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LGD 2010(1) - Book Review - Authors Introduction

Islam and the Secular State is a Framework for Constant Contestation, not Claim of Categorical Resolution.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na‘im,
Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law
Emory University School of Law

The opening sentence of my Preface for Islam and the Secular State says: “This book is the culmination of my life's work, the final statement I wish to make on issues I have been struggling with since I was a student at the University of Khartoum, Sudan, in the late 1960s.” Some reviewers and colleagues took this sentence literally to mean that this is the last statement I have to say on the subject. What I mean is that this is my ultimate view on the relationship of Islam and the state, but I also emphasized throughout the book that what I am presenting is a framework for “negotiating the future of Sharia,” rather than a categorical resolution of the issues.

Without going into detail on the basic features of the proposed framework, I note here some issues for further clarification:

The underlying premise of my thesis is that the state cannot be Islamic not only since the state as such cannot think, feel or believe, but also because there is no agreed and humanly verifiable quality of being “Islamic” that can be attributed to any institution. The post-colonial notion of an Islamic state to enforce Sharia as state law is conceptually incoherent, historically unprecedented and practically untenable today.

I need to be categorical in making this point in an attempt to dispel the common misperception about the possibility of an Islamic state, which many Muslims today assume is a panacea to all their problems and frustrations. But to say that the state cannot be religious does not necessarily mean that it is sufficiently secular in the sense of being neutral regarding religious doctrine. Concerns raised by the framework presented in this book include secularism, religious neutrality of the state, and legal versus normative pluralism.

On the first count it seems that secularism is commonly taken to mean the opposite of ‘religious’, and vice versa - whatever that means. This circular definition is incoherent because it defines the state by denying it a quality it can’t have in any case. A more serious practical objection to this circular definition for believers is the implication that religion and the secular state are mutually exclusive.

The response to this concern that I hope to continue to develop is to define the secular state in terms of what it should be and do, instead of what it is not or should not attempt to do. What I need to continue to develop includes the distinction, not dichotomy, between the state and politics, whereby Islam is institutionally separated from the state, although it remains integral to politics among Muslims. Another aspect is the role of civic reason, constitutionalism, human rights and citizenship in facilitating and safeguarding the mediation of that paradox of separation of Islam and the state, on the one hand, and connectedness of Islam and politics, on the other.

The second concern noted above relates to the need for religious neutrality of the state. To begin with, this is about state neutrality regarding all religious doctrine, and not indifference to religion as such or neutrality in all matters of public policy as determined through civic reason. Moreover, as noted above, balancing religious neutrality, on the one hand, and the public role of religion, on the other, is a paradox to be mediated through the practice of civic reason within the framework of constitutionalism, human rights and citizenship. But that process may be facilitated by emphasizing that the religious neutrality of the state is an objective to be actively and deliberately perused, and not a presumed condition or claim of a permanent reality of any state.

The third concern relates to the need for the state to respect the religious authority and social influence of Sharia among Muslims, while safeguarding the religious neutrality of the state. I need to continue to clarify this in terms of a distinction, again not dichotomy, between legal and normative pluralism. The necessary and expedient monopoly of the state on the making and coercive enforcement of state law should deny citizens the right to apply their religious or other normative resources in their personal and social lives outside the domain of state institutions, provided that does not violate the rights of others. From this perspective, I tend to resist calls for legal pluralism regarding state law, while appreciating the need for normative pluralism in the private social sphere, subject to the safeguards of constitutionalism, human rights and citizenship.

In conclusion of this brief introduction, I would emphasize that the purpose of my book Islam and the Secular State is to present a framework for constant theoretical and political contestation of the relationship between Islam, the state, politics and society, and not a categorical blueprint of how that relationship should be for all societies, now or in the future. I remain convinced that the proposed framework is coherent and viable, but also aware that much more needs to be done to clarify its various elements and facilitate its working in practice. While I hope to contribute to this process, I hope others would claim this framework as their own and work for its realization in practice.