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.