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Sovereignty, the nation state, and Islam*

Gerrit Steunebrink
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, the Netherlands
ABSTRACT. In this article we try to show how revolutionary the idea of sov-
ereignty was and is in the Islamic world, preceding all nationalism. Sovereignty
marks the very transition from empire to the central state that the nation state
presupposes. Sovereignty made its entrance in the nineteenth century in the
Ottoman Empire. It functioned in the centralization policy of the sultan, who
needed this central position to realize a top down process of modernization.
This policy took apart the Empire’s traditional system of checks and balances.
Thus, the nation state does not conserve traditional culture, but is the result and
producer of cultural change, in fact, of a process of modernization that involves
language and religion (the marks of the nation state). This does not imply that
all nation states are homogenized by a globalizing process of modernization.
A civil society based on individual freedom and the application of human rights
and democracy makes a real difference in the world of nation states. Those ideas
prevent the return of empire in the disguise of globalization. In Europe, these
liberal ideas mark the limits of sovereignty and preceed the emergence of nation-
alism; in the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic world, sovereignty and national-
ism are used for a top-down process of modernization sometimes at odds with
those liberal ideas. The implementation of these ideas in an specific cultural
context is necessary and is at the same time a guarantee against cultural isomor-

KEYWORDS. Sovereignty, nationalism, central state, nation state, empire, Islam,

Christianity, natural law, democracy, civil society, modernity

T he nation state is often seen as a political form guarenteeing cultures

their survival, being the presumptive salvation of the Indian or

* Translated by Dr. John Hymers for Ethical Perspectives. This article first appeared in Dutch in
Ethische Perspectieven 17 (2007) 4: 436-468 under the title “Soevereiniteit, nationale staat en de islam.”

© 2008 by European Centre for Ethics, K.U.Leuven. All rights reserved. doi: 10.2143/EP.15.1.2029556
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Turkish cultures, for instance, in the face of Europe. This is somewhat

obvious. One thinks of Hegel, who claims that a people can only survive
independently through the form of a state. A people’s language and reli-
gion are very quickly threatened when it must live in the same state as
another language, tradition, and religion. Nothing offers a more obvious
reason for separation and the formation of an independent state. Thus
was Belgium begun in the face of the Netherlands, and the Netherlands
in the face of Spain, and Indonesia – appealing to the Dutch rebellion
against the Spanish – once again in the face of the Netherlands. At the
same time, we see that an independent culture only seriously enters into
its stride after this political divorce. Is national culture something old that
survives in the new form of the nation state, or is it something new that
only emerges with the nation state? What happens on the way to tradi-
tional culture? Certainly, when you see the nation state emerging in the
non-Western world within the framework of a modernization process,
this question is of immense importance.
With the aid of the central authority, the nation state – see Japan –
scoops up Western technology, science, and capitalism to begin a mod-
ernization process that destroys the internal political culture so as subse-
quently to preserve its language and possibly religion. Is that everything?
The situation of the nation state seems thus like that of those foreign
communities often invited by bureaucrats to the city hall of a multicul-
tural society. At every occasion, the bureaucrat in charge sends for these
groups to trot out their food, drinks, folk dances, and folk music. Thus
are these actually multicultural societies. In Indonesia, the central govern-
ment does the same thing with the regional cultures of Sumatra, Borneo,
and the like, or so I am told by an Indonesian student. At the global level,
nation states protect their culture by doing nothing more than presenting
local food, drinks, and dances to the tune of a modernization and ration-
alization process occurring the whole world over.
By the end of this article, I hope it will be clear enough that this goes
too far. For, the introduction of the nation state does not protect a

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traditional culture, but remakes this into a new culture. This creation occurs
within a process of modernization, wherein modern political institutions
expel the old. But through this, the national culture is not simply new. It
certainly rests upon ‘nationalizable’ data – ethnicities – which can be given
a chance in the nation state. Since the modern period, language and reli-
gion have prevailed as the characteristics of a national culture, but they
already played an important role previous to that period. Consequently,
these cultural differences at the global level are not irrelevant embellish-
ments on top of a general modernization process. There is also always a
difference between nation states with and without an individualistic ‘civil
society,’ and with or without a democratic rule of law. Cultural and reli-
gious traditions play a role in the development from one to the other.
We will look at a number of aspects of this issue occurring in the Islamic
world. As a point of departure, we will take the history of the Ottoman
Empire, which covered the entire Mediterranean basin, stretching from the
former Yugoslavia to Morocco, and bordering Iran and Russia in the East.
Sovereignty, or self-legislation, seems truly new here (cf. Ansari 2002, 97;
Platti 1995, 91-108). By adopting the idea of supreme self-legislation, the
transition was also made from a locally organized empire to a central state
serving top-down modernization. The consequence of such was the loss of
a traditional system of checks and balances. And the compensation for this
is the source of the painful quest for a free sphere imposed by a totalization
of Islam or an ideology of modernity, such as in Turkey, as a consequence
of the modern model of the central nation state. The result of this process
cannot be some mere embellishment, because it also stands in service of the
humane mastery of the modernization process raging the whole world over.


The development of the nation state has not only taken place within the
divorce proceedings of an empire. There was also the general transition

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from traditional ‘empires’ to central and nation states in the nineteenth

century. I tentatively describe here the transition from a world of empires
to that of states, wherein the paradox is that ‘empires’ actually recognize
no other ‘worlds’ outside of themselves. The imprint of the West is pres-
ent everywhere in this nineteenth-century transition. For example, it
breaks open the Japanese empire, which had closed itself off. State for-
mation in the nineteenth century reveals congruence between internal and
external sovereignty. After being broken open, Japan developed itself from
a closed empire into a nation state by adopting the Western model of
state and thereby scrapping its intermediate feudal structures. As we will
see, the Ottoman empire also scrapped a typical Islamic structure by tak-
ing sovereign control of legislation. The Indian empire became an inde-
pendent nation state, India (from which Pakistan split) with English leg-
islation from its colonial situation. China also developed slowly from an
empire into a nation state. State formation in this connection is not think-
able without the idea of a world-wide community of states, in which every
state plays a role. China reveals something very interesting concerning an
‘imperial ideology’ in relation to the world of states. China was, accord-
ing to its own ideology, the ‘middle empire,’ the only true empire. That
empire is the embodiment of order and law. It has, like many empires, an
view of legislation and law wherein cosmology and social reality coincide;
the legislation of the empire is the legislation of heaven and earth, and vice
versa. The early European Middle Ages saw the empire as the orbis chris-
tianus under Christ as pantokrator (cf. Böckenförde 2002, 215). No other
states existed outside of the empire, only hostile chaos or, in principle, a
subservient world of tributary vassal states. China recognized no equiva-
lent state with which to conclude treaties, and, until 1901, had no min-
istry of foreign affairs, because foreign countries did not actually exist.2
China began state formation at the end of the nineteenth century through
the declaration of war against Japan. This declaration of war at the end
of the nineteenth century appears to have been the very first declaration
of war that China had ever made in its long history. Not that China had

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never waged war, but, they did not consider these wars to be wars; rather,
they considered them to be police actions against insurgents at the bor-
ders of the empire. Japan was, just like Korea, still a tributary state of
China, even though it had not paid any tribute for four hundred years. By
declaring war against Japan, China recognized the existence of other states
and thus itself entered into the world of states.
I think that the Islamic distinction between the world of peace and
the world of war, which sometimes causes us to fear, can only be under-
stood as an imperial ideology. The empire of war was simply the ‘evil
world’ outside of the Islamic empire, which must be brought ever more
under the righteous legislation of God. It only functioned in this context.
It never played out on the individual level.
Where empires bump up against each other and must get to know
each other, a world of states emerges, so is it sometimes said, because plu-
rality and equivalence enter into the picture. Yet, these notions did not
really emerge until eighteenth and nineteenth century cosmopolitan think-
ing on the modern state. Internally, empires certainly know more plural-
ism due to their often local organization. But the formation of the nation
state brings an end to this.
In mediaeval Europe, the Carolingian Empire, the Byzantine Empire,
and the Arabic caliphates ran up against one another. In this situation, the
first European international law developed in practice. Thus, here one
could actually talk about equivalent states. But this does not yet mean
that they adopted equal structures, and certainly not that they recognized
each other, or even their own subjects, as ideologically equivalent.
Although by exchanging ambassadors they posited this equivalence in
practice, in ceremonies the non-equivalence was often stressed. The
ambassador presenting himself or the visiting sovereign actually comes
to declare the subservient servitude of the other empires (cf. Ago 1980;
Bakker et al. 1997, 98-100). Ideologically, each emperor remains the only
propagator of law and legislation throughout the entire world! The
Ottoman sultan actually wanted to annex Vienna and Rome. The world

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outside of the empire always remained the world of war. When, in the
nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was already long bound hand
and foot to the European states, the help that these offered to the empire
in the Crimean War against Russia was still so unacceptable that the court
ideologues thought that this help must be interpreted as a ‘vassal duty’ (see
the parallel with China) of the heathen nations to the sultan (Diner 1993,
167).3 Only with the development toward central, nation states did this
imperial ideology take a back seat. Accordingly, only in the world of equiv-
alent sovereign states can the idea of a union of states or peoples span-
ning the world emerge with the necessary plurality and equivalence. A
union of ‘empires’ would be nonsense, and just as odd as a conference
of hermits.


