Islam, Constitutionalism, and the Nation State in Afghanistan: An Interview with Faiz Ahmed

In January of 2004, following weeks of debate by a Loya Jirga, an Afghan variant of a national assembly, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan adopted a constitution. As boldly declared in its opening chapter, Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution pledged to create “a prosperous and progressive society based on social justice, preservation of human dignity, protection of human rights, realization of democracy, attainment of national unity as well as equality between all peoples and tribes.” It also stipulated that no law would contravene the tenets and provisions of Islam. At the time, outside observers noted with great fanfare the avowed synthesis of republican and Islamic principles contained within the constitution, and its prescription of laws which melded Islam and democratic values.

Afghanistan Rising. Source: Harvard University Press

As Faiz Ahmed, Associate Professor of History at Brown University, shows in his book, Afghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires, the 2004 constitution was not the inception of Afghan constitutional history. Nor was the model of state-shariʿa interaction on display there the only one attested within this history. Ninety years before the adoption of the 2004 charter, a Loya Jirga had approved Afghanistan’s first written constitution, as well as scores of supplementary legal codes produced by a multinational drafting commission assembled by Amir Amanullah Khan, the king of Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929, whose project of Islamic legal reform and creativity is at the heart of this book.

In order to understand Amanullah’s project of legal codification, Ahmed situates the history of modern Afghanistan in a context of trade, interimperial rivalry, and intellectual and cultural exchange prevailing between today’s Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East from the 17th-20th centuries. The book recounts the birth of the Afghan state out of the ashes of the Mughal and Safavid empires, and traces, from the mid-19th century, increasing official contacts between the Afghan leadership and the Ottoman Empire, which at this time embarked on an eastward diplomatic and economic push to counter the gains made by European trading companies and states and to strike its roots deeper into Central Asia.

At the center of this history are not militant adventures and jihads, but the networks and content of a broader series of crossborder associations and relationships he designates as “Islamic legal modernism” and “juridical Pan-Islamism.” Both processes are rooted in the publication and study of Islamic legal and administrative literature by Muslim scholars and lawyers from the Balkans to Bengal. Within this framework, Ahmed considers the Tanzimat reforms, the Ottoman Constitution of 1876, and the Ottoman Civil Code (also known as the Mecelle) as leading examples of state-directed projects of Islamic legal modernism in the Ottoman domains. Such projects had unexpected ramifications outside of Ottoman territories, sometimes traceable through the itineraries of representatives of the Ottoman state. The impact of these projects, along with a range of other Ottoman initiatives, was largely felt via the presence of Ottoman experts and experts from the British Indian domain, who had made their way to Kabul in search of employment over a period of about 40 years preceding the reign of Amanullah. These professionals constituted an Ottoman and Indian “rule of experts” in Kabul, assisting the three generations of Afghanistan’s Muhammadzai Amirate (1880-1929) analyzed in this book in their various projects of centralization and reform.

Combining episodes of elite diplomacy and royal family politics, the grassroots itineraries of pilgrims and students, and Afghan acclaim for the institution of the Ottoman caliphate, which mounted from the last quarter of the 19th century and peaked during World War I, the book converges upon the years following Afghan independence in 1919 and the legal reforms of King Amanullah Khan (1892-1960). The young scion of the Muhammadzai dynasty, after casting off the yoke of British protectorate status, launched immediately into a series of wide-ranging reforms. Among these was the drafting of the Nizamnama (translating as legal “protocols” or “codes” from Persian and Pashtu), which included over seventy originally-crafted statutes, manuals, and administrative regulations. At the heart of the Nizamnama was the Qanun-i Asasi (the “Basic Code”), Afghanistan’s first constitution. As Ahmed points out, the provisions in the Qanun-i Asasi calling for a rule by shariʿa were more than lip-service, or Islamic “window-dressing,” but actually contained legal precedent drawn from Islamic legal sources.

Afghanistan Rising tells a story of a modern Islamic project of statecraft and legal synthesis, undertaken against a background of broader regional connections. The early legal history of Afghanistan is an account of an Islamic politics that did not, as in contemporary cases, grasp for imported European legal codes. Nor did it constitute a case of Salafi or “Wahhabi” ideologies of Islamic reform. Rather, King Amanullah’s project emerged out of a rich history of what Ahmed calls “interislamic” cultural exchange and modern visions of politics, including a unique adaptation and application of the shariʿa to the form of the modern nation-state.

