Rising Afghanistan

  • A story of Afghan scholars

Over four million people cast their votes in the parliamentary election in Afghanistan over the weekend, despite the violence that ensued. That is, around half of the eligible voters turned out and faced security challenges, which meant that the election had to be extended to Sunday, with scores unable to vote on Saturday and at least 28 killed in terror attacks.

Amidst what seems like a perpetual peace process – which itself is a misnomer – the elections are a step forward in giving the Afghan the right to decide the fate of their country. But the juxtaposition between the voting and the jihadist violence also points to the war-torn theatre that Afghanistan has been since the year(s) 1979 and/or 2001 depending on your choice of lens.

But has war really been Afghanistan’s only reality, as is often depicted in literature from pretty much any part of the world. With terms like “graveyard of empires” and the never ending and self-evolving “great games” being perpetually slashed on the country, is war and violence really the sole reality that we can dig out from the boundaries of what is now the state of Afghanistan?

With scholarly work before Soviet invasion of 1979 limited, Faiz Ahmed’s recent bookAfghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires is prominent amidst the many recent efforts to challenge that reductionist discourseIt calls out the academic works emanating from South Asia, Central Asia and Middle East – in addition to the Western literature –with Afghanistan never really considered a part of any of the three regions.

The book serves as a firm reminder to an often overlooked, and rarely recalled, reality that Afghanistan was the first sovereign Muslim state.

Afghanistan Rising uses the drafting of the 1923 Afghanistan Constitution – the first for a Muslim majority nation – to not only offer an intellectual and legal history of the country, but also to provide valuable insights into the interactions within the Muslim world at the turn of the 19th century, when West was gearing up for global wars.

The book also argues that jihadist endeavours from Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly to ISIS have injudiciously meant that Pan-Islamism been equated with anti-Western, violent ideologies leading to global terrorism

There are two core arguments of the book. The first that Ottoman and South Asian Islamic juridical traditions were crucial in nation-building in early 20th century Afghanistan amidst attempts to find harmony between Sharia and international laws.

The second that nationalism in Muslim world was an internal offshoot to a sense of collective legal and cultural unity more so than as a riposte to movements in Europe or resistance to the colonial powers.

The book focuses on Abdur Rahman Khan’s centralisation, Habib Allah Khan’s institution building and Aman Allah Khan’s constitution drafting in chronological order.

‘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, inter-Islamic—linkages beginning shortly after the first Ottoman mission to Afghanistan in 1877.’

Afghanistan Rising digs into documents ranging from the first national law codes and judges’ manuals from 1880s to the 1923 constitution, to argue that Afghanistan was not a latecomer to legal development and state building.

The sources for that legal and intellectual superstructure come are multiregional, coming from Ottoman Turks, Ottoman Arabs, British Indian Muslims and primarily the Afghans.

The Nizamnamihha-yi Amaniyyih [Aman Allah Codes] had 70 original statutes in the Constitution. These ranged from passports, court room procedures, universal education, transparent taxation, animal rights. The reforms carried out by Aman Allah included opening of girls’ schools and colleges, legal protection for minorities, the banning of slavery.

How did these laws come into being in 1920s Afghanistan? Who were the authors and what legal mechanism did the use?

Afghanistan’s legal codification and constitutionalist movement not was a translation of European codes. It sprung up as an aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s first official mission to Afghanistan in the summer of 1877. The mission was spearheaded by jurist Ahmed Hulusi Effendi whose biography features prominently in the book.

The first half of the book underscores Kabul at the turn of the 19th century as “akin to a port city” – a cross-section for Muslim scholars, jurists and diplomats, where the binding force was law, institutional building and nationalist forces, centering around the Islamic legal system.

The second half discusses the convergence of three major developments of the time: the independence of Afghanistan, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Khilafat Movement in British India, the latter two of course prominent feature of South Asian history.

‘[The] Khilafat movement provided a vibrant anticolonial movement on Kabul’s doorstep, further promoting Aman Allah’s stature abroad and bolstering his legitimacy at home as a freedom-fighting ghazi king concerned for the plight of Muslims everywhere. It also allowed Aman Allah—even after the embarrassment of the Hijrat debacle—to continue to extend his influence across the Durand Line and the some seventy million Muslim subjects of the British Raj.’

The book also argues that jihadist endeavours from Sayyid Ahmad of Rai Bareilly to ISIS have injudiciously meant that Pan-Islamism been equated with anti-Western, violent ideologies leading to global terrorism.

Afghanistan Rising is principally a story of Afghan scholars, Ottoman lawyers and Indian technocrats uniting in their use of Islamic jurisprudence to exhibit staunch resistance to European legal codes, with the diversity of visions providing this synthesis its binding force.

‘Due to Afghanistan’s distinguishing characteristics in the greater Islamicate world, as multiple observers have noted, rediscovering its legal heritage has implications for understanding the modern development of Islamic law and constitutionalism at large.’