Since the nineteenth century, the transition to the modern nation state has
revealed greater reciprocal dependence between the states and stuck the
differing internal political structure with the bill. This usually, at least on
the surface, becomes levelled. Consequently, we find an inclination in the
twentieth century toward ideologically equal treatment via the idea of
human rights.
As we just mentioned concerning Japan and are about to see once
again in the Islamic world, that process has different components. First,
we will look at the Westphalian model in Europe that in fact spread itself
around the world in the nineteenth century. This model is sometimes
called the model of the anarchy of states. But perhaps this relation was
not so anarchic, because these states developed themselves internally in
the same way. All the states, pre-eminently France, were on the way to
becoming centralized. (The new Republic of the Netherlands was the
anomaly until Napoleon.) Therein fit a congruence of internal and exter-
nal sovereignty. Subsequently, something like ‘enlightened despotism’

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developed, the regulation of religion from top down and its required state-
run economy – we think of theories like ‘Colbertism’ or ‘Cameralism.’
The education of bureaucrats becomes important. Rationalization and
modernization belong here, which, together with science and technology,
contribute not only to the striking power of the European war machine,
but also to the economic development of the country, via capitalism and
industrialization. In the nineteenth century, this model of the central state
will serve top-down modernization in the Islamic, and in fact the entire,
But the European central state had indeed experienced the genesis of
a civil society based on individualism and capitalism. Nationalism came
afterwards, when religion as the bond within these individualistic soci-
eties was lost through the wars of religion. The European nation state
has always presupposed the reality of capitalism and liberalism, to which
it is the counterbalance. But what does nationalism serve in the non-West-
ern world? Roughly speaking, it does not offer a counterbalance for
liberalism and capitalism, but is the means for introducing a modern state
with all the trimmings, whereby it often comes into conflict with the
liberality belonging to such (cf. Steunebrink 2004). It is used in service of
a forced modernization from above, even though it makes an appeal to
the rank and file and also works for their education and betterment.
The true novelty for the Islamic world is this autonomous, sovereign
central state. Nationalism comes along in the wake of this state.


The compulsion to modernize is first and foremost external. Through

defeat on the battlefield, the Ottoman Empire, at least, was compelled to
modernize and to adopt science and technology in service of waging war.
Consequently, it adopted the necessary organization and education, and
rationalized its practice of authority. It also felt the power of industrial

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production and capitalism. The novelty of sovereignty seemed necessary

to carry all of this out.
When we think about Islam’s problems with modern political struc-
tures, then we do not so much spontaneously think about the issue of sov-
ereignty rather than problems concerning human rights. Islam and
women, Islam and other religions, etc. – these are for us first and fore-
most human-rights themes. Still, the difficulty that Islam has with the
principle of sovereignty is much larger, and the above human-rights
themes are related to these. Autonomy is the problem of sovereignty.
This difficulty does not make Islam into an exception. The principle of
sovereignty has been experienced throughout Europe as problematic
because of the absolutism that accompanies it. As well, the concept of
popular sovereignty was controversial until the Second World War; one
thinks of Groen van Prinsterer in the Netherlands, who in the nineteenth
century placed God and the monarchy ahead of popular sovereignty. In
the Islamic world, the problem of the relation between religious law,
Sharia, and autonomous sovereignty remains in play (Schacht 1966, 101).
The Ottomom Empire did not adopt the model of the sovereign state
for ideological reasons, but, as said above, as a life preserver following the
experience of the power of military technology. How great a role the mil-
itary played can be seen from this: at the end of the eighteenth and the
beginning of the nineteenth century, a military engineering school, a naval
school, a military medical college, and finally a new military academy were
founded. Moreover, schools for civil administration also emerged. At the
same time, a translation school for the diplomatic corps was founded,
because Turkey wanted to be able to orient itself around Western devel-
opments. Students went to Europe. In 1831, the first Turkish newspaper
appeared. This modernization from above meant a revolution that called
forth opposition from traditional intermediary associations such as the
old army corps and the clergy.
The first sultan with a mind for reformation (reigning from 1789-
1807) paid for it with his life. His successor, who reigned from 1808-

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1839, understood he must violently purge the army corps, and subject
the clergy to himself. And through this, something un-Islamic is seen: the
sovereignty of the state as central legislator. This became obvious in the
first large-scale reformation decree of 1839, which announced the launch
of an European education model, a judicial system, equality for all indi-
viduals from every faith community, military obligation, and a new taxa-
tion system. The state took the law completely in its own hands. That is
the clearest indication of the emergence of the idea of sovereignty. At the
same time, this idea is traditionally un-Islamic.



What was the position of Islamic law in the empire? Perhaps we must
first say something about Islamic law as such. The word ‘law’ is here
misleading, if we think about our modern legal system and its laws.
Rather, we must think about the Torah in the Jewish tradition. Islamic
law regulates the proper relation of humanity with God and, in that
connection, the relation among humans is also regulated. The literal
meaning of the word ‘Sharia,’ which raises so much repugnance in us,
is ‘path,’ and more precisely, the path along which the herd is led to
the watering hole. Sharia has little to do with enforceable law. Sharia
contains rituals and moral duties in relation to God, which can never
be enforced by the government. The amount of compelling law as we
understand it is actually very small: everything that has to do with con-
tracts, both in the spheres of commerce and those of marriage and
family. The Sharia as legislation does not fit within the modern distinc-
tion between legality and morality. Precisely because of the unity of
moral and legal duties one could, in an Hegelian manner, rather call it
a form of pre-modern “ethical life,” which is stretched in modernity on
the Procrustean bed of legality and morality.

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Consequently, we must catch sight of the organization of that law.

The ‘myth of Islam’ claims that Islam does not recognize the separation
between church and state. That is correct, but is seriously misleading
(cf. van Koningsveld 1993, 38-55). The most important thing is to see that
Islam knows no organizational form like the ‘Church.’ The Shiah in Iran
developed ecclesiastical forms, but not the Sunni Islam of the Middle
East. Even if a religion indeed recognizes a form of church, then it nev-
ertheless still does not recognize the separation of church and state for
long (for which, see the history of Christianity). Further, Islam simply
falls together with social life; Islam recognizes no membership, no ‘cir-
cumcision registry,’ as Christianity recognizes a baptismal registry. Sharia
is in this case simply the legislation of the good society pleasing to God.
That social life is protected by the sovereign, who must ensure life accord-
ing to the Islamic social order and protect the territory of this order. In
that respect, he is also caliph: the head of all believers. He personally guar-
antees the Islamic social order. He must thus promise to rule according
to Islamic law. That is, as it were, the state.
The pre-modern Islamic state form thus recognizes no distinction
between ‘state’ and ‘(civil) society.’ The head of state, the sultan / caliph,
who could also be a regional sovereign, was indeed responsible for the
maintenance of the Islamic law, but that did not mean that he had no
counterbalance. The mediaeval Christian emperor was also responsible
for a Christian society, within which the Church could do her work. But
the Church was also an organizational counterweight to the emperor, so
much so that after the investiture controversy the concept of ‘Christian
emperor’ no longer really worked, because its original sacramental func-
tion was laicized (Böckenförde 2002, 216). Despite the fact that Islam did
not know an institution like the ‘Church’ and thus any related investiture
controversy, it still knew a counterweight to the sultan. That was the posi-
tion of the ‘scribes,’ the ‘ulema’ (here called the clergy for sake of argu-
ment). Although the sovereign appointed the judges, that class determined
the law. One of their goals was always to keep the state or head of state