–Joshua Milstein

JOSHUA MILSTEIN: Could you briefly describe the major contributions or goals of the book?

FAIZ AHMED: You could say this book has three goals. The first is to “legalize Afghanistan” so to speak. I wanted to shine a bright spotlight on an important and foundational era in Afghanistan’s modern legal history, including the promulgation of its first constitution and national body of laws under a fully independent, constitutional monarchy in the 1920s. As important, the book provides a social, political, and intellectual history behind these legal and constitutional milestones, going back to the 1870s.

The “Handbook for Afghan Judges”, effectively the country’s first comprehensive criminal law code, drew its legal bases from Islamic legal sources. Source: Afghanistan Digital Library.

The second goal I call “deprovincializing Afghanistan”, or challenging conventional tropes of the country as an isolated, remote no man’s land, and essentially unimportant frontier until it becomes a site of contestation for major powers, be it the Mughals and Safavids, British and Russians, or Soviets and Americans. To deprovincialize Afghanistan, in other words, is to show its broader connections, and contributions, to multiple sociocultural and legal regions or “zones” on its own terms, from Istanbul to Delhi, and Kabul to Cairo. Throughout the book I argue that Afghanistan is linked to two major cosmopolitan centers of intellectual and legal production in the Islamicate world: the Ottoman Empire and British India. The Ottoman connection is a particularly strong undercurrent of every chapter of the whole book, because I would argue that remains an understudied connection, relative to Afghanistan’s connections to Iran, India, and Central Asia. Most people are familiar with Afghanistan’s connections to India, and to a lesser extent central Asia and Iran, but the Ottoman and indeed Mediterranean connection is beyond the purview of most scholarly treatments on the country’s history, I would argue. Or it is not thought of to be a significant connection, which I challenge in the book.

A third goal of the book is what I call “demilitarizing Pan-Islamism.” This stems from my argument that an oft-overlooked substance of transnational, Pan-Islamic connections between the Ottomans, Afghans, and Indian Muslims had less to do with “anti-western” militancy and violence, and more to do with imagining a continued role for Islamic law and ethics, and sovereign Muslim rulers, amid the fall of great empires and emergence of new nation-states. As for anti-colonial militancy, of course, that is a theme undeniably present at certain volatile moments in the book like World War I or the Turkish war of independence or the Indian Khilafat Movement. But overemphasizing those spectacular but ultimately transient episodes obscures more subtle, internal, and long-lasting connections between Muslims of the former Ottoman Empire, India, and Afghanistan in the intellectual, administrative, and specifically legal realms. In other words, Pan-Islamism should not be essentialized in a militant framework.

Put another way, there is much more going on in this book than the confrontational and destructive tendencies of militaries and militants, and the focus is instead on the “constructionist” aspects of pan-Islamic discourse and exchanges; that is to say, towards building a new state within the international legal frameworks of the world at the time. This, I think most readers would agree, is a pretty far call from what most conversations about “Islamic statecraft” or the notion of an “Islamic state” deal with today.

MILSTEIN: In reading the book I had the impression that that the Ottoman connection seemed to weigh heavier than the Indian one. I mean, because the people circulating seem to be going to and from the Ottoman territories, on the one hand. And where the Indian dimension really enters into view – with the crisis over the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, and the rise of the Khilafat Movement – it seems to be as a response to developments within the Ottoman Empire.

AHMED: That’s a fair reading—and you are a close reader. I would say you’ve identified a nuance in the architecture of the book, though overall I aimed for symmetry between the Ottoman and British/Indian intersections with modern Afghanistan. Historically speaking, I argue that both Ottoman and Indian spheres play vital roles in Afghan independence and Amanullah’s law commission. But historiographically speaking, in terms of the intervention of my book vis-à-vis scholarship on this period of Afghan history, yes, it is weighted slightly more towards the Ottoman side.

