Faiz Ahmed. Afghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017. xiii + 430 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-97194-3.
Reviewed by Marya Hannun (Georgetown University)
Published on H-Ideas (September, 2018)
Commissioned by Madeleine S. Elfenbein (Columbia University)
Afghanistan occupies a paradoxical space in the Western imagination. Over the past half century, it has drawn staggering amounts of US aid, multiple military interventions, and sustained media attention, yet it continues to be conceived of as a distant place shrouded in obscurity, one that can only be rendered legible through external mediation. When it is not being framed as the “graveyard of empires,” where great powers go to die, it is described as a pawn in “the Great Game” between Russia and Britain. This dual conceptualization does not only abound in popular literature but also persists, if more subtly, in the academic study of Afghanistan, where it too often falls between the cracks of the imagined regional distinctions between Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Central Asian studies. Fortunately, in recent years, there has been a welcome proliferation of serious attempts to critically engage the history of state formation in Afghanistan as it connects to regional developments, scholarship that moves beyond the British colonial archive and a necessarily diplomatic and military gaze to examine Afghanistan’s intellectual and social past.
Faiz Ahmed’s Afghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires is an important contribution to this growing body of literature. In it, Ahmed draws on a range of new sources—most notably the Ottoman state archives—to situate Afghan state formation within a regional, “pan-Islamic” nexus of intellectual and political exchanges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He follows a diverse cast of characters—scholars, engineers, diplomats, and revolutionaries—as they move between the Ottoman Empire, Kabul, and British India, and traces their influence on the state-building attempts of three successive monarchs: the centralization efforts of Abdur Rahman Khan (r. 1880-1901), the institutional developments of Habib Allah Khan (r. 1901-19), and finally, the constitutional reforms of Aman Allah Khan (1919-29).
The first half of the work is devoted to shedding light on the precise nature and extent of these transregional networks. Ahmed’s knowledge of Ottoman Turkish and his work in the Ottoman and Turkish Republican archives allow him to move beyond the classic "Great Game" narratives and retell the history of Abdur Rahman’s and Habib Allah Khan’s state-building efforts through the lens of Ottoman-Afghan relations.
After a short but fascinating “prehistory” of interactions between Turks, Afghans, Iranians, and Indian Muslims, which serves as a reminder that these transregional networks predate the colonial encounter with Europe, Ahmed begins his story with the Ottoman Empire’s first official mission to Afghanistan in the summer of 1877, during the reign of the amir Sher Ali Khan. The Ottoman envoy selected for this mission was a prominent jurist, Ahmed Hulusi Effendi. Hulusi turns out to have been among the fifteen jurists appointed in 1869 to compile the Mecelle (the Ottoman civil code)—one of the earliest and most systematic attempts to codify Islamic law. During the Ottoman mission to Afghanistan, Hulusi met individually with members of the Afghan ulama, who would, in turn, be instrumental in Abdur Rahman’s state-building efforts over the following decade.
That the biography of this individual figure might serve as a link between Afghan and Ottoman legal reforms in the late nineteenth century is an exciting find and an important reminder of Ussama Makdisi’s observation on the power of obscure or minor histories to “illuminate those we think we know.” Ahmed also provides more direct illustrations of the Sublime Porte’s influence on Abdur Rahman’s centralization efforts, for example, through the commissioning of Dari translations of works on Ottoman statecraft to be disseminated to Afghan government officials.
Such transregional interactions became even more pronounced during the reign of Abdur Rahman’s son and successor, Habib Allah Khan. This period saw the return of a number of Afghan expatriates who had been exiled to the Ottoman Empire and British India by Abdur Rahman as well as the arrival of a host of foreign advisors and experts. Specialists were brought in from Ottoman domains to assist in the construction of schools and factories, while teachers and students came from India’s leading Muslim educational institutions. Ahmed explores in fascinating detail the tensions and rivalries that resulted from their convergence in Kabul in the lead-up to World War I.
Ahmed also explores the larger geopolitical tensions that shaped the Kabul court in this period. His account focuses not on the imperial rivalries of Britain and Russia, but rather on the struggle between the Ottoman and British Empires over Muslim hearts and minds. As the seat of the caliphate, the Ottoman Empire represented a source of authority to Muslims across the region, and its declaration of jihad against Britain in 1914 was influential for many of Afghanistan's Sunni Muslim majority. The Khilafat movement—the pan-Islamist political movement that sprang up among Indian Muslims around their allegiance to the Ottoman caliphate in opposition to the British—turns out to have influenced political life in Afghanistan as well. Kabul’s court was torn between loyalty to the Ottoman caliph and loyalty to the British, who held control of Afghanistan’s foreign policy. Even as Habib Allah Khan assured the British of neutrality, anti-British revolutionaries flocked to Kabul, resulting in what Ahmed calls “a lethal combination of Ottoman military officers, Afghan volunteers, and Deobandi clerics” (p. 26). According to Ahmed, this network of Indian Muslim, Afghan, and Ottoman activists would prove essential in helping Afghanistan win its independence from Britain in 1919 and also played a decisive role in shaping its constitution.
Having established a long and robust context of Ottoman and British Indian influence and interaction in Kabul, Ahmed devotes the latter half of Afghanistan Rising to the decade that followed independence, focusing on the legislative and constitutional reforms of Aman Allah Khan. It is in here that the book’s theoretical heft and most significant contributions lie. This period—which ended with Aman Allah Khan’s dramatic abdication in 1929—has garnered perhaps more scholarly attention than any other period in Afghanistan’s pre-Soviet history. However, missing from the majority of accounts is a close examination of the reforms enacted by the young monarch, the legacy of which has been overshadowed by the violence surrounding their implementation.
