Popular Sovereignty in Islam

We start the week with an interesting-looking book from Harvard on how Islamist movements have adopted popular sovereignty–an idea unknown in classical Islam–as a main element of their political programs. In classical Islam, Islamic law was the domain of scholars, who had authority to guide the ruler, or caliph, in governing the umma. But many contemporary Islamist movements distrust, or at least diminish, the role of scholars. Instead, these movements argue that the Muslim people have the authority to instantiate God’s law and govern society in a godly way. This is a real transformation in Islamic thought, with major implications. The book is The Caliphate of Man: Popular Sovereignty in Modern Islamic Thought, by political scientist Andrew March (University of Massachusetts-Amherst). The publisher’s description follows:

A political theorist teases out the century-old ideological transformation at the heart of contemporary discourse in Muslim nations undergoing political change.

The Arab Spring precipitated a crisis in political Islam. In Egypt Islamists have been crushed. In Turkey they have descended into authoritarianism. In Tunisia they govern but without the label of “political Islam.” Andrew March explores how, before this crisis, Islamists developed a unique theory of popular sovereignty, one that promised to determine the future of democracy in the Middle East.

This began with the claim of divine sovereignty, the demand to restore the sharīʿa in modern societies. But prominent theorists of political Islam also advanced another principle, the Quranic notion that God’s authority on earth rests not with sultans or with scholars’ interpretation of written law but with the entirety of the Muslim people, the umma. Drawing on this argument, utopian theorists such as Abū’l-Aʿlā Mawdūdī and Sayyid Quṭb released into the intellectual bloodstream the doctrine of the caliphate of man: while God is sovereign, He has appointed the multitude of believers as His vicegerent. The Caliphate of Man argues that the doctrine of the universal human caliphate underpins a specific democratic theory, a kind of Islamic republic of virtue in which the people have authority over the government and religious leaders. But is this an ideal regime destined to survive only as theory?

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law

9780199679010Oxford has released a new collection of essays on Islamic law, The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, edited by Anver Emon (University of Toronto) and Rumee Ahmed (University of British Columbia). Looks like a helpful addition to the literature. Here is the publisher’s description:

A landmark study of the most significant topics in field, The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law is the first of its kind to offer a systemically sustained critical interrogation of the study of Islamic law to date. With entries from leading scholars, this volume delivers a historiographical examination of Islamic law, familiarizing readers with some of the most important names and ideas in the field.

While capturing the state of contemporary legal studies by chronicling how far the field has come, the Handbook’s unique strength lies in how each entry explains why certain debates recur in certain areas of study, while also indicating fundamental gaps in our knowledge of this legal tradition. Moreover, each entry charts out bold new avenues for research that map out the future study of Islamic law. The Handbook will be an essential resource for scholars and students of Islam and Islamic law for years to come.

Armanios and Ergene, “Halal Food”

9780190269050To round out the week, here is an interesting-looking book from Oxford, Halal Food: A History, on the Islamic law of halal food, and how the interpretation of that law has varied over time. The authors are Middlebury College historian Febe Armanios and University of Vermont historian Bogac Ergene. Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

Food trucks announcing “halal” proliferate in many urban areas but how many non-Muslims know what this means, other than cheap lunch? Here Middle Eastern historians Febe Armanios and Bogaç Ergene provide an accessible introduction to halal (permissible) food in the Islamic tradition, exploring what halal food means to Muslims and how its legal and cultural interpretations have changed in different geographies up to the present day.

Historically, Muslims used food to define their identities in relation to co-believers and non-Muslims. Food taboos are rooted in the Quran and prophetic customs, as well as writings from various periods and geographical settings. As in Judaism and among certain Christian sects, Islamic food traditions make distinctions between clean and impure, and dietary choices and food preparation reflect how believers think about broader issues. Traditionally, most halal interpretations focused on animal slaughter and the consumption of intoxicants. Muslims today, however, must also contend with an array of manufactured food products–yogurts, chocolates, cheeses, candies, and sodas–filled with unknown additives and fillers. To help consumers navigate the new halal marketplace, certifying agencies, government and non-government bodies, and global businesses vie to meet increased demands for food piety. At the same time, blogs, cookbooks, restaurants, and social media apps have proliferated, while animal rights and eco-conscious activists seek to recover halal’s more wholesome and ethical inclinations.

Covering practices from the Middle East and North Africa to South Asia, Europe, and North America, this timely book is for anyone curious about the history of halal food and its place in the modern world.

