Faiz Ahmed, Afghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, November 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Faiz Ahmed (FA): Three goals inspired the writing of this book. The first was to “legalize Afghanistan”—to draw attention to the country’s largely unknown or unexamined legal history. I wanted to shine a spotlight on a forgotten, but foundational, era of Afghanistan’s modern history, including the promulgation of its first constitution in 1923 along with a comprehensive body of national laws under a fully sovereign, constitutional monarchy. To do this, the book traces a wider and deeper net of sociopolitical and intellectual history, leading up to these juridical milestones in Kabul, starting in the 1870s.
The second goal is what I call “deprovincializing Afghanistan,” or dislodging the historiography of Afghanistan from its conventional perch as an isolated mountain kingdom, desolate no-man’s-land, or landlocked buffer state. These tropes hold Afghanistan to be a peripheral and, essentially, unimportant frontier until becoming a site of contestation for major powers—be it the Mughals and Safavids in the early modern period, Britain and Russia in the Great Game, or the US and USSR in the Cold War. To deprovincialize Afghanistan, then, is to show its broader connections and contributions to other places and actors on its own terms, from Constantinople to Kandahar and Damascus to Delhi.
The third goal and overarching theme of the book is what I call “demilitarizing Pan-Islamism.” Here the book zeroes in on an oft-overlooked dimension of Pan-Islam, or transnational linkages between highly literate, mobile, and globally-oriented Muslims at the turn of the twentieth century. I argue that crossborder alliances forming between Ottomans, Afghans, and Indian Muslims from the late-Victorian era to Ottoman partition had little to do with conventional tropes of anti-western violence associated with Afghanistan in more recent decades (or during the nineteenth century’s Anglo-Afghan wars). One of my central contentions in the book is that a popular amalgam of themes summed up as “militant Pan-Islamism”—though present at junctures like the Balkan Wars, World War I, and Turkish War of Independence—actually obscure more subtle, internal, and long-lasting connections between Muslims in the administrative and legal realms—what I call “juridical Pan-Islamism.” In other words, Pan-Islamism should not be essentialized in a militant framework. There is much more going on in this book than the destructive tendencies of militaries and militants. I focus instead on the constructionist aspects of interislamic discourses and exchanges, those contributing to building states within international legal frameworks. This, perhaps most readers would agree, is a far call from what most conversations about the notion of an Islamic state deal with today.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
FA: In a nutshell, there are four areas of historiographical intervention: (1) Pan-Islamism; (2) Afghan relations with the Ottomans, British Raj, and Indian Muslims; (3) Islamic legal modernism; and (4) the Afghan-Muhammadzai dynasty’s importance for scholarship on Muslim monarchy.
Concerning the first subject, and as I state in the book, a Google Earth political map of the world 100 years ago would see the potential for Afghanistan to be an ideal conduit through which an assortment of anti-colonial coalitions could take shape—and did take shape—including Pan-Islamic, Pan-Asian, even Bolshevik campaigns. When it comes to Pan-Islamism, I use the term “interislamic.” It’s lower-case in the way that international is lowercase, to connote a co-existing sphere of legal-administrative exchange between Muslims that does not exclude the possibility of other forms of solidarity and membership, be it along ethnic, anti-colonial, ideological, or national lines. In this way, early-twentieth-century Kabul as an interislamic metropolis does not mean it was a newly resurrected caliphate, separatist utopia, or so-called Dar al-Islam to the exclusion of other forms of identity or belonging.
Regarding Afghan ties to the Ottoman Empire and India, you could say the architecture of the book is slightly more tilted towards the Ottoman dimension than its eastern counterpart, the British Raj, for historical and historiographical reasons. The Ottomans are, of course, not contiguous to Afghanistan at this time, but they are there, in Kabul, in the Indo-Afghan frontier, and they are important. Yet this is not a one-way road of Ottoman “diffusion” or the Sublime Porte’s “influence” in Central Asia. There are grassroots Afghan stories to be told from the Middle East as well. You have, for example, Afghan migrants, refugees, and pilgrims traveling, living, working, and studying in the Ottoman domains. Hijaz, Jerusalem, Najaf, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, or Istanbul—Afghans are there.
Meanwhile, at the forefront of Afghanistan scholarship from a South Asian direction are the fine works of, for example, Nile Green, Sana Haroon, Shah Mahmoud Hanifi, Ben Hopkins, and Magnus Marsden. While my book makes a humble contribution to South Asian Studies and Afghan intersections with modern Indian and Pakistani history, my sense is there is relatively more work needed on the Afghan-Ottoman side of the story.
