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Heaven on Earth

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April 1, 2012

On shari’a, genies and the quest for an ancestor

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Photo courtesy of the author, Sadakat Kadri.

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.


I had come to India in search of color after a year immersed in libraries, but it seemed almost as though I had found too much.

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. 


Walking back to my relatives’ home across a meadow filled with tottering fourteenth-century funeral vaults, I wondered how to make sense of what had just occurred. I had come to India in search of color after a year immersed in libraries, but it seemed almost as though I had found too much. A survey of Islamic legal history demands flexibility if it is to entertain rather than anesthetize, but putting tales of jinn exorcism into an account of the shari’a called for the literary equivalent of a a crowbar—until a few hours later. By then, I had found another shrine: 
a postage stamp of a necropolis, comprising a dusty courtyard, an ancient banyan tree, and a chiffon-draped tombstone. In the afternoon heat, the otherworldly excitements it might ordinarily have inspired had slowed to a crawl. Two women were gazing at the central slab, motionless beneath their burkas, as though it might shuffle away at any moment.

A man stood before the headstone, his palms cupped in prayer, while his young son raced around and kissed surrounding memorials. The only sign of any transcendental goings-on at all came from a woman who was chanting breathlessly as she strode to and fro beneath the lush branches of the banyan tree, watched by a squatting husband and mournful children. But when I lined up the scene for a photograph, it turned out to contain far more than met the eye. A mustachioed man who was tending a smoldering sheaf of incense sticks at the gnarled roots of the tree raised his hand forbiddingly. “No photographs,” he ordered. “She is making her plea to the king of the jinns.”

Throughout the previous night, I had wondered how, precisely, a person possessed by a jinn could expect to obtain relief, and I obediently lowered my camera. The man clearly possessed some kind of authority, for he was selling a selection of holy knickknacks that were neatly laid out next to the green coverlet of the shrine’s main tomb, and I decided to strike up a conversation. Using a combination of quizzical gestures and atrocious Urdu, I asked if he had any charms worth taking on the three-month trek to Syria and Istanbul that I had lined up. His first suggestion was an amulet to ward off the evil eye. When I pondered it skeptically, he proffered a leather pouch containing a secret verse of the Qur’an. It apparently guaranteed good fortune, God willing, so long as the purchaser did not try to read the contents. That seemed a bargain, and as rupees changed hands, I seized the moment. Why no cameras? He nodded solemnly toward the thick cluster of banyan roots and explained that they enthroned the king of the jinns—whose court was now in session.

The sniggering students of a rival cleric demanded to know whether he thought it lawful to have sex with a jinn outside marriage. “Why are you wasting my time?” he snapped. “It’s fine so long as you use a condom. Next question, please.” 


That explained the photography ban—in a sense—but what, I wondered, was the likely outcome of the woman’s complaint? “The king will listen to both sides and make a ruling,” replied the shrine’s custodian. “Will the jinn then leave?” I inquired. “Maybe, maybe not,” he replied with a wiggle of his head. “Or maybe a hanging.” Startled, I asked how that would work. He laughed, slapped a hand around my shoulder, and pointed to a colorfully decorated bough of the banyan. “The jinn, not the woman.” “Physically hanged?” I asked meaninglessly. “Yes…actual fact,” he replied. “If that is required by the shari‘a.”


The claim was as surprising to me as it ought to have been predictable. I already knew that the invisible world is considered no less subject to God’s law than the visible one and that jurists have often had occasion to consider the rights and obligations of genies. A tenth-century writer named al-Shibli once wrote about the lawfulness of their marriages with human beings, for example: though aware of unions that had been fruitful, he warned of inevitable antagonisms and urged all readers to stick to their own kind. At many Sunni madrasas, jinns are thought to be so committed to observance of the shari‘a that chairs are left empty for them during jurisprudence classes. And as I found out later in the spring of 2009, their activities are still liable to be considered at the very highest level. The realization came in Damascus, at a question-and-answer session chaired by Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah. The Lebanese cleric (who has since died) used to be routinely characterized in the Western media as the “spiritual leader of Hezbollah,” but opposition to Israel never made him controversial in Syria and Lebanon. There was one aspect of his teachings that did give rise to dispute, however—his relative liberalism when it came to sexual taboos—and at the meeting, the sniggering students of a rival cleric demanded to know whether he thought it lawful to have sex with a jinn outside marriage. “Why are you wasting my time?” he snapped. “It’s fine so long as you use a condom. Next question, please.” 