That was intentional, for three reasons. The first is that most books about Afghanistan in English, scholarly or otherwise, have been more heavily weighted towards Afghanistan’s Indian (and later, Pakistani) connections, i.e. towards the east. In this lens, Afghanistan is usually viewed as an extension of British India’s NWFP (North West Frontier Province), whether during the British Raj, anti-Soviet jihad, or today. So there’s just a lot more attention to the eastward connection. And let us not downplay the excellent and paradigm-shifting academic work done in recent years. At the forefront of global scholarship on Afghanistan from a South Asian perspective or direction, for example, are the fine works of historians and anthropologists like Nile Green and Nushin Arbabzadeh, Sana Haroon, Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, Ben Hopkins and Magnus Marsden, Bob Crews and others. While I certainly hope my book makes a humble contribution to South Asian Studies and the study of Afghanistan’s intersections with modern Indian history, or Central Asia, my sense is there is far more work to be done on the Afghan-Ottoman side of the story.

The second reason for the heavier Ottomanist dimension to the book is that of all the places I spent time researching for this project—India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, and Britain—the majority of my archival work was in Turkey. In the Ottoman archives in Istanbul to be precise, among other archives and libraries in Istanbul and Ankara. The result, I believe, is a compelling story about modern Ottoman connections to Afghanistan, and vice versa, that has largely not been told.

Finally, there is of course my actual argument that Ottoman subjects, especially jurists, diplomats, and administrators, played a substantial role in Afghanistan’s modern legal history at the turn of the 20th century that was not peripheral or ephemeral. For example, I start the book with an account of the late Ottoman jurist and scholar, Ahmed Hulusi Effendi, who participates in the landmark Mecelle Civil Code committee in the late 1860s, early 1870s. He is also the first Ottoman ambassador to Afghanistan in 1877, the consequences of which are not to be taken lightly. If you jump to the last two chapters, that deal with Afghanistan’s 1923 constitution, the director of the constitutional and codification commission is an Ottoman Turkish lawyer. So these are not peripheral or marginal figures, or a fleeting episode. While they are not large in number (compared to the number of Indian migrants during this time, for example), Ottoman Turks and Arabs are very influential in the nascent independent Afghan state’s legal and administrative apparatus. Most famous is Cemal Pasha, who migrates to Afghanistan after World War I. But he’s rather notorious and well-known—much lesser known are the scores of Ottoman subjects who traveled to or resided in Kabul between the late 1870s and 1920s to serve in the Afghan dynasty’s court. So you’re on the mark in that the architecture of the book is slightly more tilted towards the Ottoman dimension. But I hope I’ve shown that is for both historical and historiographical reasons.

MILSTEIN: I had a sense that one of the reasons that the Ottoman case was weighted heavier relative to the Indian case, was that maybe you were trying to get away from the Great Game presentation, between Russia and the British Raj, and Muslims crossing the Indian frontier. It’s not that these things aren’t significant according to your account, but rather that you were trying to show this other story of the Afghan relationship to this Ottoman Empire that is making use of soft power abroad, and being received as this sort of model of imperial emulation or global Islamic leadership, and it could otherwise be hard to spot, but by really focusing on these individual people, a third empire is introduced into the picture in a very sophisticated way.

AHMED: Thank you. One of my aims was to break that habitual bipolar scheme where Afghanistan is perennially framed as between two poles, with the result that Afghans and Afghanistan are seen as inherently impaired, fragmented, artificial, unwhole. In the early modern period it’s between the Savafids and the Moghuls, in the 19th century it’s the Russian Empire and the British, the so-called Great Game. And then in the 20th century it is the USSR and the US. So, yes, I’m complicating that binary. But not by simply saying it’s tripolar. There are references to other actors and places beyond the Ottomans. There is Germany; there is Japan, there is pan-Asianism; there are also other European and Middle Eastern countries, and even the United States. So it’s actually multipolar. But yes, there is an intended critique of the Great Game narrative.

Put another way, I would say that Afghanistan has conventionally been approached through one of three prisms, angles, or contiguous geographic directions. That is—from South Asia, from Central Asia, and from Iran. In this book I introduce a fourth: the Ottoman Empire. While the Ottomans are not contiguous to Afghanistan at this time–they are there, in Kabul, in Peshawar, in Bombay, and they are important. But this not a flat, one-way road of the Sublime Porte, Sultan Abdulhamid II, or the Young Turks’ uncontested “influence” in Afghanistan and India. Rather, there are stories to be told about Afghans and Indian Muslims in the Ottoman Mediterranean—exiles, scholars, pilgrims, students. Whether it’s Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, Najaf, Baghdad, Mosul, Damascus, Cairo or Istanbul, Afghans are there, too.