As for Islamic legal modernism, Afghanistan Rising follows Turkish, Arab, Indian, and of course Afghan experts as they formed a cosmopolitan court of policymakers in Kabul, by virtue of their having been hired by three successive Afghan monarchs—the Muhammadzai amirs ʿAbd al-Rahman, Habib Allah, and Aman Allah Khan (who ruled Afghanistan from 1880-1929 ). This is an especially exciting part of the story for me, because whether it’s the Ottoman Mecelle or Tanzimat, or the Anglo-Muhammadan Law in India, these are controversial projects reflecting novel experiments with Islamic law in a modern state. Originally designed in a top-down fashion, that makes the story of their reception, and most important, adaptation in Afghanistan more complicated and fascinating. This is not a story of Afghans blindly adopting the Ottoman Mecelle or Anglo-Muhammadan jurisprudence. Afghan rulers, and their advisers, were adamant about creating and synthesizing something new for their own specific context. Although drawing from late-Ottoman and British Indian legal models, ultimately we are dealing with Afghan legislation, which probably most Islamic legal specialists today are not aware of. It would simply not occur to most scholars that Afghanistan was a major player in conversations about Islamic law and modernity, be it constitutionalism or codification.
As for the final intervention, modern Muslim monarchy, historians Azfar Moin and Aziz al-Azmeh have richly shaped our understanding of medieval and early-modern Muslim kingship in theory and practice. I argue that the Muhammadzai amirs of Afghanistan reveal the emergence of a new model of Muslim kingship. The story of Afghanistan here is of a Muslim dynasty establishing the legitimacy of its hereditary line while claiming to rule in the name of Islam and the delimited territory of a nation-state—a project distinct from earlier modalities of caliphate, imamate, or emirate that made more universal claims. The result was the crafting of an Afghan state that fulfilled both domestic demands, Wilsonian principles, and international “standards of civilization.” It therefore represented an adaptation of older notions of the just Muslim king to the modern context of territorial nation-states.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
FA: Prior to my graduate training in Ottoman-Middle East history, I was more focused on Afghanistan itself—almost in a vacuum, with some incorporation of India/Pakistan’s NWFP. Now the Ottoman link is the strongest undercurrent in my work. Most readers are familiar with Afghan connections to India, to a lesser extent Central Asia and Iran, but the Ottoman/Mediterranean connection is beyond the purview of most scholarly treatments on the country’s history. It is not thought of to be a significant connection, which I contest.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
FA: Students and scholars of Middle East, Ottoman, and Asian history, Islamic studies, anthropology, lawyers, judges, aid workers—anyone interested in learning more about Afghanistan and Islamic law from a modern, but deeper, historic perspective.
As mentioned, Afghanistan’s 1923 constitution illustrates a case when older notions of Muslims kingship could be synthesized with newer notions of legality, legitimacy, and sovereignty. This aspect of the book should be relevant to anyone concerned with the notion of an Islamic state or the relevance of shariʿa to modern modalities of governance. Today, these debates are filtered through the ideologies of a relatively tiny group of extremists—be they of the radical Islamist or Islamophobic variety—or textual Orientalism, or narrow policy questions, and they miss the historic experience of Muslim kingship as in the cases of Kabul, Istanbul, Tehran, Fès, and Cairo, among other locales, over the past 100-200 years. This book tells a story of Islamic law and statecraft through the Afghan prism, but it is also a story linked to other centers of Muslim thought in a circulatory network of interislamic exchange. It therefore offers a new interpretation of Muslim-majority societies against the conventional Western modernity-vs-traditional Islam binary. By examining the making of a modern Islamic state and member of the international community of nations at once, I hope this book will stimulate critical work not only on Afghanistan but also on the theory and practice of Islamic law in the modern world.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
FA: My current work has shifted its geographic range, to the Western hemisphere to be exact, while remaining anchored in Ottoman sources and archives. My next project explores the history of relations between the Ottoman Empire and the United States—as seen from Ottoman perspectives.
Excerpt from the Book:
Transgressing regional divides, this book approaches modern Afghanistan’s legal and constitutional heritage from a multiregional perspective by examining the contributions of a diverse cast of political actors in Kabul— Ottoman Turks, Arabs, and Indians, but most of all, Afghans—from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the first quarter of the twentieth. Paradoxically, the transnational dimensions at the heart of this work emerged from a prototypically national question: What are the historical roots of Afghanistan’s independence as a sovereign state and constitutional monarchy? In pursuit of this inquiry the book trains its eye on the critical half century between the country’s transition from a British protectorate in the late 1870s to an independent nation-state under the late Muhammadzai king Aman Allah Khan in the 1920s. Extant historiography credits Aman Allah with winning Afghanistan’s independence from Britain, securing the country’s international recognition as a fully sovereign state, and promulgating an extraordinary body of legal literature, the Nizamnamihha-yi Amaniyyih (“Aman Allah Codes” in Persian and Pashto). Totaling over seventy originally crafted statutes, the Aman Allah Codes comprised the most ambitious legislative campaign in Afghanistan’s history. As a state-building project the latter included a spectacular range of laws and manuals spanning the gamut of modern governance: from a census bureau, identification cards, and passports to education, land registration, and taxation; and from the training of a civil service and national army to animal rights. Among Aman Allah’s reforms were the opening of public schools for girls, the introduction of legal protections for minorities, the banning of slavery, and the drafting of statutes criminalizing the overburdening of pack animals. The most prominent text of all, however, was the Qanun-i Asasi (Basic Code) of 1923, the country’s first written constitution.
