Preface: to Shi’i Jurisprudence and Constitution: Revolution in Iran by Amirhassan Boozari, part of the Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law and History, ed

This is the third book in the Palgrave Series on Islamic Law and Theology, and it is a book that I take special pride in introducing.  The source of my pride is not only the friendship and intellectual bond that I share with its author but more significantly, it is an awe-inspiring volume from which I learned a great deal about the challenge of constitutionalist governance and the largely unknown efforts by prominent Muslim jurists to wrestle with the role and function of Islamic law in the wake of modernity.  In my view, this book needs to be carefully studied, analyzed, and pondered by every reader interested in the fields of political theology, constitutionalism, and democracy.  But especially for those interested in the dynamics and possibilities of Islamic reform, this book is nothing short of indispensable and compulsory reading. 


Islam, secularism, and democracy are among the most widely debated issues in the contemporary world.  Nevertheless, despite the numerous commentaries and studies dealing with Islam, democracy and constitutionalism, there has been surprisingly precious little scholarship on the substantive arguments, or what I prefer to call the micro-discourses, made by Muslim theologians and jurists wrestling with these issues.  Effectively, this has meant that there is a serious ongoing failure to understand, leave alone to fairly and analytically engage, how Muslims have constructed and reconstructed their tradition in an effort to negotiate the relationship between the sacred and profane as well as the nature of religious authority within the contingencies of time and space in the post-colonial age.  Even more troubling is the fact that this failure to study or engage the micro-discourses of Islamic theology and law on the challenges of democracy and constitutionalism is a problem plaguing not just the academia of the non-Muslim world, but also the Western-styled academia of the Muslim world.  This has led to an unmistakable and inescapable essentialism and reductionism in comprehending and analyzing the arguments of the Islamist discourse.  Most poignantly, whether at the level of public discourses or public policy, writers with only cursory knowledge and perfunctory attitudes towards the micro-discourses and details of Islamic theology and law have been responsible for the propagation of the most detrimental generalizations about a claimed essential nature, or purported fundamental characteristics of Islamic thought, law, or culture.


This is where Amir Boozari’s book fills a serious void.  By virtue of its very subject, Boozari’s book is timely and attractive, but it is the exactingly meticulous and commanding breadth of the scholarship that makes this volume a defining contribution in the field.  Although treating a pressing and often contentious subject, Boozari skillfully avoids resigning himself to any essentialist paradigm or to a simplistic framework in unpacking and analyzing the debates of Muslim jurists for and against a constitutionalist system of government during a critically transformative period in the history of Iran and also Iraq.  Having analyzed an exhaustively prodigious amount of primary and original sources, Amir Boozari presents a breathtaking study of the theological and jurisprudential arguments of Shi’i jurists who in the early 20th century were on the brink of achieving a revolutionary constitutional movement.  Boozari gives his readers access to a transformative doctrinal reformation within Shi’i Islam that to date has been insufficiently studied and poorly understood.  As importantly, Boozari also explains why this revolutionary theological and jurisprudential movement ultimately failed.


By deliberately probing the theological and legal arguments made by pro-constitutionalist Shi’i jurists and their opponents, the author makes his book very relevant to the ongoing intellectual struggles not just in Iran or Iraq but (as those who read the book will discover) in the whole Muslim world.  The reason is simple:  the theological and legal arguments made by the Shi’i jurists in favor of constitutionalism are equally applicable to Sunni Islam.  In my view, this is one of the most remarkable and attractive aspects of this study.  Whether the readers are academics, scholars, policy makers, teachers, students, or part of the interested public, be they Muslim or non-Muslim, I dare say that they will not only be edified but surprised at the flexibility and creativity of Shi’i jurists who fervently believed in a system of governance where the state is limited by the rule of law and individual rights are guaranteed.  Readers will be able to assess first hand how Shi’i jurists conceived of and negotiated critical issues such as the nature of sacred and temporal authority, the divine will and its relationship to the popular or majoritarian will, the relationship between religious conviction and social and political identity and commitment, and the normative relationship between moral and ethical principles and Islamic law.  Many of the debates and disagreements centered around foundational philosophical questions such as the nature and normative roles of reason and revelation.  Readers will be able to reflect upon the extent to which these arguments as well as the rebuttals offered by jurists opposed to the constitutionalist movement, are rooted in the Islamic tradition or are artificially grafted upon this tradition—whether the doctrines are natural out-products and authentic extensions from the evolving dynamics of the Islamic legacy as opposed to being apologetic constructs adopted in response to external political and cultural pressures or forced artificial transplants from the West.  Readers will be able to evaluate the extent to which the constitutionalists failed because of internal and domestic pressures or external political pressures artificially imposed upon Muslim cultures.  By exploring the trajectories of Muslim thought, and the contextual realities and limitations within which these trajectories unfold, Boozari empowers his readers to evaluate possible directions and potentials for the development of ideas, values, culture, and institutions in countries with a concentration of Shi’i Muslims such as Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon.  But any reform-minded Sunni Muslim jurist will find that many of the arguments of the pro-constitutionalism Shi’i jurists are easily adaptable to the Sunni context, and that many of the challenges and hardships confronted by the Shi’i reformers are nearly identical to those confronted by their Sunni counterparts. 


This book should become the standard reference source for researchers working on Iran, Shi’i theology and law, and Islam and democracy, among other topics.  But beyond being an authoritative reference source, this book helps us to make sense of the present and analyze the possibilities of the future.  It is a book that clearly raises the bar and the scholastic and intellectual standard that must be met by any person who seeks to make a contribution to the discourses on Islamic law and theology, Islamic reform, and Islamic politics, leave alone Iran and its rich intellectual and political history.                    


Khaled Abou El Fadl

March 2011