This month, Farrar, Straus & Giroux publishes 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, a lawyer and journalist. Kadri attempts to clarify prevailing misunderstandings over Shari’a and its application both in the ancient and modern worlds. Above all, Kadri illustrates that Shari’a is far from monolithic; rather, its application today and throughout time has been varied and a matter of debate. While Shari’a has occasionally been considered synonymous with harshness, Kadri reveals its essential ethic of compassion and equity—one not reducible to simplistic generalization.
Some fourteen hundred years after the Prophet Muhammad first articulated God’s law—the shari‘a—its earthly interpreters are still arguing about what it means. Hard-liners reduce it to amputations, veiling, holy war, and stonings. Others say that it is humanity’s only guarantee of a just society. And as colossal acts of terrorism made the word “shari‘a” more controversial than ever during the past decade, the legal historian and human rights lawyer Sadakat Kadri realized that many people in the West harbored ideas about Islamic law that were hazy or simply wrong. Heaven on Earth describes his journey, through ancient texts and across modern borders, in search of the facts behind the myths.
Kadri brings lucid analysis and enlivening wit to the turbulent story of Islam’s foundation and expansion, showing how the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings evolved gradually into concepts of justice. Traveling the Muslim world to see the shari‘a’s principles in action, he encounters a cacophony of legal claims. At the ancient Indian grave of his Sufi ancestor, unruly jinns are exorcised in the name of the shari‘a. In Pakistan’s madrasas, stern scholars ridicule his talk of human rights and demand explanations for NATO drone attacks in Afghanistan. In Iran, he hears that God is forgiving enough to subsidize sex-change operations—but requires the execution of Muslims who change religion. Yet the stories of compulsion and violence are only part of a picture that also emphasizes compassion and equity. Many of Islam’s first judges refused even to rule on cases for fear that a mistake would damn them, and scholars from Delhi to Cairo maintain that governments have no business enforcing faith.
The shari‘a continues to shape explosive political events and the daily lives of more than a billion Muslims. Heaven on Earth is a brilliantly iconoclastic tour through one of humanity’s great collective intellectual achievements—and an essential guide to one of the most disputed but least understood controversies of modern times.