Some people might find it odd or even offensive that a book about the shari‘a should open with a discussion of jinns, let alone a reference to sexual congress with them. Westerners have been exoticizing Islam for centuries, and a work that sets out to scrutinize Islamic jurisprudence by reference to the supernatural can only invite suspicion. But though intercourse with genies is the kind of subject that would certainly have intrigued many an Orientalist scholar in years gone by, the fact that its lawfulness came up for discussion in a twenty-first-century Shi‘a seminary is ample proof that it retains legal significance. Ayatollah Fadlallah’s response, for all its contempt, also has contemporary relevance—because he was either right or wrong to imply that thousand-year-old legal traditions might have become redundant. And though any respectable Islamic jurist would ridicule the suggestion that jinns should be hanged from a sturdy branch, it is perfectly sensible to wonder what makes an execution so absurd—and what safeguards exist to prevent other people from making similar mistakes about God’s law. The question is important. At least eleven of the world’s fifty or so Muslim states possess constitutions that acknowledge Islam to be a source of national law—and several invoke the shari‘a to punish defendants who are considerably more tangible than a jinn.

And though he almost certainly wielded a sword earlier on his journey, his outlook was not a military one. He had come to Badaun to battle for souls.

I found myself before the king of the jinns in the first place because the tomb at the shrine’s center belonged to one of my direct ancestors. Abdullah was an Arab born in Mecca in the twelfth century, and his journey to India had been an eventful one. He left home in around 1192, the same year that Delhi fell to Muslims for the first time, and reached Lahore at the height of a ferocious regional conflict. After marrying off his son and traveling companion and apparently settling down for almost two decades, he then made himself scarce all over again. Crossing the Punjab, he got to Delhi just before the sultan accidentally and fatally impaled himself on his pommel during a polo game in 1210. A succession crisis ensued, and when a battle-hardened slave-general was elevated to replace the sultan the following year, Abdullah set out for the recently conquered outpost in which the new ruler had earned his reputation. It was there, in Badaun, that his wanderings finally came to an end. 


Abdullah’s journey through war zones to the jungled fringes of the Islamic world was as arduous as it sounds. Although Badaun gave him a wife and at least one more son, it was a very uncongenial place. Two battles, separated by seven years, had left its fields pockmarked by hundreds of graves. Its Muslim conquerors were confined to a garrison, commanders of a militarized cemetery that was surrounded by a seething Hindu sea. But Abdullah was undaunted, because he had come on a mission. He was a Sufi, in an era when Islamic mystics were as fervent as they were introspective—far more like the warrior monks of Christendom than the flying carpeteers of later legend. And though he almost certainly wielded a sword earlier on his journey, his outlook was not a military one. He had come to Badaun to battle for souls. 


As far as Abdullah would have been concerned, the task on which he was engaged was a sacred struggle—a jihad—but the way that he and thousands of other Sufis chose to pursue it was distinctive. In their missionary work, they accentuated similarities rather than dfferences. Instead of condemning Hindus as irredeemable polytheists, they recognized their pantheon to be different expressions of the one God. They fused Islamic prayer with Hindu mantras to create the ecstatic devotional music known as qawwali. And in a country that was littered with pocket temples and accustomed to worship through the senses, they transformed the graves of fallen warriors into the nuclei of magical shrines: incense-wreathed and saffron-threaded portals into an unseen world where it was said that jinns could be tamed, the dead might speak, and supplicants’ wishes become saints’ commands. The package sold. Bolstered by practical incentives—the enhanced status that Islamic egalitarianism promised low-caste Hindus, for example—Islam won hearts and minds by the thousands. Within a decade of Abdullah’s arrival, Badaun itself was on track to become one of the most important centers of Islamic culture in northern India. Abdullah’s own legacy was so enduring that eight centuries later, he was still being venerated by descendants of the men and women he had helped to convert.


