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Interpreting Shariah Law Across The Centuries
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Interpreting Shariah Law Across The Centuries

Religion

Interpreting Shariah Law Across The Centuries
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There's a movement in America to ban Shariah law, Islamic law. More than 10 states have introduced bills or passed laws intended to ban it. But what exactly is Shariah law? My guest Sadakat Kadri tries to answer that in 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."

As part of his research, he traveled to South Asia, Iran and the Middle East. Kadri is also the author of a book about Western law called "The Trial: A History from Socrates to O.J. Simpson." He's a human rights barrister in England, has his master's degree from Harvard and is qualified as a New York attorney. His father is from India, one of the countries Kadri traveled to while researching the book.

Sadakat Kadri, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write about the history of Shariah law?

SADAKAT KADRI: Well, there were all sorts of reasons, actually. I'm a barrister by background, but I'm also a Muslim by birth. And I've written a book before about Western legal history. I've been curious about Shariah before, but it actually - my thoughts crystallized as a result of a couple of very inauspicious events.

I was in New York on September the 11th. At the time, I was writing my last book, about Western criminal justice. And while I was writing it, people just started to talk about Islam, Islamic law, and although it didn't change the focus of my book, it certainly made me think about the subject.

And then the book was published in London in April 2005. And then three months later, the bombings of July the 7th happened here in London, and again...

GROSS: In the subway system.

KADRI: In the subway system in London. And again, people were talking about Islam, Islamic law, the Shariah, and people were saying all sorts of different things about it. On the one hand, you had lots of people who were saying, well, Islam is all about peace. It's a religion of peace. It's a religion of understanding.

And then there were other people who said well, no. It's clearly hateful. You know, we saw what happened on September the 11th. Now we've seen in London what they're capable of doing on the subway. And I just wondered what - I thought to myself, there has to be an answer to this.

I mean, I was interested in the subject, and people just seemed to be arguing about Islam, Islamic law, the Shariah, and without actually getting to the substance of what it was all about. And so because of my background, because I come from a Muslim background, and there were plenty of people who I could ask, I started with my father. My father's also a lawyer.

And I asked him, well, you know, what is the Shariah? What does it say? Where is it written down? And, you know, he didn't really have any adequate answers, as far as I was concerned. He simply said, well, you know, it's what Muslims regard as God's law. And, you know, I knew that. I didn't need to be told that.

And the more I asked, the more I realized that people just seemed to be ignorant. Muslims even seemed to be ignorant, let alone the people who were attacking it without knowing what they were talking about.

GROSS: And so I think the preconceptions that people have about Shariah law, that it's this body of law, it's a book of law that basically tells when you should stone people to death, when you should amputate their limbs and force women to wear body veils. Is that what Shariah law is?

KADRI: No, it's not at all. I mean, the Shariah, as a word, means path. It means - the original meaning was a path to water. It's got an almost exact Hebrew equivalent, in fact, the Halakha, and it's got a very similar English equivalent, the straight and narrow. It means the right path to follow, effectively, the path that you should follow if you want to attain salvation.

So it's a very spiritual concept. It's an idea of the right thing to do. There is another word in Arabic, a word fiqh, which means jurisprudence. It means understanding. It means human approximations of how you get to - how you follow that path, how you attain salvation.

And there's no denying that the fiqh, the human interpretations of the Shariah, do contain some very repressive laws. There are interpretations of the Shariah which certainly do justify stoning adulterers to death, which do justify the concealment of women behind hijabs and veils, which do justify the execution of apostates and blasphemers.

But those are just interpretations of the Shariah. And as far as I was concerned while writing the book, it was very, very important to draw a distinction between the two things, because the argument just tends to get so confused these days between people who attack the Shariah when, actually, what they ought to be attacking is the hard-line interpretations of Islamic law.

And by attacking the Shariah, basically, a huge amount of mistrust and incomprehension is created between Muslims and non-Muslims. Because as far as a devout Muslim is concerned, an attack on the Shariah is effectively an attack on God.

GROSS: So is Islamic law based on what's in the Quran?

KADRI: Ultimately, yes, but that's certainly not the only source. If you look at the Quran, the Quran has four punishable offenses in total. None of - there's not a single mandatory death sentence in the Quran at all. The capital offenses and most of the measures which are nowadays regarded by many non-Muslims as repressive almost all come from the hadiths.

Hadiths are reports about the prophet, what the prophet is said to have thought and said and did. But one of the things that I try to show in my book is that the hadiths weren't written down for two centuries after the prophet's death. It was not until the 9th century that the hadiths actually attained anything like a definitive form, and there are literally thousands of reports about the prophet's life.

