Humanizing the Issues

8 questions for Sadakat Kadri LL.M. ’89, author of “Heaven on Earth”

Your writing career is wide-ranging, beginning with travel writing. How did travel add to your latest book—on a subject that could well have kept you just in libraries?

Book JacketI always intended that “Heaven on Earth” should have a strongly historical component, because arguments about Islam’s past are crucial to understanding its present, but the second half of the book is thematic—and it seemed sensible to explore controversial topics like criminal justice and religious tolerance in the form of a travelogue. Islamic law is a subject about which a lot of people have stances rather than reasoned opinions, and I wanted to subvert those stances by humanizing the issues.

What you have called “repressive interpretations” of Shariah are ascendant today, and I have read (and heard) you explain why. Is there a way you could summarize?

Islamic jurisprudence is frequently associated nowadays with punitive, misogynistic and bellicose attitudes, but they are a poor reflection of its 1,400-year history. As I try to show in my book, they are actually a reaction to some thoroughly modern developments—most particularly the partition of Palestine and [creation of] Israel in 1948, and a series of coups and revolutions that took place around the Muslim world during the 1970s and 1980s. That isn’t to say that the hard-liners can’t find a scriptural basis for some of their ideas; it is to assert that 14 centuries of thought about divine law shouldn’t be reduced to sensational stories about, for example, the stoning of adulterers and suicide bombs.

Fears of the same legal tradition seem ascendant in the West, especially in the United States. Why is that, and how would you allay such fears?

I would begin by recognizing that Islam has its share of extremists, and that fear might easily seem an appropriate response. But the link between extremism and Islamic law was forged relatively recently, in many cases only after 9/11, and it rests more on instinct than on evidence. “The Shariah” is understood by most Muslims as a spiritual concept—it means the path laid down by God toward salvation—and Islamic jurisprudence is a complex 1,400-year tradition that is primarily concerned with questions of personal propriety and religious ritual. Harsher interpretations certainly exist, but they are balanced by long-standing traditions of mercy, tolerance and flexibility—and all the evidence suggests that American Muslims overwhelmingly focus on those traditions. For that reason, it makes little sense to oppose “Shariah law.” It is violent extremism that needs to be challenged, and there is no reason to think that state and federal laws are incapable of dealing with such threats, as and when they arise.

You have talked about “slaving” over “Heaven on Earth.” How would you compare the level of effort in writing that book to legal studies and lawyerly work? What were the special challenges to writing this book?

It’s impossible to say in the abstract how it compares—because lawyerly work can be stressful as hell or dull as clockwork—but getting a grip on 14 centuries of legal, political and cultural history certainly posed challenges. I knew next to nothing about the Shariah when I undertook to write a book about it, and it took three years of solid work to make good that deficiency. Striking the right tone also required thought. I wanted to acknowledge the historical achievements of Islamic jurisprudence, while scrutinizing its contemporary application and criticizing ruthless and retrograde approaches toward enforcement. That demanded not just advocacy, but also subtlety.

How do you answer critics who say that Shariah has no place in the American legal system, even if it is confined to domestic or property disputes?

If they mean that Islamic scholars have no business imposing rules by force, I’d entirely agree. I’ve never actually met anyone who’s suggested otherwise, however. And if the argument is that Muslims shouldn’t be entitled consensually to take their civil disputes for binding resolution by religious arbitrators, I’d point out that they’re entitled to do so under the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925—just like every other faith community in the United States—and that they’ve actually been doing so without incident for decades. The fact that the scholars concerned claim to decide such cases according to the Shariah is not really the business of non-Muslims, and it’s certainly no reason to panic.

At Harvard some time ago, political scientist Sam Huntington reprised the notion of a “clash of civilizations.” In the area of the law, is there such a clash—between Islamic and English law—being fought today?

No. Although there are plenty of people eager to portray Islamic law as an existential threat to secular Western legal systems, the most significant polarities cut across religious lines. A literalist approach to sacred texts isn’t distinctly Muslim—as anyone familiar with conservative interpretations of the U.S. Constitution could confirm—and the tension between punitive and merciful attitudes is even more widespread. Iran and Saudi Arabia regularly take spots near the top of the global death penalty league, but so do secular states such as China—while America’s fondness for lethal injections and supermax prisons hardly makes it a model of leniency.

Why include in the prologue of your book (on page 14) what a critic has called a “disclaimer”? Were you being lawyerly—that is, careful?

I make clear in the prologue that I haven’t written my book with a view to causing offense, but that’s lawyerly only in the sense that it follows the most basic principle of the rhetorical rulebook: Don’t begin an address by alienating people you hope to persuade. I’d really like my book to be read by conservative Muslims—because the second half of my book focuses on hard-line interpretations of Islamic law that they might support—and it would have been foolish to ignore their sensitivities. But a willingness to extend basic courtesies and avoid unnecessary offense isn’t the same thing as the suppression of criticism, and I certainly don’t think I pulled my punches—far from it. In respect of subjects ranging from “The Satanic Verses” to criminal justice and the treatment of minorities, I argue at great length that today’s revivalists are in thrall to ahistorical, intolerant, ignorant and merciless visions of Islamic law.

Your time at Harvard overlapped that of now President Obama. Did you know him then, and if so, could you share a story?

I like to tell people that we used to skip con law classes to play basketball together, but sadly, it isn’t true. Although I have friends who knew him, … our paths never crossed. But I’m there for the president now, if he ever wants to make the Bill of Rights Shariah-compliant. That’s a joke, by the way.