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

by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im

Harvard University Press, 336 pages, $35

Is Islam compatible with the idea of separation of state and religion? That has become the question in the past few decades. Some Muslims, especially the fundamentalist ones, insist that Islam is supposed to define both religion and state, deen wa dawlat . Some non-Muslims agree, arguing that democracy cannot flourish in any Islamic society. If this is correct, then we are all in trouble. Pious Muslims will inevitably try to establish theocracies, and their conflict with the rest of the world, including secular-minded Muslims, is permanent.

Yet before rushing to this conclusion, one should remember that there is more than one form of Islam”and, for that matter, more than one form of secular state. The Soviet Union was a secular state, in a sense, as is North Korea today. The American model, with its emphasis on freedom of religion, is notably different from the French laïcité , with its focus on freedom from religion.

In his new book, Islam and the Secular State , the Sudanese-born professor of law Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im argues that a secular state that respects religious freedom is compatible with and, indeed, necessary for Islam. “As a Muslim, I need a secular state,” he summarizes in a nutshell, “in order to live in accordance with Shari’a out of my own genuine conviction and free choice, personally and in community with other Muslims.”

An-Na’im’s advocacy for Shari’a is notable, because many see the concept of Islamic law as the enemy of the secular state. Secularists in Turkey, for example, often march chanting “Down with Shari’a, long live laïcité ” and ask pious Muslims to abandon the idea of Shari’a altogether. In the West, too, Shari’a is often considered a set of outdated and brutal laws that Muslims want to impose on non-Muslims.

There is no doubt that many Muslims do understand Shari’a in this authoritarian sense. But An-Na’im argues that Shari’a needs to be understood as a set of rules and principles that refer to the individual and the community but not the state. Indeed, whenever a state tries to impose Shari’a, what it really does is choose from one of its many possible interpretations and thus assert a temporal authority in the name of God. “All law or legislation that is enforced through state institutions is secular,” as he puts it, “even when drawn from or based on Shari’a principles.”

An-Na’im thus challenges the idea of an Islamic state, which he defines as a “postcolonial innovation based on a European model of the state and a totalitarian view of law and public policy as instruments of social engineering by the ruling elites.” Premodern Muslim governments, he notes, did not define themselves as Islamic states, and, although they claimed some Islamic legitimacy, they did not take a single form of Shari’a and impose it as the law of the land. Lawmaking in the traditional Muslim world was the job of religious scholars, who were often independent from the political authority”which helped the evolution of law and limited the powers of the executive. In most Islamic lands, Christians and Jews were granted the right to live by their own legal tradition. Premodern Islamic polity, in other words, offered several legal traditions to choose from.

The postcolonial Islamic state rejected this pluralistic tradition, claiming to know what Shari’a is and then imposing it on all citizens through a dictatorial government. It is no accident that one of the main ideologues of the modern Islamist movement, Sayyid Abul Ala al-Maududi, the founder of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, openly said in the 1930s that the “Islamic state must be totalitarian, akin to the communist or fascist states.”

If al-Maududi wanted to join Islam and totalitarian politics, it is possible to join Islam and democratic politics as well. An-Na’im actually thinks that this would be “more consistent with Islamic history than is the so-called Islamic state model proposed by some Muslims since the second quarter of the twentieth century.”

But make no mistake: An-Na’im insists that he is in favor of a secularized state, not a secularized society. He opposes the idea of erasing religion from the public square”something that many self-defined secularists see as a prerequisite for democracy. When followed by individuals and communities as a dictate of their own conscience, An-Na’im suggests, Islam’s rule and principles will have a justified role in democracy and help sustain it. “When observed voluntarily,” he writes, “Shari’a plays a fundamental role in shaping and developing ethical norms and values that can be reflected in general legislation and public policy through the democratic process.”

The goal, An-Na’im argues throughout Islam and the Secular State , should be separation of Islam and the state but not separation of Islam and politics. Since there are believers in society, religion will influence politics. The only question is how. Here An-Na’im proposes that the way to do Islamic politics is through “civic reason,” by which he means that “the rationale and the purpose of public policy or legislation must be based on the sort of reasoning that most citizens can accept or reject.” Muslims can promote policies that derive from their beliefs, but they should use the voice of reason to bring them to the public square.

One would like to accept all this, and yet the question remains: Is Shari’a capable of living under the protection, but also the restraints, of a democratic state? An-Na’im frankly accepts that there is some need for change in Shari’a. He points to at least three issues that need “significant reform”: male guardianship of women ( qawama ), sovereignty of Muslims over non-Muslims ( dhimma ), and violently aggressive jihad.

Who, except fundamentalist Muslims, would disagree? What An-Na’im does differently is to offer Islamic justifications for reform, by pointing out that much of the Shari’a is actually the product of the human mind, not divine revelation. Sunni orthodoxy was formed two centuries after the Prophet walked the earth. The system left some room for new interpretations, but An-Na’im asks for more. “Reform within the traditional framework of Shari’a,” he reminds us, “cannot achieve the complete abolition of the notion of apostasy.”

The most radical moment in Islam and the Secular State comes when An-Na’im suggests the need for “re-examining the rationale for enacting certain verses of the Qur’an and texts of Sunna into Shari’a principles and de-emphasizing others as inapplicable in the context of early Islamic societies.” The traditional doctrine of abrogation, which favors the more political and contextual commandments of the Qur’an revealed in the late Medinan period of the prophet Muhammad over the earlier and more ecumenical verses of the Meccan period, he says, needs to be turned upside down. Here
An-Na’im follows the tradition of his teacher, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed in 1985 by the Islamist regime of Sudan for heresy. Taha had argued that the real and universal message of Islam was expressed in the tolerant and peaceful Meccan verses, while the Medinan ones were bound to their time.

It is indicative enough that Taha paid the price of his reformist view with his life. For many Muslims, such a mingling of the Qur’an will be abhorrent. But one can find intellectual tools from less controversial scholars: the twentieth-century Fazlur Rahman Malik, for instance, who objected to Qur’anic literalism by studying the influence of the ­historical context. That nonliteralist tradition in fact goes back to the fourteenth-century Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, who laid out the “higher objectives” of the Shari’a”the protection of the values of religion, life, intellect, property, and lineage”and focused on these objectives rather than the contextual details.

In fact, many modernist Muslim thinkers have argued for such revisions of the Shari’a since the nineteenth century. For long, such modernist views remained popular only among the intellectual elite, but as Muslim societies make progress, and as the Muslim middle class emerges in such countries as Turkey and Malaysia, the idea of a reinterpreted Islam becomes more popular. No wonder most Islamic opinion leaders in contemporary Turkey argue not for the abolition of the country’s staunch secularism but for its liberalization. Indeed, Turkey’s devout prime minister Tayyip Erdogan recently praised the “American way of secularism” instead of the French-imported illiberal one”a statement that made Turkey’s secularists quite angry.

What makes An-Na’im’s Islam and the Secular State particularly valuable is not just its scholarship but also its committed religiousness. “If I, as a Muslim, am faced with a stark choice between Islam and human rights,” he frankly notes, “I will certainly opt for Islam.” But Muslims actually do not need to be forced between the two, as he explains throughout the book, if they understand both Islam and human rights correctly. Unlike the counsel given by Western secularists and self-disliking Muslims, this message has the potential to reach serious believers of Islam.

Mustafa Akyol is a Turkish writer and journalist.