And there are certainly hadiths which do justify violent punishment like the stoning of adulterers - which, incidentally, isn't something that appears in the Quran at all. But there are also hadiths which emphasize the need for mercy, the need for restraint, the need for discretion, as well as countless other subjects.

I mean, most hadiths don't concern criminal matters or compulsion at all. Most hadiths concern how you should pray, how you should wash, good manners at meal times, all sorts of strange and odd things, as well. I mean, there are plenty of hadiths which lay down recipes for medicines, 8th and 9th-century medicines known to Arabs.

There are hadiths which identify the location of the Antichrist. There are hadiths which warn about the signs of the last day. 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.

GROSS: So anybody trying to follow the hadiths would have to be kind of selective in choosing which ones they are going to follow?

KADRI: Yeah. It's completely orthodox, and always has been among Muslims, that not all the hadiths are authentic. There are thousands of them. 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 all their history. For the last 1,400 years, the application of Islamic law has been a question of choice. And what's happened over the last 40 years is that in certain places, the hard-liners have come to the fore. In certain places...

GROSS: By 40 years, you mean post the Iranian Revolution?

KADRI: Well, actually, it started in the early 1970s, in Libya. Interestingly enough, Colonel Gadhafi was the first person outside Saudi Arabia to introduce Islamic criminal penalties. And then in 1979, you had Pakistan introducing Islamic criminal penalties. Then there was the Iranian revolution, and we all know what happened there.

And, of course, at the end of 1979, there was the invasion of Afghanistan, which kicked off no end of trouble. And throughout the 1980s and the 1990s and the 2000s, there's been a gradual extension of the number of countries which claim to apply the harsher interpretations of Islamic law.

But if you'd have gone back to 1970, the only country in the world that even claimed to apply the Shariah in full was Saudi Arabia.

GROSS: And that was a pretty strict form of the Shariah.

KADRI: That was an extremely strict form of the Shariah, and it wasn't...

GROSS: And still is, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KADRI: It still is, yeah. And it wasn't something which was regarded as particularly orthodox at the time, at all. I mean, I'm too - I'm just about, thankfully, too young to remember 1970, but I certainly remember the later 1970s and the 1980s. And Saudi Arabia was a byword for extremism then among - within the Muslim community itself.

And it's made great strides in certain sections of the Muslim world since then, but that doesn't - that still doesn't mean that it's orthodox. It's a creature of modernity. It's not a creature of tradition.

GROSS: When you say it's a creature of modernity and not tradition, what do you mean?

KADRI: Well, one thing I realized when I was traveling around the Muslim world is how closely these hard-line interpretations of Islamic law are with political consternation and political turmoil. The countries where harsh interpretations of Islamic law are strongest are countries which have gone through coups and wars and revolutions, almost without exception - in fact, I think without exception.

There isn't a country anywhere in the Muslim world which has been applying Muslim laws continually for hundreds of years, and which is drawing on genuine traditions. It's a revival of supposed traditions which actually don't really pay very much heed to history at all. You know, so those people who say nowadays that the stoning of adulterers is God's will and that the most important thing for Muslims to do is to focus on those harsh interpretations of the Shariah simply aren't paying heed to their own history.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sadakat Kadri. He's the author of the 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." He's a barrister in England. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about the history and contemporary practice of Shariah law. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Shariah law. My guest, Sadakat Kadri, is a barrister in England and the author of the 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."

So what are the punishable offenses that are mentioned in the Quran? And what are the punishments for those offenses?

KADRI: There are only four which are made mandatory in the Quran. Theft is made punishable by amputation of the right hand. Adultery is made punishable by 100 lashes. But that's balanced by another offense, which is that false accusations of adultery are made punishable by 80 lashes.

And then there's a fourth offense, which is violent disorder, which has got a whole range of punishments which stretch from exile, all the way up to crucifixion - which incidentally I should say isn't a penalty that the Muslims invented. It was a penalty which they borrowed from the Romans and the Persians, who made great strides with crucifixion over the previous few centuries.

GROSS: So the crime of adultery is punishable with up to 100 lashes. But to prove adultery, you needed four eyewitnesses to the act, or the adulterer had to confess four times that he or she was an adulterer.

KADRI: That's right, yeah.

GROSS: So there's a high level of evidence, there, required before punishment.

