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Constitutional Incrementalism in a Religiously Divided Society: A Case Study of Afghanistan

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 October 2018

Shamshad PASARLAY*
Herat University School of Law,
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This article explores the constitutional provisions that define the role of Islam and the shariah in Afghanistan’s many constitutions. It highlights that successful Afghan constitutions have always recognized Islam and the shariah and established a method of realizing them, while leaving open the possibility that the government could change its approach to realizing them in the future. Unsuccessful Afghan constitutions, by contrast, have allowed actors at the center to try to realize and interpret Islam in a rigid way that does not allow for ongoing negotiations with actors who would prefer to realize and interpret Islam in a different manner. In other words, Afghanistan’s longest-lived and successful constitutions have not entrenched Islam in a way that imposes the desires of one side of the debate. Instead, they have designed religious provisions in vague and ambiguous terms, thereby deferring to the future the question of what Islam really means and how it should be realized in practice – a strategy that proved considerably effective in preventing conflict over the role of Islam in a severely divided and heavily armed society. Drawing on this insight, the article explores how in overwhelmingly, but diversely, Muslim societies, it is important to create constitutional regimes that recognize Islam but leave room for rival interpretations of Islam. Incremental constitution writing is a useful tool in creating such constitutional regimes.

© National University of Singapore, 2018 

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PhD, University of Washington School of Law; Senior Lecturer, Herat University School of Law (Afghanistan). This article builds and expands upon ideas discussed in Clark B Lombardi and Shamshad Pasarlay, ‘Constitution-Making for Divided Societies: Lessons from Afghanistan’ in David Law (ed), Constitutionalism in Context (CUP 2018) forthcoming. I wish to thank Clark Lombardi, Arif Jamal, Dian AH Shah, and the participants at the Religion and Constitutional Practices in Asia Conference (International Centre For Ethnic Studies, Sri Lanka, 9-10 November 2017) for useful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article. Any mistakes or errors are the author‘s alone.


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32. ibid.

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35. ibid 406.

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49. ibid.

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51. ibid.

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53. 1923 Constitution, art 72.

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58. ibid.

59. Lombardi and Pasarlay (n 3).

60. ibid.

61. Nawid (n 54) 111.

62. ibid.

63. 1931 Constitution (n 8).

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66. Lombardi and Pasarlay (n 3).

67. Olesen, Islam and Politics (n 26) 199.

68. ibid.

69. ibid.

70. Roy (n 25), 70.

71. Constitution of Afghanistan 1964 (adopted on 3 October 1964) [1964 Constitution].

72. Pasarlay, ‘Making the 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan’ (n 19) ch 2.

73. ibid 100.

74. Said Amir Arjomand notes that the 1964 Constitution was ‘the product of the meeting of liberal constitutionalism and Islamic modernism that proposed to interpret the principles of Islam without undue restriction from the rigidities of medieval Islamic jurisprudence and succeeded in finding the finest formula for the reconciliation of Islam and constitutionalism in the Middle East to that date or since’. Incontrast to the 1931 Constitution, a secular body, the National Center for Legislation in the Ministry of Justice, whose members were exclusively trained in the country’s secular law schools, had the duty to make sure that state legislation did not contradict the principles of Islam. Arjomand, Said Amir, ‘Constitutional Developments in Afghanistan: A Comparative and Historical Perspective’ (2005) 53 Drake Law Review 943, 952953 Google Scholar.

75. Lombardi and Pasarlay (n 3).

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77. Pasarlay, ‘Making the 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan’ (n 19) 124–130.

78. Shamshad Pasarlay, ‘Islam and the Sharia in the 1993 Mujahideen Draft Constitution of Afghanistan: A Comparative Perspective’ (2016) 3 The Indonesian Journal of International & Comparative Law 183, 192–196.

79. Roy (n 25) 69–70.

80. Pasarlay, ‘Islam and the Sharia’ (n 78) 197–201.

81. ibid 199.

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84. For a complete discussion of the Iranian Guardian Council, see Shirvani, Foroud, ‘A Different Approach to the Control of Constitutionalism: Iran’s Guardian Council’ in Rainer Grote and Tilmann J Röder (eds), Constitutionalism in Islamic Countries: Between Upheaval and Continuity (OUP 2012) 279290 Google Scholar.

85. Pasarlay, ‘Making the 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan’ (n 19) 140.

86. For more information on the powers of the Iranian Guardian Council, see Shirvani (n 84) 283–285.

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93. ibid arts I(1), and I(4).

94. Secretariat of the Constitutional Commission of Afghanistan, ‘The Constitution-Making Process in Afghanistan’ (10 March 2003) 2 <> accessed 20 July 2018.

95. Pasarlay, ‘Making the 2004 Constitution of Afghanistan’ (n 19) 155–163.

96. See Thier (n 19) 567–568.

97. ibid 186–188.

98. Lombardi and Pasarlay (n 3).

99. ibid.

100. ibid.

101. Draft Constitution prepared by the Constitutional Drafting Commission (March 2003), arts 1, 2, and 3 (copy on file with the author).

102. Records of the Constitutional Review Commission, March 2002 – November 2002 (copy on file with the author).

103. Lombardi and Pasarlay (n 3).

104. Shamshad Pasarlay, ‘Constitutional Interpretation and Constitutional Review in Afghanistan: Is There Still a Crisis?’ (I-Connect: Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law, 18 March 2015) <> accessed 6 September 2017.

105. John Dempsey and J Alexander Thier ‘Resolving the Crisis over Constitutional Interpretation in Afghanistan’ (Peace Brief, United States Institute of Peace 2009), 1–2 <> accessed 4 July 2018.

106. Lombardi and Pasarlay (n 3).

107. ibid.

108. ibid.

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111. Under Islamic shariah, Muslim women are forbidden to marry non-Muslim men.

112. Knust and Afshar (n 110) 593.

113. It is outside the scope of this article to describe the penalties that Islamic shariah determines for the crime of apostasy. Medieval Islamic law determines punishment up to the death penalty.

114. 2004 Constitution, art 130.

115. Knust and Afshar (n 110) 593.

116. ibid.

117. ibid.

118. Munadi, Sultan M and Hauser, Christine, ‘Afghan Convert to Christianity is Released, Officials SayThe New York Times (Kabul and New York, 28 March 2006)Google Scholar.

119. Wafa, Abdul Waheed and Gall, Carlotta, ‘Death Sentence for Afghan StudentThe New York Times (New York, 24 January 2008), A8 Google Scholar.

120. ibid.

121. The Prosecutor v Sayed Parwiz Kambakhsh, Case Concerning Insult to the Holy Religion of Islam and the Holy Prophet Mohammad (2007) Kabul Court of Appeals, Decision No 580.

122. ibid.

123. Tahir Qadiry, ‘RIGHTS-AFGHANISTAN: Internet Article Lands Journalist on Death Row’ (Inter Press Service, 30 January 2008) <> accessed 11 July 2018.

124. Robert Maier, ‘Karzai Steps in: Kabul Press Reports Important Updates in Case of Parwiz Kambakhsh’ (Kabul Press, 31 January 2008) <> accessed 4 July 2018. However, subsequent reports suggested that President Karzai would not intervene. See for eg ‘An Afghan Condemned’ (Editorials, Washington Post, 6 February 2008) <> accessed 4 July 2018.

125. ‘Parwiz Kambakhsh Released from Prison,’ (Kabul Press, 7 September 2009).

126. Kim Sengupta, ‘Free at last: Student in hiding after Karzai’s intervention’ (The Independent, 7 September 2009) <> accessed 4 July 2018.

127. ibid.