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Apr 17 2012

“Interpreting sharia”

A lawyer called Sadakat Kadri was on Fresh Air yesterday to talk about his new book on the history of sharia. He’s very critical of the idea that sharia courts are a bad thing. He’s of the “it’s all a matter of interpretation” school, as if that by itself solves the problem of goddy law.

“It’s a huge oral tradition, which was set down in the 9th century and which was then, by some people, transformed into compulsion and rules,” Kadri tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “It would be literally impossible to follow all of them, because plenty of them directly contradict each other. So you have to make choices, and Muslims have been making choices for … the last 1,400 years. And what’s happened over the past 40 years is that in certain places, the hard-liners have come to the forefront.”

No, you don’t “have to” make choices. You don’t “have to” pay any attention to it at all. Who cares what people “set down” in the 9th century? This isn’t the 9th century.

We may find wisdom and insight in writing from previous centuries, but we don’t “have to” and we shouldn’t treat any of it as mandatory, much less as orders from god. (If god really wanted to give us instructions it ought to find a more reliable method of saying so. Then we could still decide whether to obey or not.) There is simply no good reason to treat one particular book or collection of sayings from the distant past as any more binding than any other such book or collection of sayings. We should treat them all as what they are: things that human beings have said and written.

If we’re making choices, then we’re making them according to our own secular values. (If we make no choices but obey everything blindly, including when they’re contradictory, we’re making a huge mistake.) Forget the holy books and do your best with secular reasoning.

But of course people don’t, so they’re at the mercy of those hard-liners that Kadri mentions.

People just seemed to be arguing about Islam, Islamic law, the Shariah, without actually getting to the substance of what it was all about. So because I come from a Muslim background, I certainly had plenty of people I could ask. I started with my father. My father’s also a lawyer. I asked him, ‘So what is the Shariah? What does it say? Where is it written down?’ And he didn’t really have an adequate answer, as far as I am concerned. He said, ‘It’s what’s regarded as God’s law.’ And I knew that. I didn’t need to be told that. And the more I asked, the more I realized people just seemed to be ignorant. Muslims seemed to be ignorant, let alone the people who were attacking it without knowing what they were talking about.

But why try to defend sharia then? Why try to defend goddy law at all? It’s not defensible, because the whole idea of “God’s law” is indefensible, because God is not around for appeals.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    Sunny

    His book was reviewed in the New York Times today:

    Defending Muslim Law From Those Invoking It
    ‘Heaven on Earth,’ by Sadakat Kadri

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/17/books/heaven-on-earth-by-sadakat-kadri.html?_r=2&ref=global-home

    Is there any country on Earth where Shariah has been correctly interpreted according to Mr. Kadri? After all he seems to think it is a fabulous legal system which has been hijacked by the “Fundamentalists.”

    One wonders who is more dangerous: the so-called intellectuals or the fundamentalists?

    s.

  2. 2
    eric

    There is simply no good reason to treat one particular book or collection of sayings from the distant past as any more binding than any other such book or collection of sayings.

    Its times like these I think we secularists could make good use of the children’s ‘cut the cake’ game, rephrased, to help these folk understand why secularism is not just an atheist thing, its in the best interests of believers too.

    Okay Mr. Kadri (I’d say to him), you get to decide how much deference our legal system will pay to religious doctrine. After you do that, I will decide which religion gets that deferential treatment. Then, if you want, we can switch roles and play the game again. I’ll bet you that in both cases, we end up with a pretty secular system.

    Why? Because the game makes very clear that religious deference works against free religious belief unless one assumes one’s sect gets to cut the cake AND pick the first slice. Remove either of those assumptions, and even highly religious people understand the value of a (more) secular system. Religious deference may sound oh so rational to you…until you have some jerk like me deciding ‘which religion’ gets it. Then suddenly, it doesn’t seem like a good idea at all.

  3. 3
    Jeff D

    As an American lawyer who has read everything he could — in English — about the history of Islam and of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), I listened to the first half of this interview with gradually growing frustration until I lost the radio signal in my car.

    Did Mr. Kadri ever specify what the actual content of his “true” Sharia was or is, as distinguished from the “glosses” or elaborations that the four schools of fiqh allegedly put on it? Is there more to “true” Sharia than just the general label of “God’s law” or “the straight and narrow path to the water source”? Did Mr. Kadri ever deny that the Sunnah, the Ahadith, and ijma (along with the Quran) are also sources of Sharia?

    A thing that is not worth doing is not worth doing well, and if “true” Sharia has nothing, objectively, to recommend it, other than its antiquity (7th to 9th centuries C.E.), then why bother with it, or with defending its supposedly pure form against what the legal scholars did to it, rightly or wrongly, beginning in the 8th and 9th centuries?

  4. 4
    leni

    I heard most of that interview and he came across as quite the apologist, but he did make other valuable points about Islamic courts that I think might help to dispel some of the more extremist fear-mongering generated by (mostly) right wing Islamophobes.

