Synopses & Reviews
A vivid, essential exploration of the shari‘a, the contested and often misunderstood code of Islamic justice
In the wake of the colossal acts of terrorism of the last decade, the legal historian and human rights lawyer Sadakat Kadri realized that many people in the West had ideas about the origins and implications of the shari‘a, or Islamic law, that were hazy, contradictory, or simply wrong. Even as “shari‘a” became a loaded word and an all-encompassing explanation, most of us remained ignorant of its true meaning. And we were doing this at our peril.
In Heaven on Earth, Kadri brings lucid wit and analytical skill to the thrilling and turbulent story of Islams foundation and expansion, and explains how, just in the last forty years, the shari‘a has been appropriated and transformed by hard-liners desperate to impose their oppressive vision. In the second half of the book, Kadri takes us on an extraordinary journey through more than half a dozen countries in the Islamic world, where he explores, in striking detail, how the shari‘a is taught, read, reinterpreted, reverenced, and challenged.
Heaven on Earth is a brilliantly iconoclastic tour through one of historys great collective intellectual achievements, as complex as the religion that brought it to life. The shari‘a continues to shape both explosive political circumstances and the daily life of more than a billion Muslims, and Kadri has given us a compelling and clarifying portrait of a changeable world of faith, reason, and justice.
“Eloquent . . . Thorough and admirable . . . Kadris background gives him a grounded and many-angled perspective on Islamic law. He finds a great deal to admire in it, and he is deft at dispelling myths . . . [A] colorful march through Islamic history and jurisprudence . . . [Kadri] explores these complicated issues with probity but also good humor.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“A vivid history of Islam . . . Kadris writing is full of elegance and wit.” —The New Yorker
“A carefully researched history of how Islamic jurisprudence has evolved since the seventh century . . . [Kadri] writes with a breezy, witty tone and excels at synthesizing Islamic scholarship for a general reader. He provides a lively intellectual history of Islam.” —Mohamad Bazzi, The New York Times Book Review
“Heaven on Earth is an evolutionary look at Islamic jurisprudence that is subtle, generous and—rather improbably—dryly hilarious . . . What makes this book so good isnt just that it manages the odd feat of delivering a discriminating, magisterial history of shari‘a thats also quite funny; its that its humor isnt merely incidental. Kadris 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.” —Gideon Lewis-Kraus, NPR.org
“Measured [and] accessible . . . With the enthusiasm for complexity of a practicing lawyer, and the empathy of one descended from devout Indian Muslims, Kadri embraces this most controversial of topics with humor, heart and hope.” —Brook Wilensky-Lanford, San Francisco Chronicle
“Learned, level-headed, engaging, [Heaven on Earth] deserves praise on every front . . . [Kadri] finds that the kinds of shari‘a now trumpeted by theocrats and militants always owe more to human arrogance than to divine inspiration.” —Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
“An ambitious, accessible survey from the first notions of as conveying ‘the idea of a direct path to water in the time of Muhammad when no written form of the moral law yet existed . . . With occasional personal travel details added to an engaging scholarly history, Kadri offers a readable, useful companion to the Quran.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This is a beautifully nuanced and incisive study of a subject beset by misunderstanding. A timely and important achievement.” —Colin Thubron, author of Shadow of the Silk Road
“Compelling . . . Admirably even-handed . . . [Heaven on Earth] book greatly enriches our understanding of a much misunderstood subject.” —Ian Critchley, The Sunday Times (London)
“A truly penetrating and provocative book.” —Aatish Taseer, The Observer (London)
“If you are about to utter the word ‘Islam or ‘shari‘a, stop and read this book first. Its a fascinating and often witty account of the evolution of the shari‘a through the ages and the way its practiced across the Muslim world now. I never thought legal history could be made into a page-turner. Kadri is a brilliant historian and an even better writer.” —Mohammed Hanif, author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes
“An elegantly composed model for writing cultural and intellectual history, Heaven on Earth explodes the nation of the Muslim world as a monolith and Islamic tradition as unchanging.” —David Luhrssen, Express Milwaukee
“[A] fascinating journey . . . Skilfully weaves history with travelogue to guide the reader into this most contentious and topical of territory . . . Kadri approaches these themes with unstinting humanity and intelligence, as well as great fluency.” —James Mather, The Spectator
“Captivating . . . Heaven on Earth is an erudite and instructive book.” —Ziauddin Sardar, The Times (London)
“Illuminating . . . Intriguing and memorable . . . [An] intellectually nimble and rigorously researched book . . . Kadri is a precise and stylish writer, as good on explicating abstruse arguments as he is at conjuring vivid scenes . . . Given how heated debates about shari‘a have become, and given how glancing the intellectual engagement with it is on the part of some of the most strident voices, this brave and sane book could not be more timely.” —Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman
“[A] brilliant and illuminating study . . . A gripping account . . . Kadri is far too subtle to either to mount an attack on shari‘a, or to defend it. He has demystified it . . . With tact and fine writing, [Kadri] has helped us to understand what shari‘a really is, and how it emerged, and that will do at least something to demolish prejudice.” —Boris Johnson, The Mail on Sunday
“Lively, yet scholarly . . . Kadri is an ideally positioned guide.” —Sameer Rahim, The Daily Telegraph
Ever since 9/11, fears about the shari‘a—Islamic law—have been spreading. A word that originally conveyed nothing more sinister than a direct path to water has become associated not with salvation but with brutality and compulsion. And as the legal historian and human rights lawyer Sadakat Kadri realized when he began writing this book, we are all worse off for not knowing its true meaning.
