunate dilemmas: what Muslims should do on a desert island, for example, if they ever found themselves pining away alongside a dead shipmate, a pig, and a flask of wine (clue: avoid the pork and alcohol until desperate).

"While some would always focus on big issues such as criminal justice and jihad, others explored far more specialized aspects of the cosmic order—the calculation of inheritance shares, say, or the jurisprudence of ablutions—and no problem was ever too personal to escape their collective gaze.

"Al-Ghazali, an eleventh-century scholar conventionally regarded as one of the greatest of all Sunni theologians, once subjected the intimacies of marriage to rigorous legal scrutiny and attributed to the prophet himself a commandment on the importance of foreplay. Sex was unholy unless preceded by 'kisses and sweet words,' Muhammad had reportedly warned. 'Let none of you come upon his wife like an animal.'"

Whatever else might be said in favor of foreplay, the idea that it might be a legal duty under the shari'a came as a surprise to me. The fact that women were supposed to be its beneficiaries in a religious tradition that's so often called misogynistic offered even more food for thought. It turned out that the 1,400-year history of Islamic law was filled with surprises.

One of the most basic, as I have already mentioned, was the discovery that Islamic law is in no way synonymous with the Koran itself. When you start reading through the Koran with a view to looking for hard and fast rules, you quickly realize that it isn't commands at all that typify its language. It's invitations to reflect. Those invitations, it has to be said, are backed by some pretty harsh otherworldly sanctions—promises of eternal paradise and threats of eternal damnation—but earthly sanctions are actually entirely exceptional.

There are only four sins which are said to require punishment in the Koran. I'll list them:

  • The first is theft, which is made punishable by amputation of the right hand.

  • The second is adultery, which is made punishable in the Koran, not by stoning, interestingly, but by 100 lashes.

  • The third is false accusations of adultery—so it operates as a safeguard—which is punishable by 80 lashes. If you commit adultery, you are punished by 100 lashes. If you are falsely accused of it, your accuser is punished by 80 lashes.

  • Violent disorder—that's shorthand. It's defined in a slightly different way, but it was always understood to mean violent disorder—that offense carried three possible sentences, the lowest of which was exile and the harshest of which, it has to be said, was crucifixion. But crucifixion wasn't a penalty that was invented by the Muslims. Crucifixion was something which the Romans and the Persians had been using for hundreds of years before the Muslims themselves.

The reality is that if you look in the Koran, there isn't a mandatory death sentence anywhere. The closest that it comes is a verse which is explicitly attributed to the Torah in the Koran. The Koran says, "As said in the Torah, in which there is much guidance and light, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," et cetera. But in that situation, according to the Koran, believers should exercise mercy because mercy is good in the eyes of God.

Let's remember, this is the seventh century. This is a time when, as I know because of the last book that I was writing, Europeans weren't using witnesses at all. They were resolving criminal cases by asking God to, for example, make a defendant float if he or she was guilty and sink if they were innocent.

Muslims required witnesses in all cases. You have heard that false accusations of adultery were punishable. In order to prove adultery, you had to have four eyewitnesses. The way that that was always understood by Islamic jurists was four eyewitnesses to the actual act of penetration. It's not a crime that resulted in punishment very often.

Of course, none of that is to argue that those penalties should be applied today. I'm a human rights barrister, and I could never support any of those penalties. I'm stating, I hope, the obvious. But one sometimes needs to state these things.

The reason I'm setting that out is because it's crucial to recognize the historical context in which Islamic law originated, because the Koran, which is conventionally said by Muslims to have been revealed to the prophet between the years 610 and 630, according to the Christian calendar, represented a moral revolution at the time. Islamic tradition itself claims that the pagan culture that it superseded allowed for female infanticide, that the pagans stigmatized slaves for generations and considered women to be chattels.

That's, of course, self-serving. That's what Muslims say about themselves. But the very fact that they regarded female infanticide as such an evil and they regarded emancipation as a good and they regarded women as not chattels, but as human beings entitled to property rights—admittedly not equal property rights, but property rights—speaks volumes for what was going on in the seventh century.

