Before ISIS, there were people having an intelligent discussion on the prospects for an Islamic State

Political and cultural critics of Islam often point to Islam’s supposed lack of provision for “civil society”, that is, a failure to provide enough separation between “church” and state for politics to have any independence of religion or for “rights” to have any foundation or existence other than in Islam.

Brookings Institution fellow Shadi Hamid has recently turned the tables on this criticism.  In Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World, Hamid suggests that the problem is the other way around, the Western secular state doesn’t make adequate provision for the place of religion in politics.

I’m not going to review Hamid’s book in this post.  You can read an excerpt from it here and decide whether you want to take the plunge.

But, as a non-expert in this area, I’m finding the book to be of great value for its bibliography (or, more accurately, for the references in its footnotes – the book deplorably lacks a true bibliography).  It turns out that, before the provocative emergence of ISIS, there was an interesting and intelligent debate in progress over the prospects for democracy in the Arab world, the future possible forms of “an Islamic state”, and the nature and role of Islamic law and its relationship to believers-as-citizens.

In his first chapter, Hamid cites three prominent participants in this debate – Noah Feldman, Mohammed Fadel, and Wael Hallaq – and I recommend that you check out all of them.  Feldman (Harvard) and Fadel (Toronto) are classic objective-empathic historians; Hallaq (Columbia) is perhaps a bit more in the tradition of Edward Said, more inclined to radical, post-modernist “critique”.  All three talk about Islamic law in language that is far removed from today’s political trumpery.

Feldman’s The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State (2008, New Ed. 2012) puts the contemporary struggle in historical context and identifies the huge problem created for Islam by the abolishment of the Caliphate by then-secularizing Turkey in 1924.  Fadel’s careful and sympathetic critique of Feldman shows just how thoughtful and constructive most based-in-the-West discussion of Islam isn’t.  Hallaq’s An Introduction to Islamic Law (2009) provides an excellent starting point, while his The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament intentionally challenges Western assumptions and norms around the secular nation-state.  The last, for me, is certainly a book to argue with, but I’m finding my categories being adjusted even as I take up the fight.

I’m nowhere near to having a blog-able opinion on any of the issues raised by these writers, but I do feel the need to get smarter on this and get past reacting to lurid headlines.  Happy to have company.

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