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

According to a statistic that has been many times repeated—and is repeated in this new book—30 to 40% of British Muslims would prefer to live under sharia law than under the law of the land. Even more alarmingly, it is the younger generation that claims to be most eager to do so.

But what exactly does the statistic mean? Quite apart from the difficulties of interpretation that attend the results of any opinion poll, it may be doubted whether many young British Muslims know much about sharia law, except that it has something to do with their ethnic and religious origins, and is feared or reviled by Westerners. Their opinion is more likely to be an expression of cultural dislocation than of genuine desire. Could 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, then, be recommended to enlighten them?

I think the answer is no. The author, a lawyer educated at Cambridge and Harvard, and qualified at both the English and New York bars, has written a work, part-history, part-travelogue, part-apologetic, that is so heavily nuanced that it is not always easy to discern what his point is, except to keep himself out of trouble in certain quarters. Subtlety and nuance are one thing, and evasion another; and I regret to say that much of the book falls well on the wrong side of the dividing line, notwithstanding the chorus of praise that it received on publication in Great Britain.

* * *

The trouble starts very early. In the first three pages, the author describes a journey to his father's hometown of Badaun in North India, where the theological question of how jinns (spirits) should be treated by mortals comes up in discussion. The eel-like quality of the author's thought is evident from the following passage, worth quoting at length as it is emblematic of what is to come:

Some people might find it odd or even offensive that a book about the shari‘a should open with a discussion of jinns, let alone a reference to sexual congress with them. Westerners have been exoticizing Islam for centuries, and a work that sets out to scrutinize Islamic jurisprudence by reference to the supernatural can only invite suspicion. But though intercourse with genies is the kind of subject that would certainly have intrigued many an Orientalist scholar in years gone by, the fact that its lawfulness came up for discussion in a twenty-first-century Shi‘a seminary is ample proof that it retains legal significance.


One could expend several pages on teasing out the evasions, half-lies, and non sequiturs of this passage: for example by asking whose suspicions, exactly, are invited, and why, if the question of relations with jinns remains a real legal issue for Islamic jurisprudence, it would be "exoticizing" for "Orientalists" (that is to say Western scholars of Islam) to bring it up, but not for the son of a Muslim father? Suffice it to say that the baleful, honesty-destroying influence of the late Edward Said is evident in what the author writes.

On page 14, we read:

[My book] seeks unashamedly to entertain as well as inform, but lest it be necessary to say so—and it probably is—it does not intend at any point to challenge the sacred stature of the Prophet Muhammad, the self-evident appeal of Islam, or the almightiness of God.


This is another typically slippery passage, from which it is impossible to conclude either that the author is or is not a believing Muslim. If he is a believing Muslim, why did he not simply say "I wrote this book as a believing Muslim," in which case most of the rest of the statement would have been redundant? If, on the other hand, he is an unbeliever, albeit with some residual prejudice in favour of the religious beliefs and cultural practices of his father, the passage exudes fear, a fear that in itself tells us quite a lot about the subject of the book. Even his use of the word "self-evident" is slippery: does he mean self-evidence in the sense that the religious doctrines of Islam are self-evidently true (in which case the statement is self-evidently false), or does he mean that any doctrine that has a large number of believers is self-evidently attractive, that is to say in the sociological sense, in which case the term applies as well to Scientology, Nazism, and homoeopathy? Such inexactitude would not be permitted in an English court.

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It seems to me probable that most general readers (and the book is directed at them) will be interested principally in the question of sharia's compatibility with modernity and democracy, rather than in the history of Islam and its jurisprudence by which so much of it is taken up. Even here, though, it seems to me that the author's account of Islam's spread and ascendency is distinctly Pollyanna-ish, and I could not help thinking of the famous ironical passage in Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in which he asks about the reasons for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout so much of the known world, a question that could just as well be asked of Islam:

To this enquiry, an obvious but satisfactory answer may be returned; that it was owing to the convincing evidence of the doctrine itself, and to the ruling providence of its great Author. But as truth and reason seldom find so favourable a reception in the world, and as the wisdom of Providence frequently condescends to use the passions of the human heart, and the general circumstances of mankind, as instruments to execute its purpose; we may still be permitted, though with becoming submission, to ask, not indeed what were the first, but what were the secondary causes of the rapid growth of the Christian church.


