The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State; Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a

In This Review

The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State

By Noah Feldman
Princeton University Press, 2008
200 pp. $22.95
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Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a

By Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im
Harvard University Press, 2008
336 pp. $35.00
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What may be dubbed the unwritten constitution of the Islamic state, Feldman argues, was an arrangement whereby the ruler agreed to implement sharia (Islamic religious law), in return for which the scholars, or ulama, deemed his rule legitimate. This Islamic state, last exemplified by the Ottoman Empire, fell apart beginning in the nineteenth century, when rulers began to bypass the ulama in adopting Western institutions and legal codes. The result has been that most Ottoman successor states, unchecked by this earlier balance, have lapsed into authoritarianism. A restoration of the earlier standing of the ulama seems unlikely, but Feldman argues that legislators seeking implementation of a sharia-based rule of law can play the role of earlier scholars in taming executive autocracy. An-Na'im, on the contrary, maintains that "the state was never Islamic," nor quite secular in the sense he would wish. His is an "Islamic argument for a secular state." To him, sharia is to be accepted by individual Muslims, not imposed by the state. Both Feldman and An-Na'im, for all their differences in historical interpretation and recommendations, come together in offering wide-ranging discussions and nuanced reasoning. Feldman, for example, treats two cases that do not fit the pattern -- Iran and Saudi Arabia -- each in quite different ways. An-Na'im puts forward three case studies -- India, Indonesia, and Turkey -- to show the diversity of the state, religion, and law in the Muslim world.