In search of a new Islamic state

Legal scholar Noah Feldman considers the need to blend democracy with the ideals of Islamic law.

The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State By Noah Feldman Princeton University Press 189 pp., $22.95

Noah Feldman is one of the leading public intellectuals in America today. A Harvard Law School professor, Feldman is the author of a trio of stimulating books on democracy and religion: "Divided by God: America's Church-State Problem – And What We Should Do About It"; "What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building"; and "After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy."

Feldman's new book, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, is a thoughtful meditation on the history, ideals, and revival of sharia – the divine law governing Muslim society.

"This movement toward the Islamic state," Feldman writes, "is riding a wave of nostalgia, but it is also looking forward. The designers and advocates of the new Islamic state want to recapture the core of what made the traditional Islamic state great. They declare their allegiance to the sharia, while simultaneously announcing an affinity for democracy. This means that the new Islamic state will be different from the old one. There is no turning back the clock of history, no matter what anyone says."

Feldman begins by taking a look at the past. The first Islamic state was founded 14 centuries ago by the prophet Muhammad in Madinah, Saudi Arabia. Out of this modest archetypal community grew vast empires, ruled by ambitious men on spiritual and temporal missions.

These leaders (caliphs) were considered God's representatives on earth, charged with implementing sharia. Sharia is based on the Koran and the Sunnah – the example of the prophet Muhammad – but, it does not apply itself. Islamic law needed to be shaped and interpreted by trained scholars and competent jurists.

Feldman expertly documents their essential role in the amazing longevity of Islamic government. Radical change was under way, however, as the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) disintegrated in the 20th century.

The end of the old Islamic state

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. His sweeping reforms eliminated the caliphate and rejected sharia in favor of Swiss civil law. Ataturk's program was a mighty blow to Islamic theocracy, but a colossal boost to the modern secular state.

"In both symbolic and practical terms," Feldman asserts, "the Islamic state died in 1924."

Ever since, the call for a revival of the Islamic state has been strong, persistent – and often militant. Yet radical Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Feldman points out, offer grandiose slogans but few realistic options.

It is abundantly clear that fresh models of governance in some Muslim nations will be required to build genuine consensus, afford legal justice, and guarantee peace and security. These are ambitious objectives, but necessary for the survival of fragile segments of the world today.

The need for new systems

Feldman predicts success for those countries which can "develop new institutions that would find their own original and distinctive way of giving real life to the ideals of Islamic law. This could be an Islamically oriented legislature, infused with the spirit of a democratized sharia; or it could be a court exercising Islamic judicial review to shape and influence laws passed in its shadow."

Feldman commends the new Constitutions of Iraq and Afghanistan because they are both Islamic and democratic. The Constitution of Iraq, for example, states that "no law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established." It also makes clear that "no law that contradicts the principles of democracy may be established." The Constitution of Afghanistan states that "no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan." But, it also permits freedom of worship and endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). These are promising legal developments, but their ultimate success is difficult to predict.

Noah Feldman deserves considerable praise for his diligent effort, but fastidious readers will notice his excessive use of the phrase "the Muslim world." Muslims do not inhabit a separate planet, and they do not all live on the same block on this planet. This flaw, however, does not detract from his overall accomplishment in writing a persuasive and readable book on a complex topic. "The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State" will have a broad and eager audience.

Joseph Richard Preville is assistant professor of humanities at American University of Afghanistan in Kabul.

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