Interview with Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im
"We are in the middle of a transformative process"

Islamic scholar Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im of the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, USA, has done extensive research into the ways in which Sharia can be reconciled with the modern secular state. Claudia Mende spoke to him about the different faces of the secular, the separation of state and religion in early Islamic history and why he feels Muslims are in the middle of a reformation process

Sharia in a secular state ... isn't that a contradiction in terms?

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im: The question is: what does one mean by Sharia? People tend to think of the legal end of it, as if that is the whole principle of Sharia. But Sharia consists of the whole normative system of Islam founded in the Koran, the Sunna and the hadith, or tradition of the Prophet. So as such, it is not possible even in a secular state to deny Muslims the right to turn to Sharia to answer questions such as how to pray or how to fast.

Sharia cannot be enforced by the state anywhere. There is absolutely no possibility to enact Sharia as a law of the state whether it be in a so-called "Muslim majority country" or a tiny Muslim minority anywhere. The nature of Sharia defies codification. It is about the interpretation that people choose through their own conviction.

So what is Sharia for you?

An-Na'im: Sharia provides moral guidance for Muslim individuals. State and religion should be clearly separated. For me, as a Muslim, I need the state to be secular so that I can practice Islam through conviction and choice. The need of the state to be secular derives from an Islamic point of view; it has nothing to do with the European Enlightenment. The state has nothing to do with my being a believer or an atheist.

Sharia contains legal aspects but it is not a code of law.

An-Na'im: The nature of Sharia defies codification. Any codification reduces the complexity of a vast tradition and discipline of interpretation of conflicting opinions into a simple view that happened to be the view of the people who control the state.

From Morocco and Mauretania to Indonesia, states claim to enforce Muslim family law, but this is false because it is a highly selective and eclectic selection of codes chosen by state officials and not by Muslims of their own volition.

If state and religion are to be clearly separated, what role can religion play in public discourse?

An-Na'im: I make a distinction between the state and politics. The state has nothing to do with Islam, but politics is a field where religion is always relevant. You cannot keep religion out of politics. Just like the CDU in Germany believes that its political platform is inspired by Christianity, believers – whatever their religion – act politically out of their conviction as believers. Whether you ban Sharia from politics or not, Muslims will continue to act in ways that are consistent with their understanding of Sharia. You cannot prevent that possibility unless you disenfranchise Muslims.

Why do you say that this has nothing to do with the Enlightenment and the Western concept of the secular?

An-Na'im: Going back 1,400 years, when Muslims had their first state in Medina, it was not Islamic or religious. That state was a political institution, it was not described by the people there nor by its enemies as being an Islamic state. The concept of an Islamic state is a post-colonial concept that combines a European idea of the nation state and the idea of Muslim self-determination in terms of Islamic identity. We cannot really claim that everything that is going on around the world is due to the Enlightenment or the European idea of secularism!

In other words, the secular has many faces?

An-Na'im: What passes as a secular state in Germany is not acceptable to the secular state in France. The German state would not qualify as a secular state by French standards. The UK, where the Queen is the head to the Church of England, cannot qualify as a secular state even by German standards. And yet everyone would agree that Germany, the UK and France are secular states. That the secular state came out of the European Enlightenment is a huge oversimplification, which is not warranted by European history itself. But the idea of the nation state is European and it has been imposed on colonised regions of the world where Muslims live, on Africa and on Asia. When Muslims emerged out of colonial rule, the form of state they had to live with was the European nation state. They did not choose it, and it was not indigenous to their culture and their values. It was imposed arbitrarily by European powers, and you can see the tragic consequences of that now in Syria and Iraq.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (photo: John Disney)
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (b. 1946 in Sudan) is one of the highest-profile Islamic scholars in the United States. As a professor at the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, he conducts research into Islamic law, human rights and international law. One of his most important books is entitled "The Future of Sharia: Islam and the Secular State" (2009)

Is it because of colonialism that Islam is a state religion in most Arab countries?

