Fiery preachers and random Muslim youths were making all sorts of bellicose assertions about the Sharia. People who wanted to be angry with them were assuming that the Sharia meant what they said. Noise rather than information, was rushing to fill a void, while critical questions were not only going unanswered but also unasked. Where was the Sharia written down? To what extent was it accepted that its rules had been crafted by human beings? And what gave the men who were so loudly invoking God’s law the right to speak in its name? – Excerpt from Heaven On Earth
When I first meet Sadakat Kadri, I have trouble believing he’s the man I’m here to see. He doesn’t seem to fit the image I had in mind. He is of medium built, has salt and pepper hair and beard and is wearing a rumpled coat. I was hoping for something sharper and more intense, something as profound as his achievements.
Kadri is a lawyer, author, travel writer and a journalist. I know all this because Wikipedia told me so but a bit more research reveals that this may be an understatement. Half-Finnish and half-Pakistani, Kadri is the son of the first British Muslim QC (Queens Counsel) Sibghatullah Kadri. After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in history, Kadri went on to pursue a Masters at Harvard Law School to become a member of the bar both in England and New York. He is also a human rights barrister who used to write regularly for the New Statesman.
We are meeting to talk about his new book, Heaven on Earth. I say new because this is the second one. The first one was The Trial: A History from Socrates to O J Simpson, which outlines the development of the criminal trial in the West. This time he’s turned his attention to the East and has written about the history of Sharia law.”I’ve always been interested in the Islamic legal world and, after the furore over the 7/7 London bombings, the issues pertaining to what the Sharia says about jihad, extremists and criminal law became even more relevant,” he explains.
“I tried talking to my dad about it and he didn’t know, I spoke to other Muslims and they didn’t have a clue and so I thought that there must be something worth saying about this,” he explains. “I’m not a theologian and it’s not like I’m going to explain to you what the Sharia is, because I couldn’t do that. I’m just trying to find out the answers.”
I’m curious to know if he found the answers after spending three years writing and three months travelling from his father’s birthplace in Northern India to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and finally Egypt.
“My conclusion is that I don’t feel that Sharia is set in stone as people often say it is but there are important arguments that need to take place without too much anger and passion.”
I’m sceptical if that is even possible. Sharia is a topic that interests everyone and Kadri realised this when he attracted quite some attention the first time he spoke about it publicly. All he had said was that Islamic law can be compatible with the toughest human rights legislation in the UK and that the so-called ‘Sharia courts’ such as the Muslim Arbitration Council could serve the wider community too. But not everyone agreed.
“My point wasn’t that Sharia should be allowed to compete with English law. For me the concept of ‘the rule of law’ is broad enough to incorporate other systems.If people wish to have their disputes decided by Muslim scholars according to the Quran and Sunnah, there should be a provision in English law which allows them to do that, just as it allows people from other religions to do so. However, what I’m not saying is that there should be Sharia courts which have the power to rule over criminal courts.”
For me, one of the most notable points he makes in the book is that modern Islam is becoming more intolerant and suffocating the religion’s great traditions. I’m curious to know what made him reach this conclusion, and ask him as much.
“One of the great things about writing this book was finding out how confident Islam has been for so many centuries,” he replies. “This is why it did not worry about the small things because it knew exactly where it was going.”
Of course, things have changed since those halcyon days, and not for the better.
“Pakistan is a classic example. The idea that Islam may be threatened by a poor Christian woman in a village is ludicrous. Islam cannot be reduced to this. It must be bigger than that and in fact Islam has always been bigger than that. My opinion is that Islam should be building upon its great traditions rather than sentencing a woman to death for blasphemy. It is a disaster because it serves to justify all sorts of hostility at best and oppression at worst for Muslims worldwide.”
He justifies his viewpoint by referring to personal experience, “During my travels, I was visiting most of these countries for the first time but I’ve been going to Pakistan throughout most of my childhood and it is the country I’m most familiar with, so I can see the changes that have taken place. Pakistan has become a more difficult place for everybody. At the same time society has become more intolerant and violent but intolerance is not a function of Islam,” he notes.
Iran on the other hand was quite an eye opener for Kadir. “Iran has its own share of serious problems which are connected to religion just like Pakistan but the air there, it just felt freer to breathe in.”
I draw his attention towards Saudi Arabia because of its religious and geopolitical importance and also because this is where the strictest interpretations of Islamic law are enforced. Surely Mecca and Madina would have been the best places to visit when starting to write a book about Sharia law and its origins. Why then would he omit such an important destination?
Sadakat replies that he did seriously think about it, but in order to present a balanced picture he would have had to meet both critical as well as orthodox thinkers, and would have had to be transparent about the fact that he was working on a book on Sharia law. Had he admitted as much, he claims he would never have been given a visa.
As we talk, it becomes increasingly apparent that Sadakat’s journey was in part a personal journey as well. “I’m half-Finnish and half Pakistani but I’ve always been more interested in my sub-continental and Pakistani heritage. When I was growing up in the late 1970s, there was a lot of racism so I think my identity was formed in response to that.”
He seems to have an answer for just about every question, but when I ask him if he is a believer, his face scrunches up whilst he ponders and reflects at the precise choice of words for his answer. “I’m a believer but I have my doubts and I have my problems with faith but I’ve never called myself anything but a Muslim and I probably never will,” he replies at last.
I then ask him if the book will matter in the days to come and this time the reply is automatic as well as empathic:
“It matters to me!” he says and with this he bursts into laughter. “I really don’t know, but I’m glad I’ve written it and it’s out there. However I don’t claim that the book is going to change the world or win or change the terms of the debate. It’s merely a contribution to the debate.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine. April 29th, 2012.