    For example, he mentioned that they are civil courts (as opposed to criminal) and subject to whatever the “law of the land” is, including things like judicial review. I don’t know that much about law, so I can’t really comment on the minutia of how it works. But I do know that this is a far cry from what the “creeping Sharia” idiots would have us believe. At least in America, laws banning the use of it are not designed to protect the rights of Muslims who might actually find themselves at the mercy of such a court. They are the products of ignorance, fear, and bigotry and seem to exist for no other reason than to create a sort of nationalistic solidarity among right-wingers. And they specifically call out Sharia courts while ignoring the fact that other religious courts (such as the Beth Din) could be just as bad or even worse.

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes but he also said, for instance, that if a woman is being coerced to use the sharia court and be bound by its rulings, then there are laws against that – as if that solves the problem. It was stupidly callous (at best). I kept wishing Maryam were part of that interview.

  6. 6
    anne

    I kept wishing Maryam were part of that interview.

    As if Maryam had a better insight into this law? What are you acknowledging here?

  7. 7
    Ophelia Benson

    I don’t understand the question.

  8. 8
    anne

    Ophelia, you said:

    Yes but he also said, for instance, that if a woman is being coerced to use the sharia court and be bound by its rulings, then there are laws against that – as if that solves the problem. It was stupidly callous (at best). I kept wishing Maryam were part of that interview.

    Perhaps I’m being thick or insensitive here, or perhaps your question was empty rhetoric, but I don’t understand how Maryam (whom I respect) could have added anything to the argument that you could not.

  9. 9
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh, I see. Maryam knows more about it than I do, that’s all I meant. One Law For All is all about sharia, and she necessarily knows a lot about how it plays out in the UK.

    Joanne Payton of IKWRO also suggests Kecia Ali.

  10. 10
    Rudi

    It’s very easy for those of us looking in from the outside to see that Islam is crap, and that we’d all be better off without it. But for someone brainwashed at birth to treat Islam as the be-all-and-end-all, this chap is doing OK. If his work eventually contributes to some sort of reformation of Islamic thought, steering it away from its current obnoxious form, then that is a good thing. I agree the best thing for everyone would be to jettison the whole belief system completely, but baby steps, eh?

  11. 11
    evilDoug

    It seems to me that making the case that sharia needs “correct interpretation” is making the case that it is an extraordinarily poor basis for law.
    I think reasonable law should be clear, concise and unequivocal. A system of law that, almost in its entirety, can be interpreted according to the whim of its adminstrators is a system of law that would make any reasonable person permanently hide out away from everyone and everthing, for fear of breaking some silly law (but then hiding out might be illegal too – damned if you … well, if you exist). If you want examples of capricious application of law, have a look at the US TSA & DEA. And they supposedly act to well-specified rules.
    I’ve long held the view that the supreme court (in Canada) is there in large part to deal with illegal laws written by ignorant politicians. Laws from a “huge oral tradition”?! The supreme court would need a thousand judges sitting 8760 hours a year for decades to sort out the mess.

  12. 12
    A. Noyd

    If god really wanted to give us instructions it ought to find a more reliable method of saying so.

    Why the hell is this so hard to understand? I just want to smack the Christians who, when I tell them that god needs to provide some evidence of his existence before I’ll believe, answer by claiming the Bible is just that.

    ~*~*~*~*~

    @eric
    That’s a lovely analogy/argument/thinking tool. I might have to steal it.

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    Quite. Secular law also needs interpretation, but it doesn’t have the extra hurdle that the putative author of the law is a magical entity who is far far away and unavailable to answer questions.

    Mind you, the semi-mystical view of “original intent” held by some US legal scholars and Supremes borders on the same kind of thing. The “founding fathers” (as they are so sickeningly called) are long gone and unavailable to answer questions…

  14. 14
    Peter N

    A. Noyd,

    I just want to smack the Christians who, when I tell them that god needs to provide some evidence of his existence before I’ll believe, answer by claiming the Bible is just that.

    Tell me about it! Talking of stealing good ideas, here’s one I purloined from somewhere just the other day: Don’t wave that bible at me — the bible isn’t evidence in support of your claim, the bible is your claim! Now where’s your evidence?!

  15. 15
    A. Noyd

    @Peter N
    I usually tell them I’m Supergirl, then ask if they believe me. Of course they never do, so it becomes a way to point out that the Bible is the one claiming to be the “word of god” and they’re happy to simply take the Bible’s word for that. The only thing that really surprises me, though I suppose it shouldn’t, is how none of them so far have thought to ask for evidence of my claim. Like, how hard would it be to demand I fly around the nearest building? I did have one guy say, unironically, that it was just too hard to believe in superhumans.

  16. 16
    Brian Jordan

    The only – and false – claim to legitimacy that Islam has is an alleged transmission of divine rules to Mohammed during his lifetime. Anything coming hundreds of years later has none of that “legitimacy” and is, even from a theistic viewpoint, man-made and fallible. Not to mention susceptible to being overturned.

  17. 17
    eric

    A Noyd – feel free to steal it. I think its a useful thinking tool in a wide range of discussions.

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