A Q&A with author Noah Feldman
What do Muslims want when they call for an Islamic state?
Part of it is a nostalgic desire for government that actually works. Muslims understand that the classical Islamic state was governed through shari‘a and therefore in some important sense featured the rule of law. This is why shari‘a is always the basic plank in Islamist political platforms. The point is not that the substantive rules of shari‘a always decided legal cases, because in fact they never did in the past and won’t in the future. The point is rather that shari‘a functioned as an overall structure that demanded adherence to legal principles.
Is an Islamic state compatible with democracy?
In theory, yes. In practice, it depends on whether the newest Islamic states can develop institutions that would allow for shari‘a to be democratized and constitutionalized. This could involve legislatures that are informed by Islamic principles or courts that engage in Islamic judicial review. But if these institutions don’t emerge, then any new Islamic state would likely fail. This is because there is almost no place in the Muslim world today where the traditional pillar of shari‘a—the class of scholars whose job it was to ensure that shari‘a was respected--still has the capacity to sustain effective government.
Wouldn’t the appearance of new Islamic states be bad news, given what we know about modern day Iran?
What happened in Iran is that the traditional defenders and upholders of shari‘a, the scholars, swallowed the executive power, thereby replacing the traditional balance of power with an imbalance favoring the clerics. Just as an imbalance favoring the executive produces a dictatorship in many Muslim countries, so in Iran this imbalance has led to unjust and ineffective government. The way an Islamic state could avoid this trap would be by establishing a balance of power in which an executive is counterweighed by a legislature, a judiciary, or some other institutional force.
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File created: 11/29/07