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at as great a distance as possible (Weiss 1998, 15 ff.). They fixed and

applied Sharia, and the state could only step forward as legislator in the
areas for which Sharia had no provisions. That was still often more than
leftovers. In fact, the entirety of public law fell here, as well as state law
and international law. Sharia, although a reference point for everything,
has thus never been the law penetrating every aspect of life that it wished
to be. In fact, Sharia was limited to family law, contract law, and the law
of religious foundations. Penal law also belonged to Sharia, except when
the transgression was against the public order. Currently, fundamentalists
are inclined to blame the modern state for driving the Sharia back into
the private sphere, but this limitation was already present in traditional
Islamic kingdoms.

a) The position of the clergy and the tacit social contract

The Sharia and the legislative authority of the sovereign, called the ‘kanun’
in the Ottoman Empire, bounded each other. Sharia and the emperor
recognized the applicable unwritten law of a society. In this system, there
was no central Islamic legislation from the state – even though the sov-
ereign had to protect Islamic law. This legislative competence lay with
the class of the scribes. Consequently, Islamic law is essentially non-cod-
ified jurisprudence law. That was also difficult to tolerate with central leg-
islation. Jurisprudence here does not mean that past sentences determine
the present sentence; jurisprudence here means that all deliberations that
a judge has given in a verdict are passed on and are also pondered in sub-
sequent verdicts, which thus can work out differently. This does not fit
at all with the equality before the law that follows from the principle of
sovereignty, whereby everyone is equally subjected to the law of the high-
est legislator.
The Ottoman Empire strongly engaged the organization of Islam,
hierarchicalized according to the example of the Orthodox Church, but
the character of the counterbalance still remained. An “Islamic Chief,”

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appointed by the sultan, came to the court, who decided on Islamic char-
acter, or lack of the same, of the sultan’s legislation. He was the only
figure to whom the sultan bowed. He could, on the basis of community
dissatisfaction, decide on the life and death of the sultan.
A researcher such as ≤erif Mardin is inclined to consider this position
of the scribes as the Islamic variation of a ‘civil society,’ a state-free sphere.
This would bring us close to the position of the Church in the Middle
Ages, which stands at the source of European civil society. I think that
goes too far, because the Church was an independent institution, and
organized itself. Therefore, an investiture controversy, essential for the
sovereignty question, can also emerge, wherein the most Christian
emperor was eventually secularized into a profane king with sovereignty
in his profane domain. For its organization, the Islamic world remains
much more independent from politics.
In combination with other powers, the independent position of the
scholarly class indeed contributes to a proper system of checks and bal-
ances. Once again, ≤erif Mardin calls this system a “tacit social contract”
(1988).4 The term points to John Locke, for whom it functioned as a
solution for aporias of the social contract theory. Mardin, who seeks to dis-
cover Islamic parallels in service of modernization, uses the term to indi-
cate that the Islamic world recognizes its own form of social contract.
Because we are concerned here with a practice and not a theory, whose
interpretation of actual social processes is always an open question, the
parallel does not seem right. The social contract is, in the world of Islamic
reform, a magic spell for modernization on its own basis. But the obser-
vation of this social practice indeed remains relevant (cf. Stremmelaar
2007, 178), precisely because this reveals that an independent system of
checks and balances existed that disappeared with the centralization at
the hands of a modern ‘sovereign,’ and thus for which an alternative must
be found that still does not really exist.
The function of the ‘tacit social contract,’ formed by the clergy, the
bazaar, and the traditional army corps (the Janizary), consisted in the

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transfer and the harnessing of social displeasure. When the population

was unsatisfied with the measures of the sultan, then this displeasure was
first expressed in the mosques. The clergy stood at the beginning of a
chain. If the sultan was not impressed by this, and the complaint still
demanded to be heard, then it found its way to the bazaar. Naturally, the
bazaar consisted of traders, but many of these were retired army officers.
There was thus a direct connection to the army corps. Then alarms bells
rang. If phase three – contact with the army corps – came into effect, and
if the endeavour had received the blessing of the highest Islamic clergy
at court, then the fate of the sultan was sealed and his head could roll.
That occurred with Sultan Selim III in 1807 on the occasion of his first
attempts at reforming the traditional army corps. The sultan was, in this
perspective, considerably bound. This ‘shadow of God upon earth’ only
had a shadow of the power of the modern, central state, this ‘actual God’
according to Hegel. We also see this in the group-rights system for non-
Islamic peoples.

b) The group-rights system

But the sultan could not to be compared with modern European sover-
eigns – not only because of the position of the clergy, but also because
of the position of the Jewish and Christian groups within the Muslim
empire. The Ottoman Empire was Islamic by definition. Still, large, specif-
ically Christian ‘majorities’ lived there. I deliberately say ‘majorities,’
because the term ‘minorities’ is not adequate here. Whole sections of the
empire were simply Christian – not only in the Balkans, but also in the
Middle East itself. When the Islamic world spread itself over the Middle
East, the large Christian communities were left intact for a mix of funda-
mental and pragmatic reasons. The fundamental reasons proceeded from
what the Koran said about ‘people of the Book,’ the Jews and the Chris-
tians. They, as religiously related peoples, had a right to be treated differ-
ently. They were ‘people of the pact.’ With them, arrangements could be

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made such that they, in recognizing the superiority of Islam, could live
according to their own rules. As a token of recognition, they must indeed
pay extra tax. The pragmatic grounds were that it was too dangerous for
the stability of the empire to suppress these large communities. From the
separate status of the Christian communities, the so-called ‘millet’ system
of the Ottoman Empire developed (cf. Bakker et al. 1997, 131 ff.).
A ‘millet’ was a religious group that, under the direction of a spiritual
head, could live according to its own law. That right particularly con-
cerned marriage and family law and inheritance. The spiritual leader thus
functioned as a profane leader. Penal law was reserved for the empire, but
in some case the millets also had the competence to practice penal law.
But the advantage of this system of group rights, based on group auton-
omy, also had the disadvantage of second-class citizenship and rights
inequality. Naturally, Christians could not hold official offices, may not
(did not have to) go into service, and were bound to extensive regulations
concerning dress and church buildings, wherein their subjection to Islam
was expressed. Moreover, the word of a Christian over that of a Muslim
was of no value in a court of law. Christian witnesses were not heard, or
had to be double in number in comparison to Muslim witnesses. This
was – quite understandably – the largest complaint of Christians against
the system. From this rose up notions of equal rights within the empire.
When the European powers asked the sultan for equal rights for
Christians, they asked for something totally against the Islamic order of
the empire and about which the sultan could not simply decide. One
could possibly say that the European sovereigns, in their demands, made
him into a sovereign in the Western sense. As the ultimate executives,
they were opposite one another. After the French Revolution, the idea of
the sovereignty of the people reigned, within which everyone as an indi-
vidual had equal rights. Also in England, which had not experienced the
French Revolution, equal rights were slowly being granted to Catholics.
These developments within the religious group-rights system ulti-
mately seemed to be the bomb under the entire empire.

