The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State

July 17, 2008

General interest in Islam remains high, continuing to fuel a wide range of research on the various dimensions of the faith, but in recent years few Western authors have demonstrated the capacity to shed new light on what can be called the political affairs of Islam.

Since the 1970s, a great deal of very interesting literature on political Islam - more commonly known as Islamic fundamentalism - has been produced, looking at Islamic political movements, their ideological mechanisms, programmes and influence.

Since 9/11, in search of explanations for the attacks on New York and Washington DC, interest in the violent Islamist movements and organisations has taken centre stage, leading to the appearance of dozens of high-digested books on Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, Salafi Islam and Wahhabism. The bulk of these seem to be knee-jerk reactions to the "crisis of Islam".

Noah Feldman is an exception to this generalisation, for his elegant book is one of the few studies that attempt to examine the political affairs of Islam from within and also across the centuries. Remarkably, he manages to do so in just 150 pages.

Central to Feldman's thesis is the argument that Islam's age-old unwritten constitution, interpreted by religious leaders and operationalised by their rulers, was irrevocably compromised once the Ottomans attempted, late in the day, to emulate progress in Europe and pursue major reforms of the Sharia (Islamic law) system.

Codification of the law alongside the Ottomans' "Tanzimat" constitutional reforms marked this historic turning point, leading in 1876 to the issuance of the first-ever constitutional document in Islamic history. This development - the arrival of written constitutionalism - marked the subordination of the authority of Islam. The constitution, it is fair to say, was also Western in tone and content.

Before the Ottomans' debacle, Feldman argues, rulers' "promise to back up the legal decisions of the scholars with force recognised the formal elevation of law over the arbitrary whims of any one individual. This constitutional arrangement made the law supreme. It established, one might even say, the rule of law."

Up to the rise of the Ottoman Empire, and for a considerable period during its life, the ulema (scholarly class) were to a large degree independent of the state's bureaucratic apparatus, and the fatwas and religious rulings that they issued were accomplished by this "class" freely and outside of government service.

The pressures for reform, many internally generated but some due to the great advances and encroachments of the empire's European neighbours, destroyed the ulema, the bedrock and the interpreters of Islam's unwritten constitution, thus removing the counterbalance to the executive branch.

This, Feldman shows, opened the way for secular government, but even more significant perhaps to the contemporary world, it facilitated the "removal of the one meaningful check on executive authority", which in practice "cleared the way for autocratic and absolute power - which soon became, in much of the Muslim world, the dominant mode of government for most of the 20th century". The result has been the governance disasters of the Middle East region in particular in the aftermath of the rise of the Arab nation-state.

Ironically, the same governance disasters of the 20th century have kept alive the flame of an Islamic alternative across the Muslim world. The problem, however, is that both regional and Western powers are nervous of Islamist victory (note Algeria in the 1990s and Palestine in the 2000s), and for Feldman the best test of a new Islamist party in power will simply be its respect for the rule of law.

For the rest of us, however, the colour, if not the very basis of the law concerned, will also be important.

The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State

By Noah Feldman
Princeton University Press
ISBN 9780691120454
Published 1 April 2008

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