History Magazine

Sharia Heaven on Shifting Earth

By Cris

Over at Guernica, Sadakat Kadri has posted the lush prologue to his new book Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World. For those who have never given sharia much thought or have only caricatured ideas about what it is and how it works, Heaven on Earth appears to be the perfect and engaging antidote. Like any other jurisprudence, sharia is undergoing constant revision, contestation, and construction.

But before Kadri gets to these issues, he takes us on colorful ride through the mystical backwaters of Sufi-inspired syncretic Islam. In doing so, he clearly destabilizes the notion that Islam is singular and there is some essential form of it. Here he sets the stage:

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.

Sharia Heaven on Shifting Earth

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.

This is quite a picture, much at odds with those in the Western media which depict “Islam” through the minimalist lenses of militants and mosques. It is also a strange segue towards a discussion of sharia but it somehow works. When Kadri finally gets round to sharia, there is delicious irony. After noting that conservatives have imagined Islamic law as foundational and eternal, Kadri compares this (false) vision with a similar conservative vision:

That claim raises issues similar to those I once encountered in a very different part of the world—the United States. As a law student at Harvard in the late 1980s, I had learned that many American conservatives consider the Founding Fathers of the United States to be possessed of incontestable wisdom. Some went further, arguing that God had manifested His will through their deeds. According to certain lawyers, that could oblige judges to interpret the federal Constitution according to its eighteenth-century meaning, or even require that they consider the Founders’ views when resolving contemporary legal controversies: limits to the death penalty, for example, or governmental restrictions on free speech.

Back then, I had felt that the deference to ancient vocabularies and dead people’s thoughts had the whiff of a séance about it. Pinning down a person’s meaning and motives is hard enough when he or she is alive. The collective intention of a large and diverse group of the deceased is difficult to conceptualize, let alone know. The traditionalist approach toward interpreting the shari‘a does not, on its face, look very different. It seems more akin to ancestor worship than any grave-venerating ritual could be—simply because holy wisdom does not automatically pass down through the generations.

There is indeed more than a bit of ancestor worship and civil religion in American constitutional originalism. It is no accident that most of those who worship at originalism’s altar also worship at other altars.

Sharia Heaven on Shifting Earth

I’ll be getting Kadri’s book, which has been reviewed here (Guardian) and here (Telegraph), and reporting back on it.

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