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The reforms of 1839 put a dynamic in motion in which the Ottoman

Empire tried to transform into a central, nation state. Through a complex
of factors, this dynamic ultimately resulted in the collapse of the empire
into distinct central, nation states, including modern Turkey as the suc-
cessor to the Ottoman Empire.

a) Centralization of the law and constitution

The Tanzimat, the reform movement of 1839, provided a Western-ori-

ented educational and legal system and gave Christians equal rights, under
the pressure of the Western powers. The two pillars of the traditional
Islamic empire, the relative independence of the clergy and the group-
autonomy system, were undermined by this. The sultan, and thus ulti-
mately the state, abolished the clergy as intermediary and took legislation
in its own hands. Through his control over the financial resources, the sul-
tan succeeded in turning the clergy into a subservient class of bureau-
crats. In the wake of central legislation, the codification of the law
emerged. Although this is the codification of Islamic law, it is still once
more perfectly non-Islamic, because Islamic law was simply non-codified
jurisprudence, administered by the clergy and not the state.
When the reforms did not deliver what the people expected and they
became even more dependent on the foreign powers that were realizing
their own interests in their patronage of the Christian groups, when the
Christian groups began to flourish economically through this patronage
and almost bankrupted the country, protest movements emerged that
resulted in a reform movement of the so-called Young Ottomans. They
were intellectuals, poets, thinkers, and journalists, educated in the empire’s
new, modern schools, and were thus not representatives of the clergy.
They argued that the sultan’s centralization policy, which was inspired by
European theories such as Colbertism and Cameralism, was not Islamic,

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but also not really European. They had read and translated Locke,
Rousseau, Fénélon, and the like, and they tried to implement these mod-
ern European political ideas on an Islamic basis. At the same time, the
whole cultural world of Western literature, the great French novels, art,
and music had come onto the scene. The result of the will to political
reform was an attempt to form a constitutional monarchy with a consti-
tution. This constitution was something once again new for Islam, even
if it had an Islamic form, because it presupposed the idea of popular sov-
ereignty and, with this, autonomy.

b) Popular sovereignty, the constitution, and Islam as state religion

The questions were sharpened through a discussion concerning democracy,

the constitution, and the basic idea of popular sovereignty underlying it.
One can wish to limit the power of the sovereign through that of the peo-
ple, but through what is the power of the people limited? Is this absolute?
When the people in its entirety wants something democratically, is that
morally permissible? Is morality thus a question of majority decision? Thus,
the question emerged ‘On this basis, can one kill contagious sick people if
they threaten to infect the entire population?’ No, of course not. The major-
ity is not justified “in touching a hair of the most insignificant Ethiopian
child,” was rightly answered (Mardin 2000, 299).5 Sharia returns in these
authors as a sort of natural-law code that imposes limits on majority deci-
sion. That Sharia was seen from this perspective as a justified limit upon
human autonomy is not a question of religious, despotic capriciousness;
rather, it is inspired by natural law. There were also attempts to interpret
Sharia as a form of natural law by implementing social contract theory on
top of it. The difficulties of this became clear in the treatment of the non-
Islamic, Christian groups that did not want to accept Sharia as their law. It
can thus not function, like in Europe, as a law surmounting all confessions,
but it remains a religious law of the Islamic community, with the possibil-
ities for Jews and Christians determined within it.

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Discussions concerning the constitution make it seem clear that

Sharia, embodied in the position of the scribes, may still be seen as a real
limit to the sovereign’s power. What we now find to be a sign of funda-
mentalism, an Islamic constitution, seems in that time – around 1870 –
to have been experienced as modern. The first reaction to the proposal
of the Young Ottomans to set up an Islamic constitution was that it was
completely non-Islamic. This reaction shows the revolutionary nature of
the transition from empire to state: from an empire – which is ruled by
divine law, led by the clergy, and protected by the sultan as caliph – to a
state – which has law set up by the people (as a national people) with the
sultan as a constitutional monarch.
In the first place, one says that a constitution in not necessary
because there is still Sharia, which indicates where the competencies of
the sovereign lie. Now, how can a law made by people give more of a
guarantee than the divine law? Divine morality cannot be replaced by
human rules. In place of the traditionally inspired formula that lordship
in the Ottoman Empire is based on Sharia subsequently comes the for-
mula that Islam is the religion of the empire. Even that comes across as
a strange idea! The reaction to this is that only individuals and not a state
can have a religion. In the old empire, this meant that the sultan as the
caliph is the personal guarantor for Islamic law. The empire did not offi-
cially recognize Islam as state religion. Not because the empire was not
Islamic (it was Islamic in its essence), but because it was not a modern
state! Perhaps the fact that Islamic law was not familiar with the idea of
the corporate person also played a role. A state can thereby have
absolutely no rights and duties, but indeed the head of state can as a nat-
ural person.
Sometimes the reactions to the proposals of a constitution seemingly
derive from pre-modern, ancient philosophy. All talk about a constitution,
so it is said, proceeds from experiences with tyrants or bad leaders, but
“now that a wise and sane ruler has come to the throne, there is no need
for a constitution in the terms of the Seriat.” Although it is naturally in

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the sultan’s self-defence, here we also see an idea stemming from

classical Greek political philosophy, which primarily argues in terms of
good or bad leaders, of tyrants or wise sovereigns, but not in terms of
constitutions and ‘checks and balances’ able to keep the sovereign in his
place. Sharia in the constitution is absolutely not experienced as Islamic.
The human-made, binding constitution – with or without Sharia – that is
the novelty. Some reactions to the constitution can unsurprisingly run
that people, in this case, must simply obey the divine law (Berkes 1998,
244 ff.).6 You could tentatively say that it is felt that Sharia, by being taken
up in the constitution, ends up in the sphere of the humanly manipula-
ble, because one gives a constitution to oneself, and Sharia, to the con-
trary, is God given. Installing Islam as a state religion also means that it
can be removed once more based on popular sovereignty. The novelty in
all attempts to arrive at a constitution is the idea of human manipulation
of the fundamental laws of human society.
The constitution was ultimately formulated such that little remained
of the limiting of power – i.e., the separation of powers – such that abso-
lutism was founded rather than limited. Moreover, parliament and the
constitution were suspended in 1877. The government took up and con-
trolled Islam more and more in the name of Islam itself, as never before.
However, that meant that the essentially non-Islamic centralization of
power continued in the hands of the sovereign, in the name of Islam,
and at the service of modernization. This fixes the primacy of the politi-
cal above the clerical.
The constitution appeared once again in 1908 in the Young Turks’
power takeover. When they, as very enlightened Muslims, wanted to intro-
duce a more secular establishment, the people called out for Sharia to be
restored. Islamic groups of that time propagated the introduction of Sharia
into the constitution. In the opposition, the idea of an Islamic constitu-
tion can thus seem to catch fire: “If you want a secular constitution, then
we want Sharia as the constitution” (Berkes 1998, 341). But with this,
something new has emerged.

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It was decisive for the existence of modern Turkey as a state unique

among the other Middle Eastern states that the highest clergy at the court
in Istanbul did not throw their lot in with public sentiment. They were
too dependent on the court, which wanted to keep peace with the Young
Turks, to be able to function as a part of the tacit social contract limiting
the power of the state. But this role of the clergy was played out, since
the court had pressed it into service as the bureaucratic class for the sake
of the modernization process (Hanioglu 1995, 7-13).
The Young Turks were all members of the military academies. The
modernization of these academies was the beginning of the moderniza-
tion process and prepared the way for the idea of Atatürk (also a military
man) to control Islam through, and in service of, a secular state in the new
Turkey. The military elite of Turkey still considered itself as the truly
enlightened, secular elite.
With the emergence of modern Turkey, we are running a bit ahead
of things. Because, where is the supporting substrate of the nation state?
The central nation state is naturally not yet complete with the rule of law
alone; it is only complete with a supporting substrate. For popular sov-
ereignty, there must certainly be a people, both in the sense of the peo-
ple who bear the state, and a people as an ethnic cultural entity. In mod-
ern nation states, such as existed in nineteenth-century Europe, the people
are used in the second sense to give the people in the first sense some
more solidarity and thus the political establishment some more durabil-
ity. This also took place in the Islamic world.

c) The empire in search of a substrate: from religious groups to nation-


With the empire in search of a new substrate, we meet up with the most
bloody side of the transition from a traditional, Islamic empire to a mod-
ern, central nation state. Namely, this transition quite fundamentally
affected the other pillar of the traditional Islamic Ottoman Empire: the

