The idea of limited government was not unknown in early Islamic political thought; the Muslim ruler was more limited than Christian princes in the sense that he had no power to legislate. The Holy Law (shari'a) however, was not effective in limiting political power due to the dearth of institutional machinery that imposed the limitations.
In Persia (Iran) in the 1850s, the government reformed the legal system to limit the power of the 'ulama (scholar-teachers), and introduced the Western notion of constitutionalism. The promoters of constitutionalism, such as Malkom Khan (1833–1908) and Mirza Yusef Khan Mostashar od-Dowle (d. 1895), endeavored to demonstrate that the new idea was anchored in Islamic law and tradition. Mirza Yusef Khan's treatise, Yek Kalameh (n.d.; One word), contrasted Western prosperity with Persian stagnation and saw the solution of this problem in yek kalameh, a political structure based on law. He highlighted the virtues of the French constitution and demonstrated its compatibility with Islamic ideas. Such endeavors contributed to incorporating the Shiite religious group successfully into the constitutionalist movement, thereby paving the way to the Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911). Similarly, the young Ottomans, including Namik Kemal (1840–1888), who admired the constitution of the French Third Republic, reinterpreted passages in the Koran as arguments for constitutional democracy. Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (1822/23–1890), who dreamed of the independence of the Islamic world community, was, like the Ottoman and Persian reformers, receptive to the Western constitutional idea that personal liberty and justice should be achieved by the rule of law. But his constitutionalism also echoed the Islamic intellectual tradition, especially the political ideas of Ibn Khaldūn (1332–1406).
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