Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a

June 26, 2008

In a volume that the author considers the culmination of his life's work and the final statement he wishes to make on issues he has been struggling with for nearly half a century, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, an eminent Muslim scholar and human rights activist, calls for the separation of Islam from the state. He challenges the dangerous illusion of an Islamic state that claims the right to enforce Sharia principles through its own coercive power. He also challenges "the dangerous illusion that Islam can or should be kept out of the public life of the community of believers". These calls and challenges, among others, are introduced in this controversial and topical book.

An-Na'im views the separation of Islam from state together with the regulation of the political role of Islam through constitutionalism and the protection of human rights as necessary safeguards to ensure freedom and security for Muslims and to provide them with the opportunity to participate in evolving new techniques and debating fresh interpretations of Sharia.

Despite this separation, An-Na'im argues that Muslims are still entitled to propose policy or legislation stemming from their religion, provided they support such proposals with what he calls civic reason - "reasons that can be publicly debated and contested by any citizen, individually or in community with others, in accordance with norms of civility and mutual respect".

As far as the relationship between Islam and human rights is concerned, An-Na'im observes that Sharia principles are, in general, consistent with most human rights norms, with the exception of some specific aspects related to the rights of women and non-Muslims and the freedom of religion and belief. He calls Muslims to consider transforming their understandings of Sharia in the present context of Islamic societies.

This approach, according to An-Na'im, appears to be "more realistic and constructive than simplistic assertions of compatibility or incompatibility of Islam and human rights that take both sides of this relationship in static, absolute terms".

One might argue that, if the purpose of secularism is to enhance religious pluralism and individual freedom of choice on whether or not to observe Islamic precepts, why are Muslim women in a secular state (Turkey) confronted with the degrading choice between upholding religious beliefs - wearing Islamic headscarves - and losing their rights to education, employment and personal autonomy?

Yet, in an attempt to reconcile the relationship of Islam, the state and society, the author examines the reality of Islamic society since its early beginning in three different states - namely, India (marked by state secularism and communal violence), Turkey (with its contradictions of authoritarian secularism) and Indonesia (realities of diversity and prospects of pluralism).

Although not all Muslim scholars will fully agree with An-Na'im's proposals regarding the institutional separation of Islam and the state, his thoughts are a step forward towards a healthy negotiation for the future of Sharia.

Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a

By Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im
Harvard University Press
336pp
£22.95
ISBN 97806740763
Published 20 March 2008

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