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integration of the non-Islamic groups in the empire via the group-rights

system. The Christian groups developed themselves into nationalities. In
so doing, they dropped any religious discourse and thus introduced some-
thing for which the Ottoman Empire was at a loss. Namely, the empire
defined itself first and foremost religiously, i.e., as Islamic. Opposite to
them stood both the non-Islamic world and the ‘people of the Book,’ the
Jews and the Christians. Thus were they religiously and not ethnically
The religious definition of the empire had already been gnawed at by
Christians earlier, namely, simply by individuals demanding equal rights.
That was also something new for the Islamic world. Equal civil rights
would mean that the Islamic character of the empire would be lost, and
that was unacceptable for many. But the Christians themselves were not
consistent. They still also wanted to continue profiting from the advan-
tages of the old system of group autonomy, and consequently there was
the nationalistic option. When the sultan shelved his decree on equal
rights, a Greek Orthodox patriarch sighed for it to remain there forever.
“Just imagine that we would be equal to the Jews!” Everybody would be
equal and thus would the hierarchy between and among the groups dis-
appear. The lay could amount to something. In the end, the nationalistic
variant gained the upper hand.
In 1829, Greece, with the support of the Western powers, became
independent. The Greeks left behind ended up with huge problems of loy-
alty. At the court, important and traditional interpreter functions for con-
tact with the Western powers, which had been in Greek hands, were with-
drawn from them.
The relation with Christian Western powers forms a separate story,
about which we must say something so as to be able to understand the
history of nation formation and its accompanying difficulties and atroci-
ties. In short: Christians, with a payment to the empire, could have the
same position as the representatives of the Western powers, who were
exempt from the laws of the Ottoman Empire. They were, as it were,

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citizens of these foreign nations (Zürcher, 1995, 56). The trade and tax
benefits that came along with this ensured that they could become pow-
erfully rich. They did not fall under the Islamic limitations and scorn for
capitalistic finance. Thus, a bourgeois class arose among them, but this
was religiously and ethnically determined. One sometimes speaks here of
an ‘ethnic division of labour’ in the empire. This class was by definition
not a new supporting class for the entirety of the empire or for a new
modern state. In search of influence, the Western powers competitively
appointed themselves as protectors of Christians: France of the Catholics
and thus Russia of the Orthodox.
The help that the Western powers offered the Empire during the war
certainly had to be repaid. Thus, on the one hand, reform measures were
forced through in the direction of a modern state, which, on the other
hand, as soon as they had been realized, were not immediately trusted. As
well, trade freedoms were extracted. England forced the opening of the
market for its modern industrial products, which flooded the empire after
the end of the Crimean War in 1856. Because the empire had no experi-
ence with development in the direction of capitalism, and secondarily,
because of the flood of modern industrial products, the empire was slowly
reduced to a market for European products and to provider of raw mate-
rials, whereby the local manual labourers got the short end of the stick
(Matuz 1990, 207 and 230 ff.).7 At the same time, the new phenomenon
of Catholic and Protestant missionary work emerged. Muslims had no
experience of this because the Eastern Orthodox churches – partially due
to their ethnification – were not missionary. Via the support of the Chris-
tian communities, the great powers could destabilize the empire. Russia,
via the Armenians, tried to destabilize the empire, just as, for that mat-
ter, the empire tried to destabilize Russia via Islamic communities.
The first attempt to construct a new identity for the empire in this
unstable situation is Ottomanism. The Young Ottomans tried to form
the structure of the Ottoman Empire, with its system of group autonomy,
into the core of a collective consciousness. With this, the thought of the

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nation state actually enters onto the scene, because the traditional empire
did not rest upon a collective consciousness. The relation between non-
Islamic groups and the empire was actually contractual: these groups
counted as ‘people of the pact.’ Within the Islamic framework, they could
live under their own rules in the empire. The foundation was Islamic and
contractual and presupposed precisely no shared communal consciousness
on the grounds of which everyone could say: “we are all Ottomans!” This
“Ottomanism” was thus no longer Ottoman! The transition to this col-
lective consciousness is the transition of the empire, via the central state,
into the nation state. But this attempt necessarily had to fail, because it
presupposed that the Christians would also be satisfied with this system.
They tried to convince them – in vain, of course – that this system was
also in their best interests. In this connection, the defence arose in oppo-
sition to Western pressure that the system of group autonomy was actu-
ally the Ottoman-Islamic form of tolerance: a thought that always remains
fresh in the Islamic world, and also in modern Turkey.
After Ottomanism, pan-Islamism followed, but this variant in prin-
ciple went beyond the borders of the empire. Interesting here is indeed
that this and also other variants of pan-Islamism emerged not during the
period of the Islamic empires, but in the period of state formation. After
the Mediaeval caliphate of Baghdad, there were always several Islamic
empires, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire, the Indian
Mogul Empire, the Central Asian Empires. In all these empires, the sul-
tan was in fact naturally the leader, the caliph, of all believers, but one did
not look beyond the empire. The sultan of Istanbul was not the leader of
all Muslims the whole world round (Lewis 2002, 124 and 324). Only in
the period of the formation of an international state world in the nine-
teenth century could the sultan present himself as such and thereby
receive the support of others, in particular, the Indian Muslims, because
he was the only Islamic head of state then not under a Western colonial
authority. Rather than a theory of state, pan-Islamism is perhaps, just as
the then equally popular pan-Turkism that wanted to unite Turkey with

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related Central Asian states, a first form of ‘Third-World thinking,’ of ‘we’

against the West. You can certainly say that about later pan-Arabic ten-
dencies in the 1950s and 1960s, e.g., the Egyptian Nasser.
When it appeared that pan-Islamism was not possible as a base for the
formation of a specific state, a nationalistic foundation actually became
unavoidable. ‘Turkism’ emerged in this context, but at the same time pro-
voked Arabic and, for example, Albanian nationalism. The emphasis on
the national is, however, not anti-Islamic per se, but is a means dictated by
the circumstances to find a distinction criterion within the Islamic that is
subsequently non-Islamic and thus in that sense is secular. The Turkish
War of Independence was fought in the name of Islam! Essential here is
that this rediscovery of the national character always occurs with the help
of Western scholarship. No pan-Slavism without Johann Gottfried von
Herder, no “Negritude” without the German anthropologist Leo Viktor
Frobenius, no Hinduism without Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East. The
material for Turkism too was taken from Western scholarship (Akçam 2007,
60). Western scholars were also invited to Turkey to help them think about
national identity. French – but also very understandably German – theo-
ries were quite popular. With the help of Durkheim’s sociology of religion,
Ziya Gökalp – the ideological father of Turkish nationalism – formed Turk-
ism into a national, quasi-religious ideology (cf. Steunebrink 2004, 164-168).
It is important to see that the creation of nationalism occurs through
the state. While the self-partitioning of Christian and Arabic groups
moved from ‘ethnic minorities’ within the empire into nations with their
own states, the movement of Ottomanism toward pan-Islamism and then
toward Turkism shows how, on the other hand, a continual state-struc-
ture – an empire defending itself and its elite – searches for a new sub-
strate, a search from which Turkey emerged as a new nation state after
the fall of the empire. Here a substrate does not found a state, but a state
its substrate, although not absolutely. Turkism aimed at the Turkish core
of the Ottoman Empire and now oriented itself specially toward the cul-
ture of the common Turkish people with its pre-Islamic elements.

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As well, this search for a substrate within a world of new nationali-

ties and Western interference explains the many deportations of Muslims
from the new Balkan states to Turkey, and of Turkish Christians to the
Balkans. The Armenian genocide is the most dramatic consequence of
this (Akçam 2007, 96 ff.).
The Turkish language mirrors just how fundamentally interchangeable
the religious group had been with nationality in the Ottoman Empire.
While in old Ottoman, ‘millet’ meant a religious group (the word had its
origins in the Koran), it means ‘nation’ in modern Turkish.