In the end—and this is reflected in the subtitle—I argue that Afghanistan at the turn of the 20th century is in between the Ottoman and British Empires. But “in between” does not mean in a paralyzing or isolating way akin to classic notions of an Anglo-Russian “buffer zone.” Rather, I argue, these interimperial tensions are productive for Afghanistan and the Afghan royal court, which is enriched by these conversations and debates and intellectual connections from directions—that is, from British India and the Ottoman lands.

MILSTEIN: It strikes me that much of what you captured might have been invisible without this regional perspective. And by focusing on Afghanistan you also make us aware an Ottoman legal tradition that has real regional cachet. I have the impression that the Tanzimat reforms, and other contemporary Ottoman projects are seen as a story internal to the Ottoman domains, but here there’s this comprehensive series of legal codes and manuals and so on which formed a basis for interactions and borrowings, and provided a model of how a civil code could be founded on or legitimated with Islamic law as well. And one of the things a reader might come away with is a sort of dual account, of an Ottoman legal context which extends beyond the Ottoman border through the practice of what you call “juridical Pan-Islamism”, and also of an Afghan legal history which is not simply an instance of emulation or imitation, but is more explicable in light of this Ottoman background.

AHMED: That is also one of the most exciting parts of the story for me, because those very projects emerging in the Ottoman domains in the 19th century, whether it’s the Mecelle Civil Code, 1876 Constitution, or the Tanzimat reforms earlier that century, they are controversial projects. They were not blindly accepted or common sense texts to Ottoman jurists, and they were certainly not just another collection of sultanic firmans. They were radically modern in a top down way. And I would say there is not just a dualistic account here—we shouldn’t forget British India and the production of the “Anglo-Muhammadan law,” or a parallel movement to codify Islamic jurisprudence in the form of modern “user-friendly” codes for implementation in the Raj’s courts. That makes for three jurisdictions engineering and experimenting with novel approaches to Islamic law, with important overlaps but also differences and divergences.

All this makes the story of Ottoman and British legal reception, or selective adoption, and more importantly, legal adaptation in Afghanistan more complicated and fascinating. This is not a question of Afghans blindly adopting the Ottoman Mecelle or Anglo-Muhammadan jurisprudence and procedure. That was theoretically an option. But Afghan monarchs, and their advisers, were adamant about creating something new, and synthesizing something new, for their own specific context. Although inspired by and in some ways drawing from late Ottoman and British Indian legal models, at the end of the day we are dealing with distinctively Afghan legislation, that even many Islamic legal specialists and historians today are not aware of. And I do make some reference to that, how in the field of Islamic legal studies, Afghanistan is simply not on the radar. It would simply not occur to most scholars of Islamic legal studies – largely for presentist reasons of the country’s political turmoil and chronic war for the past four decades – that Afghanistan could have been a major player in conversations about Islamic law and modernity, be it constitutionalism, codification of law, or modern state-building within an Islamicate idiom.

MILSTEIN: The Afghan legal project was very trailblazing, then.

AHMED: Definitely. That may surprise some or raise eyebrows, but when we appreciate early 20th century Afghanistan in historical context, it begins to make sense. After World War I, Afghanistan is the only entirely independent Muslim-majority state in the region. True, in 1923, Kemalist Turkey is recognized as an independent republic and nation-state, but it follows a very different route of state formation that largely jettisons its Ottoman-Hanafi-Islamic jurisprudential tradition. There are the Hashemites in the Hejaz and Syria, but they are overthrown by the Saudis and French (respectively), and neither the early Hashemites nor Saudis had the legal and administrative infrastructure, diplomatic recognition, or sophisticated modes of statecraft that the Afghans displayed at the time. As one of the only independent Muslim-majority and Muslim dynastic states, a virtual island of Islamic sovereignty, Afghanistan in the 1920s also becomes a launchpad for new modes of “Islamic state” experimentation, but one that is largely in tune with the nascent system of international law and nation-states at the time, not a rogue statelet. Put another way, we could say independent Afghanistan in the 1920s contains early elements and is a precedent for three related but different genres of Muslim politics that emerge in the 20th century: [1] Muslim constitutional monarchies—Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Jordan, Morocco, and Malaysia (and more short-lived versions in Egypt and Iraq); [2] “Islamic Republics,” as in Pakistan and revolutionary Iran; and [3] the rise of Islamist movements. As for the first two genres, Afghanistan precedes them by several decades in most cases; in the third case of Islamist movements or political Islam, these are primarily oppositional parties; unlike the Afghan case, Islamist movements in the 20th century are generally not commanding the reins of sovereign power and engineering or implementing actual legislation (with the notable exception, later, of revolutionary Iran after 1979). As a result of this lack of experience, with some exceptions as in Tunisia and Turkey, among Islamist parties today there is not as substantial an engagement with the complexities and realities of modern governance, international law, and the demands and requirements of building a modern state while drawing from Islamic legal sources in the way that you have in the early 20th century Afghan example.

