Shari’a is a code of law based on the Koran. In the Muslim world, many want to replace corrupt autocratic regimes with the Shari’a and establish traditional Islamic states. Western countries regard the Shari’a as a threat. Islamic parties are winning elections on it. Militants have used the Shari’a to justify acts of terrorism. Meanwhile, secular minded people find their most severe provisions repugnant.
In his latest book, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State (Princeton University Press), Noah Feldman tells the story behind the populist movement in the Muslim world to establish the Shari’a. Feldman addresses questions about why the Shari’a is popular in spite of its harsh code and whether the Islamic state can succeed.
He also explains how the classical Islamic constitution governed and was legitimized by law. Feldman argues that prior to the reforms of the modern era, the Shari’a operated under an effective system of checks and balances between scholars who interpreted the law and executive power.
Knowing the history of the Shari’a itself is important for context and Feldman’s book covers the promising beginnings of the traditional Islamic constitution and its downfall in the Ottoman Empire. Throughout the book, Feldman contends that if the Shari’a is combined with modernized institutions, successful Islamic states based on law and justice can be established.
Muhammad Qasim Zaman, author of The Ulama In Contemporary Islam, had the following praise for Feldman’s book:
“Scholarly and sophisticated yet highly accessible, this book makes an extremely important contribution to contemporary discussions of both Muslim politics and Islamic law. Feldman’s work provides a historical depth that has often been lacking in studies of law and constitutionalism in modern Muslim societies.”Feldman is not without his critics however. In a recent article for The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier writes,
“Feldman is shilling for a soft theocracy--for other people, naturally. This is, among other things, hypocritical. Don't Muslims, too, have the right to sin?”Noah Feldman is a professor at Harvard Law School and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He is also an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of three previous books: Divided by God, What We Owe Iraq and After Jihad.
Feldman agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his provocative book. Among the topics we discussed was Sharia’s history, women’s rights in Muslim society, geopolitics, how Barack Obama's candidacy was being received in the Muslim world and I also specifically asked him to respond to Leon Wieseltier’s critique. Our conversation was approximately twenty-eight minutes. Please refer to the media player below.
This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes store by searching for the "Intrepid Liberal Journal."