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New CFR book: Noah Feldman on the Fall and Rise of the Islamic State

April 8, 2008

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Islamist political movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco make the adoption of sharia—the law of the traditional Islamic state—a crucial plank in their political platforms. Given the severity of some of the law’s provisions, why has this call for sharia helped Islamist political movements from Algeria and Palestine, to Afghanistan and Pakistan, succeed in so many elections throughout the Muslim world? Can the Islamic state succeed where Islamists are being elected? Council Adjunct Senior Fellow Noah Feldman’s new book, The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, seeks to answer these questions through a new interpretation of Islamic constitutional history.

Feldman reveals how the classical Islamic constitution was informed and legitimated by law and shows how executive power was balanced by the scholars who interpreted and administered sharia. The introduction of a legislature and a written constitution and the eventual abolishment of the caliphate—political and religious leaders who stood in the prophet’s stead—effectively removed the system of checks and balances maintained by the scholars. But the reforms of the modern era were tragically incomplete, and in this vacuum the power of the executive grew at the expense of law and justice. The result is now the unchecked executive dominance that distorts politics in so many Muslim states.

It is in this void of political justice that the calls for the reestablishment of sharia are finding renewed interest. Feldman examines what these new Islamic states currently look like and what their prospects are for success. He argues that a modern Islamic state could work, but only if new institutions emerge that restore a constitutional balance of power to the government.

The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State provides the necessary background to address questions of how the Western world should respond to the growing popularity of the Islamist movement and whether democracy and the Islamist state are truly compatible.

Advance Praise forThe Fall and Rise of the Islamic State

“In Feldman’s fascinating intellectual journey through history, Islamic law, and modern politics, you will discover the power of ‘justice.’ It is both the driving force behind efforts in the Arab world to democratize, constitutionalize, and modernize Islam, and a weapon for the worst kind of abuses and authoritarianism.”

Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and former New York Times columnist

“Noah Feldman has raised a central discussion in Islam about the nature of the Islamic state that is too often missed or misunderstood. Regardless of ideological or religious affiliation, the reader needs to engage with Feldman’s clear and sympathetic arguments in order to make sense of what is happening in the Muslim world today.”

Akbar S. Ahmed, American University

“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.”

Muhammad Qasim Zaman, author of The Ulama in Contemporary Islam

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Noah Feldman is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of law at Harvard University . He is also the author of After Jihad , What We Owe Iraq, and Divided by God. Feldman was the former senior constitutional adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq and his current work examines the compatibility of democracy and Islam. He is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

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