Levy-Rubin, “Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire”

9781108449618Classical Islam allows certain non-Muslim communities to maintain a permanent residence within the umma, subject to restrictions meant to keep the communities in a state of dependence and submission. Conventionally, the restrictions were thought to derive from the so-called Pact of Umar, a notional treaty an early caliph made with the Christians of Syria. Most scholars dismiss this pact as spurious, however, and some argue that the restrictions were actually modeled on pre-existing Byzantine and Persian rules. An interesting-looking new book from Cambridge, Non-Muslims in the Early Islamic Empire: From Surrender to Co-existence, by Hebrew University historian Milka Levy-Rubin, takes this latter view. Here’s the description from the Cambridge website:

The Muslim conquest of the East in the seventh century entailed the subjugation of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and others. Although much has been written about the status of non-Muslims in the Islamic empire, no previous works have examined how the rules applying to minorities were formulated. Milka Levy-Rubin’s remarkable book traces the emergence of these regulations from the first surrender agreements in the immediate aftermath of conquest to the formation of the canonic document called the Pact of ‘Umar, which was formalized under the early ‘Abbasids, in the first half of the ninth century. What the study reveals is that the conquered peoples themselves played a major role in the creation of these policies, and that these were based on long-standing traditions, customs, and institutions from earlier pre-Islamic cultures that originated in the worlds of both the conquerors and the conquered. In its connections to Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian traditions, the book will appeal to historians of Europe as well as Arabia and Persia.

“Justice and Leadership in Early Islamic Courts” (Rabb & Balbale, eds.)

9780674984219-lgLaw features much more prominently in the life of Islam than Christianity. This was, in some ways, a comparative advantage for the new faith. At least the leaders of Christian communities perceived it as such: in the early centuries of their encounter with Islam, Christian leaders often identified the influence the fiqh courts had in encouraging conversions within their communities. One medieval Armenian cleric, Mkhitar Gosh, even complied a Christian law code to compete with fiqh, so that Armenian Christians would have less temptation to resort to Islamic courts.

A new collection of essays from Harvard University Press, Justice and Leadership in Early Islamic Courts, addresses the history of the early Islamic courts. The editors are Intisar Rabb (Harvard Law School) and Abigail Krasner Balbale (Bard Graduate Center). Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

This book presents an in-depth exploration of the administration of justice during Islam’s founding period, 632–1250 CE. Inspired by the scholarship of Roy Parviz Mottahedeh and composed in his honor, this volume brings together ten leading scholars of Islamic law to examine the history of early Islamic courts. This approach draws attention to both how and why the courts and the people associated with them functioned in early Islamic societies: When a dispute occurred, what happened in the courts? How did judges conceive of justice and their role in it? When and how did they give attention to politics and procedure?

Each author draws on diverse sources that illuminate a broader and deeper vision of law and society than traditional legal literature alone can provide, including historical chronicles, biographical dictionaries, legal canons, exegetical works, and mirrors for princes. Altogether, the volume offers both a substantive intervention on early Islamic courts and on methods for studying legal history as social history. It illuminates the varied and dynamic legal landscapes stretching across early Islam, and maps new approaches to interdisciplinary legal history.

Ahmed, “Afghanistan Rising”

9780674971943-lgGiven the announcement last week that the United States is recommitting to its military strategy in Afghanistan, this forthcoming book from Harvard University Press seems especially relevant. In Afghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires, historian Faiz Ahmed (Brown University) argues that at the turn of the 20th Century, Afghanistan attempted to create a modern, constitutional state within the Islamic law tradition. Very few Americans know about this historical episode, or why the attempt to modernize the country ultimately failed. This book looks to be a useful resource for scholars and policymakers. Here’s the description from the publisher’s website:

Debunking conventional narratives of Afghanistan as a perennial war zone and the rule of law as a secular-liberal monopoly, Faiz Ahmed presents a vibrant account of the first Muslim-majority country to gain independence, codify its own laws, and ratify a constitution after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Afghanistan Rising illustrates how turn-of-the-twentieth-century Kabul—far from being a landlocked wilderness or remote frontier—became a magnet for itinerant scholars and statesmen shuttling between Ottoman and British imperial domains. Tracing the country’s longstanding but often ignored scholarly and educational ties to Istanbul, Damascus, and Baghdad as well as greater Delhi and Lahore, Ahmed explains how the court of Kabul attracted thinkers eager to craft a modern state within the interpretive traditions of Islamic law and ethics, or sharia. From Turkish lawyers and Indian bureaucrats to Pashtun clerics trained in madrasas of the Indo-Afghan borderlands, this rich narrative focuses on encounters between divergent streams of modern Muslim thought and politics, beginning with the Sublime Porte’s first mission to Afghanistan in 1877 and concluding with the collapse of Ottoman rule after World War I.

By unearthing a lost history behind Afghanistan’s founding national charter, Ahmed shows how debates today on Islam, governance, and the rule of law have deep roots in a beleaguered land. Based on archival research in six countries and as many languages, Afghanistan Rising rediscovers a time when Kabul stood proudly as a center of constitutional politics, Muslim cosmopolitanism, and contested visions of reform in the greater Islamic world.

