Scholarship in “Plain English”: Noah Feldman on Political Equality in Islam

By Cem Tecimer

Citation: Cem Tecimer, Review of Noah Feldman, “Political Equality and the Islamic State” [30 Philosophical Topics 253 (2002)], Islamic Law Blog (2017)


In this article, Noah Feldman addresses the question whether political equality is possible in a state that recognizes Islam as a  state religion. His central question is this: can countries with official Islamic identities ever attain a state of political equality among its citizens, even when some of its citizens do not share the religious beliefs officially recognized by these countries? Feldman’s ultimate answer to this question is in the affirmative. This post provides a “plain English” review of the article: Noah Feldman, “Political Equality and the Islamic State,” 30 Philosophical Topics 253 (2002).

Can a State with an Official Religion Have Political Equality?

Feldman begins with the general and abstract question: can any state with an official religion ever have political equality for its citizens? The answer, for him, is “yes,” provided that the state “embraces a religion that is itself committed to some relevant principle of equality… .” To further bolster his argument, Feldman asserts that, theoretically, any religious community, the religious convictions of which are not shared by the official state apparatus, is not worse off than it is, for example, in a completely secular state. In the former scenario, the state’s official recognition of a religion other than that of the community, and in the latter case, the state’s official recognition of secularism, can be at odds with the good life imagined by members of certain religious communities within those polities. The issue, then, is not whether a state should officially embrace a religion. What matters is that, when a country officially embraces a state religion, the religion should have a commitment to political equality for the state to be regarded as advancing political equality.

Can an Islamic State Provide Political Equality?

The more specific question, when it comes to sharīʿa, is whether a specifically Islamic state can achieve political equality? To answer this question, Feldman investigates Islam’s commitment to political equality. Notwithstanding the tremendous disagreement over definitions of Islamic law, Feldman finds evidence of its commitment to political equality in various areas: the Qurʾān’s assertion that all humans are from a single set of ancestors (i.e., Adam and Eve), the Qurʾānic verse stipulating that superiority comes from piety rather than lineage or wealth, and other sources.

To be sure, he acknowledges contrary Qurʾānic references, such as verses stipulating that believers are superior to non-believers. But he asserts that it is indeed possible to read this as a form of spiritual inequality that does not carry political repercussions. More troubling impediments to basic political equality, Feldman writes, are indications that that Qurʾān recognized but did not obliterated slavery or gender disparity in matters such as marriage and inheritance rights.

Nevertheless, many verses of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth reports of the Prophet indicate otherwise that speak of a basic commitment to political equality (e.g., “men are as alike as the ‘teeth of a comb’”). Further, despite the Qur’ān’s recognition of slavery, classifying persons based on that status seems to be a tradition inherited by post-Qur’ānic Islam, through embracing the works of ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, whose works had been translated to Arabic early on.

Moreover, the recent phenomenon called Islamic fundamentalism, too, seemingly promotes an anti-egalitarian agenda with severe restrictions on women rights and the rights of non-believers. Modernist views on Islam, on the other hand, advocate an egalitarian reading of Islam and its sources. In sum, views on political equality significantly vary.

Practical Aspects of Political Equality

In some Islamic constitutional countries, Muslims have applied Islamic law in ways that seek to attain political equality, in fits and starts. The range of engagement is as wide as is the degrees of Islamic law’s integration into state law in various Muslim-majority countries. Turkey’s constitution, for example, is secular, while Saudi Arabia attempts to impose Islamic law extensively.

Nevertheless, the optimist observes that, in most Islamic constitutional states, there are indications of political equality that go against the traditional discriminatory norms. For example, women retain the right to vote in most Muslim-majority countries. In some, women have been elected to prominent government positions, including the office of prime minister. In Islamic criminal law, women and men usually, but not always, receive the same punishment. In evidentiary matters, though classical Islamic texts count a single man’s testimony equal to two women’s testimonies, there have been debates on restricting this rule’s application to only certain contexts. Indeed, classical Jewish law, Feldman points out generally forbade women from testifying at all. Moreover, while women typically received half of men’s shares of inheritance, Feldman argues that this arrangement is still more egalitarian than classical Jewish law or “Anglo-American common law until the modern era.”

Of course, these disparate treatments along gender lines as well as disparate treatment of Christians and the Jews, are troubling from a Western egalitarian perspective. In the end, Feldman concludes that “[t]he right generalization is probably to conclude that an Islamic state has the capacity to treat non-Muslims equally, should it choose to do so.” (p. 269)

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