KADRI: Sure. And that's something which typifies all the criminal offenses in the Quran, that it required a high level of proof. It required witness testimony. And in passing, one should note that this is a time - the seventh century is a time when, if you'd have gone to Europe, the best judicial safeguard that they had there was trial by ordeal. Witnesses weren't even used for criminal cases at that point in European history.

GROSS: What was trial by ordeal?

KADRI: Trial by ordeal basically called on God directly to reveal who was innocent and who was guilty by - for example, if you were suspected of a crime, you might have to be - you'd be weighed down in a pool of water. And if you rose to the top, then you were guilty, and if you sank, you were innocent. You know, it became famous in later years as the dunking of witches.

Or trial by ordeal might also require that you carry a red-hot iron bar, and if you managed to do that without a blister, you were innocent in the eyes of God, and therefore you'd be released.

So the methods of trial that were being used by Europeans at the time were anything but advanced. So in seventh-century terms, the rules laid down in the Quran were remarkably progressive.

GROSS: In America, several states have tried to make Shariah law illegal. In England, Shariah law is practiced by Islamic councils, and there's, I think, about 85 Shariah councils in England. Can you tell us a little bit about that system and what kind of disputes these councils settle?

KADRI: Sure. I mean, it's a matter of considerable controversy over here, because the idea has begun to spread that these are Shariah courts, which are imposing Shariah law. Now, as I've explained, the Shariah is - it's an all-encompassing way of looking at the world. And these bodies aren't imposing the hard-line interpretations of Islamic law, the criminal penalties and the amputations and the stonings.

What these bodies are doing is if Muslims voluntarily approach them and say that they have disputes which they want to be resolved, then arbitration bodies, for example, will agree to - will offer them a dispute resolution procedure. There's another situation which they use quite often where women are abandoned, Muslim women are abandoned by their husbands.

And in Islamic law, men are entitled to marry four times, but women aren't given the same privilege. So what the - an abuse that is seen quite often is that men will abandon their spouses, but won't bother going through the motions of a divorce because they know that in the eyes of God, they're perfectly OK to marry again.

But what that means for a devout woman is that in the eyes of God, as far as she's concerned, if she enters another relationship, she commits adultery. And so basically, it leaves her in limbo. And so what some of these tribunals do is they offer these woman what's called a khul'a, an annulment of the marriage, which frees them to marry again in the eyes of God.

So, you know, they're potentially very benign institutions. There's been a lot of controversy about them. There's been suggestions that they're actually far less benign, that they're malign, and those suggestions come from across the political spectrum. It's not just mad Islamophobes who say that. There's plenty of feminists who will criticize them on that basis, as well.

But as far as I'm concerned, the critique is just wrong-headed. I - there's very, very little evidence that that kind of abuse actually takes place. And insofar as it does take place, it's far better that these things take place in public scrutiny, in public bodies, which can be judged and which can be seen by the general public, than that they take place behind closed doors, which is what would happen if these bodies didn't exist.

The other thing I should say is that the Muslim arbitration tribunal, for example, one of these arbitration bodies, is subject to all the ordinary laws of the land. It's subject to the Human Rights Act, which is the British equivalent of the United States' Bill of Rights. It's subject to the Children's Act, which protects the rights of children.

It's subject to judicial review, which means that it can be challenged for the violation of any ordinary law or ideas of natural justice in the high court. And again, these remedies and these safeguards wouldn't exist if these tribunals weren't allowed to exist.

GROSS: Is one of the concerns that some of these Shariah councils might be run or end up being run by extremists who are using an extremist, highly punitive interpretation of Shariah law?

KADRI: I think that's certainly one of the concerns. I think that's the main concern. But what isn't emphasized enough is that these tribunals are entirely voluntary, and it's crucial that they remain that way. I'd never support an Islamic tribunal which had compulsory jurisdiction over anyone.

These tribunals are there for people who want to use their services. And insofar as there's any suggestion of intimidation, the criminal law, apart from anything else, operates as a remedy to protect against that. There is a concern that they're somehow a way to smuggle in hard-line interpretations of Islamic law, but I take the view that if these tribunals exist, they've got to justify the choices that they're making about Islamic law.

They've got to justify, for example, discriminate - for example, if they choose to apply laws which are discriminatory, they've got to justify them, and potentially they've got to justify them before the high courts as a violation of the Human Rights Act. And I think that's a far better way for a multicultural society to proceed than to ban these tribunals - which would incidentally be a ban which only applied to Muslims, because Jews and Christians are perfectly at liberty to take their disputes to religious tribunals in the United Kingdom.

GROSS: Are there Jewish and Christian tribunals that still function in...

