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I first became aware of Heaven on Earth, Sadakat Kadri’s affectionate account of sharia law, a couple of weeks ago, when it received a glowing review in the New York Times. A cursory check of other newspaper websites quickly turned up several other notices, most of them equally enthusiastic. And a look at Amazon showed, depressingly, that Kadri’s book is a top seller. The British edition, published by Bodley Head, a division of Random House, is subtitled A Journey through Shari’a Law; the American edition, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, carries a longer, more evocative subtitle: A Journey Through Shari’a Law from the Deserts of Ancient Arabia to the Streets of the Modern Muslim World.
That atmosphere-heavy American subtitle captures something important that should be mentioned at the outset. It is this: that we are living in a time when writers like Karen Armstrong, while pretending to tell us everything we need to know about Islam, have in fact perfected the art of prettifying it beyond recognition. They routinely either soft-pedal or thoroughly avoid the more chilling facts about the religion, or write about them in a dispassionate, distanced prose that is deliberately designed not to capture the horror lurking behind the words. They glide past acts of violence committed by Muslims while paying close, clinical attention to acts of violence directed against Muslims. They demonize Islam’s critics while employing charming, humanizing details to make even the most brutal Islamic figures sympathetic. And they pour out reams of pseudo-poetic language about exotic sights, tastes, and smells, as if trying to cover the stench of a murder victim’s corpse with a couple of gallons of perfume.
Case in point: a three-part 2006 series of New York Times articles about an imam in Brooklyn for which reporter Andrea Elliott won a Pulitzer Prize. It opened this way: “The imam begins his trek before dawn, his long robe billowing like a ghost through empty streets. In this dark, quiet hour, his thoughts sometimes drift back to the Egyptian farming village where he was born.” Readers who smelled a rat were obliged to read column after column of numbingly adorable personal details about the imam before getting to the brief tidbits about his actual beliefs, which, although couched in the most euphemistic language imaginable, gave away the fact that he was not the genial, open-minded bridge-builder Elliott wanted us to think he was, but an uncompromising adherent of hard-line sharia law.
Kadri has clearly been an attentive student of the Karen Armstrong/Andrea Elliott school of prose. “I reached the shrine long after dusk,” he tells us on his first page, “and its neem tree glades were pulsating to the drums and accordions of an ululating troupe of musicians.”
Who is Kadri? I have never heard of him before. (But he’s heard of me: I was surprised to discover a half-page or so of mendacious invective directed at me toward the end of his book.) The dust jacket tells us that he is a half-Finnish, half-Pakistani Londoner who studied at Cambridge and Harvard Law and is “qualified as a barrister and New York attorney.” He is also a believing Muslim who presents the tale of Allah’s revelations to Muhammed as if it were historical fact. In his prologue, he provides the assurance (directed, presumably, at any violence-prone coreligionists of his who might happen to be on the lookout for heterodoxy) that he “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.”
Well, he certainly keeps that promise. Apropos of Allah’s revelations, Kadri writes that “the channel of communication that had opened between Muhammed and God would transform the world. Thousands of lines of divine wisdom would reach him from the heavens over the next two decades, transmitted by a disembodied voice or heralded by a bell, and as he fell entranced and moved his lips to memorize God’s words, he would see far beyond the visible world, far into heaven and deep into hell.” As Kadri sums it up: Muhammed “had more access to eternal wisdom than any other human being who had lived.” Anyone who wrote like this about, say, Moses or Jesus and took his manuscript to the London branch of Random House or to Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York would be instructed condescendingly to try an evangelical publisher. But Islam is, needless to say, different.
Kadri makes it clear that Muhammed was not just a recipient of divine revelation; he was also, in one way after another, the ideal man: “No one has ever denied that Muhammed was tall, dark-eyed, handsome, fragrant, lustrous, well-mannered, softly spoken, modest, firm of handshake and purposeful of stride,” writes Kadri. For him, it’s a given that Muhammed was a paragon of human virtue, the ultimate ethical and spiritual teacher, God’s final prophet. “[N]o one would ever doubt Muhammed’s eloquence,” Kadri asserts. He speaks unblushingly of Muhammed’s “solid moral arguments.” He even dares to credit Muhammed with teaching sexual equality – never mind that the Koran teaches comprehensive sexual inequality. (With lawyerly deftness, Kadri doesn’t speak of “sexual equality” but instead uses the term “morally equal,” which makes less sense the longer you look at it.)
One question about Muhammed that Kadri does address – kind of – is the one about his marriage to nine-year-old Aisha. While accepting every detail of Muhammed’s divine revelations as historical fact, Kadri refuses to accept that Aisha was nine when the prophet married her, and suggests, without a hint of supporting evidence or argument, that historians “might have been exaggerating her youth to exclude any doubt about her virginity.”
Unsurprisingly, Kadri evinces as much reverence for the Koran as he does for the Prophet. “Not for nothing,” he gushes, “is its recital said to have stopped jinns in their tracks and melted the hardest of pagan hearts.” The Koran is without blemish, he informs us, although “its perfection was not universally appreciated when it first appeared.” But is he interested in close reading? Hardly. Want a frank discussion of all those passages that deliciously imagine an eternity of hellfire for infidels? Don’t look for them here (although Kadri does go out of his way to tell us that two Koran verses “promise a reward in the afterlife to good Jews and Christians”).
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