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

Development Politics and India’s Cold War Triangle: An Interview with David Engerman

David Engerman, Professor of History, Yale University

In The Price of Aid: The Economic Cold War in India (Harvard University Press, 2018), David Engerman, a leading historian of US and Soviet modernization ideology and expertise, extends his focus to the intricacy of Cold War competition in India. Through an adroit study of Indian, American, and Soviet domestic and international politics regarding aid for Indian development, he analyzes the complex dance behind how and why particular development projects were built. The debates that surrounded these projects attempted to shape, and were in turn shaped by Cold War conflict and the political maneuvering of the Indian state. Price of Aid deftly captures and articulates the contradiction at the heart of development assistance—that international aid for nation-building projects sought by post-colonial states came with consequences that constrained the very state sovereignty those projects aimed to serve.

Our conversation, at Intelligentsia Coffee in Watertown, MA this June, was wide-ranging—on the arc of Engerman’s remarkable intellectual career, the evolution of the historiography on development, the relationship between decolonization and the Cold War, and that of governmentality and geopolitics, to flag just a few themes that arise in the following interview.

Lydia Walker

Dissecting Hindutva: A Conversation with Jyotirmaya Sharma

Professor Jyotirmaya Sharma

It’s a good time to be a populist. Across the world, populism has made significant strides. Sanctimonious populism coupled with ironclad convictions seems to be the staple diet of contemporary politics. The emergence of right-wing populism, nationalism and anti-Muslim politics is not confined to Europe but is manifest in other regions as well. Likewise, illiberal nationalism is not exclusive to Muslim-majority states but is also evident in India in the form of the chauvinistic Hindutva movement–the Hindu nationalist ideology.

A concatenation of factors—including the threat of terrorism and anxiety over a massive wave of immigrants from the Middle East, combined with the strong belief in the inefficacy of the EU—has provided a fertile environment for right-wing populists in Europe. In India, the Hindu nationalist project has, since its inception, aspired toward sociocultural homogenization and claims that Hindu culture and religion form the nucleus of India. This project of political Hindutva is more than a century old and has undergone several different phases. Meanwhile in the United States, there has been a gradual increase in xenophobic and chauvinistic nationalism.
Armed with moral rectitude as well as certitude, populists in Europe seek to speak for the ‘general will’ of the people and to protect what they perceive as their western heritage. This nostalgic populism lays emphasis on protecting certain ways of life in Europe and displays hostility towards Jews, immigration, and Islam. In the United States, its equivalent is Trumpism: a cocktail of xenophobic nationalism and demagoguery. Populists are also wont to use democratic institutions to gain power and curtail civil liberties. After assuming power through democratic mechanisms, Hindu nationalists, for example, have attempted to weaken or obstruct aspects of democracy such as freedom of expression.

In addition to propagating antipluralism, populist actors also seek to portray themselves as victims. Majorities act like mistreated minorities. For the Hindutva, the abiding tolerance of Hindus is only matched by the egregious ravages of Muslim rule in India, victimizing Hindus for centuries. For Vivekananda, the paterfamilias of the Hindutva project of the nineteenth century, there was no room for weakness in the process of nation building. Hindus had to shed their effeminate nature, which figured as a prominent bugbear, and become virile and strong. The ignominy of being a slave nation could only be countervailed by an idolatrous devotion to all things masculine.

The totalitarian politics of the 1930s and 1940s in Europe left a strong imprint of antitotalitarianism on European political institutions. The architects of post-war Europe strongly distrusted the idea of popular sovereignty. Hence, parliaments were gradually emasculated and checks and balances robustly strengthened. In short, distrust in unrestrained and untrammeled popular sovereignty was part of the foundations of post-war European politics. The obverse to this is that a political order based on wariness toward popular sovereignty is always vulnerable to populists speaking against a system that appears to be contrived against popular participation.

Until recently, many scholars assumed that nationalism would taper off and that the hold of religion would slacken. Both of these assumptions have been vehemently disproven in the Indian context. The tumultuous relationship between Muslims and the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) has to do with Hindutva. Though BJP came into existence only in 1980, its intellectual and doctrinal antecedents can be traced back to the nineteenth century. The intellectual history of the Hindutva ideologies forms the focus for the eclectic and prescient oeuvre of Jyotirmaya Sharma, professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, India. Sharma historicizes the actualization of a bunch of inchoate and exclusionary ideas into the most politically successful undertaking in modern history—the Hindu nationalist project and, by extension, the BJP.

The Hindu nationalist project seeks to portray Hindu civilization as indigenous to India and to depict an intimate and indissoluble relationship between Hindu culture and Indian territory. This project of ossified identities is only matched by the Hindutva’s cultural philistinism. In its effort to reshape the educational system and curricula, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) seeks to interpret history in such a way that it seeks to equate the decline of Hindu society with the coming of Islam to India.

The Hindutva movement also harps on perceived historical grievances and seeks to redress them by mobilizing the serried ranks of RSS and its ancillary organizations. A prevalent trope in the Hindutva enterprise is that of Muslim dogmatism on the one hand and the assimilative and tolerant Hindu civilization on the other, which is also seen as part of a continuous struggle in which the Hindus are perennial victims and Muslims the archetypal aggressors. Tolerance is deemed as an innate quality of Hinduism and Hindus by extension are steadfastly beholden to toleration. It follows that any conflict or discord must have come from outside, since tolerance was essential to Hindu civilization.

There is also a tendency to make a distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva. The former is perceived to be tolerant, plural, eclectic and all-encompassing while the latter is depicted as a distorted and aberrant manifestation of Hinduism. Sharma’s work throws out this distinction, while showing that there is more to Hindutva than periodical outbursts of unremitting intolerance. For the Hindu nationalists, issues of identity and nationalism are inevitably entwined. The nation is, in turn, the ultimate fruition of Hindu aspirations.

Sharma’s book A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism shows how in the nineteenth century, the religious vocabulary was transformed into a rigid and monochromatic version of Hinduism which left little scope for diversity of opinion or ritual. Myths and legends were excised, and any local manifestations were treated as deviations.

Swami Vivekananda is the father of political Hinduism, argues Sharma.

Jyotirmaya Sharma is professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad, India. His recent publications include Cosmic Love and Human Apathy: Swami Vivekananda and the Restatement of Religion (Harper Collins, 2013), A Restatement of Religion: Swami Vivekananda and the Making of Hindu Nationalism (Yale University Press, 2013), Hindutva: Exploring the Idea of Hindu Nationalism (Harper Collins, 2015); and Terrifying Vision: M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS and India (Penguin/Viking, 2007). An edited volume titled Grounding Morality: Freedom, Knowledge and the Plurality of Cultures (co-edited with A. Raghuramaraju) was published by Routledge in 2010.

–Nagothu Naresh Kumar