KADRI: Sure, there are. The Jewish tribunal is known as the beth din, the house of faith.

GROSS: I didn't know that still existed.

KADRI: Yeah, it still exists. It still exists - well, it's existed in the United Kingdom for more than a century. It's existed in the United States for about as long, I think. And it governs a very similar range of matters, you know, business disputes, marital disputes, property disputes. But it's subject to all the ordinary laws of the land.

And the people who call for the suppression of these Islamic tribunals are effectively saying that it's only the Islamic - it's only Muslims who should be denied the opportunities to take their disputes to these bodies.

GROSS: Sadakat Kadri will be back in the second half of the show. His new history of Shariah law is called "Heaven on Earth." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Sadakat Kadri, author of a new history of Shariah law called "Heaven on Earth." His research took him to South Asia, Iran and the Middle East. Kadri is also the author of a book about Western law called "The Trial." He's a human rights barrister in England and a Muslim by birth. His father is from India, one of the countries Kadri traveled to while researching the book.

So we've been talking about how Shariah law is practiced in England through Muslim tribunals and how that has to answer to larger human rights laws and the British legal system in general. Do I have that right?

KADRI: Yeah. That's right. Yeah.

GROSS: OK. So I'm interested in your take on the United States. And, you know, you studied law in the United States. You've worked with the ACLU here. You're certified by the New York State board to practice law here, so you know something about American law and you've also written a history of Western law, so even though you're not American you know a lot about American law.

In 2010, Oklahoma voters, by about 70 percent, passed the referendum banning the state's courts from using Shariah law or other international law. That was overturned by a federal court. I think about 12 states have had referendums on Shariah law or have referendums pending. So how does that look to you from your point of view?

KADRI: Mm. Well, I'm trying to work out a way of being polite about this so. It just looks crazy, basically, because it's the same issue that I've been - that I was talking about at the beginning of the interview. It's this idea that the Shariah is some kind of blueprint for the takeover of the United States or a conspiracy to overturn American freedoms. That isn't what the Shariah is. There are certainly hard-line interpretations of Islamic law but these measures don't even claim to narrow it or to restrict themselves to that. They claim to prevent courts from taking any account at all of the Shariah, which potentially means that a court can't, for example, take account of someone's will. If someone says that they want to be buried according to the Muslim rituals laid down in the Shariah, a court would theoretically at least not be able to take account of that. And, of course, it's possible to say well, that's not what the law's aimed at. The law's aimed at something very different. But, you know, as lawyers know and as everyone should know by now, liberties begin to erode when you have laws which are too widely drawn.

And laws which say that under no circumstances can a court take any account of the Shariah are necessarily discriminatory. They're necessarily over-broad. And they necessarily create communal dissension for no good purpose, because it's perceived by Muslims as an attack on Islam. No Muslim is going to see - or very few Muslims are going to see those laws in any other way. And I am absolutely sure that many of the people who support the laws and even perhaps some of their sponsors are genuinely motivated by a fear of Islamic extremism. You know, Islamic extremism is something which I'm fearful of. I was around on September the 11th and on July the 7th here in London, when Islamic extremists blew lots of people up. So I'm certainly no friend of violent extremism from Muslims, but these laws don't target that. They just, they simply target the body of beliefs that Muslims call the Shariah.

GROSS: There are, to my knowledge, no equivalent in America to the Islamic councils that function in England and that are overseen by the British legal system. Am I missing something in America?

KADRI: They're - yes. It's perfectly possible for Islamic arbitration to take place in the United States. I don't know the details of how often it occurs but I'm sure that it does occur in the United States. Since the 1980s, the Supreme Court has positively encouraged the use of arbitration by religious communities. It's said that it's not the business of courts to get involved in religious arbitrations and that they will be upheld. Again, that's subject to all the ordinary protections of American law, like the Bill of Rights and the American Constitution as well as relevant state provisions. But arbitrations are upheld in the United States. They are upheld for Jews in the beth din, in the beth dins, and I am sure that they are upheld for Muslims as well.

GROSS: So I'm wondering, like, in the United States and in England, how do you take into account that there are radical extremists and that some of those radical extremists would probably like to apply the harshest laws possible to what they perceive as sins and, you know, crimes against the prophet and that, you know, that might include acts of immodesty...

KADRI: Sure.

GROSS: ...or something that they would interpret as blasphemy?

