Defending Muslim Law From Those Invoking It

From The New York Times:

Book-popupThere are good ways and bad ways to die. Then there was the death afforded, around A.D. 750, to a Persian political adviser named Ibn al-Muqaffa. His limbs were dispatched from his body, and he was forced to watch as they were roasted slowly in an oven. This punishment was visited upon Muqaffa in part because he’d committed blasphemy. He’d apparently suggested that the Shariah — God’s law under Islam — be codified into written rules to facilitate a just society. It’s hard to blame him for his longing. As Sadakat Kadri notes in “Heaven on Earth,” his thorough and admirable new book about the history of Islamic law, the Koran authorized the punishment of just four crimes: theft, fornication, false witness and waging war against Islam. How was a practical government to rule about everything else? To a citizen with a land dispute or a medical malpractice claim, jurisprudence could seem as arbitrary as a Ouija board’s spirit message. Like so many people who have been gruesomely tortured throughout history, Muqaffa’s real offense was to be ahead of his time. Islam did slowly develop a written form of the Shariah — an Arabic word whose meanings included, in a phrase that must have seemed especially lovely to a desert people, a direct path to water. Today the confusion, Mr. Kadri makes plain in “Heaven on Earth,” is how to interpret this wide-ranging series of edicts, some from the Koran and many others based on hadiths, which are reports about the Prophet Muhammad written more than a century after his death. Scholars have sets of interpretations; increasingly freelance jihadists have their own. The author declares more than once, in contempt of the repressive and violent who interpret the Shariah selectively, that “claiming divine authority is not the same as possessing it.” Mr. Kadri, a Muslim by birth, was born in London. He is a half-Finnish and half-Pakistani English barrister with a master’s degree from Harvard Law School, where he overlapped with Barack Obama. He is nearly as multicultural as one man can get without falling over. His previous book is “The Trial: A History, From Socrates to O. J. Simpson” (2005). He’s an alert writer with an alert interest in tolerance: he has done work for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Kadri’s 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. Stoning, for example, is not mentioned in the Koran as a punishment for adultery. In his reading of the Shariah, he finds rationality and flexibility. His argument is with recent hard-liners who, he writes, “have turned Islamic penal history on its head.” He is furious that fundamentalists “have associated the Shariah in many people’s minds with some of the deadliest legal systems on the planet.” He calls them traditionalists who ignore tradition. He is disgusted that warped opinions “are mouthed today to validate murder after murder in Islam’s name.”

More here.