I had been very pleased to learn about Abdullah from my father, who recited his adventures from an old genealogy shortly before I set off for India. His existence had furnished me with a useful lineage, and though academic texts often insist that Sufism has no connection with the colorful fantasies of Orientalist legend, his reputation turned out to be gratifyingly magical. Abdullah is known in Badaun simply as Pir Makki, or the Holy Man of Mecca, and devout believers assured me that he was a saint of the highest order. His influence over the unseen world was all but unquestionable—why else would the king of the jinns frequent his shrine?—and hundreds of scribbled prayers around his grave testified to intercessory powers that could tackle problems from matrimonial strife to exam nerves. According to the shrine’s amulet vendor, his uncanny abilities had been evident even during his lifetime. Anxious not to abandon followers in Mecca, he had taken the trouble to teleport himself back once a week to lead their Friday prayers.


Another mystic of the era known as Mangho is honored in northern Karachi with a shrine that accommodates two hundred sacred crocodiles, all of them supposedly descended from his head lice…

Over the course of my travels, however, it became apparent that Abdullah’s standing with the home crowd was no guarantee of admiration farther field. The saint- and shrine-dominated rituals of Badaun are associated with one particular set of Indian believers—known as Barelvis—and though there are millions of them, they have long been in conflict with another sect named after a famous madrasa town called Deoband. And many Deobandis take the view that pioneers such as Abdullah were actually responsible for vast amounts of damage. Instead of promoting Islam by cleaving to the path laid down in the seventh century by the Prophet Muhammad, they had borrowed from the sensuality and menagerie temples of Hinduism. The consequence had been terrible spiritual corruption and the incorporation of innovations ranging from musical prayers to incense sticks. According to the Deobandis, asking saints to intercede with God was not Islamic at all; it was an act of idolatry akin to worshipping a monkey or an elephant. Claims to exorcise people according to the shari‘a were equally preposterous: jinns inhabited a parallel universe, and insofar as they might sometimes possess human beings, that was the unchallengeable will of God.


Similar complaints about Sufi heterodoxy date back centuries, and they have some history on their side. Among Abdullah’s near contemporaries in late-thirteenth-century Cairo and Damascus were mystical sects of a notoriously inventive sort, known for practices that ranged from cannabis consumption to penis piercing. The willingness of early Indian missionaries to accommodate local customs does not lack for circumstantial evidence either. One of the men who led Badaun’s conquest is buried in a mosque alongside his horse—as well as a lion, a snake, and, most mysteriously, a parrot. Another mystic of the era known as Mangho is honored in northern Karachi with a shrine that accommodates two hundred sacred crocodiles, all of them supposedly descended from his head lice, and worshippers often wrap up their prayers at the nearby mosque by sacrificing bags of offal to the reptiles. And though signs of sacred penis piercing are nowadays scant, cannabis retains a degree of popularity: in the anarchic shrine of Sehwan Sharif, narcotic potions are liberally shared as religious ecstasy kicks in, and hopes of spiritual communion in the Sufi mausoleums of Lahore inspire would-be mystics to smoke charas by the fistful.


The idea has become widespread that God’s revelations were built into practical rules by people untainted by impurities—companions of Muhammad, heroic early generations, and omniscient jurists—whose probity transcends the vagaries of place and the passage of time.


The eclecticism does not prove that cross-fertilization is inherently irreligious, however. The point is made most vividly with architectural examples. The magnicent turquoise-tiled mosques of cities such as Esfahan and Shiraz owe their existence to the encounter of Muslims with an alien people—the Mongols. Istanbul’s skyline, a bubble bath of stone that is about as emblematically Islamic as any sight on earth, visibly mirrors the domed basilicas of Christian Byzantium, and the Ottomans who produced it were steeped in Sufism. Indeed, Islam would have been incapable of developing such traditions without a capacity to learn and borrow. That struck me forcefully when I visited the ghostly ruins of a city called Anjar, built from scratch less than a century after the Prophet’s death, which now nestles among garlic fields in a quiet corner of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Its lizard-infested villas, palaces, and frescoed bathhouses are perfectly Greco-Roman—not only in terms of inspiration, but also, in the case of dozens of Corinthian pillars lining its grassy cardo maximus, in terms of materials.