The approach is only relatively progressive, of course. It's a seventh-century approach. But forward-thinking is only ever relative. All one has to do is look back a few decades to realize that within living memory there are things which we now will take as given which were regarded as abhorrent in Western culture. In my country, for example, homosexuality was a criminal act until 1967. Blasphemy was a criminal act until just a few years ago.

So it was at the time a moral revolution. But the Koran itself only contained the outlines of a legal system. Over the next century, as the desert Arabs of Mecca and Medina expanded out and conquered an empire that, within 70 or 80 years, extended from Samarkand over in Asia to southern Spain in Europe, they needed systematic new rules. The need for new rules became pressing.

During the early 700s, scholars in two towns, in Kufa, in Iraq, and in Medina, came up with the goods. They drew on all sorts of sources. The Iraqis in Kufa drew on Greek philosophy. They drew on Persian ideas about political order, Zoroastrian ideas about political order. The Medina scholars favored their local customs and traditions. They said, "Look, we've always been doing it this way in Medina, and that's probably the way that the prophet did it. We should stick with that." They were much more conservative.

Then there was an entire other source of moral tradition, the hadiths, which I have already mentioned, oral traditions about what the Prophet would have done—the Muslim equivalent of the clichéd question: "What would Jesus have done?" Muslims were always in the habit of turning to those when they were faced with uncertainty.

To cut a very long story short, over the next couple of hundred years, those hadiths were systematized, and thousands and thousands of jurists came up with different ideas about how to systematize those, which ones were authentic, which ones weren't authentic.

It wasn't just the jurists either. The law was still in a process of formation. The people who contributed to this process were just as likely to be mystics or historians, scientists, essayists. It was only in the early 1100s that anything like a definitive form had been established for Islamic jurisprudence.

I know these dates can get a bit confusing. We're now in the 1100s. That's 500 years after the death of the prophet. That's almost the distance from here to when Columbus sailed to the United States.

The upshot is that it was 500 years before Islamic law had begun to settle into anything like a definitive form. Even then it hadn't stopped. In the 1300s, Genghis Khan invaded the Muslim lands, and for the next 100 years, his descendants just swept over the entire Muslim world. One of the consequences of that, which I'm flagging here because it actually has a terribly unfortunate modern resonance, was a redefinition of ideas of jihad.

"Jihad" is a word which comes from the Arabic jihadah, which means "to struggle." It's said in the Koran to be an obligation. It's used to describe the Prophet Muhammad's struggle against pagans in Mecca and Medina. In the 1300s, it was extended to mean self-defense against the Mongols, against invaders of Muslim lands.

A couple of centuries later, you had three more empires emerge. The caliphate had collapsed. This sounds like quite detailed stuff. I'm only saying this because it's important to recognize the variety that was inherent in Islamic law. You had the Ottoman Empire, based in Istanbul, you had the Safavid Empire, a Shia empire in Iran, and you had the Mogul Empire in India. Each of them would develop their own ideas about the shari'a.

The bottom line is that the scope for interpretation is absolutely immense in Islamic law. There are tens of thousands of hadiths to choose from. According to some particularly pious Muslims, there are more than a million of them. Debates have raged for centuries about which are them are authentic and which of them are false.

Some of them do support very harsh claims which don't exist in the Koran, like, for example, the execution of apostates, which isn't mentioned in the Koran, the execution of blasphemers, which isn't mentioned in the Koran, the execution of homosexuals, which isn't mentioned in the Koran. These are supported by a handful—and it is only a handful—of hadiths. But they are vastly outweighed by hadiths which talk about things like mercy and tolerance and peace and all these things.

It's important to say this. It's not to be an apologist. People certainly have looked at the hard-line hadiths for guidance these days. But it is very, very important to recognize that they are unrepresentative of the vast majority of the hadiths. The large majority emphasize things like mercy, repentance, discretion, privacy, and there are plenty of other subjects as well. The idea that compulsion is essential is again utterly unrepresentative.

