Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sadakat Kadri's book on the origins of the Shariah Law

by Salman Hameed

The new book by Sadakat Kadri, Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law From the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World, is on my reading list. It has been getting fantastic reviews and is relevant to many of the debates taking place in the Muslim world today. The latest review appeared in last week's Book Review of the New York Times - and it reminded the readers about the importance of learning about historical contexts. For example, here are the relevant bits about Ibn-Tamiiya's unusually harsh interpretations of the Islamic law and his continuing influence in certain parts of Muslim societies:

 In the 13th century, as the Mongols swept across Asia and sacked Baghdad, the Mongol warrior Hulegu (a grandson of Genghis Khan) rephrased al-Ghazali’s query and posed it to Muslim jurists: Would they prefer to live under an unjust Muslim ruler or a just nonbeliever? Wanting to keep their heads, most preferred Hulegu’s rule. But one forcefully rejected the Mongol invasion, and his decision reverberates to this day. Ibn Taymiyya, a scholar from Damascus, issued several fatwas against the Mongols, who were threatening to overrun the Levant. (After Hulegu, some Mongol leaders nominally converted to Islam, but Ibn Taymiyya still considered them infidels.) He also argued that it was permissible for believers to kill other Muslims during battle, if those Muslims were fighting alongside the Mongols. Ibn Taymiyya is the intellectual forefather to many modern-day Islamic militants who use his anti-Mongol fatwas to justify violence against fellow Muslims, or even to declare them infidels. 
Kadri argues that Ibn Taymiyya’s writings were the product of a particular time and place, and that militants have twisted them to fit their own purposes. “His fatwas against the Mongols were intended to warn people that lip service to Islam is no proof of religious sincerity and peaceful intentions,” Kadri writes. “They are mouthed today to validate murder after murder in Islam’s name.” 
Ibn Taymiyya inspired the father of the Wahhabi strain of Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia today, the 18th-century cleric Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, who decreed that many Muslims had abandoned the practices of their ancestors. Al-Wahhab’s followers led a failed uprising against Ottoman rule in the Hijaz, the region of Saudi Arabia where Islam was founded. The Wahhabi appropriation of Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings would have a profound impact on the future of Islamic militancy, and their brief reign over Islam’s holy sites, Kadri writes, “introduced pilgrims from across the world to the concept that violent revolution might be a pious jihad.” 
The Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb took that idea a step further. His 1964 manifesto “Milestones” argued that holy war should be waged not only defensively to protect Muslim lands but also offensively against the enemies of Islam. Qutb also claimed that a Muslim ruler who does not apply Shariah should be declared an infidel and removed from power. 
Read the full review here. Unfortunately, the New York Times further reinforced the caricature of Islam and the Shariah Law by using a picture of an Indonesian woman being publicly caned by the Sharia police for having premarital sex. Gee - that's a gift for Islamophobes like Michelle Bachmann, who will read neither the book nor the review, but will get all the information from one picture.


Asad M said...

The book seems to follow the evolution of Shariah laws from its origins in Quran and Sunnah and then further development as Islam spread to various countries and cultures in subsequent years.

What I’m more interested in are the roots of the most basic Shariah laws revealed in the Quran and Sunnah such as the laws on various topics such as trade/business, taxes, diet, justice/crime & punishment, marriage/divorce, inheritance, as well as religious rituals and even general moral conduct. In 7th century Arabia these laws were a vast improvement on the existing tribal customs and traditions in and around Mecca.

To what extent were the 7th century basic Shariah laws simply unprecedented in Arabia or were they somewhat derived from preceding or contemporary traditions in ancient Arabia and Near East? For example there are similarities in Islamic and Jewish dietary laws, and many of the laws in Torah have close parallels in the pre-bible Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (18th century BC). Any other instances from history one can think of esp. relating to the origins/roots of Islamic laws or what may have inspired them?

Salman Hameed said...


I don't have the references, but I'm pretty sure that you'll be able to find some of that historical information. Kadri's book talks about that a bit in the first chapter, but more or less focuses on the evolution of Sharia law. If I find something specific, I will send it your way. But you are right in tracing the origins of the New and the Old Testament with Babylonian and Mesopotamian texts - and that does have a rich academic tradition.

Asad M said...

Salman, please do share any such reference (or any book you may think that may have something) either here or email me (I’ll send you mine shortly), because I believe that there should logically be some historical connection.

Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) just like Prophet Essa (Jesus) (pbuh) and the prophets before them, was first and foremost a reformer of society and for the most part the laws he gave were hardly meant to be set in stone. Considering that societies and cultures have always evolved over time and are influenced by one another, how can there be continuous reform in the future generations without the progressive development and revision of societal laws? This rationalist approach for interpreting as well as the reforming of Shariah laws should ideally be the way forward as opposed to the literalist/traditionalist/frozen-in-the-past approach adopted by Saudi Arabia, Taliban or even Iran to some extent.

Ali said...


"... and for the most part the laws he gave were hardly meant to be set in stone."

Not necessarily that I am arguing against this statement. But, just wondering why you have said this. Could you please elaborate?

PS. I know this is a very old post. But I have been travelling. So could not respond earlier.

Asad M said...

Ali, the problem is with the literalist interpretation of some of the laws and considering them universal and timeless when in fact they are the product of an Arab tribal society in a specific time in history. Laws and punishments prescribed for adultery, theft, blasphemy/slander (against the Prophet Mohammad pbuh), apostasy, homosexuality; practices such as differentiating b/w testimony of man vs woman, inheritance of man vs woman; allowed practices of polygamy, slavery; these would not be acceptable to all cultures in the world at all the times, hence only applied by a select few authoritarian regimes.

Ali said...

Thanks, Asad for this response.

I am no scholar. But, ...
" ... the literalist interpretation of some of the laws and considering them universal and timeless ..."

Isn't this what we are supposed to do?
Why do you argue against this?