Such ruminations would belong to a travel diary rather than a book about the shari‘a were it not for one fact. Conservatives have imagined Islamic law to be as eternal as any other aspect of the faith, and arguments about authenticity have therefore had tremendous legal consequences. That is, to a certain extent, consequent on the very notion of Islam—with its commitment to a revealed text and an inspired Prophet—but it has affected approaches to historical scholarship as well. The idea has become widespread that God’s revelations were built into practical rules by people untainted by impurities—companions of Muhammad, heroic early generations, and omniscient jurists—whose probity transcends the vagaries of place and the passage of time.


It had occurred to me even then that the name of the imminent bombing campaign might not be all that would cause offense.

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, notwithstanding my personal debt to Abdullah of Mecca, holy wisdom does not automatically pass down through the generations.

My curiosity about the shari‘a was not born during my 2009 visit to Badaun. By then, it was almost a decade old, having been sparked off by an odd detail of the U.S. government’s response to 9/11. At the time of the al-Qa‘eda attacks I had been living in Manhattan, working on a book about the criminal trial in Western history, and I had watched as anxiously as everyone else while the administration of President George W. Bush geared up to retaliate against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. And then, on September 25, 2001, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had announced that the military action was being renamed. It was now to be known as Operation Enduring Freedom, because the title originally chosen might offend friendly nations in the Islamic world. It had previously been called Infinite Justice, and that, observed Rumsfeld, was a prerogative that Muslims attributed to God alone. 
It had occurred to me even then that the name of the imminent bombing campaign might not be all that would cause offense, but my primary reaction was simply a vague feeling that the rebranding was appropriate. Whatever other qualities posterity was going to attribute to the Bush administration, it seemed a fairly safe bet that omniscience and omnipotence would not be among them. The next few years did not change my opinion in that regard, but following my return to London, another very inauspicious event served both to rekindle my interest in Islamic law and to illuminate another aspect of the Infinite Justice fiasco: the fact that the United States, without knowing it, almost waged its war on terror in the name of the shari‘a.


That realization was occasioned by the bombing of London’s subway and bus network by four suicidal killers on July 7, 2005. Those attacks were notoriously committed by Muslims who claimed to be inspired by faith, and in their aftermath claims and counterclaims about Islamic law reverberated around the media. Having just published the history of Western criminal justice on which I had been working, I was feeling rather redundant—until I realized that no one was actually throwing much light on the subject they were supposed to be talking about. Fiery preachers and more or less random young Muslims were making bellicose assertions about “the shari‘a.” People who wanted to be angry with them were assuming the word meant what they said. Noise, rather than information, was filling a void, while critical questions were going not just unanswered but unasked. Where was the shari‘a written down? To what extent was it accepted that its rules had been crafted by human beings? And what gave the men who were so loudly invoking it the right to speak in God’s name? 
It took a surprisingly long time to establish even basic answers, but they are so central to the rest of this book that it is worth recalling them here. When the Qur’an was first enunciated by the Prophet Muhammad during the 620s, the term “shari‘a” conveyed the idea of a direct path to water—a route of considerable importance to a desert people—and at a time when no one systematically differentiated between the world that was and the world that ought to be, Islam’s straight and narrow described as much as it prescribed. Scholars would not write about it for at least another century, and half a millennium would elapse before legal theories settled into definitive form, but Muslims always thought of the shari‘a in grand terms—infinite ones, even. The fourteenth-century Syrian jurist Ibn Qayyim (1292-1350) set out the vision well:

[It] is the absolute cure for all ills…It is life and nutrition, the medicine, the light, the cure and the safeguard. Every good in this life is derived from it and achieved through it, and every deficiency in existence results from its dissipation. If it had not been for the fact that some of its rules remain [this world] this world would [have] become in corrupted and the universe would [have been] dissipated…If God wish[ed] to destroy the world and dissolve existence, He would void whatever remains of its injunctions. For the shari‘a which was sent to His Prophet…is the pillar of existence and the key to success in this world and the Hereafter.