KADRI: Well, you do what you've always done with these kind of arguments. On the one hand, you outlaw acts which are violent or which improperly encroach on the liberties of other people to the extent that they are criminal offenses. And the other thing that you do is you argue vociferously against them. If they're advocating arguments which you find unpleasant or - let's depersonalize this. If someone argues with me for interpretations of Islamic law which I find unpleasant, then I will argue against that person. I'm not going to ban that person. I'm not going to say that their arguments should uniquely not be heard. That's just not the way that Western democracy operates.

GROSS: So you are a barrister. You specialize in human rights law. So you have no human rights concerns about Islamic councils in England or their equivalent in the United States?

KADRI: I have plenty of human rights concerns about interpretations of Islamic law. If it turns out that an Islamic body has compelled a woman against her will to abandon property rights, for example, or to submit to harsh violence at the hands of her husband, I'd be outraged. It just - these things never seem to be proved. The accusations are put out there and people point to one verse of the Quran and a couple of hadiths which potentially justify mistreatment of women because they were set down in the 7th century or the 8th century or the 9th century. But the only evidence that links those interpretations of Islamic law to these tribunals is anecdotal.

In fact, I should note to that point, there is one case in the United States which slightly contradicts that. It's a case from New Jersey. I can't remember the date now. It was a few - a couple of years back, where a judge was considering a dispute between a husband and a wife, and for some inexplicable reason he acceded to the husband's claim that he was divinely authorized to rape his wife. Now that, as far as I'm concerned, is an outrageous proposition. It's an outrageous - it would be considered an outrageous proposition by most Muslims, in my opinion. But the judge, who wasn't a Muslim, did accede to that claim. But it went up to appeal and it was overturned and that's the way it should be. That's the only case that I'm aware of in the United States or in England where a hard-line interpretation of Islam, Islamic law, the Shariah, whatever you want to call it, did attain some kind of judicial recognition. But the legal system did what it was meant to do and it corrected itself on appeal.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sadakat Kadri. He's the author of the 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." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more about the history and contemporary practice of Shariah law. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sadakat Kadri and he's a barrister in England who specializes in human rights law, and his new book is called "Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Shari'a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World." He's also the author of a previous book about the history of Western law.

You studied law at Harvard Law School. You have your master's degree from there. And you write that when you were studying in the United States you were surprised at how some conservatives attribute almost godly powers to the Founding Fathers in thinking that God had manifested his will through their deeds, and that the Founding Fathers possessed incontestable wisdom. And that you're also surprised by conservative judges who think that their interpretation of the law should be based on thinking what the Founding Fathers would have done in that situation - what the Founding Fathers thought when the Constitution was written. Would you kind of expand on why that surprised you...

KADRI: Sure.

GROSS: ...and tell us if and how that relates to this book on Shariah law?

KADRI: Sure. Well, it was the first time that I had encountered the argument, the argument of original intent. And it no longer surprises me because it's, you know, the number of justices in very high places - on the Supreme Court, in fact - who subscribe to that view of the Constitution.

The reason it's relevant to Islamic law and the reason I mention in my book is because there's a very similar argument in Islamic jurisprudence. The argument is that the first generation of Muslims, a group known as the ancestors, the Salaf, were possessed of an incontestable and divinely guided wisdom. And because of that, it's their interpretations of the Shariah which should trump everything else. And that idea, the idea that this veneration of the Salaf, which is associated with a group of Muslims known as the Salafis, the Salafia, has made great headway in recent years. That's been linked in some people's minds with this idea that the Shariah is about commands and it's about compulsion. And so what you get is this veneration for tradition being linked to a desire for compulsion.

And the simple reality is, in my opinion, we cannot know what these people thought and said and did, you know, whether we're talking about the 7th century or whether we're talking about the 18th century in the United States. And so that's the analogy that I draw and the consequences, I think, are the same as well. Society changes. It's an obvious point, but it's one that can't be repeated often enough. Society changes and our interpretations of the law have to move, not to change the law but simply so that the law can continue to do the same things as it's always done.

GROSS: So I want to read something you write in the prologue to your book about Shariah law called "Heaven on Earth." You write: Lest it be necessary to say so, and it probably is, this book does not intend at any point to challenge the sacred stature of the Prophet Muhammad, the self-evident appeal of Islam, or the almightiness of God. It seeks instead to recall the history that attended the elucidation of Islamic law and to demonstrate that over the years legal rules have often been rewritten or ignored in the name of the Shariah.

So why did you feel it was necessary to say, you know, to make this disclaimer that the book does not intend - is not intended to challenge the sacred stature of the prophet or the appeal of Islam?

