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Sharia divine law profaned

An English barrister and legal scholar provides a thoughtful and balanced assessment of Islamic law and its discontents

Talmiz Ahmad 

Over the last ten years or so, a number of radical Muslim groups have asserted that enforcement of Sharia in an idyllic Islamic community is the objective of their agitation, which has included widespread murder and mayhem, including suicide bombings.

With this book on the Sharia, the English barrister and legal scholar, Sadakat Kadri has confidently stepped into this minefield of controversies where the contentions of the protagonists are as sensitive as they are lethal. Kadri brings to this effort of discovery and understanding not only a balanced scholarship but also a thoughtful and reasoned interaction with the votaries of different views of Sharia in Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Iran and Egypt.

The Sharia is made up of the Quran and the Hadith which are “traditions” pertaining to the Prophet Mohammed as recalled by his companions. The Sharia encompasses every aspect of the life of a Muslim, with scholars over the centuries turning to its texts for clues to prescribe not just personal conduct in different situations, but also diet, calculation of inheritance shares, criminal justice and jihad.

The revelations of Prophet Mohammed were put together soon after his death in the shape of the Quran, while the Hadith was substantially completed in their present form by the late ninth century. Between the 7th and 9th centuries, these divine exhortions were further clarified, commented on and elaborated by distinguished scholars whose collected works constitute the four schools of jurisprudence(Madhab) in Sunni Islam and the Jaafari school in the Shia tradition.

The Sharia links the divine with the terrestrial, and, in the view of a 14th century believer, “It is the absolute cure for all ills. It is life and nutrition, the medicine, the light, the cure and the safeguard. Every good in this life is derived from it and achieved through it.”

The message of Islam constituted in its time a radical programme of reform, highlighting the importance of economic justice, an egalitarian outlook, the status of women and clarity regarding inheritance, in short, all the trappings of a welfare state in a pre-modern society. While the prescribed punishments for specific transgressions were in tune with contemporary practice, the central emphasis of the Quran was on mercy, particularly pardon for the sinner when he showed sincere repentance.

The Islamic legal system took several years to be defined and for its schools of jurisprudence to be institutionalised. However, certain factors that influenced this evolution were apparent from the start. Thus, while the Sharia purported to encompass every aspect of an individual’s life, the practical reality was that large areas remained in the secular domain and under the authority of the ruler. These included civil administration and commercial and criminal matters. Even in civil matters, while Sharia was influential, rulers frequently enforced their own edicts and even upheld customary practices. In fact, the guiding principle influencing both the Sultan and the Ulema (religious scholars) was pragmatism which sought to achieve a balance between religiosity and expediency rather than seek the rigid implementation of the letter of the law.

Again, during the first centuries of Islam, when Muslim political authority was dramatically established over large geographical spaces extending from Spain to Central Asia, the environment was fraught with great intellectual ferment. It consisted of robust debate and furious contention in which every aspect of revelation and prophetic tradition was scrutinised, and alternative interpretations in regard to their meaning and application were furiously asserted, often based on “the capacity to learn and borrow” on the part of these brilliant and argumentative scholars.

Amidst these controversies, two important strands in Islam emerged which continue to influence Muslim thinking and practice today. The first was the mystical aspect of Sufism which, as Kadri puts it, “preserved a far more basic understanding of the Sharia by inviting believers to fall back on their own inner resources to strengthen their faith.” This eclectic, personalised approach was challenged by the more narrow, aggressive, literalist thinking of Ahmad ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) who, in response to the Mongol destruction of the Abbasid Caliphate, advocated the use of force against the Mongols, who, though Muslim, still persisted with customary practices which were not in accord with the strict tenets of Sharia.

The accommodative approach of Sufism, which harmoniously absorbed customary practices, including those of non-Muslim neighbours, evolved alongside the stern tenets of ibn Taymiyya, so that today there exists a sharp divide between the overwhelming majority of Muslims whose faith and practice have been determined and defined by their communal history, and a minority who reject all tradition and seek to enforce Islam as they believe it had been originally practised.

Kadri addresses lucidly but with considerable scholarly authority the various expressions of intolerance, extremism and violence that have tarnished Islam over the last few years. In the Islamic world today, he sees a “globalisation of confusion” and a “moral maelstrom” in which “societies that used to be oceans of diversity are shrinking into sectarian swamps”.

In this context, Kadri looks at length at the whole issue of jihad. He, like many other liberal observers, is surprised that the views of ibn Taymiyya, articulated nearly 700 years ago in a very specific historical context should be seized upon by modern-day radicals, such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, to justify defending Islam through horrendous acts of violence that include suicide bombings and the killing of innocent men, women and children, the overwhelming majority of whom are Muslims. He concludes correctly that this intolerance and violence do not find justification in the tenets of the Sharia nor are they in accord with the spirit of mercy and forgiveness that permeates the Quran, the life of Prophet Mohammed and much of Islamic history.

To explain this mindless violence, Kadri also looks at the contemporary political and sociological context. With regard to people, including some British youth who are hankering for the strict enforcement of Sharia, he points out that few of them have much understanding of what they seek. While impelled by anger due to Western interventions and depredations that have been an essential part of the West Asian, and, indeed, the broad Muslim experience, perhaps they find in radical organisations what they miss most in their own life: solidarity, status and dignity.

Kadri’s book is an outstanding work of scholarship, leavened with lucid sentences and a pithy turn of the phrase. But, his general tone is one of sorrow and occasional anger as he finds that, in several Muslim societies, faith is now “shadowed by despair” and, in advocating harsh punishments and violence on the basis of Sharia, the advocates fail to see the extent to which they are violating the essential tenets of their faith; as he puts it so well, “Islamic intolerance is objectionable because of its toxic effects on Islam’s own traditions.” Amidst the contemporary cacophony of hate and intolerance, this is a timely corrective intervention.

Publisher: The Bodley Head, London
Pages: 332
Price: £12.99

Talmiz Ahmad, a former diplomat, is the author of Children of Abraham at War

First Published: Sat, July 07 2012. 00:23 IST