Once again, Ahmed contextualizes his analysis of Aman Allah's reforms within the Ottoman-Indian nexus. Activist Turks like Enver Pasha, forced to leave occupied Istanbul in the wake of World War I, found a sympathetic base in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, increasing khilafatist agitation in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s defeat catalyzed the often overlooked but significant hijrat movement between 1920 and 1921. After a fatwa declared British India dar al-harb ("the abode of war"), Aman Allah decreed that Indian Muslims wishing to leave enemy territory would find a welcome home and citizenship in Afghanistan, prompting the migration of an estimated 60,000 Indian Muslims to Afghanistan.
In the early years of his rule, Aman Allah tapped into such anticolonial fervor to garner Muslim support from abroad. However, the moment was short-lived. The hijrat movement collapsed in 1921 as it became clear that—ideals aside—the Afghan state had no practical plan to incorporate the enormous influx of Indians. Like Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, “Aman Allah increasingly opted for territorially limited nationalism over universal caliphatism” (p. 205). Unlike Atatürk, however, Aman Allah’s brand of nationalism did not entail a rejection of Islamic principles, making it, as Ahmed rightly notes, “one of the twentieth century’s first projects of Islamic state making” (p. 28).
The amir’s vision was primarily articulated through the Nizamnamihha-yi Amaniyyih (constitutional and supplemental legal codes of Aman Allah), perhaps the most ambitious legislative overhaul in modern Afghan history. As with the preceding instances of change, Ahmed looks to the connections between individuals to suggest that several Turkish and Indian advisors had an influence on these reforms. The commission appointed to oversee the codification of laws between 1919 and 1923 included three Indian nationals and one Ottoman Turk. The remainder were Afghans, and all shared a background in the Hanafi legal tradition.
The reforms of the 1923 constitution—seventy-three provisions in all—served as a blueprint for the state, defining the rights of citizens, the role of the amir, the function of the courts, and the structure of the cabinet. Most of these reforms were responding to the exigencies of state-building and do not, in themselves, harken back to Islamic legal principles. However, Ahmed argues that their secular content does not render them Islamic in name alone. His strongest evidence in support of this assertion is his analysis of the judiciary reforms produced in this period. In analyzing the Tamassuk al-Quzat al-Amaniyah—the handbook for judges compiled by the chief jurist, Mawlawi ‘Abd al Wasi Qandahari, in 1922—he finds that each section relies on canonical texts of the Hanafi school of Islamic law.
For scholars of Islamic law and the state, this adherence to the Hanafi legal school as the basis of an innovative and avowedly “modern” constitution represents a somewhat unique case. As Ahmed notes, it was not written at the behest of colonial administrators, which sets it apart from the Anglo-Muhammadan Law Code established in British India in 1860. Given its use of Hanafi texts, it cannot be dismissed as mere mimicry of European or Kemalist legal codes. Its reliance on these texts likewise defies the rejection of the established legal schools evinced by salafi reformers of the early twentieth century.
In 1924, Atatürk dealt a fatal blow to the Khilafat movement in British India with his abolishment of the caliphate. The same year, a rebellion against Aman Allah’s legal reforms—particularly against his family and education laws—began in the Eastern Province of Khost. It was ultimately quelled, but the amir had to scale back his reforms as a result and in subsequent years he was never able to recapture the complete support of the Afghan ulama. Ahmed puts all of these events together to suggest that divisions between Kemalists and Khilafatists represented one of the primary points of tension faced by Aman Allah, a tension that would ultimately lead to his overthrow in 1929. Thus, the monarch’s rise and fall should not be understood in simplistic tropes of a reactive tribalism rearing its insurgent tendencies over a central state, but rather as part of a larger regional conflict between competing visions of modern Islamic statehood.
It is a compelling argument. However, Ahmed does not have the space to fully delve into how Aman Allah’s legal code—though written by Afghans—still suffered from the same tensions as India’s Anglo-Muhammadan Law between the static process of codification and the interpretive fluidity of the Shariah. Nor does he examine closely the relationship between gender and Islamic law in Aman Allah’s Nizamnamihha and the ways in which—particularly in this realm— the Hanafi basis of his constitutional reforms was in conflict with the nature of these reforms. Though he tried, Aman Allah was unable to justify his restrictions on polygamy and marriage age against the clear and long-standing position of Hanafi fiqh (jurisprudence) on these matters. Not only are these points crucial to understanding Aman Allah’s struggles, but they also return in various guises amid later attempts at constitutional reform in many majority-Muslim nations, including Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan.
These questions do not represent gaps in Ahmed’s scholarship so much as avenues for future research. Ultimately, this work is an argument for locating historical change at the intersection of regional and national histories. Ahmed has given us a rich, detailed, and engaging account of how developments in and between the Ottoman Empire and British India are necessary—though not sufficient—to understand developments in Afghanistan’s legal history. Afghanistan Rising is a book that should be engaged not only by scholars of Afghan or Ottoman history, but by anyone interested in the intricacies of Islamic law and the modern state.
. Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 8.
. Senzil Nawid’s Religious Response to Social Change in Afghanistan, 1919-29: King Aman-Allah and the Afghan Ulama (Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda, 1999) is one notable exception.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-ideas.
Marya Hannun. Review of Ahmed, Faiz, Afghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft between the Ottoman and British Empires.
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