The above-sketched movement of centralization of all authority in the

hands of a sovereign did not arise in the nineteenth-century Islamic world
in the Ottoman Empire alone, but also in Persia and Egypt, which,
although nominally still Ottoman, had managed to acquire a far-reaching
autonomy. Interestingly, in the second half of the twentieth century in
Morocco, which never belonged to the empire, the sovereign carried out
the same policy. As head of all believers, he arrogated the rights of the
clergy for himself (Obdeijn et al. 1999, 170).
The modernizations that the Young Turks carried out in 1908 were
tensely followed through the entire Islamic world. They were not experi-
enced as really non-Islamic. The far-reaching revolution of Atatürk
encountered both Islamic protest and recognition. An ethos/pathos of the
modern concept of progress then thrived, which lasted until about the
1960s. Only later did the fundamentalist backlash arise, but also because
the modern political system lacked output-legitimacy among the common
people – a system that had sunk into corruption and such related affairs.
Modern technology and modern education were, however, never rejected.
Further, it is interesting to see that the fundamentalists also left the mod-
ern state intact. They did not revert to the pre-modern system. We will

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now go over a number of points, from which the essential changes in the
Islamic world will come to the fore.

a) The Islamic nation state in the Middle East

From the first half of the nineteenth century until the First World War,
first and foremost the Christian Balkan states, and the Islamic Balkan state
of Albania in their wake, splintered themselves off. Although Arabic nation-
alism originated in the nineteenth century and the Ottoman Empire ruled
almost the entire Arabic world, absolutely no Arabic nation state originated
as a direct splinter from the empire. France’s and England’s lordship over
the Middle East was there the source of modern Islamic states. Tunisia and
Egypt presented themselves in the nineteenth century as quite independ-
ent from the Ottoman Empire, but fell prey to British and French colonial-
ism. In 1830, France had already taken Algeria from the Ottomans. These
lands carried out an independence struggle against the French and English.
The Arab states in the Middle East are all constructions of France and Eng-
land, which, in an act of unprecedented imperialism that divided the Mid-
dle East up among themselves after the fall of the Ottoman Empire dur-
ing the First World War.8 In resistance to this imperialism, through its own
efforts Turkey rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire as the only, and
at the same time new, nation, after a bloody war against the Greeks incited
but not supported by the Allies. The claims of the Kurds, and previously
those of the Armenians, were lost in the new peace treaty of Lausanne in
1923. Turkey is the only nation that functioned as a strictly secular state,
wherein Islamic law had completely disappeared from the judicial system.
The Arab world was promised independence by the Allies. They had
received the cooperation of the Hashemite royal house in the Arabian
Peninsula, which protected the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. But a com-
pletely unexpected reward for this cooperation was the foundation of the
state of Israel. That land was given away twice by the English. Once to the
Arabians, and once to the Jews. The patron of Mecca could not count on

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English support for his greater-Arabian aspirations and was consequently

driven from the Arabian Peninsula by the royal house of Saud, which had
arisen in the desert and was not held back by the English, but instead was
held within boarders drawn up on a drafting table. Thus originated Saudi
Arabia. The Hashemite royal house was compensated by the English with
the lordship first over the new construct Syria, but not before the French
had split up Lebanon such that Christian groups would possess a slim
majority, and later over Iraq and Palestinian Jordan. It was only able to
hold on to Jordan.
Iraq and Syria originally had a secular Arab nationalist ideology, which
was hoped to conquer the contrasts between Muslims and Christians.
Saudi Arabia is perhaps the only traditional Islamic state. Quite rele-
vant in this regard, it has no constitution, and larger codifications of the
law are also lacking (Otto 2006, 37 ff.).9 All the other states are simply
modern sovereign states with a central legislative system oriented toward
the West, within which Islamic law is incorporated. Here can we speak
of a mixed system. Although many elements of Islamic law are found in
this new law, and although they have Islam in the constitution, the con-
struction itself is no longer traditionally Islamic.
In this mixed system, Sharia is largely only in effect in the sphere of
family law. The fundamentalists will say that the modern model of the
state coming from the West has driven Sharia back into the private sphere.
But we have seen that also in the traditional empire, the reach of Sharia
was in fact limited to family law, contract law, and the law of religious
foundations. All the rest fell under the competence of the sovereign, who
could pronounce law (kanun) insofar as it did not oppose Islam. This dis-
tinction can now also serve to legitimate the modern, sovereign-state
model. Starting in the nineteenth century, connections were also made
with natural law that made it possible to use Western law (cf. WRR 2006,
37 and 112). This all clarifies how much Sharia as “ethical life” was
stretched on the Procrustean bed of individual moral conviction, on the
one hand, and legality and abstract law, on the other.

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Iran is again something different. Here the supreme leader can even
suspend Sharia. And from this emerges, perhaps unexpectedly, the victory
of the concept of modern sovereignty.

b) The primacy of the political10

By borrowing the concept of sovereignty, the primacy of the political

above traditional religious authority becomes a reality. This movement is
also confirmed where the opposite seems to occur: in modern Iran. In the
Ottoman Empire, as we have seen, the sovereign arrogated the function
of legislator to himself and thus became sovereign. In Shiite Iran, the
clergy, which had taken on an ecclesiastical form, held itself apart from
the political by placing the foundation of a true Islamic state under an
“eschatological restriction” until the return of the last imam. Khomeini
scrapped this restriction and entered into the political.11 Since Khomeini,
the spiritual class has replaced the political legislator, but indeed with the
consequence that it came into conflict with itself insofar as it set the
boundary to political power. Khomeini himself attempted to suspend the
clergy’s function of limiting politics. He thought that one, via the politi-
cal, may suspend Sharia duties in certain cases, for instance during the war
with Iraq (Gieling 1997).12
As well, another result of the modern concept of sovereignty
remained standing in Iran, namely the equality of all citizens before the
law. They once again tried to introduce classic Islamic jurisprudence law,
but that went wrong because of the experience of legal inequality that
accompanied it. According to some, Iran still has not answered the ques-
tion of what essentially and structurally distinguishes it from a non-Islamic
state (Ter Haar 1995, 132).
That Iran itself is indeed conscious of the novelty of the Islamic
republic is clear from the fact that popular sovereignty is also experienced
as a source of danger. They have clearly gathered what the foundation of
the Islamic republic by the people implies: namely, that the people can

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also remove Islam as the basis of the republic in the same manner. Cor-
rective bodies were introduced to avert that danger.
This same danger was also felt in the Netherlands in the nineteenth
century (see Groen van Prinsterer), but it was solved in a somewhat dif-
ferent manner. The Netherlands chose a mixed system of appointed and
elected officials, guided by the fundamental ideology that the principle of
popular sovereignty, with its elected authorities, must be corrected top
down by officials named by the grace of God’s reigning sovereign. Until
the Second World War, the idea of popular sovereignty was not self-evi-
dent in Europe. The Catholic thinker Jacques Maritain, who achieved
immortal honour by making the modern state and human rights accept-
able to Catholics on Thomistic principles, literally hated the concept of
sovereignty in all of its political variations. Only God is sovereign: thus
he says almost as a true Muslim. And as the Catholic he really is, he adds:
in the Church the pope (Maritain 1998).13
The realization of the primacy of the political is irreversible. The state
holds on to the primacy of legislation. Fundamentalists also hold on to
this fast in the spread of Sharia. They do not plead for a return to the old
dual system. The politicization of Islam, or the Islamization of politics, are
fought over, but always within the primacy of the political as legislator.
The problem of the dispensability of a rule of law through popular
sovereignty will naturally always exist, not only in Islamic states, but also
in states founded upon human rights. Popular sovereignty can nullify its
own principles.

c) Sovereignty, the nation state, and civil society in Islam

Through the introduction of the modern sovereign, the nation state thus
essentially changes something in Islamic world. By scrapping Sharia as an
independent institution, an end comes to a traditional system of checks
and balances that can limit sovereignty. The principle of sovereignty pro-
voked the idea of the Pakistani reform theoretician Maududi that Sharia

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must stand as the source of all law, with no human additions. The West-
ern principle of sovereignty gives Sharia the chance to become total,
because there is no longer a counterweight. This totalization of Islam in
an authoritarian state calls up the counterforce of the question concern-
ing a state- and Islam-free space (cf. de Smet and van Reeth 2001, 25).
Now, these problems of an authoritarian state in the Islamic world are not
at all always Islamic problems. The state is also often authoritarian because
its legitimacy is weak within boundaries artificially drawn by colonial pow-
ers. Accordingly, a nationalistic ideology of modernity was enforced from
above in secular Turkey. In all these contexts, the call for a ‘civil society’
as the limit to state power arises. Muslims too can call for this in certain
authoritarian states; they can ally with secularists.
As we have seen, there were also traditional limits to power imposed
in the empire by the class of scribes, or through semi-autonomous groups
like Christian ‘millets’ or tribal cultures. Thus, there have always been
‘communal’ limits to power. If projecting backwards we speak about this
as a ‘civil society,’ then it is clear that this does not have to be conceived
as individualistic-pluralistic per se. That is something specifically modern.
The discussions concerning the conditions for a ‘civil society’ in the
Islamic world are thereby entangled with the discussion concerning the
Western or non-Western character of its individualistic form and the pos-
sibility of their own form (Çaglar 2000, 403 ff.). In the Middle East, the
question still plays a role in the rights of Christians. But the individualis-
tic form of this sphere, also where groups are concerned, is essentially for
the relation with the democratic rule of law, just like the independent
organization of religion within it.
However much free association in civil society increases in the
Islamic world, this world is certainly not following the path that the
West has initiated: the way of absolute sovereignty toward a pluralistic
and yet individualistic civil society bounded by human rights, with an
accompanying political society (Brumberg 2003, 43). Islam itself is not
suited to independent organization, to an ecclesiastical form within a

