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 Islam’s foundation and expansion. He shows how legal ideas gradually evolved out of thousands of reports about the Prophet Mohammad, most of which were not even written down until two centuries after his death. And he explains how, just in the last forty years, the shari‘a has been appropriated and transformed by hardliners 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—beginning at the eight-hundred-year old Indian grave of his Sufi mystic ancestor, and ending in Cairo’s City of the Dead, where one of Islam’s greatest legal scholars still gets daily requests for legal miracles twelve centuries after his death.
Excerpt from Heaven on Earth that shows the diversity of Islam:
The North Indian city of Badaun is barely known beyond the subcontinent, but among the Muslims of India it has a great reputation. Seven ancient Islamic shrines encircle the town, collectively drawing visitors from miles around, and one spiritual specialty has always brought them immense local renown: they are said to facilitate the exorcism of jinns. That is a weighty claim among the poor, the credulous, and the desperate. Genies of the region are not popularly imagined to be the bountiful servants of lamp-rubbing legend. They are mercurial creatures, capable of wreaking havoc, who routinely seize control of people’s lives. Victims are suddenly plunged into depression or discontent, possessed of unusual ideas, and urged to speak, to lash out, even sometimes to kill. Entire families suffer as a consequence, and dozens are therefore to be found at the largest of the shrines, where they camp out in a shanty-filled cemetery pending miraculous interventions on behalf of their afflicted relatives. The scene is permanently alive, serviced by a nearby market, and it swells into something of a carnival as day-trippers arrive by the hundreds on the eve of Friday prayers. The spectacle had horrified and fascinated me in roughly equal measure ever since I first visited Badaun—my father’s birthplace—in 1979, at the age of fifteen. Elderly relations had warned me then to steer well clear of the place after dark on a Thursday night. In the spring of 2009, I finally got round to disobeying them.
I reached the shrine long after dusk, and its neem tree glades were pulsating to the drums and accordions of an ululating troupe of musicians. Picking my way through knots of pilgrims, past shadowy gures who babbled in the darkness or lunged from wooden posts to which they had been chained, I eventually reached the marble courtyard at the mausoleum’s center. The everyday bedlam of India looked to have merged with a scene from The Crucible. In a moonlight that was fluorescent, bright-eyed girls were whipping their hair into propellers while older folk, senile or despondent, chattered to tombstones. As I fidgeted with my camera settings, a teenage girl next to me stepped forward, assisted by anxious relatives, to quiver and collapse into the waiting arms of two shrine employees. Others strode forward to swoon in their turn, and were expertly scooped aside to make way for fresh fainters. Whooping children, barely able to believe their luck, cartwheeled around the hysterics and their helpers throughout. It was hours before the chaos gave way to chirrups and a semblance of peace returned to the sepulchers.
To read an excellent interview with Sadakat Kadri, author of Heaven on Earth, click here.