There are hadiths about the prophet Muhammad's supposed ideas about medicine, his supposed thoughts on dental hygiene, his supposed thoughts on trimming mustaches. They can make you smile, but they also do point to a very important aspect of the shari'a, which is that it's a code of conduct which governs the way that a Muslim believes that he or she ought to live, from the cradle to the grave, in all areas of life—manners, diet, dress, mourning, weddings, all these kinds of things.

The consequence is that it's literally impossible to follow every hadith. They have to be prioritized, just as the verses of the Koran, which was revealed over a period of 20 years, have to be contextualized.

There are dogmatists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who are very happy to cherry-pick a selection of the most rigid and most dogmatic and say, "This is actually what Islam requires, because this hadith says this, this hadith says that." You can study homosexuals according to this one. You must execute blasphemers according to this one. Add that to the fact that you amputate thieves' hands according to the Koran. That's Islam.

But, obviously, the crucial question is what people choose to emphasize and what people choose to enforce. The answers again are surprising. Even though it's easy to assume nowadays that the idea of enforcement is somehow built into a rule, that isn't the way that rules were understood or that law was understood back in the seventh century or the eighth century. Rules, as I said in the passage that I read out, described the world as much as they prescribed the way that it should be.

One of the most remarkable aspects of early Muslim history is that Muslim scholars, far from being anxious to force their ideas on people, were actually terrified of doing so. You see this again and again and again in the sources. People were asked by the caliphs, the early rulers of Islam, to judge because they were religious scholars, and they would quite often pretend to be mad rather than enforce their views, because they didn't want to take the chance of going to hell by getting the shari'a wrong.

Distress was so commonplace—and this is something you see again and again in the histories and the chronicles—that it actually became a convention that if you heard that were appointed as a judge, you should burst into tears. There were plenty of judges who received the news and were absolutely inconsolable, couldn't be brought upon to judge a case, no matter what. And this remained a tradition for 200 years. Until the 10th century, if you were appointed as a judge, it was expected of you that you would cry inconsolably until you put on the hat and took on the duties.

It's not important whether these stories are true or not—although why write them down if they weren't? The important thing is that Muslims believed them to be true. The important thing is that they were written down as though they were true. It speaks volumes about the early Islamic attitude towards judgment and towards self-righteousness. That humility is obviously something that's worth reflecting on today.

There are other lessons from history which are worth thinking about. People who say that gender inequality is a fixed aspect of Islam could look at the ideas of a character called Abu Thawr, who in the ninth century argued that it was perfectly proper for women to lead congregational prayers, something that the hardliners now think is utterly outrageous. But in the ninth century, there were eminently respectable jurists who said that that was proper.

There's someone else, Muhammad at-Tabari, who is not only a celebrated jurist of the ninth century; he's one of the most famous of all Muslim historians. He knew a thing or two about tradition, and he said that legal tradition allowed women to sit as judges as well, which again is something that the revivalists in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran could possibly think about.

If one looks to the actual operation of Islamic justice over the years, it offers no support at all to the idea that compulsion is somehow integral to Muslim ideas about the shari'a.

The most striking example that I came across during my research was from the history of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans became big in Asia Minor in the 1400s. They conquered Istanbul in, I think, 1453. They were around until 1921.

During the course of that five-century history, the number of recorded stonings-to-death for adultery is precisely one, in 500 years. There may be others which slipped by the historical record. But again, having written a book about Western jurisprudence, I know that people of that era were absolutely fascinated by these brutal, horrific punishments. If there had been a stoning, we would have heard about it. There was one in the 1600s.

That's the history. You might say, "All well and good. There are benign traditions in the past, but they're outweighed by the pernicious ones that have come to the fore today in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran."

The point does have undeniable force. There are about 50 or so Muslim countries in the world today. About a dozen of them acknowledge Islam or the shari'a to be a source, even the source, of national law. As I show throughout the second half of my book, several of those countries are disproportionately intolerant, discriminatory, and draconian. But that again demands a degree of historical context, not to excuse it, but to understand it.

Those regimes that claim nowadays to apply Islam in its pure form are utterly modern creations. The very oldest of them is Saudi Arabia, which reached its modern form back in the 1920s, as a result of a coup, helped in part by the United Kingdom's support for the Saudi ruling family. But if you went back 40 years, if you went back to 1970, that was the only country in the world that even purported to apply the perfect shari'a on earth. There were no other countries.

Then, in 1973, a fresh-faced young army officer who had recently taken power in a coup decided to outflank his religious opponents by introducing certain cherry-picked criminal penalties. He wasn't interested in crucifixion, he wasn't interested in stoning, but amputation would do, and he would whip drunkards as well. The name of that officer was Muammar Qaddafi, who wasn't a particularly religious man, but he was a man who knew the uses of religion when it was convenient.

Then, in the later 1970s, you had another military man, General Zia-ul-haq, who took power in another coup, in Pakistan. He also introduced a number of criminal penalties. Again, some of them were drawn from the Koran. Others were drawn from the hadiths. Crucifixion wasn't mentioned.

Then, of course, we had the Iranian Revolution in 1979. 1979 is a bit of a crucial year, because you have the penalties introduced in Pakistan, you have the Iranian Revolution, and a year later, you have the first modern stoning in history in Iran, which is then followed very quickly by several others. Of course, you have the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and all that that kicked off in 1979.

By the 1980s, that was feeding radicalization around the Muslim world. And by the 1990s, you had several countries—Somalia, Sudan Nigeria, Afghanistan when the Taliban took over—all began to introduce these terribly harsh penalties.

The reason that that's important is very straightforward. Although there are plenty of people who say that these radical interpretations of Islamic law are eternal, nothing could be further from the truth. The very idea that you might write down laws in books was utterly heretical back in the eighth century. The very first person who suggested it—this was something that was mentioned in The New York Times review today—had his limbs cut off and roasted in an oven for being so blasphemous. That wasn't his penalty under the shari'a, by the way. That just seemed like a useful thing to do at the time.

The idea of statutes would have been heretical, absolutely heretical, at the dawn of Islam. Yet you have countries like Iran, like Pakistan, which have been enshrined these supposedly early penalties in utterly manmade statutes. It's not tradition which underpins those interpretations; it's things like coups and wars, revolutions, invasions, and occupations.

An illustration of the same point arises out of the partition of Palestine and the creation of Israel, because that has been instrumental in generating another set of legal innovations in the field of holy war. I know that this is a very sensitive subject, and I want to say right at the very outset that I'm not interested in the rights and wrongs of 1948, because that's got nothing to do with the point I'm trying to make.

But it's undeniable that one of the consequences of 1948 was political destabilization and a refugee crisis throughout the Middle East. It's that reality, not immutable traditions or eternal laws, which underpins almost all the radical ideas of jihad that have now come to be associated with Islam.

It was anger, lingering anger, at the 1967 Six-Day War that inspired the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. The killers who carried out that execution explicitly went back 700 years to the Mongol invasions, and they drew on a fatwa that had been written in response to the Mongol invasions to say that this shows that it has always been right to kill Muslim leaders who are heretics. In fact, it had never been right to kill Muslim leaders who were heretics. It had never been justified under Islamic law. But they rewrote that 700-year-old fatwa in order to justify it.

Another example is perhaps the most emblematic example, suicide bombing. Before the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, there hadn't been a single Muslim anywhere in the world who had blown himself up, but once it happened, scholars emerged to justify the practice and said this was part of the holy struggle that's made mandatory in the Koran, the holy struggle of jihad.

Again, I'm just going to say the point, because it is important. I know this is controversial. I'm not in the slightest bit blaming Israel for those interpretations. Israel's got nothing to do with the interpretations themselves. The gains that the hardliners have made have got a life of their own, and it's absolutely essential that Muslims themselves are clear-eyed about the extent to which faith in God and the flexibility, the malleability, of Islamic law, which has stood it in great stead in the past, is serving nowadays to give a spurious legitimacy to injustice.

But at the same time, non-Muslims of good will should recognize how false it is to equate the shari'a with the darkest, the harshest, and the most expedient interpretations of Islamic law. If that equation is made, it's the equivalent of equating freedom and liberty with all the terrible excesses that have been done in its name—things like Haditha, Abu Ghraib, which is obviously nonsensical. There are things that can be said about those atrocities, but it would be nonsensical to say that they are inherent in the idea of freedom or liberation.

But again, you could say, "Well, so what? It's precisely because those modern interpretations exist that there is fear, maybe perhaps even that we are frightened." And that brings me to the nub and to the conclusion of my comments.

In Muslim countries themselves, it's going to fall to Muslims to challenge the hardliners. Many, many, many of them are doing so. I know that because I traveled around these countries. I met human rights workers who are exposing themselves to huge risk by challenging these interpretations.

Even though it clearly is hard-line Muslims who are responsible for the interpretations, it's also Muslims who are at the forefront of challenging those interpretations in those countries concerned. My book obviously aims to do what it can to support them, by focusing on retrieving some of the traditions of leniency and tolerance that are being credited to the prophet Muhammad over the centuries and built upon by legal scholars over the centuries.

But that said, that's the situation over in foreign countries, but I'm here now in the United States, and I think is crucial to emphasize that the advances that are being made by those doctrinaire interpretations in the Muslim world bear very, very little relationship to the situation in this country.

The code of conduct that the Muslims call the shari'a was a malleable, flexible code that took root in three continents over 1,400 years precisely because it was able to accommodate changing realities peacefully.

Today it's entirely capable of taking peaceful root in a fourth. It's both wrong in principle and it's counterproductive, because it just alienates people who shouldn't be alienated, if undifferentiated attacks are made on the shari'a when, in fact, what's being attacked is hard-line extremist interpretations of Islamic law.

To amplify that point, I want to take a slightly roundabout route by discussing the question of fatwas. I should explain again that the word "fatwa" is another of those words which has got a slightly unfortunate reputation in the West. It's had a bad press—understandably, because of what happened on Valentine's Day back in 1989, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie and declared that he deserved to die for writing The Satanic Verses.

Despite the bad press that it's had, a fatwa actually just means a scholarly opinion about Islamic law. There have been hundreds of thousands of them that have been issued over the centuries, the overwhelming majority of which have been concerned with ritual, manners, ethical conduct. In recent years scholars have actually taken to cyberspace to promulgate their fatwas. There are several online fatwa sites that you can go to if you have a personal, emotional, sexual problem. The answers that they deal with wouldn't be out of place in any agony aunt column, even if the responses rest on somewhat different cultural perspectives.

I want to mention what's probably my favorite fatwa of them all, which I found on a site called IslamQA. It involved the etiquette of social networking. As anyone with access to the Internet knows, the dilemmas of online interaction can be an ethical minefield. If there's one thing you can be sure about with ethical minefields, it's that somewhere in the world there will be a Muslim scholar striding through it.

A couple of years ago, a perplexed Muslim contacted IslamQA to ask whether it was acceptable or unduly frivolous and unholy to spend time updating his Facebook account.

And this is what they said: "The site cyber-muftis ruminated over several ancient hadiths before concluding that it would be a positive sin to do anything else. According to their considered and final opinion, it is not permissible for a person to write about himself—that he is outside or in school, for example—when in fact he is at home, because this is lying. If he forgets to change his status by typing or writing, he should change it whenever he can. And God knows best."

You probably guessed this. But I might be disappointing some of you if I say to you that my own insights into God's wills aren't anything as confident as that. If I'm to be honest, I actually like to keep my friends guessing about my whereabouts and my mood on Facebook.

But the attention that's paid to the question on IslamQA is another illustration of the breadth of Islamic law. When Muslims talk about following that law or when they talk about following the shari'a, it shouldn't be assumed that they are collectively planning misogyny and atrocious violence, still less that they are plotting against the American dream. The overwhelming majority are simply trying to do the right thing by their religion.

That might involve a seriousness of purpose that seems a little disproportionate to the subject in question, as was the case, perhaps, with that Facebook fatwa. It might involve dietary or dress codes that seem strange, or rituals of marriage or prayer or mourning that differ from the norm. But it's not a good reason for fear.

That might seem obvious, and the people who express most criticism of shari'a law would certainly argue that it was irrelevant. They would say that their concern was with Islamic extremism, not with the customs observed by law-abiding Muslims. But the effort to counter extremism is actually harmed immeasurably by campaigns which vilify the shari'a as terroristic or treasonous, because the effect is to portray Islam as a faith that's inextricably linked to its most radical interpreters, and that has great practical consequences.

There really are malign interpretations of Islamic law out there. It really is important to recognize that, because they affect countless people, including millions of Muslims themselves. But indiscriminate attacks on a legal tradition that concerns itself with matters from foreplay to Facebook do nothing to promote the anti-extremist cause and they do much to alienate and discriminate against Muslims.

It's on that point that I want to end. The book's primary focus is on the way that modern hardliners have spuriously presented their transient opinions as eternal truths. Islam's own traditions are being corrupted by narrow perspectives that focus on compulsion and violence at the expense of mercy and tolerance.

But in the United States it's crucially important that the same history not be sidelined or distorted. Insofar as hardliners are putting forward contrary interpretations, their views should be countered by better arguments, not by bans and still less by prosecutions.

Insofar as it's non-Muslims who are presenting the shari'a as a rigid, unchanging set of commands, they are being just as ignorant of Islamic history, and they are promoting precisely the same polarized viewpoint that they attribute to their enemies.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: James Starkman.

How specific is the language of the Koran with regard to degree of tolerance or intolerance of the nonbeliever or the infidel? Is that band of interpretation of that language in any way correlated with the Sunni version or the Shia version?

SADAKAT KADRI: The second question is easy to answer. It's not correlated with Sunni and Shia. I haven't gone into the differences between the sects here. I have in the book. But it's not correlated there.

There are plenty of verses which deal with the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. They differ. The Koran was revealed over a period of 20 years, and the simple truth is that the prophet's relations with what are called People of the Book—Jews and Christians—changed over that period.

Initially he was very favorable to both Christians and Jews. Then there was a radical break with the Jews of Medina at a certain point, and there are verses in the Koran which date from that point which are significantly more hostile to the Jews, not in terms of violence, but in terms of saying they are not to be trusted. That's the thing that appears.

There is one verse in the Koran which talks about fighting Jews and Christians. No one can be precisely sure when it was revealed, but there is one verse. It would be false to deny that there's one verse. Most of the verses which talk about fighting, talk about jihad, deal specifically with the question of infidels, who are not, in Koranic language, Jews and Christians. The infidels are the pagans of Mecca and Medina, who are not Peoples of the Book.

It's a fairly complicated question. In a short time that's the best answer I can give, which is that there is a fluidity in the language, as with all these things. It's certainly possible to choose that one verse which talks about fighting Jews and Christians or to choose the verses which talk about destroying the pagans and applying them to the Jews and the Christians. But that's not borne out by history.

QUESTION: My name is Ugoji Adanma Eze, barrister of law from the Honourable Society of Gray's Inn.

My question is regarding women in Islam and shari'a. In your extensive travels, do you feel that women's attitudes towards shari'a have changed, and particularly in the light of the Arab Spring? I've had an opportunity to practice shari'a law in northern Nigeria. I felt that women in particular had the hard end of the stick as regards shari'a law. What is your opinion or your attitude towards women and shari'a law?

SADAKAT KADRI: The people who talk about applying shari'a law tend to be anti-women. My greatest experience of this was in Pakistan, where I met an incredibly impressive woman called Asma Jahangir, who set up the first legal aid center for women in Pakistan. She has been campaigning against the adultery laws, against the use of Islamic law, which falls disproportionately on women.

There's no escaping it. These laws always fall on the weakest, on the weakest and most vulnerable in society. In a country like Pakistan, that means women, that means Christians, that means other minorities.

It's a huge question, how attitudes have changed in the light of the Arab Spring. Insofar as shari'a is understood as a means of self-determination, then there has probably been an increase in support of it. But insofar as women fear that it's going to result in enforced veiling, for example, or adultery laws or polygamy laws which are going to work against them, then there's opposition to it. It varies from country to country, from place to place.

I ended my travels in Egypt. But the book was written pretty much by the time the Arab Spring was in full swing. I was updating to take account of it. But I don't have enough experience, basically, to answer the question beyond that, I don't think.

QUESTION: William Verdone.

In the early 1970s, a British group called Monty Python made an astonishing film called The Life of Brian, which absolutely spoofed the crucifixion scene. No one died as a result of that film. But a cartoon from Denmark—they died. Can you comment on that?

SADAKAT KADRI: Because there are crazy people out there who want to kill people for doing cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Beyond that, what can one say? There have been times in Christian history where plenty of people of died. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people have died for saying the wrong thing or for doing the wrong thing, by someone else's view of Jesus Christ. Nowadays that doesn't happen.

There was actually a bit of an outcry against The Life of Brian. But it was obviously minute in scale to what happened with Jyllands-Posten in Denmark. But there are crazy people out there.

I don't know precisely what you want me to say. I have worked for the American Civil Liberties Union. I believe in freedom of expression. I certainly don't believe that people should be killed for publishing things. But I do think that there are questions of taste and appropriateness, which can be debated. I certainly don't think that it should be illegal that these cartoons should be published.

I feel silly even having to say it. Of course I don't support violence for these things. And if you ask me to explain it, all I can say is there are nutters out there.

QUESTION: Don Simmons.

A remark commonly heard is that a great problem of Islam is that it has not yet had its reformation. The Christian Reformation derived a lot of energy and force from being able to focus on one hierarchy in Rome and its leader, the pope, who had sway over all of Christendom. Islam seems to be much more diffuse. I'm wondering, would it even be possible to have a reformation, and if so, what would its aims be?

SADAKAT KADRI: It's a really interesting question, because that's exactly right. Precisely the mechanism which will enable Islam to reform, or which does enable Islam to change and to adapt, is also the mechanism which has maintained its coherence and actually made it resistant to permanent change.

Also, you do have the Sunni-Shia split. The difference between the Iranian regime, for example, and Sunni Islam is huge.

Again, I don't quite know how to focus that question. I think it's a really, really good question. One hopes that an intellectual reformation is under way, and one hopes that the intellectual reformation is going to go in the right direction.

QUESTION: Richard Horowitz.

In light of your analysis of the historical origins, the first several centuries, of Islam, how do you explain the development of the Salafi ideology?

SADAKAT KADRI: Most of you have probably heard about the Salafis. The Salafis are the extremists—it's shorthand nowadays, journalistic shorthand, for extremist interpretations of the shari'a in places like Saudi Arabia.

The word "salaf" in Arabic means "ancestor." It has a very specific meaning. It means the early generations of Muslims, the first two or three generations of Muslims in the seventh century, the prophet's contemporaries. It's perfectly conventional among Muslims—always has been—to accord that generation particular respect. The closest equivalent would be with the Founding Fathers of this country.

But again, there's another analogy there. You can accord the Founding Fathers respect, but what legal significance they should have is a matter of great controversy. That's the same thing with Salafism.

Basically, to cut a very long story short, I mentioned that the new ideas about jihad were created in the 14th century in response to the Mongols. There's a character called Ibn Taymiyya who linked this respect for the Salaf with legal doctrines and said what they thought about the shari'a back in the seventh century trumps everything that had taken place over the subsequent six centuries. Effectively, he was advocating the power to himself. No one knows what they thought in the seventh century.

So Salafism, as this political idea, is the idea that these pious ancestors actually had access to perfect, eternal, divine wisdom, which it's possible to access today, which should be accessed today. Again, it's one of those words which has nuances among certain Muslims. Plenty of Muslims will talk about Salafis in exactly the same way as you have and in exactly the same way that all of us will understand to mean the hardliners in Saudi Arabia.

But there are plenty of Muslims as well who will say, "Of course we believe in what the prophet's contemporaries did, because they were holy men and holy women." There's a difference between someone believing in the righteousness of these people and saying that actually their opinions about the shari'a and Islamic law should hold sway today.

JOANNE MYERS: I know there are many questions, but the time has run out. I thank you very much for introducing us to shari'a.

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