Today I had the chance to read a fascinating essay titled “The Political Failure of Islamic Law,” by Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton (who admits from the start that his title is “deliberately provocative and somewhat misleading”). The essay is based on a lecture he gave at Yale Law School, and it’s the most recent edition in the law school’s Occasional Papers series.
Haykel argues that the modern Sunni Reform movement and its Islamist followers have “failed to achieve the political vision of a powerful and confident Islamic order” because of their statist vision.
The Reformer’s program, writes Haykel, “represents a double rupture from the past: first, the Reformers deliberately chose to sweep away the teachings of the established schools of law; second, they opted for the state rather than society as the means by which to impose their program.”
Notably, among the consequences of the writings of Reformist scholar Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) were a rejection of “the epistemology of traditional legal rulings, most of which had been built by a process of analogical reasoning”—much, one might say, like the rules of the English common law—and the replacement of premodern legal principles with “concepts of public welfare (maslaha) and the ‘purposes of law’ (maqasid al-sharia‘a).”
“Very few are the voices of opposition to this state-centered vision,” concludes Haykel. “One of them is the Lebanese intellectual and scholar Ridwan al-Sayyid. Al-Sayyid … argues that for centuries Islamic beliefs and practices were determined by the community (jama‘a) and not by the state. The meaning of Islam was explicated by the societies in which the jurists lived and developed their views. And because it was a societal and collective enterprise, it was open to a multiplicity of views and to a degree of tolerance for difference. For al-Sayyid, the great danger today lies in giving the state, with narrow-minded Islamists at its helm, the exclusive right to determine the content and contours of Islamic law.”
Do Haykel’s arguments point to another untapped connection between the Islamic and Anglo-American legal and political traditions?