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civil society. An Islamic party that put itself forward as a type of Chris-
tian democratic party has only occurred in secular Turkey, where for
that matter Islam itself is directed by the state.14 The modern civil soci-
ety must acquire a place within the nation state, while in the West
nationalism emerges after the liberal rule of law and civil society have
established themselves.

d) The world of peace and the world of war

This classic distinction, which was still fresh in the period of the Ottoman
Empire, no longer works. For the Ottoman Empire, the Western world
was always a world yet to conquer. Vienna and Rome were to be next
after Istanbul in establishing the empire of Islam. Presently, the Islamic
nation state is simply a state among states and it relates itself to non-
Islamic states as to Islamic states. As well, it is now possible to live an
Islamic life in non-Islamic states. In certain cases, Sharia is now being
demanded as an Islamic group right within non-Islamic states, for instance
in Canada. Western democracy calls up possibilities here of which Sharia
had never dreamt. For fear of peer pressure, Canada did not accept this
solution. Secular Turkey also did not, where the fear of an independent
Islam within civil society played a role. In totally different contexts, the
traditional distinction is material for reinterpretation by fundamentalists
and jihadists. They testify to the institutional splintering of Islam. The
following also certainly testifies to this.

e) Sharia no longer exists

I do not exaggerate when I say that Sharia, as a system, had its day in its
classic form by the emergence of the modern state and the principle of
sovereignty. Islamologists say that government reformation has influenced
Islamic law itself and thereby has changed its thousand-year-old structure
(cf. Motzki 1997, 257).

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Sharia as a clergy-directed institution of law that sets limits on

profane authority, which, in turn, only develops law within terrain not
covered by Sharia, no longer actually exists, except perhaps in Saudi
The function of the clergy is thereby hollowed out everywhere. This
class is further weakened, because it, unlike earlier, no longer directs edu-
cation. Not the traditional madrasahs, but the modern schools directed
by the state are primary. Consequentially, reflection on Islam and mod-
ern science and culture is not carried out by official theologians and
jurists, but by intellectuals with a modern education. Physicists and
chemists with university degrees occupy themselves with these questions.
Their answers – due to a lack of expertise – can take a fundamentalist
direction (Peters 2003, 94). Viewed apart, the progressive orientation of
modern brotherhoods concerning the relation between Islam and mod-
ern science and education sometimes contributes to the dogmatization
and Koranization of Islam, insofar as this replaces the personal, instinc-
tive introduction to the divine of the old brotherhoods. Empirically seen,
everything that we now experience of Islam – certainly the fundamen-
talism – is modern, but the consequences of this do not always answer
to our European normative concepts of modernity (cf. de Smet and van
Reeth 2001, 45 ff.).
The relation between the modern intellectual and lawyer is an impor-
tant topic in modern Turkish Islamic circles. Some modern Turks orient
themselves toward their mystical traditions of Rumi and Yunus Emre.
Still, I think that an Islam without Sharia is even less thinkable than a
Judaism without the Torah. In Europe, Tariq Ramadan is trying as a mod-
ern intellectual to build up Sharia as a social morality based on individual
citizenship in a European Islam that can contribute to the solution of
social problems in modern society (Ramadan 2003). Clearly, the reinter-
pretation of Sharia in modern society must find its way between individ-
ual morality and legality, whereby Sharia is not first and foremost present
in legality, but in the social dimension of morality.

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That Sharia actually offers space for this is clear from the experience
of many Muslim immigrants that one can actually be a very good Mus-
lim in Europe, because one can easily carry out one’s basic duties. This
experience – deepened at the theoretical level by interpretations of those
such as Tariq Ramadan, are very important not only for Europe but also
for the modernization in the lands from which Islam sprung.

f) Is there then indeed anything left over from a national culture?

It seems thus the adoption of the nation state, together with moderniza-
tion, has mixed up the Islamic structure of the Middle East, so that one
must ask oneself what has been won with this adoption and why it could
press ahead. No culture seems left over to be preserved in a nation state.
But when we pose the question in this manner, then we act as if tradi-
tional culture was already simply the national culture, which subsequently
must stay preserved in the form of the nation state. But national culture
as such naturally did not exist in the empire. Indeed, an imperial culture
was lost, but along with this not yet Islam and all traditional culture.
Nationalism is indeed a new cultural form, but with selective roots in the
tradition, such that Islam can return in it. Further, the empire knew eth-
nic differences, which could work as ‘primordials’ in a national culture (cf.
Gevers 1995, 15; Smith 1998, 158 ff.).
Let us first look at the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman culture was
a mixed form of Arabic, Byzantine, and Persian elements, wherein the
typically Turkish was no badge of honour – it was considered boorish
and primitive. For insofar as ‘Turk’ or ‘Turkish’ was used positively,
they meant nothing different than Ottoman. This name was derived
from the name of the ruling dynasty. A slight inferiority complex ruled
among the Ottomans. Their faith came from the Arabs, and their art and
philosophy from the Persians. “What have we Ottomans added to this?”
ran the question. “Law and legislation, the good organization of a great
empire!” was the answer. On the other hand, the Arabs wondered:

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“What have these Turks brought to us?” Their answer ran: “Whores
and bathhouses, and nothing more!” More interesting than the answers
are the questions, because these show that nationalizable ‘ethnicity’
within the Islamic world and the empire played a large role. Feisal, the
first king of Syria and later Iraq (1923), managed to say: “We are Arabs
before we are Muslims and Mohammad was an Arab before he was a
prophet” (Ansari 2002, 105). That Iran had already early chosen the Shi-
ite variant of Islam also had to do with a nationally inspired compulsion
for differentiation.
The unexpected foundation of the state of Israel unsurprisingly
touched a nerve in the relation between Islam and Arab nationalism. Too
little known is that many Arabs have a religiously motivated guilt com-
plex about this. “For contrary to all Islamic commandments, we Muslims
have conspired with a heathen sovereign against a legitimate Islamic head
of state during the First World War.” Thus, the following question is
obvious: “Is the foundation of the state of Israel thus not God’s justified
punishment?” You still cannot take up this problem aloud in the Middle
East. Naturally, the Turks cannot fail to bring this up coyly when the
Palestinian problem comes up. But their secularism was, until recently, a
reason for the contempt of the Arab Muslims. This guilt complex well dis-
plays the traumatic transition from a traditional empire to a nation within
an international context.
During the nineteenth century, the Turks more and more fell under
the spell of the de-Arabization of their culture. The Ottoman language was
a Turkish that was written with Arabic letters, contained Arabic and Per-
sian words, and interlarded with Persian constructions, even though Turk-
ish is not linguistically related to Arabic or Persian. Ottoman was the
expression of a court culture and had perfectly alienated itself from the
people, who consequently could not read or write. When Turkish was
excavated from Ottoman and even written in the Latin alphabet, this peo-
ple was given a chance with their own language; their culture was eman-
cipated and received the recognition it deserved.

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The borrowing of the Latin alphabet demonstrates quite beautifully

the transition from an obviously religious imperial culture to a national
culture with Islam as a component. In the empire, the Latin alphabet was
considered Christian and non-Islamic. By borrowing it, the modernizing
nationalists demonstrated that one could de-Arabize without Christianiz-
ing. For the modern Turks, the Christian world had definitively become
the Western world, which they had always been in direct contact with via
Istanbul. The Turkish world would also now be Western, but with Islam
as a part of the culture. In connection with accession to the EU, the
Christian or Western character of Europe is a heated topic of debate in
Let us now attempt to reach a conclusion concerning the particular
nature of the nation state in connection with the Islamic world.