That these achievements occurred during the early reign of the reformist king Aman Allah is known to scholars of Afghanistan’s modern history. What has not been acknowledged, however, is how this remarkable project of legal modernism and statecraft in the 1920s emerged not as a transplant by colonial administrations or European codes, or as an imitation of Kemalist secularism, but from a deeper history of Pan-Islamic—or more precisely, interislamic—linkages beginning shortly after the first Ottoman mission to Afghanistan in 1877. This mission included a confluence of Ottoman Turkish jurists, Afghan clerics, and Indian bureaucrats who converged in Kabul to market their legal and administrative expertise to one of the early twentieth century’s only fully sovereign Muslim states. While casting a bright light on the Afghans who remain center-stage of this story, Afghanistan Rising does not approach the country’s history in a vacuum, disconnected from legal currents or constitutional movements in neighboring lands. Nor will one find support for conventional tropes of Afghanistan as the “buffer state par excellence,” a purported no-man’s-land existing only to placate the rivalries of colonial powers, whether in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries.
By opting out of many routine frameworks where Afghan history and governance is concerned, this book proposes a new series of questions: What role did transnational (or transregional) Muslim networks play in the making of modern Afghanistan’s early legal and constitutional history? What original projects and innovative solutions came out of the experiments in autonomous Muslim governance during the successive reigns of the Afghan Muhammadzai amirs ʿAbd al-Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901), Habib Allah Khan (r. 1901–1919), and Aman Allah Khan (r. 1919–1929)? Did these monarchs and their advisors simply reproduce European models of law and expertise, or did they contribute something uniquely Islamic that expanded the horizons of legality for Muslim governments and international norms at large? If the latter, what approaches, methodologies, and tensions were most prominent in formulating their visions of the shariʿa in a modern state? Put together, how did Afghans, Ottomans, and Indian Muslims interpret and apply Islamic law and statecraft in the virtual laboratory of a rising independent Afghanistan?
As a historical undertaking, the labor for this book began with asking what light Afghan, Ottoman Turkish, and British Indian archives could shed on these questions. By unearthing a genealogy of Afghanistan’s first constitution and its first comprehensive promulgation of nation-state law, the outcome addresses a gap in scholarly literature on Afghan legal history, but also “interislamic” legal networks between the Ottoman Empire and British India in Afghanistan as they evolved over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Recent years have seen historians of international law and sovereignty in the age of empire advance the study of Ottoman extraterritoriality in global directions, pushing scholars to rethink questions of imperial citizenship as not simply a one- or two-sided story of European capitulations and Turkish response in the eastern Mediterranean. Rather, scholars have begun to explore the myriad possibilities for contestation, negotiation, and movement for subjects of diverse status and stripe— Christians, Jews, or Muslims; nationalists, socialists, or Pan-Islamists, to name a few—in a multipolar and increasingly interconnected late imperial world. This book contributes to the growing body of literature on extraterritoriality and imperial citizenship by highlighting the mobility and activities of Afghan, Ottoman, and Indian Muslim statesmen in Afghanistan as the latter transitioned from a semiautonomous protectorate of Britain to a fully sovereign nation-state.
Here the study problematizes literature on the modern Middle East that silences the non-Ottoman periphery as stagnant backwaters or passive objects caught between the colonial rivalry of Britain and Russia. By examining the Afghan court’s patronage of scholarly and bureaucratic networks from Constantinople to Kandahar, and from Damascus to Delhi, it argues that this unique constitutional project can be reduced neither to European mimicry and obeisance nor to an identity politics of Pan-Islam triggered at the behest of the Sublime Porte. In this manner, the book aims to lift the study of Afghanistan from the confines of the Great Game, Cold War, or more recent literature on failed states. Instead, readers are invited to rediscover Afghanistan with a different past—when Kabul represented a burgeoning model of Islamic legal modernism, constitutional monarchy, and independent state building during an age of waning empires and rising nation-states.