 

Around the Web

Here are some important law-and-religion news stories from around the web:

Lawrence, “The Koran in English”

For English-language scholars trying to learn about Islamic law, the lack of authoritative sources in English can be a real problem. Most Islamic scholarship is in languages that are inaccessible to Americans; one has no choice but to rely on translations, which may or may not be reliable. This is especially true of the Quran itself. For pious Muslims, of course, the Quran exists only in Arabic; anything else is only a summary or explanation that can never capture the original. Most English speakers use one of three twentieth-century translations–the Pickthall, the Asad, or the Ali versions–but each of these has its own issues, and it’s easy to get confused.

A new book by Duke professor Bruce B, Lawrence discusses the attempt to translate the Quran into English in his new book, The Koran in English: A Biography (Princeton). Here’s a description from the Princeton University Press website:

j10947The untold story of how the Arabic Qur’an became the English Koran

For millions of Muslims, the Qur’an is sacred only in Arabic, the original Arabic in which it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century; to many Arab and non-Arab believers alike, the book literally defies translation. Yet English translations exist and are growing, in both number and importance. Bruce Lawrence tells the remarkable story of the ongoing struggle to render the Qur’an’s lyrical verses into English—and to make English itself an Islamic language.

The “Koran” in English revisits the life of Muhammad and the origins of the Qur’an before recounting the first translation of the book into Latin by a non-Muslim: Robert of Ketton’s twelfth-century version paved the way for later ones in German and French, but it was not until the eighteenth century that George Sale’s influential English version appeared. Lawrence explains how many of these early translations, while part of a Christian agenda to “know the enemy,” often revealed grudging respect for their Abrahamic rival. British expansion in the modern era produced an anomaly: fresh English translations—from the original Arabic—not by Arabs or non-Muslims but by South Asian Muslim scholars.

The first book to explore the complexities of this translation saga, The “Koran” in English also looks at cyber Korans, versions by feminist translators, and now a graphic Koran, the American Qur’an created by the acclaimed visual artist Sandow Birk.

Shavit, “Scientific and Political Freedom in Islam”

This month, Routledge released Scientific and Political Freedom in Islam: A Critical Reading of the Modernist-Apologetic School by Uriya Shavit (Tel Aviv University). The publisher’s description follows:

Scientific and Political Freedom in IslamThe modernist-apologetic approach to the relation between revelation and science and politics has been a central part of Arab discourses on the future of Muslim societies for over a century. This approach introduced historical and theological narratives and interpretative mechanisms that contextualize reason and freedom in Islamic terms to argue that, unlike with Christianity, it is possible for Muslim societies to be technologically and politically advanced without forfeiting revelation as an all-encompassing, legally-binding guide.

Scientific and Political Freedom in Islam critically examines the coherence and consistency of modernist-apologetic scholars. This is done through a discussion of their general theorizing on reason and freedom, which is then followed by discussions of their commentaries on specific scientific and political issues in light of their general theorizing. Regarding the former, the focus is Darwin’s theory of evolution, while the universality of the “Biblical flood,” the heliocentric model, the Big Bang model and Freudianism are also discussed. Regarding the latter, the focus is Islam’s desired structure of government and concept of participatory politics, while individual freedoms are also discussed. The book argues that the modernist-apologetic approach has great potential to be a force for liberalization, but also possesses inherent limitations that render its theory on the relation between revelation and freedom self-contradictory.

Introducing a significant body of new information on the reasons for the failure of secularism and democracy and the attitudes towards Darwinism in the Arab world, this book is a valuable resource for students and scholars of Islamic Studies, comparative religion, democracy studies and evolution studies.

Eltantawi, “Shari’ah on Trial”

In April, the University of California Press will release “Shari’ah on Trial: Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Revolution,” by Sarah Eltantawi (Evergreen State College).  The publisher’s description follows: 

In November of 1999, Nigerians took to the streets demanding the re-implementation of shari’ah law in their country. Two years later, 9780520293786many Nigerians supported the death sentence by stoning of a peasant woman for alleged sexual misconduct. Public outcry in the West was met with assurances to the Western public: stoning is not a part of Islam; stoning happens “only in Africa”; reports of stoning are exaggerated by Western sensationalism. However, none of these statements are true.  Shari’ah on Trial goes beyond journalistic headlines and liberal pieties to give a powerful account of how Northern Nigerians reached a point of such desperation that they demanded the return of the strictest possible shari’ah law. Sarah Eltantawi analyzes changing conceptions of Islamic theology and practice as well as Muslim and British interactions dating back to the colonial period to explain the resurgence of shari’ah, with implications for Muslim-majority countries around the world.
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