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LGD 2010(1) - Book Review - Akhtar

Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a (2008) by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim
Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Rajnaara C. Akhtar
PhD Candidate, Department of Law,
University of Warwick

Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim is an internationally renowned scholar of Islam and human rights and much of his work focuses on cross-cultural perspectives. Currently Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law School in the USA, Professor An-Na’im is also Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick School of Law.

Islam and the Secular State is a groundbreaking, if somewhat controversial book, which challenges many traditional Muslim views and beliefs relating to the correlation between ‘Shari’a’ and the state. As such, An-Na’im expected, and indeed received, a great deal of criticism of this work. However, having been present within at least one such public presentation of his theory, the reviewer feels compelled to commend An-Na’im on his confident prose and informed confutation of many opposing arguments.

Much of An-Na’im’s theory balances on the belief that Islam is a religion that requires voluntary acceptance and voluntary compliance. While not many Muslims would refute the former, it is the latter which gives rise to debate. An-Nai’im suggests that reform is necessary in the very basic understanding of Shari’a by Muslims and challenges the prevalent conception that the state has the ability to enforce Shari’a. He offers examples from historic Islamic societies in order to persuade the readers of his opinion and utilises such histories in order to reinforce the premises of his theory that the notion of Shari’a by its very nature must remain separate from the state.

Islam and the Secular State is divided into seven chapters, the first three of which are dedicated to advancing An-Na’im’s theory in the context of Islamic history and human rights standards including constitutionalism and citizenship. Chapters’ four to six focus on specific examples of Shari’a and the state in history, covering three immensely diverse accounts: India, Turkey and Indonesia. The book is rounded up in Chapter seven with a comprehensive conclusion re-asserting the proposal that ‘ negotiating the future of Shariah’ requires a separation of Islam and the state.

An-Na’im’s introductory Chapter is titled ‘Why Muslims need a Secular state’ and presents a potent reminder to the reader that this book intends to challenge conventional thinking. Modern examples of secular states have presented Muslims with challenges to their religious identities, such as France and Turkey, and thus any reference to ‘secularism’ will inevitably draw negative connotations. An-Na’im quickly defines a secular state as one that is “neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shariah – the religious law of Islam – simply because compliance with Shari’a cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.” (P.1) He states that this definition allows for “a secular state that facilitates the possibility of religious piety out of honest conviction.” Thus, An-Na’im separates the state from the society, or the institution from the people it rules over. While he advocates the observance of Islam by Muslims at the social level, he proposes that all people in society, regardless of religious affiliation, should have the potential for equal influence on the state.

An-Na’im’s theory operates on the premise that Shari’a will inevitably play a role in the public life where Muslims form a majority or even a significant minority. However, this presumption is unlikely to be convincing enough to traditional Muslim societies founded on the bedrock of Islamic rules and principles, to precipitate a separation of state and Shari’a principles. However, it is easy to understand why An-Na’im suggests this separation in pursuit of ‘negotiating the future of Shari’a’ as a means of removing power from the elite rulers to the majority opinion resulting from the civic engagement of the citizens of each state. The practicalities of implementing such participation from citizens, however, are likely to be unattainable in many contemporary Muslim majority states.

On a more basic point, An-Na’im contends that states should not interfere with an individual’s implementation of Shari’a in their lives; contending that states must be ‘neutral’ in order to allow citizens to comply with their religion (p.3). This contradicts the classical Islamic scholarly position that once a person accepts the religion of Islam, they are bound to follow Islamic leadership where possible. There is also the point of public and private laws, and one could argue that public laws require regulation at the state level.

An-Na’im explains his rationale by differentiating between the state and politics. He describes the state as the ‘settled, deliberate operational side of self-governance’, and politics as the dynamic process by which choices of policy are made. He contends that the state must be kept neutral for the benefit of all of its citizens (whether Muslim or not). This proposal would certainly ensure equality of treatment from the state for all citizens while allowing the citizens to influence the politics, however, while this may remove power from elite rulers; it does nothing to diminish the powers of elite citizens.

A further point of contention arises where An-Na’im suggests that the powers of formulating Ijtihad should not be restricted to any particular group (p13-14). The early scholars of Islamic laws did indeed propose such restrictions in the name of preserving the true knowledge of Islamic principles. Perhaps An-Na’i m is correct in asserting that some 12 centuries later these restrictions need to be re-assessed in the light of modern realities, however, preserving established principles of Shari’a will require many safeguards.

Pertinent questions raised in this chapter include the issue of how Muslim citizens identify themselves and the impact of cultural relevance. An-Na’im rightly points out that identity is a dynamic reality in all our lives, and is constantly changing and evolving and will thus have an impact on the implementation of religious beliefs.

