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Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World

Learn what motivates the restive Muslim youth from Tunis to Tehran, what political positions Islamists from Mali to Chechnya are fighting for, where the seeming obsession with Islamic law comes from, where the secularists have vanished to, and whether it makes sense to speak of an Islamic state.


Eligible for

Statement of Accomplishment

Course at a Glance

About the Course

Since 2009 there has been a renewed wave of popular unrest sweeping throughout much of the Muslim world. Secular, but generally repressive and inefficient autocracies have come under pressure or been swept aside entirely. At the same, the various Islamic Republics have not fared much better, but been convulsed by internal unrest, economic and social decline. Throughout the Muslim lands, existing constitutional arrangements are being challenged, often very violently.

This course is a survey of the constitutional ideas and institutions that have developed since the mid 19th century throughout predominantly Muslim countries, but its focus will lie on the actors that have dominated this discourse and shaped its outcomes. We will look at the large body of classical writings on the Islamic state only in so far as it is necessary to understand the contemporary debate, but concentrate on the legal and political developments of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Three common themes will characterise the course: 

  • We privilege the study of the legal and social reality and seek to highlight where it is at odds with dogmatic stipulations, be they religious or constitutional. 

  • We seek to illustrate the practical tensions posed by limited administrative capabilities and political legitimacy that resulted from the incomplete reception of modern bureaucratic statehood. 

  • We seek to examine how popular dissatisfaction with the practical performance of Muslim governments has fuelled demands for greater accountability under the guise of cultural authenticity. 

Ultimately, the course aims to equip participants to better understand Muslim contemporary discourse about the res publica, better contextualise the demands for religious law in public life, and to better ascertain the theoretical and practical feasibility of postulated religious alternatives to the still-dominant secular model of governance.

Course Syllabus

Week 1: Presenting the Course (Overview)

  • 1.1 Welcome and Introduction
  • 1.2 Presenting the Region
  • 1.3 Early Modern History
  • 1.4 Unresolved Challenge of Modernity
  • 1.5 Four Models of Adaptation
  • 1.6 Indicators of Relative Failure
  • 1.7 Role of Religion and Islamic Law

Week 2: Ottoman Empire & Modern Turkey

  • 2.1 People, Place and Patterns
  • 2.2 Ottoman History
  • 2.3 Ottoman Reform: Tanzimat and Majallah
  • 2.4 Creation of the Republic
  • 2.5 Kemalism & Its Problems
  • 2.6 Westernisation and Islamism 

Week 3: Egypt & Maghreb

  • 3.1 People, Place & Patterns: Egypt
  • 3.2 People, Place & Patterns: Maghreb
  • 3.3 Ottoman & Colonial History
  • 3.4 Independence
  • 3.5 Modernisation & Reform
  • 3.6 Nasserism & Its Problems
  • 3.7 Westernisation & Islamism

Week 4: Saudi Arabia & The Gulf

  • 4.1 People, Place & Patterns 
  • 4.2 Ottoman & Colonial History
  • 4.3 Patrimonialism & Religion
  • 4.4 Rentier Economies 
  • 4.5 Impact of Rents
  • 4.6 Paradoxical Alliance
  • 4.7 Unresolved Contradictions

Week 5 Iran & The Shiites

  • 5.1 People, Place & Patterns
  • 5.2 Imperial & Colonial History
  • 5.3 Constitutional Revolution & Reaction
  • 5.4 Nationalist Revolution & Reaction
  • 5.5 Islamic Revolution & Reaction
  • 5.6 Khomeini’s Theory of Velayat-e Faqih
  • 5.7 Unresolved Contradictions

Week 6 The Levant (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon & Iraq)

  • 6.1 Taking Stock & Midway Summary
  • 6.2 People, Place & Patterns
  • 6.3 French Mandates
  • 6.4 British Mandates 
  • 6.5 Order & Fractured Societies
  • 6.6 Failure of Arab Socialism
  • 6.7 Unresolved Contradictions

Week 7: Afghanistan, Pakistan & Bangladesh

  • 7.1 People, Place & Patterns
  • 7.2 Colonial History of British India
  • 7.3 Post-Independence: Pakistan and Bangladesh
  • 7.4 Afghanistan: Creation of the State and its ‘Golden Years’
  • 7.5 Afghanistan: Social Engineering and Resistance
  • 7.6 Failure of State-Building and Islamisation: Jihadi Gangsters
  • 7.7 Unresolved Contradictions

Week 8 Malaysia & Indonesia

  • 8.1 People, Place & Patterns
  • 8.2 Colonial History Malaysia
  • 8.3 Colonial History Indonesia
  • 8.4 Post-Independence Malaysia
  • 8.5 Post-Independence Indonesia
  • 8.6 Unresolved Contradictions

Week 9 Sub-Saharan Africa

  • 9.1 People, Place, Patterns
  • 9.2 Colonial History Muslim Africa
  • 9.3 Neo-Colonial Legacies
  • 9.4 Weak States & Institutions
  • 9.5 Post-Independence Instability 
  • 9.6 Fractured Constitutional Bargains

Week 10 Conclusion & Outlook

  • 10.1 Commonality & Diversity
  • 10.2 Unity & Friction
  • 10.3 Minorities
  • 10.4 Legal & Social Reality
  • 10.5 Practical Tensions
  • 10.6 Popular Dissatisfaction
  • 10.7 Good Bye

Recommended Background

By choice and necessity, this course will be interdisciplinary and has no prerequisites. No knowledge of Arabic or other Oriental languages is assumed; neither is previous familiarity with the study of religion in general and Islamic beliefs in particular; nor with the legal method in general and constitutional law in particular. Rather than assuming a common frame of reference, it is expected that students’ diverse disciplinary backgrounds will complement each other.

Suggested Readings

Rainer Grote and Tilmann Röder (eds.), Constitutionalism in Islamic Countries: Between Upheaval and Continuity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Available online:

Nathan J. Brown, Constitutions in a Nonconstitutional World. Arab Basic Laws and the Prospects for Accountable Government (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2002).
Available online:

Sami Zubaida, Law and Power in the Islamic World (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005).
Available online:

Albert Habib Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (London: Faber and Faber, 2005).
Available online:

Hamid Enayat, Modern Islamic Political Thought: The Response of the Shi’i and the Sunni Muslims to the Twentieth Century (London: I.B. Tauris, 2005).
Available online:

Course Format

The course will consist of lectures in short (15-55 min) videos, each of which will be followed by an exercise in which participants can test their grasp of the new material. The exercises will combine multiple-choice with essay-type questions.

Most lectures will be accompanied by written background material from the instructor which, hopefully, will eventually form the basis of a text-book. Participants are, therefore, welcome to give feedback in order to improve this material.

In addition to the books suggested, there will be suggested external readings which participants are strongly encouraged to conclude before each week's lectures. The readings will clearly differentiate between those of central and peripheral importance. 

In addition, we will make recommendations to open-source external audio-visual material, in particular TV documentations, to complement the lectures and give participants a better 'feel' for the countries under consideration.


  • Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?
    Yes. Students who successfully complete the class will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor.