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BOOK REVEW: How Do You Solve a Problem With Shariah?

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'Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Sharia Law' traces the journey of Islamic law from its earliest roots to its role in modern Muslim societies.


By Agus Wandi


Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Sharia Law
By Sadakat Kadri
Published by Bodley Head London
352 pages


Sex is unholy unless preceded by kisses and sweet words. Killing one person is tantamount to the murder of all humanity. Those with financial means have a duty to give money to charity. The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr.


These provisions are all in Islamic law, known as Shariah, which derives its legal basis from the Koran, the Sunnah (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) and Ijma (scholarly consensus). These religious texts are far-reaching, covering topics from private affairs to methods of warfare. In fact, they are so extensive that followers of the conservative Hanbali school of Islam believe the Koran and the Hadith (teachings of the Prophet Muhammad) are the only two things anyone needs to understand Shariah, or indeed Islam.


Shariah is a controversial topic in the Western world, where it is often depicted as violent — although in truth, the Koran only authorizes physical punishment in five cases. But Islamic law is also controversial in the Muslim world, where people today continue to debate its application in the modern era, its interpretation, its sources and its legal implications.


In the book “Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Sharia Law,” author Sadakat Kadri takes us on a journey through Shariah’s evolution in Islamic history as well as his own personal journey through Muslim communities where the law is practiced.


Kadri provides an especially vivid picture of Shariah’s early evolution, as he traces the debate about whether the Koran was created or came into being through God’s revelation.
This is a serious debate because the Koran is the most authoritative source of any Islamic text. Indeed, when Al-Ma’mun, who ruled the Islamic caliphate of Abbasid from 813 to 833, announced that the Koran had been created and that reason should instead govern matters of Islamic practice and belief, fury erupted in his empire.


A similar debate emerged on the status of the Hadith’s origins. The teachings, which some say once included more than 600,000 verses, were condensed into 2,762 verses by the Islamic scholar al-Bukhari. As Kadri explains in his book, the debate is of particular interest because these verses were mostly gathered by men, a process that all but guaranteed a male bias.
While the Koran and the Hadith are accepted as the key sources of Shariah, the Islamic community continues to debate whether they should be treated as literal texts or as products of a particular social and historical context. Above all, the question remains of whether the meaning of these texts are open to interpretation.


Kadri’s book also excels in demonstrating Shariah’s political journey. Islamic law, he explains, has been politicized to strengthen the power base of political leaders who enforced it to ensure their own legitimacy.


In the early days when Shariah was first institutionalized, ulamas (Islamic scholars) were reportedly forced to become Shariah kadis (judges of Shariah law). They had to be forced into the new role, rather than willingly accepting it, because many of them were terrified to judge, denounce and punish the sins of their fellow human beings — a job they believed belonged to God.


Shariah law took a revolutionary step when the imperative to command good and punish evil became more radical. This interpretation of the duty to reinforce Islamic values threatened to replace legal order with pious anarchy. Today, this same threat continues to confront certain parts of the Muslim world, including Indonesia, while some radical Islamists eagerly denounce other Muslims as un-Islamic or even apostates.


In the modern era, the rise of self-proclaimed Islamic defenders has challenged the rule of law, the building of a democratic society and the development of tolerance. In the name of Shariah, these defenders are willing to unilaterally force their own interpretation of Islam on others. Their crusade is risky because many Shariah issues are still under debate, as are some interpretations of the Hadith.


This risk becomes apparent in the second part of the book, as Kadri travels through different parts of the Muslim world and sees how Shariah is implemented in practice. In Pakistan, he sees how it has been abused through the country’s blasphemy law, and then to further his understanding, he travels to Egypt, Iran and India. Had he traveled to Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, he would have surely witnessed the hazards of some Muslims trying to act as defenders of Shariah and pompously reinforcing it on behalf of God.
The debate on Shariah will continue within and outside the Islamic community. Unfortunately, as Kadri says in the book’s introduction, the debate will likely be an irrational one, as fiery preachers and random Muslim youths make bellicose assertions about the holy texts, producing noise rather than information.


There are other writers who have also attempted to fill the void of information, but Sadakat Kadri is among the best. “Heaven on Earth” is an outstanding book for anyone who wants to understand how Shariah and many great aspects of the Islamic legal system have evolved and interacted with Greek philosophy, logic and rational discourse — and how that journey has led to its tragic transformation into a simplified dogma.


[Agus Wandi is a former fellow at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.]


(Courtesy: The Jakarta Globe)
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