Thus, nationalism does not conserve an old culture, but transforms this.
What is lost is the political culture of an ‘empire’ rather than the pre-
existing national culture. It is often said that nationalism in the Islamic
world is something new, because it replaces the religious legitimacy of the
political order with a secular legitimacy. In so doing, it would spark a cri-
sis. What actually is new here is the idea of (popular) sovereignty and its
accompanying centralism. That the nation state was able to persist wit-
nesses to the acceptance of language, culture, and ethnicity not primarily
as a secular but as an inevitably contingent factor in state formation, just
as contingent as the territory with its sometimes arbitrarily drawn borders
and the population as a community with a shared fate. This contingent
factor, often already implicitly present under the ordo islamica of the locally
organized empire, explicitly emerges as the point of departure of a cen-
tral, nation state, precisely because this contingency, certainly in countries
conscious of a great past like Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, can be positively

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forged into unicity. That ‘nation’ is non-Islamic rather than un- or anti-
Islamic, and therefore capable of Islamification. In Turkey, you find a
broad scale from anti-Islamic nationalism to an Islamic-nationalistic syn-
thesis. So as still to make the best of the contingency, the Pakistani thinker
Maududi, who initially opposed the independent Pakistan because a nation
state was a secular concept, indeed subsequently conceived Pakistan as an
Islamic state that is the point of departure of a future world-wide Mus-
lim empire (cf. Platti 1995, 96 ff.; Waardenburg 1994, 275 and 321 ff.; van
Kongingsveld 1993, 128-131).
This nation state is naturally also secular, because it must join together
different contingent factualities with each other. Thus Arab nationalism
originally tried to unite Christians and Muslims via the Arabic language.
This nation-state formation is modern, since the Islamic nationalistic
reformers of the nineteenth century did not come from the class of
Islamic scholars, but largely from the already modernized educational sys-
tem. They are modern intellectuals: poets, thinkers, and journalists who
made use of modern media like newspapers and new literary forms such
as the novel. It was precisely the novel, which had already emerged in the
nineteenth century in the Ottoman Empire, that made it possible for them
to formulate their own national vicissitudes and at the same time to com-
municate in an international world.16 The self-distinction occurred in front
of an international forum. With this also belongs the rearing of the entire
population through modern education that must train people to be con-
scious bearers of the state.
In the nation state, the transition is consciously made from the
particular to universality. In principle, law always says universality. Law
tailored purely to one’s own particularity does not exist (cf. Radbruch
2003, 181). And law that declares certain people as Untermenschen or infe-
rior thereby perversely confirms precisely its universality for all people.
Differently than the empire, which immediately declares its law as univer-
sal and thus recognizes no outside world, the nation state posits a con-
tingent point of departure, a given community brought together by chance

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with its language, religion, etc., and consciously in relation to universal-

ity. This contingent point of departure is naturally never the monolithic
cultural unit that severely nationalistic cultural formation will make of it;
federalism as ‘subnationalism’ belongs among the possibilities. The for-
mation of a national culture is necessary for the state to be bearer of the
universal rule of law and, for the sake of its legitimacy, to specify this
according to the supporting layer. The national language fits here as a
particular medium of universal communication, and religion as the spe-
cific form of an all-encompassing worldview. In this bipolarity wherein the
contingent becomes a concrete universal ‘we,’ the nation state has some-
thing inevitable and good.
Indeed, here problems go hand in hand that emerge from the fact that
the nation state still does not imply a democratic constitutional state. The
majority languages and religions within a nation state obviously receive an
extra chance to create a supporting layer, so that a religion – e.g., Islam
– can return as the state religion with a legitimizing function. While Arab
nationalism first tried to establish unity between Muslims and Arabs via
the language, an Islamification of the Arabic language now looms – a ten-
dency begun in the Koran itself – such that Christian Arabs feel robbed
of their language.17 Accordingly, Arabic, but also Turkish, threatens the
individual languages of Islamic ethnic groups. The demolition of the tra-
ditional imperial structure with its group-rights structure did not simply
work out to the benefit of what are now religious and ethnic minorities.
Modern solutions like federalism are a really a bridge too far for the Mid-
dle East. The transition to supra-confessional individual citizenship is
made difficult by nationalistic developments in this world. Empirically
seen, this is all completely modern, but not in the European, normative
sense. Normative and critically modern are the efforts of the discussions
concerning Islam and human rights, Islam and natural law, and civil soci-
ety within the Islamic world, since these comprise the questions of if and
how Islam can place itself behind the dignity of the individual as a uni-
versal starting point.

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Nationalism functions explicitly within a global order of states as a

means to communicate the particular. The quasi-universal concept of the
empire was followed by a multi-stage system of national and international
law. The direct transition from contingency to world-wide universality
goes too far; humanity is not a concrete universal ‘we’, but universality is
formed based on and limited by the factual, reciprocal recognition of
states, also with regard to the United Nations, which has neither democ-
racy nor affirmation of human rights as an entry criterion. Federalization
and new phenomena such as globalization, ‘international civil society,’
and ‘shifts in sovereignty’ within a European connection certainly bear
witness to changes in the position of the nation state, but do not
announce its end.18 For insofar as these phenomena withdraw from this
state, they often withdraw from democratic control at the same time. The
implementation of human rights as also has the nation state at its base
(cf. Donelly 2002).
The politics of international human rights specifically invokes the
problem of the relation between universality and contingent cultural par-
ticularity. Is this politics the ideological component of the modernization
process being carried out throughout the world, and thereby a comple-
tion of the Westernization of the world? Or have human rights made pos-
sible an intercultural appeal that leaves space for cultural accents and
enables a critique of the West? We cannot extensively enter into the ques-
tion of the universality of human rights, but simply pose here that when
modernization destroys traditional relations, the introduction of human
rights in non-Western societies becomes necessary to offer protection
anew. For this, shifting back to the particular, ideal legacy – for example,
Islam – is necessary.19
National differences are thus not embellishments on top of the world
of international states, as long as there remains an essential difference
between nation states with an individualistic-pluralistic civil society and a
democratic rule of law, and nation states without such. Alongside sover-
eignty, democratic rule of law implies both an individualistic-pluralistic

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civil society and a nation state as a foundation, but in reverse, a nation

state, besides sovereignty, does not imply the rest.
A universal dissemination of a democratic rule of law never makes
nation states abstractly isomorphic, because people in a democratic rule
of law seek to give form to their own lives according to a law based on
the universal but culturally incarnated principle of individual human dig-
nity. When this idea is gone, only then do nation states become embell-
ishments. Then the empire returns, now in the form of an empire as a
global government diffusely present in all aspects of life, in the face of
which the states with all their differences have lost all control (cf. Hardt
and Negri 2001).20 But then have we all lost. A discussion concerning the
applicability of the principles of the modern national and international
rule of law in the non-Western world is thus a component of the larger
discussion concerning the humane manageability of the world-wide
process of modernization that has its historic origins in the West.


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1. See the section “Tributsystem” in Franke 1974, 1418.

2. For self-satisfaction as a characteristic of the empire, see Lewis 2002, 34, which is a
fundamental work for this article.
3. For other aspects of the relation between Islamic limitations on power and European
centralism, see Kedouri 1992, 327.
4. Mardin’s book is fundamental for the present article.
5. Berkes’s book is also basic material for this article.
6. Compare Bakker 1997, 137. ff.
7. For this British-French imperialism as cause of the problems in the current Middle East,
see Fromkin 2001, 558-567.
8. For this entire problem, see also Otto et al. 2006.
9. Paragraphs (b) to (e) are emended, supplemented rewrites of sections of another published
article of mine: Steunebrink 2006a, 16-27.
10. Compare this with van Koningsveld 1993, 55.
11. Compare with Roy 2004, 639-657, and see also Smet et al. 2001, 27.
12. For the relationship of the Christian critique on the concept of sovereignty, please also
see Platti 1995, 99.
13. For a (perhaps too) optimistic view of the Arab states, see Saad Eddin Ibrahim
1995/1996, 52.
14. Compare this with Steunebrink 2006b, 131. The current article has taken up some
supplemented and emended sections of that article.
15. For the Arab World, see Hourani 2000, 358 ff.
16. For this, see Moussali 2001, 123.
17. Compare this with Sassen 2006, 423, and Smith 1996, 116-147.
18. For extensive arguments, see Steunebrink 1998, 105-135.
19. See Habermas’s critique (2004, 186 ff.).

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