As befits so awesome a phenomenon, the science of studying law—jurisprudence, or fiqh—came to be considered a duty akin to prayer. No aspect of creation fell outside its scope, and jurists pronounced on questions from the lawfulness of logic to the legal meaning of the moon. They hypothesized fantastically unfortunate dilemmas: what Muslims should do on a desert island, for example, if they ever found themselves pining away alongside a dead shipmate, a pig, and a flask of wine (clue: avoid the pork and alcohol until desperate). While some would always focus on big issues such as criminal justice and jihad, others explored far more specialized aspects of the cosmic order—the calculation of inheritance shares, say, or the jurisprudence of ablutions—and no problem was ever too personal to escape their collective gaze. Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), arguably the greatest of all Sunni theologians, once subjected the intimacies of marriage to rigorous legal scrutiny and attributed to the Prophet himself a commandment on the importance of foreplay. Sex was unholy unless preceded by “kiss[es] and [sweet] words,” Muhammad had reportedly warned. “Let none of you come upon his wife like an animal.”


“And no one,” he continued evenly, “should ever embark on such a journey until they know their destination.”

By the time I took the plunge and signed up in late 2007 to write an account of Islamic ideas of justice, it was clear therefore that challenges lay ahead. Researching so sprawling a subject posed inherent problems, and the distinction between shari‘a and fiqh, all too often overlooked in the West, called for careful negotiation. Attempts to critique the shari‘a are liable to be perceived by devout Muslims as a denunciation of God rather than an argument. The rules of fiqh, on the other hand, can never be more than a human approximation of the divine will. Individual jurists have often tried to blur the difference, but lawyerly ideas in general have never been immune from scrutiny. It was through that gap—the crack between heaven and earth—that Islamic law would have to be explored.


The difficulties moved from the theoretical to the real when, between late 2008 and the spring of 2011, I traveled around South Asia, Iran, and the Middle East and met jurists in person. Suspicion of the Western world in the region has rarely been higher, and my background as a human rights barrister was more often a hindrance than a help: an indictment of the West’s hypocrisy rather than an expression of its values. And although I traded shamelessly on my un-English name and paternal roots, suspicions were intense. The chief law lecturer of a Lucknow madrasa began by warning me that any attempt to understand the shari‘a required a fluency in classical Arabic and proficiency in Qur’anic exegesis, and any questions I had in mind were therefore at least a decade premature. The president of Pakistan’s Jamaat e-Islami Party complained that my inquiries about Taliban interpretations of Islamic law sounded like those of a NATO stooge, and that I would be better off abandoning my “agenda” and asking instead about “American napalm, daisy cutters, and helicopter gunships.” A particularly memorable put-down came from Muhammad Afshani, the director of fatwas at a militant Karachi madrasa called the Jamia Farooqia. As we sat cross-legged on a threadbare mosque carpet, I outlined the nature of my project and told him that, insh’allah, I would fill the gaps in my own knowledge by learning from scholars with different opinions—even conflicting ones. He smiled sagely and murmured that I had taken on a difficult project. I nodded, with what I hoped was humility. “And no one,” he continued evenly, “should ever embark on such a journey until they know their destination.”


The view that questions were inappropriate until the answers were known was one I felt bound to ignore, and as a consequence I did indeed end up with several unforeseen ideas. Mufti Afshani was wrong to the extent that synthesizing them was productive on my own terms, however, and that is reflected in the relatively straightforward structure of this book. The first part sets out the historical events that informed the creation of Islamic jurisprudence, while the second considers its status today, with a particular focus on four themes: attitudes toward war, modernity, criminal justice, and religious tolerance. It seeks unashamedly to entertain as well as inform, but lest it be necessary to say so—and it probably is—it 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 shari‘a. It also aims to show that many of the people who nowadays claim the clearest perspectives on seventh-century wisdom form part of a revivalist trend that is in important respects just a few decades old. Even people who disagree will, I hope, recognize at least that issues so important are worthy of debate.


It is tempting in conclusion to plagiarize al-Jahiz, the wittiest writer of ninth-century Baghdad, who once demanded full credit for a work’s strengths while insisting that any inadequacies were the fault of his audience’s unrealistic expectations. I grudgingly accept, however, that my own shortcomings cannot be so easily palmed off. All I ask is that readers bear in mind the words of another great Arab, the tenth-century historian and traveler al-Mas‘udi: “If no one could write books but he who possessed perfect knowledge, no books would be written.”

From Heaven on Earth, published April 2012, by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. © 2012 Sadakat Kadri

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