MILSTEIN: Can you say more about “juridical pan-Islamism”?

AHMED: By juridical pan-Islamism I mean the legal and jurisprudential dimensions and projects of crossborder Muslim networks, not the conventional militant tropes we are so used to hearing about, especially with Afghanistan. By focusing on legal and administrative connections made between influential Muslims of the late Ottoman Empire, Afghanistan, and British India, the book highlights an important corridor for exchanges and debates on what a system of modern Islamic law and constitutionalism, and notions of modern Islamic statecraft and diplomacy, actually meant to Ottoman, Afghan, and Indian Muslims at the turn of the 20th century. The term therefore has significant overlap with another important phrase in the book: Islamic legal modernism. But the point of juridical pan-Islamism is to eschew overly militaristic approaches to the study of Muslim transnational networks, which focus on spectacular acts of violence, confrontation, sabotage, or other ominous notions of threat and danger to colonial European powers or “the West” for that matter.

MILSTEIN: Kabul in particular really features as a port of call for so many of the people accounted for in your book, and many that remain on the periphery of your narrative. And many of these are people with distinct political ambitions, either for Afghanistan, for the Ottoman Caliphate, or for the Muslim world at large. Can we see Kabul, as a capital of Ottoman (and later Turkish) and Indian emigrations, as a kind of inter-imperial, or inter-Islamic metropolis?

AHMED: Certainly, and that is an important thread of my argument, though I prefer the term “interislamic.” It’s lower-case in the way that “international” or “interimperial” is lowercase, to refer to a distinct register of everyday relations between Muslims that is neither inherently against nor inherently for modern national borders and territorial nation-states as we know them. Nor does interislamic connote a politics that is inherently for a singular global caliphate nor against it—in fact we see both instantiations in Chapter 6 of the book, focusing on the post-Ottoman Turkish republic, Afghanistan, and India in the mid-1920s. In this way by interislamic I mean a distinct register, language, discourse, and sphere of intellectual, legal, or political-administrative exchange between Muslims that does not exclude the possibility of other forms of solidarity and membership, be it racial or ethnic, anti-colonial, ideological, or national. There is room for debate, disagreement, and diversity within the term, and also coexistence with these others forms of identity and politics. In this way to say Kabul at the turn of the 20th century was an interislamic metropolis does not mean it was a newly resurrected caliphate or so called Dar al-Islam (“Abode of Islam”) to the exclusion of other forms of identity or belonging.

MILSTEIN: Does your book constitute an intervention in global legal history?

AHMED: I would hope so, though not in a flat or overly abstract approach to either world history or legal history. The book does not pretend to explain or concern phenomena impacting every continent or society on earth, of course. And there is a “Balkans-to-Bengal” geospatial focus in the book, if one can say the work is “focused” on such a vast and heterogeneous swath of territory. That said, there is a consistent theme of people, ideas, and institutions crossing borders and regions, specifically places like Kabul, Delhi, Damascus, and Istanbul, but also more distant locales like Johannesburg, Liverpool, Moscow, Tokyo. More broadly, the book seeks to collapse the conventional area studies regional approaches to Afghanistan—as well as the British and Ottoman empires—that have parceled out the study of these subjects in disparate directions and along entrenched scholarly divides that we have come to know due to customary linguistic and professional association expertise.