KADRI: Well, I mean one reason was...

GROSS: I'm asking the obvious, aren't I?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KADRI: Well, yeah. I mean, there are a lot of crazy people out there, and there are certainly Muslims who would take extreme exception to a book which did challenge any of those things. I'm not out to offend people. I'm not out to insult people - least of all Muslims. I consider myself a Muslim. But it's a disclaimer to the extent that I'm pointing out what I'm not contesting. I'm not arguing about the fundamentals of Islam. What I'm arguing about is the interpretation that's been put on those fundamentals over the last 1,400 years. And what I'm arguing about is the interpretations of Islamic law that are being presented as sacred by hard-liners. And that, I think, should be a proper subject for debate. And what I want to do with the book is avoid superfluous arguments about silly things, which is so often what happens with books about Islam, that people start to argue about this verse or that verse in the Quran, this hadith or that hadith. I'm not - they're sterile arguments as far as I'm concerned.

GROSS: As part of your research for your book on the history of Shariah law, you went to several Muslim countries to do research on how Shariah law is being applied now. Which countries did you go to?

KADRI: I started at my father's birthplace in India, then I went to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and I ended up in Egypt.

GROSS: Give us an example of a totally different interpretation of Shariah law from one country to another.

KADRI: Well, I mean there's so many. One particularly awful interpretation of the Shariah which I encountered was in Pakistan. I mean, Pakistan is a desperate country at the moment. It's riddled with social problems and of course there's a war on its border with Afghanistan. But as a result of that, religious doctrines and hard-line religious doctrines have been making great headway.

And one of the things I heard which really shocked me was when I was speaking to a religious scholar about adultery. He was, in fact, the person who raised the subject, the stoning of adulterers. And I said to him, well, you know, what's - surely it's right to pity an adulterer and to extend mercy in these circumstances.

And this person said to me that not only was it not right to extend mercy but it would be positively sinful to extend mercy in this situation because the penalty was mandatory. It was a divine penalty and the Shariah itself required that an adulterer be stoned to death. And I found that absolutely shocking.

But, you know, there are plenty of other interpretations which are, if not benign, at least considerably more flexible. I mean there was one - the very first cleric that I met in Iran was a chap who I met in the context of a debate about the banning of veils in Europe. And I listened to this debate with a kind of sinking feeling.

Because I just thought to myself, I mean I think that the bans - that those countries which have banned veils in Europe are going about things completely the wrong way and are discriminating against Muslims. But I listened to this debate with a sinking feeling, because I just thought, well, this is just - it's very predictable how this is going to go. People are going to attack the West for its hypocrisy and for its double standards.

But this cleric put his hand up and he said, he said: Well, it's all very well what they do in Europe, but what about what we do in this country? Why are we forcing people to wear veils? That's against the Shariah. You know, we might as well force them to pray.

And, you know, that to me was extremely surprising because, you know, there are plenty of people that I'd met who thought it was a great thing to - it would be a great thing to force people to pray, people that I'd met in Pakistan. But this cleric in Iran took a diametrically opposed opinion.

GROSS: You're a human rights lawyer in England and you write that in some places you traveled in your travels through the Muslim world researching Shariah law, that you were treated with suspicion because you're a human rights lawyer. Can you give us an example of that?

KADRI: Yeah, sure. Well, there's two things. First of all, there's just a general suspicion in large parts of the Muslim world about the notion of human rights because as far as they're concerned, human rights are just a cover for Western hypocrisy. And, you know, I'm not so naive that I can't see that they have a point to a certain extent.

You know, in areas where - which have been subjected to bombardment and invasion and occupation, the idea that the West uniquely knows about human rights is going to be looked at with some suspicion. But there's another reason as well, which is a theological reason. It arises out of an aspect of Islamic jurisprudence. Islamic jurisprudence distinguishes between two types of right.

The first is the Haq-Allah, the rights of God, and those are considered to be crimes which need to be punished. And then there are human rights and human rights are things which humans can properly decide between themselves. And so as far as Islamic jurisprudence is concerned, it's already dealt with the subject of human rights. It doesn't need to be told by Westerners how humans should manage their affairs.

So I actually, in the book, try to avoid use of the term "human rights," not because I don't subscribe to the values concerned, but just because I think it's another of those words which doesn't necessarily convey the meaning in parts of the Muslim world as it does to many Westerners.

GROSS: Well, Sadakat Kadri, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

KADRI: Thank you very much for having me.

GROSS: Sadakat Kadri is the author of a history of Shariah law called "Heaven On Earth." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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