Suffice it to say that what Gibbon calls "a candid but rational enquiry" is not exactly the historiographical characteristic of this book.

Two of the most important questions with regard to the compatibility of sharia with modern liberal democracy are—dare I say self-evidently?—first whether sharia has any concept of equality under the law as we both know and have come to expect it, and second whether it has any concept of liberty of thought, expression, and religion, up to and including the right openly to apostasize without legal impediment or penalty, wherever one might happen to be?

The first question, astonishingly, is not even asked, let alone answered, by the author, except by means of insinuating assertions about the relative tolerance of Islam in the 10th century and such like. I suspect that the question is not asked because the answer is "No." Acceptance of equality under the law in our sense would require a wholesale re-examination and re-evaluation of Islamic scripture and tradition, with results that have already been seen in the case of Christianity. The hold of Islam is thus very strong but also brittle, and the fundamentalists have correctly intuited this.

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The author deals with the second question, but with the evasiveness that by now has become habitual. Of such matters as the fatwas against Salman Rushdie and the 2005 Danish cartoons, he writes:

Ideological squabbles that end in death are never simply ludicrous, and their legal validation is even less of a laughing matter. It remains possible to argue, however, that the monopoly over religious truth claimed by some Islamic legal systems is relatively insignificant.


What exactly is being "validated" (whatever validated means), and by whom, and who is doing the arguing? One is reminded of Mrs. Sparsit in Charles Dickens's Hard Times who knew that there was a pain somewhere in the room but could not positively say that she had got it. It is possible to argue that the sea is made of melted blue cheese, because it is possible to argue anything; such all-encompassing possibility is not intellectual generosity of spirit, it is total, and I suspect cowardly, abdication of intellectual responsibility and honesty. As to the "relative insignificance" of the murder and attempted murder of publishers, translators, and cartoonists, I leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions as to the author's realism, let alone moral standpoint.

The same paragraph has the following:

Darker fears about religion have often lurked in the background: a credophobia that is all the more pernicious because its proponents typically fail to recognize how many of its assumptions are just xenophobia and racism repackaged.


The author is too intelligent and educated a man for the inaccuracy of this to be merely accidental; he must know that in the land of his birth, Britain, neither Sikhism nor Hinduism has evoked anything like the same reaction as Islam. Does it not occur to him to wonder why, if xenophobia and racism are the explanation of "credophobia"? His words justify a paranoid self-pity among Muslims, which is not exactly what they need to catch up with the rest of the world.

A little later we read, regarding the Danish cartoons, "Parodies of the Prophet Muhammad as an armed psychopath…are appalling because there are many people whom they appall." Even if this were true in any straightforward sense, which it certainly is not (would parodies of Hitler have been appalling because they appalled many sincere Nazis?), it would be completely irrelevant to the question of freedom of opinion. Besides, the character of Muhammad, even as portrayed in Muslim apologetics, is at the very least questionable when viewed from any other standpoint than that of an a priori belief in his moral perfection, and there should be no limitation of discussion of it.

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Sadakat Kadri is appalled by a cartoon, but not by the criminal and mendacious mullahs who, in their treacherous efforts to stir up trouble against the country that had welcomed them and provided them with a very decent living, added to the cartoons in question some that were never published; nor by efforts to kill the cartoonists; nor by the primitive, stupid, and vicious behaviour of inflamed crowds that ended in the deaths of quite a number of people. He is a lawyer specializing in human rights; one can only suppose that he leads a double life. Whether he does or not, his book is a dishonest, ill-written, and disgraceful performance, which is no doubt why it drew such praise as "Kadri approaches his themes with unstinting humanity and intelligence, as well as great fluency" (the Spectator) and "[d]eserves praise on every front" (the Independent).

The almost universal praise itself, which this book has received in liberal circles, is strange and perhaps disconcerting. Most reviewers, in their anxiety not to appear simple- or narrow-minded about sharia, did not draw attention to the book's evasiveness about questions of equality before the law and freedom of opinion and expression, up to and including open apostasy. But cowardice is not the same as broadmindedness, and it is no service to Muslims themselves to connive at the avoidance of these vital, if most obvious, questions. It seems we cannot rely on liberals to defend the principles of liberal democracy.