More directly to your question, you could say the book is about putting modern debates and politics about Islamic law and statecraft circulating between the Ottoman Empire, British India, and Afghanistan in a global historical context. That broader global context was, in short, loosely governed empires and patrimonial regimes of the 17th and 18th centuries becoming replaced by highly centralized administrative nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whether in the Middle East, or South Asia, or elsewhere, these transformations brought new political discourses, including constitutionalism, citizenship, and the seeds of international law and humanitarianism, but also disciplinary, surveillance tools such as passports, identity cards, public schooling and health regimes, and the codification of law. Afghanistan Rising argues Kabul was at the forefront of such processes among Muslim-majority states in the late 19th  and early 20th centuries. What is more, by the time of its independence in 1919 and through the 1920s, Afghanistan pursued these goals not in isolation, but in collaboration with highly mobile scholars and administrators shuttling between the Ottoman and British domains.

So, yes, I hope the book will be of interest to students and scholars of global history—legal or otherwise.

MILSTEIN: Another important theme in the book is that of Muslim kingship, or monarchy.  Towards the beginning of the book you talk about older models of Muslim kingship, and include a discussion of Azfar Moin’s book, The Millennial Sovereign, on Mughal kingship. And throughout the book, you describe a certain notion of modern Muslim kingship practiced by the Muhammadzai Dynasty from the late 19th century, reprising or adapting medieval and early modern notions of the just Muslim king, the profile of which included legitimacy based on judicious rule over a particular territory or people, not seeking territorial expansion, and practicing Islamic notions of just war. And yet you argue throughout the book against the possibility that we could perceive this as somehow “premodern”. Amanullah, in particular, adapted this Muhammadzai vision of kingship to the imperatives of a nation-state in the 20th century. Is that what is modern about his mode of Muslim kingship and the Afghan Muhammadzai dynasty more broadly?

AHMED: Yes, partially. The aspect of being a fully sovereign, territorially-defined, and internationally-recognized Muslim-majority nation-state, and constitutional monarchy claiming to implement the shariʿa, all at the same time, is certainly important and distinctive at the time. But let’s take it a step further, and not look at Afghanistan in a vacuum or an Islamic or Muslim “box.” Remember in the 1920s, the League of Nations and early seeds of today’s UN is developing; this is the world after the Great War, with much talk of Wilsonian principles like self-determination. Yes, much of this was rhetorical display and international posturing, with no shortage of double-standards by European colonial powers, but there was also substance to these ideals, a real belief in them by decolonizing movements, and even implementation in practice. The notable feature here is that as this new Muslim-majority nation-state and sovereign Muslim monarchy of Afghanistan is being established, a European colonial order is taking root in the former Ottoman Middle East, under the League of Nations mandate system. The British and French mandate system and partition of the Ottoman Empire has rightly drawn heavy criticism by historians and politicians alike, and for good reason, as we are still reaping the bitter fruits of those policies until this day. But the 1920s also witnessed revolutionary possibilities for others, including the Turks, Indians, and perhaps most of all, the Afghans. So while Wilsonian principles are seen as being ignored or hypocritical with regard to the Arabic-speaking regions of greater Syria and in particular for the British and French mandates, at precisely the same time the Afghans succeeded in establishing an independent state and monarchy that was recognized as part of the international order, so to speak.

How does all this relate to modern notions of Muslim kingship? I would say the sovereign monarchy and nation-state that Amanullah Khan spearheaded in 1919 was substantially different than medieval notions of a caliphate, or prior Islamicate states in the premodern world, for several reasons. Notions of fixed and recognized borders is one aspect that is modern, but also clearly defined notions of a national citizenry with equal rights under the law within those borders. Constitutionalization—the idea of enshrining the basis and principles of rule in writing, including the monarch’s line of succession—and related processes of the codification of Islamic law, are additional distinguishing modern features of Amanullah’s monarchical and state-building project. Of course the Ottomans are also precedents in that process by the 19th century. While the Ottomans embrace and indeed amplify the caliphate for their own ends, they are no longer a conquest state seeking expansion its frontiers, but are a member of the Concert of Europe and 19th century normative international order. The Tanzimat and first Ottoman Constitution also adopted notions of equality of all subjects, regardless of religion or ethnicity, while slowly distancing itself from more ideological, Pan-Islamic notions of citizenship. As my Ottomanist colleagues and historians Lale Can and Chris Low, Aimee Genell, and Will Hanley have shown, the 1869 Ottoman Nationality Law for example actually constricts Ottoman subject status to those residing within the empire’s territorial limits for a requisite time, similar to nationality and naturalization laws for most states today. This is a far call from a global, universal caliphate seeking allegiance of the world’s Muslims or suzerainty over all lands where Muslims once ruled.

