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