In Heaven on Earth, Kadri recounts Islams thrilling and turbulent history with wit and precision and shows how fourteen hundred years of tradition have been turned upside down in just forty years by hard-line extremists. Traveling through more than half a dozen countries, he explores how the shari‘a is currently perceived—by scholars, critics, and ordinary believers alike.
Heaven on Earth is a brilliantly iconoclastic tour through one of humanitys great collective intellectual achievements. At a time when the shari‘a is shaping political crises and the lives of more than a billion Muslims worldwide, Kadri clarifies the realities of modern Islam—and helps us anticipate how it is going to look in the future.
About the Author
Sadakat Kadri is a practicing English barrister and qualified New York attorney, and the author of The Trial. He has a masters degree from Harvard Law School and has contributed to The Guardian, The Times (London), and the London Review of Books, and he is the winner of the 1998 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing. He lives in London.
Reading Group Guide
1. How did Heaven on Earth change your perception of the shari‘a? What do you believe the role of ancient texts should be in guiding modern jurisprudence?
2. In the opening pages, Sadakat Kadri describes a trip to Badaun, his fathers birthplace in northern India (and home to his ancestor, the Sufi Abdullah), where millenia-old Hindu traditions became “cross-fertilized” with Islam in the thirteenth century. How do these scenes capture the diversity of Islam? What does Heaven on Earth ultimately say about the human need for religious tradition?
3. How did you react to the fact that jinns are still awarded legal significance, and can even be sentenced to execution, in some parts of the world? Is the practice very different from Christian exorcism?
4. Elsewhere in the prologue, Kadri compares the moral significance attached by some Muslims to the Prophet Muhammads contemporaries to be analogous to the reverence felt in America toward the Founding Fathers. Is the comparison fair or unfair?
5. In chapter 1, Kadri describes the four sins that the Quran requires humanity to punish (theft, fornication, falsely accusing someone of fornication, and the “waging of war against Islam or spreading of disorder in the land”) and a fifth penalty—for intoxication—that was institutionalised after the Prophets death. How do these mandatory punishments (haddood) compare to the types of “sins” that concern Western lawmakers today? What would American society be like if our legislative and judicial branches routinely claimed to be following divine revelation when they created or enforced legislation? What do you make of Kadris observation later in the book (at the end of chapter 10) that an urge to punish exists in countries all over the world—and his implicit suggestion that secular justice can be at least as inhumane and unfair as those legal systems that are operated and exploited in Islams name?
6. What insight did you gain into the seventh-century Arab world and the Prophet Muhammads life, culminating in his exile in Medina? In what ways do his personal circumstances illuminate aspects of shari‘a law—and what do they say about the ways it should be understood and given effect today?
7. Kadri describes the proliferation of Islam in the wake of the Prophet Muhammads death in 632; within the next decade, the Byzantine Empire would lose Syria, while Persia, Jerusalem, and Alexandria were conquered by Arab forces. Could Islam have spread so rapidly if it had not become militarized? How does the alliance of religion and military strength manifest itself today, particularly in light of the Arab Spring?
8. The process of compiling the Quran was marked by Caliph Uthmans belief in an incorruptible version of the text: in 651, he ordered that all circulating variants be burned. As Muslims moved toward becoming a people of the book, what challenges did arise? Is it possible for faith to flourish without a sanctified scripture?
9. Chapter 5 explores the history of factions between Shi‘as and Sunnis (and the four schools of Sunni shari‘a interpretation: Hanbalites, Hanafites, Malikites, and Shafi‘ites). What do these schisms indicate about power struggles within Islam, and the spectrum of orthodoxy in all faiths?
10. Throughout the book, Kadri draws comparisons between early shari‘a and early Judeo-Christian approaches to justice, noting that the Prophet Muhammad encouraged forgiveness and recompense. Was the shari‘a progressive compared to the teachings of Jesus and the Torah? Could the shari‘a principles make earth a “heavenly place,” steeped in “life-giving waters”?
11. Discuss the role of women in the formative years of shari‘a law. Were told that the Prophet Muhammads wife, Khadija, was an independently wealthy businesswoman, and that the Quran made provisions for a wifes property rights and for the annulment of unhappy marriages. Were these freedoms negated by the Prophets holy revelation that Muslim men could have up to four wives at a time? What emotions did young Aishas story inspire in you?
12. The author tells us that, according to the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad spoke out against economic injustice, evidenced in part by an alms tax (zakat) he introduced, and that he denounced bigotry. Does shari‘a law help or hinder the cause of liberating the oppressed?
13. As you read the sections on diminished Islamic power in the wake of the Crusades and Genghis Khans Mongol invasions, what radical shifts did you notice in the shari‘a legacy?
14. Discuss the authors summary of World War I in chapter 8, which depicts the Ottoman Empires alliance with Germany, vying against Britain for power in the Middle East, leading to the 1948 partition of Palestine. Who is ultimately to blame for the rise of hard-line Islam that often obscures the Prophet Muhammads original vision? Who currently has the power to stem the tide of radicalism?
15. In January 2012, a federal appeals court struck down a voter-approved amendment to Oklahomas constitution. The amendment, discussed in the books closing pages on Western intolerance, would have forbidden Oklahomas courts from considering shari‘a law. Can Western courtrooms truly resolve this conflict? Will centuries of historical conflict repeat themselves as Europe and the United States try to contend with multiculturalism?
Reading group guide written by Amy Clements / The Wordshop, Inc.