By Danielle R. Sassoon
Danielle R. Sassoon ’08, a History concentrator from Leverett House, graduates from Harvard College this year.
NOAH FELDMAN, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2008.
In The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, Noah Feldman laments that “much analysis of the Muslim world insists on an artificial distinction between the historical past, the preserve of a professional guild of historians, and forward-looking political analysis”. Feldman seeks to transcend this divide in his new book by examining the recent rise of Islamism, and its potential for political success, in light of the way concepts of law and justice functioned and succeeded in the original Islamic states. “In essence then,” he writes, “the call for an Islamic state is the call for the establishment of Islamic law”. A Harvard Law professor, Feldman examines how sharia was implemented into governing law under the Ottoman Empire and why its authority ultimately collapsed. Through this historical exploration, Feldman hopes to illuminate the obstacles facing Islamism today in its current quest for legal authority.
Feldman focuses on the class of scholars within the Ottoman Empire and its role as legal authority and counterweight to the caliph. According to Feldman, the scholars exercised control over sharia’s meaning, interpreting the divine law and acting as a restraint on the caliph’s power. The caliph relied on the scholars for legitimacy and divine sanction, which created an institutional balance of power that gave stability and longevity to the Islamic state. Feldman argues that this institutional balance of power is what ensured justice in the Ottoman Empire, and that it is also exactly what is lacking in today’s Islamism.
Downplaying the importance of colonialism in eroding the legitimacy of the Islamic state, Feldman attributes the collapse of the Islamic state to codifications that preceded World War I. These new arrangements displaced the scholar class without substituting a correspondent institution in its place. Feldman attributes the current lack of legal justice within Islamic states to the continued absence of legitimate institutions to validate the sharia and restrain the leaders. He highlights a crisis of authority facing Islamism in the absence of a scholar class: without an institutional legal authority endowed with divine right, Islamic leaders have difficulty legitimating an interpretation and application of God’s law.
Drawing on examples beyond the Ottoman Empire, and looking at the legal development of Saudi Arabia in particular, Feldman demonstrates the need for an institutional balance of power within Islamism. Looking at the continued influence of the scholar class in Iran, Feldman acknowledges that a scholar class will not necessarily be suited to serve the current structural needs of Islamism. He emphasizes that what is needed are institutions, but that the institutions demanded by today’s Islamism may be different from those that succeeded in the past.
Feldman’s history and analysis is accessible, clearly argued, and politically relevant. Frequently drawing analogies to American and European legal development, he emphasizes that Islamism’s potential to succeed rests in its ability to find its modern day equivalent to a scholar class, which will bring increased stability and balance of power to the rising Islamic state. The reader, however, cannot help but wonder whether Feldman’s legal and academic background has led him to focus on abstract concepts at the expense of acknowledging the practical problems—such as discrimination—that are still a fundamental aspect of sharia. While it is fruitful to examine the present through the lens of the past, Feldman fails to address how the inequalities perpetuated through sharia are to be accepted in today’s world. I, for one, am unwilling to share Feldman’s optimism, when he fails to address how sharia’s systematic intolerance toward nonbelievers, homosexuals, and many women’s lifestyles can be made to cohere with modern, democratic values and human rights.