I finally got around to reading the book by Sadakat Kadri. Heaven on Earth: A Journey through Shari’a Law. On the whole, it is an excellent read. It’s a book I could consider for my History of Islam course, especially if our Program runs a course on Islamic religion as well as “History of Islam.” (That might be a better division than the current course offerings).
There are a few places where I thought Kadri was wrong or left things out. Most of the time, that’s OK, as his choices make sense, although sometimes I thought the approach was too simplistic, given the breadth and depth of the book. What is less clear to me is whether I consider his narrative of the past stunningly integrative—that is, integrating political history and the development of legal thought in a useful way—or going overboard in selecting and reshaping the material to do so. But the general trajectory of his history serves to support ideas that continue to surprise me although I agree with them and teach them: the sunna emerged as a response to legal reasoning, not the other way around—and Islam changed forever in the wake of the Mongol invasion, the context in which Ibn Taymiyya was active. He explains this and other such matters well.
One reason I mention the concept reshaping the material is his treatment of Ibn Taymiyya. With good reason, he regards Ibn Taymiyya as crucial for understanding many aspects of the development of Islamic thought for the past seven centuries, and especially important for the Salafi approach today (he finds Salafi preferable to many similar terms used today such as extremists, Wahhabis, etc.), and to developments in the concept of Jihad, especially against other Muslims. And he paints an easy-to-understand picture detailing exactly how and why Salafi-style Islam (especially since 1979) differs from all previous ideas about jihad and violence against other Muslims, including the imposition of violent shari’a punishments. Again, I am not sure that I would agree on all his main points, but the book provides a reasonable argument and a very clear statement.
Kadri’s approach to the Palestinian/Israeli issue is curious in one sense: he delineates why it is central to much radicalization in contemporary Islam, and especially the role it played in the development of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but on the whole, this issue gets less space in the book than one might think given his assertion of its centrality. I think Kadri is indeed correct to keep it in perspective, and to emphasize “promoting good and forbidding evil” and other aspects associated with sunni Islam and especially with contemporary counties in which violent, traditionalizing Muslim groups are dominant—by no means all traditionally- Islamic countries. And I think Kadri could have offered even more contextualization of conflicts between Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood, Shia and moderate Sunni Muslims, within issues of bad government, world politics (going back to 1st and 2nd World War and Cold War/Third World issues), and “minority relations,” that is, tensions between groups based on religion, religiosity or ethnicity.
I am grateful to a student who suggested I read this book and comment on it; for me personally, it has raised some questions about how to teach Islamic history, specifically how to integrate the development of legal ideas into a political narrative—something Kadri does quite well—and how I wish to research and write about issues of Islamic law, of 13-14th century Islam, and about contemporary considerations. I am grateful for the encouragement to have read it, and know it will affect some of my thinking on these issues as I go forward.