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Reviewed by:
  • Constitutional Politics in the Middle East—With Special Reference to Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan
  • Vijayashri Sripati (bio)
Constitutional Politics in the Middle East—With Special Reference to Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan (Said Arjomand ed., Hart Publishing2008), pp. 210.

The constitution-making fever that gripped many regions of the world in the early 1990s animated a global conversation on constitutionalism. This conversation centered on and applauded the new constitutional dawn in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as South Africa's constitutional miracle,1 while constitution-making in the Middle East and elsewhere went largely unnoticed, or at least under-appreciated. Besides fostering a narrow vision of the global picture, this indifference to constitutionalism in the Muslim world arguably risked perpetuating both pre- and post-9/11 misconceptions of Islam's relations with democracy and constitutionalism. Said Arjomand's edited volume, Constitutional Politics in the Middle East—With Special Reference to Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, is thus both important and welcomed because it sheds light on the murky spaces in the constitutionalism discourse and dispels many myths about Islam. In fact, it grew out of a 2005 workshop at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law that was organized to move to the center stage constitutional perspectives from the Middle East that were long shunted to the peripheries.2

Following a seductive eighteenth century formula, constitutionalism is primarily [End Page 1014] associated with limiting political power through the rights mechanism in a written constitution;3 understandably, rights protection has been the dominant theme in the constitutionalism discourse. This legalistic bias has, in turn, impoverished the field which cries out for nourishment by infusion of other themes4 and disciplinary perspectives. Arjomand rightly identifies an examination of constitution-making as a prerequisite for any comparative study of the construction of political orders.5 Indeed, his volume is the first comparative and interdisciplinary study of constitution-making in the Middle East.6

One of the foremost strengths of this book is that it provides insight into little known aspects of Islam. For example, Linda Darling's7 essay on the Middle Eastern concept of "circle of justice"8—the normative principles under-girding Islamic governance in the medieval period and imbuing Middle Eastern culture on the whole—validates the argument that all legal cultures have their distinct conceptions of constitutionalism, a fact under-valued by dominant traditions of discourse. As one comparative constitutionalism scholar has rightly declared, "constitutionalism is not unique to the West or the North" [but only] "has been made to appear so!"9 Darling deftly shows how the indigenous norm and political language of good governance (the circle of justice) that guided the Ottoman constitution-makers in the nineteenth century was over shadowed by the socio-political upheavals effected through colonialism, the attendant installation of Western political institutions, and the usage of Western political vocabulary of constitutionalism and rights.10 Significantly, her historical sketch also highlights the fact that the original Islamic concept of governance does not mirror the present day Islamic state as envisaged by the Islamic fundamentalists.

Next, Arjomand's thoughtful essay on Iran's constitutional experience in the nineteenth century shows that in the period prior to the post-World War II era of constitution-making, Islam operated to limit government and legislation.11 But this trend changed after World War [End Page 1015] II when Islam morphed into a political ideology and consequently, increasingly moved from being the limitation to the very foundation of the constitution and the state.12 Who were the proponents of this Islamic political ideology? Although lay Iranian intellectuals were the first to embrace this notion, they were soon overtaken by the ulema, whose injection of an odious "clericalist" flavor into Islamic political ideology triggered the advent of the harmful phase of Islam on constitutionalism.13

Constitutional Politics in the Middle East also offers insightful constitutional comparisons. By comparing Iran's constitutional experience with that of its neighbor, Afghanistan, Arjomand sharpens our understanding of the central questions of the role and potential of Islam in effecting social change.14 For example, in Iran the ulema's clericalist flavor blunted Islam's emancipatory potential, while in Afghanistan...


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