Mahmud Tarzi, a famous Afghan-Ottoman journalist and diplomat. Tarzi, whose father was a prominent member of the Afghan court, returned to Afghanistan from Syria in 1902, under the general amnesty for exiles granted by Amanullah’s father, Habibullah Khan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Another modern aspect to Afghan kingship under the late Muhammadzais, and specifically Amanullah Khan, was an adaptation of earlier notions of non-caliphal Muslim kingship—such as under the Seljuk, Khwarazmid, Mamluk, Ghaznavi, Timurid, or Durrani sultanates, where powerful medieval and early modern Muslim dynasties ruled de facto but without claiming the title of caliph (or a singular, universal caliphate). Historians Azfar Moin, Munis Faruqui, as well as Aziz el-Azmeh have contributed richly to our understanding of medieval and early modern Muslim kingship in theory and practice—and Cemil Aydin for the modern era, even showing parallels between the Japanese Meiji emperor and late Ottoman sultan, for example. Simlarly I wanted to look at the continuities, and transformations, into the 20th century. Here in the Afghan case, under the temporal and theoretically subordinate title of Amir, and later, the Persianate Shah, Amanullah Khan extended usage of the non-caliphal sovereign into the 20th century. So, all put together, in the Afghan case under Shah Amanullah Khan, we have an example of a territorially-defined, internationally recognized, and constitutional monarchy, which is substantially different in kind than early modern and medieval precedents of Muslim kingship.

MILSTEIN: The idea of an Afghan legal history is central to the book. What does it mean to find out that Afghanistan has a modern legal history? Does having a legal history confer a sort of prestige, or a legal framework within which a lawyer today can work or think?

King Amanullah Khan, who reigned between 1919 and 1929, freed Afghanistan de facto British suzerainty, and went on to oversee a wide-ranging project of Afghan state-building, including the drafting of the pioneering Nizamnama-i Amaniyyah, or Amanullah Codes.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

AHMED: Were I to answer that question in 1920s Afghanistan, I would say, yes, having a legal history is a “prestige sort of thing.” In other words, Afghan monarchs and their advisors in the early 20th century, especially King Amanullah Khan, were eager prove Afghanistan’s independent credentials and membership in the “club of civilized nations.” That was certainly a motive, not the only one, but a motive behind the 1923 Afghan Constitution. But that is not my intention in this book, of course. To begin with, the “prestige question” is at best an unnecessary contest, and more often a form of Eurocentric civilizational discourse with patently colonial overtones. It is also a losing battle from the outset, whether for the Afghans or the Ottomans, because the standard and yardstick for “civilizational progress” remains western Europe and particular western European modalities of politics and constitutionalism specific to those histories—not a neutral or objective universalism outside of history, scientifically measurable, and equally applicable to all states and societies of the world. In other words, my point in this book is not simply to say, “Look, the Afghans, too, have a legal history”, as if to say, “they, too, can be civilized.” Rather, I’d like to turn the question on its head and ask, what might it mean to Afghans to rediscover an important and impactful but largely forgotten juncture in their modern history? And what might it mean to the broader region and Islamicate world? Ultimately, that is not a question for me to answer, but my aim in this book is to reconstruct that early legal history based on available evidence so readers, Afghan and otherwise, can decide for themselves.

As for practical applications and legal frameworks today: this is not a policy-oriented book in the sense of a handbook for a UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] advisor in Kabul or Afghan attorney or judge today. It is, however, an academic monograph on a critical juncture in Afghanistan’s modern legal history that has not been given adequate attention, scholarly or otherwise. My goal is not to offer simplistic prescriptive solutions when it comes to the extraordinarily difficult and complex work of officials and policy advisors in Afghanistan today, but to inspire new questions and historical work among students and scholars of this pivotal country. As I allude to in the book’s conclusion, my ultimate hope is that it inspires students, scholars—who knows, maybe even policymakers—to a realization that projects to improve the human condition fare better with the knowledge and understanding—and better yet, appreciation and respect—of a society’s history than without.

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