In Chapter two the focus shifts to ‘Islam, the state and politics in historical perspectives.’ An-Na’im dismisses the notion that secular states are un-Islamic and attributes this view of ‘ Islamist groups’ to the teachings of Imam Maududi and Sayyid Qutb, instead of, in An-Na’im’s view, the “actual history of Islamic societies.” (p.45)

An-Na’im lays out in this chapter two ‘polar models’ (p.53) of the relationship between the state and religious institutions. He quotes the Prophetic example from the Madinan period, where political/military leadership was accompanied by religious leadership; as one polar extreme, and the complete separation of religious and political authority as the other polar extreme. He suggests that the latter “may have been the dominant view in practise, although it was rarely, if ever, openly acknowledged because of the perceived need for rulers to enjoy Islamic legitimacy.” (p.53) This profound statement gives rise to many contentious issues, and even An-Na’im follows it with an acknowledgment that most Muslim rulers sought to follow the Prophetic tradition as closely as possible, although that particular example of Islamic leadership is by its very nature impossible to replicate. This acknowledgement reflects the current prevalent understanding and/or practice within many Muslim majority states seeking to apply Shari’a in the present time.

In Chapter three, An-Na’im’s focus lies with ‘constitutionalism, human rights and citizenship’ and he discusses these concepts as an “integrated framework for regulating the practical way secularism works to negotiate the tension between the religious neutrality of the state and the connectedness of Islam and public policy.” (p.84) An-Na’im contends that despite the existence of human rights laws and constitutions, ultimately, upholding these basic rights depends on the agency of citizens. While this is theoretically the position, when the rights of citizens are blocked by the state (as one can argue is the case under autocratic regimes), other avenues for implementing such rights, perhaps outside of the domestic sphere, need to be explored.

The sub-headings employed in this chapter include: the state, politics and civic reason; Constitutionalism in the Islamic Perspective; Islam and human rights; and citizenship. An-Na’im’s discussions veer towards the European/ Western societies’ construction of these concepts but he iterates that this is necessary due to the nature of post-colonial Muslim majority states which have existed under the “European models of the territorial state since independence.” (p.137) However, he qualifies this by stating that all such theoretical principles need to be ‘specified’ and ‘adapted’ to meet the needs of the local setting.

Chapter four, five and six of this book cover the specific examples of the evolution of the following states: India (state secularism and communal violence), Turkey (authoritarian secularism), and Indonesia (Diversity and Pluralism). In the example of India, An-Na’im considers the tensions that arose “ between the secularism of the Indian state and the realities of communal violence and interfaith relations in current Indian society.” (p.140) The example of India provides a history of Muslim minorities interacting with the state for at least nine centuries, and as a result, provides a rich example of the evolution of a secular state which is accommodating religious beliefs. An-Na’im delves into the codification of Islamic laws during colonial rule, describing it as the result of ‘colonial reason’ which resulted in some of the dynamic principles of Islamic law becoming rigid and stagnant, such as those pertaining to women (p.149).

The example of Turkey in chapter five is a reflection on what An-Na’im terms “authoritarian secularism” (p.182) or secularism imposed by the state without legitimacy from the state citizens. He contends that the problems arise when the state is unwilling or unable to address the “connectedness of religion and politics.” (p.183) An-Na’im charts different forms of Turkish secularism covering both the Ottoman era and the post-1922 Republican transformation. Discussions then move towards the conflicts that have arisen in the country between religion and secularism, including the issue of the head scarf ban which has tainted Turkey’s reputation globally. An-Naim concludes this chapter by suggesting that is the Turkish state is able to move away from its rigid form of secularism, it may yet prove to be an example for other Muslim majority states around the world on the compatibility of the Islamic religion and secularism.

The final example employed by An-Na’im is Indonesia, the state with the largest and most diverse Muslim population in the world. He states that the “premise of this chapter is that diversity is about religious, ethnic, and other forms of demographic variety and difference, while pluralism is the value system, attitudes, institutions, and processes that can translate that diversity into sustainable social cohesion, political stability, and economic development.” As such, the example is a ‘work in progress model’ of a Muslim majority state in which An-Na’im’s theory can potentially be tested. However, that would require overcoming the hostility that exists within Indonesia to the idea of a secular state.

Professor An-Na’im set out to provide “normative and institutional parameters and safeguards for the negotiation and mediation of the role of Shari’a among Muslims and non-Muslims now and in the future.” (p.267) His proposals are bold and his evidence comprehensive. The theory propagated in this book will resonate across many Muslim cultures and societies around the world. Certainly, the ideas that he is proposing pose an enormous challenge to traditional Muslim scholarship, understanding and application of Shari’a over many centuries. Only someone of An-Na’i m’s standing can take this debate forward and ensure that it is given due regard by the multitude of people who follow the Islamic faith, regardless of whether they accept or reject his proposals, both philosophically and practically.

This is a book review published on: 6th February 2011

Citation: Akhtar, R., ‘Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a’ by by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Book Review, 2010 (1) Law, Social Justice & Global Development Journal (LGD). <>