An-Na'im: No, of course not. But what does it mean when Islam is the religion of the state? By the way, there are also non-Muslim states, like Ireland, where you have a religion of the state. The idea that religious identity is fundamental to the people is absolutely understandable and common in human experience, but it has no legal consequences. Mauretania, Pakistan and Iran say that Islam is the religion of the state. Are we suggesting that this means the same thing?

It means that there is no separation between the state and the religious.

An-Na'im: When you look at Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution it says that Islam is the religion of the state. But nowhere in the rest of the constitution there is any reference to Article 2. So it is meaningless, propaganda, a way of legitimising the state. Since a military coup that overthrew the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has been ruled by the military. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood are now in prison and are being executed for political crimes. The military has taken over the state, and still you have Article 2 saying that Islam is the religion of the state. You have this strong alliance between the state and the religious institutions that serves those who are in power, not much else.

You are asking Muslims to enter into an "indigenous self-liberalisation from colonisation". What does that mean?

An-Na'im: It means that the hearts and minds of Muslims continue to be colonised by European epistemology and philosophy, by European ideas of administration of the state despite the fact that nominally, they have been independent for decades. Colonialism is not just simply a military occupation, it is a state of mind of both the coloniser and the colonised. The people who are subjected to colonialism contribute to the continuation of colonial ways of thinking by submitting to colonial and neo-colonial policies and priorities. As a Muslim, I myself need to liberate my own mind, heart and soul so that I am my own person. I am not rejecting any influence from any other culture whether European or North American or otherwise.

What does that mean in terms of the secular state?

An-Na'im: If we mimic European models, we remain colonised even if there is no European control of state institutions as such. By rooting my political thought in our history and trying to unravel the true meaning of Muslim history in its various phases and different parts of the world, I am being independent in my own mind. I'm not interested in mimicking the French, British or German model; I want to root my political doctrine and practice in terms that transcend a European colonial limitation.

"Toward an Islamic Reformation" is the title of one of your books. A lot of scholars ask for reformation in Islam nowadays, but what they actually mean by that varies greatly.

An-Na'im: This is why it is important to elaborate what we mean by Islamic reform. Let Muslims make up their own mind. The actual history of the European Reformation was much more complex than just a German priest nailing some demands on the door of a church. Transformative movements take a long time and they are often a sort of intergenerational consensus that evolves over many generations in many different parts of the region. At the time, the people who were living through it did not realise that they were living through the Christian Reformation. Over time, maybe 100 or 200 years later, people looked back and say, that was the French Revolution.

What does that mean for the renewal of Islam?

An-Na'im: Muslim reformation is a similar process. There are 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, and one cannot speak of all these varieties of Islam as if they were just one thing where you have a central key, like the ignition in a car, and that's the Muslim Reformation. There are people who float ideas in different parts of the world that can be coherent to local people or not; the person even might be killed before his ideas are accepted. That is not unusual in human history.

Are Muslims today in the middle of such a process of reformation?

An-Na'im: Yes, because they are talking about it, because they feel conflicted about certain aspects of historical understanding of Islam about the rights of women or about religious freedom. When I was a student at the University of Khartoum more than 40 years ago I felt a commitment to the constitution, to human rights and democratic principles but the prevailing understanding of Sharia did not support those values. The fact that I am aware of the need for reform is already part of the process. So, yes, we are in the middle of a transformative process.

Interview conducted by Claudia Mende
© 2017

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Comments for this article: "We are in the middle of a transformative process"

I agree with the intention ;not with the prescription offered by my honourable countryman .Change in Islamic thought and practice is imperative and overdue.The rise of distorted schools like Daesh(iS) is proof of that;but Islam is different from Christianity and using Christian terminology like Reformation will not lead to solutions.The concept of change and ijtihad are inbuilt in Islam ,because Prophet Muhammad SAWS-unlike Jesus - has actually ruled and implemented many guidelines that can be used as indicators .The fact that the Quraan was revealed over more than 20 years and in response to current affairs is a methodology that signifies a license to move things differently in different times and circumstances.The reformation in England was led by the KIng and his court against the Established Catholic hierarchy.There is no similar situation in Islam.

Khalid AlMubarak27.09.2017 | 17:12 Uhr