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LGD 2010(1) - Book Review - Farrar

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

Dr Salim Farrar
Centre for Asian and Pacific Law
University of Sydney

This book represents a culmination of the author’s life’s work. He advances the case for a secular state cogently, with fluency and great clarity. Further, he should be commended on the great lengths he has gone to engage diverse communities in their own languages to stimulate an inclusive debate on one of the most important topics of our times.

In light of the factionalism of the Muslim world and the distant possibility of a righteous Islamic government, I have sympathies with An-Na’im’s call for a transparent, inclusive political process, for neutrality between competing religious claims, protections within a framework of democracy and constitutionalism, and sensitivity towards concerns of human rights. Ultimately, however, his argument rests on rational considerations, because his so-called ‘Islamic’ justifications remain unconvincing. First, at the general level, there is very little engagement with the Islamic literature, contemporary or historical, theological, legal or exegetical. Whether this is due to the author’s secular training, his embedding in American liberal institutions or personal preferences is unclear. In my view, the relative absence of ‘Islamic’ thought in the text undermines his stated goal of an ‘Islamic’ case (see chapter 1) for a secular state, irrespective of how you define the terms ‘Islamic’ or ‘secular.’ It reads more as an export of John Rawls with ‘Islamic’ packaging than a proposal rooted in the intellectual processes of Muslim communities (as diverse as they are). If he wants to spark reform and promote ‘modern’ values in Muslim societies that espouse Islam, it needs to have traction with ‘Islamic’ scholars who, as a general rule, will not have John Rawls et al as primary references.

A second, and related, problem is the ambiguity concerning his intended audience. Is his proposal for the Muslim world as a whole? Or is it merely for Muslim and secular governments grappling with ‘Islamist’ opposition forces? His three cases studies of India, Turkey and Indonesia are ‘secular’ states indicating the latter (and, perhaps, suggesting a geopolitical agenda). Yet, the controversies he points to at length (re minority rights, position of women and ‘freedom of religion’) are as, if not more, evident in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan which begs the question why there has been no engagement with their literatures.

Third, although it helps to clarify the rational basis for his argument (and is probably used for rhetorical and literary effect), the author grossly distorts the nature of Islamic belief and exaggerates the strength of his case. He makes the astonishing claim (in the opening sentence of chapter one) that one can only be a Muslim in a secular state, namely a state which is neutral between all religions and ideologies. Quite apart from it impliedly asserting that all Saudis and Iranians are not really Muslims (hardly a liberal stand) as both states are theocratic, the assertion operates on the false and strange premise that internal belief or personal conviction is dependent upon external political structures. Islamic belief is defined as believing in one’s heart (and declaring, in the case of a would-be convert) that ‘No one is God but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah’. A person may consciously choose this belief and sincerely believe in what that belief dictates in the presence or absence of a state framework and irrespective of its religious or ideological complexion. He could be alone in a jungle; he could be in Mecca; he could be in the Vatican. Though in respect of the latter it might be rather difficult to manifest that belief, the person would still be a Muslim so long as his belief was genuine. The point is that Islamic belief is not contingent upon externalities.

Fourth, if one ignores the rhetorical exaggeration and focuses on his substantive claim that a secular state would facilitate genuine pious belief, whereas a so-called ‘Islamic’ state would lead to religious hypocrisy or nifaq , this is an assertion with no empirical or textual evidence. For those who do not believe it has been abrogated (the writers on Islamic exegesis differed in this matter), the Qur’anic verse, ‘La ikraha fid-deen’, translated as ‘there is no compulsion in religion’, means that it is the individual who believes and that no one is able to make him believe because belief is created in the heart by Allah. It does not pertain to the nature of the state or governance – nor could it. All laws, whether one refers to secular laws with no religious content, or to the Shari’a , compel observance because that is the nature of law; and all Muslims are obliged to follow the religious law, namely, the Shari’a of Prophet Muhammad as that is part of the belief (even though what constitutes the majority of the Shari’a, the fiqh, will differ). If the state passes laws which oblige the performance of Friday Prayer and prohibits trade during prayer times, this facilitates and encourages religious obedience for those who have belief, it does not promote hypocrisy. While there may be some who would prefer selling perfume or food during this time, by denying them the opportunity to indulge their preference, the state facilitates their avoidance of sin - even if they get no or little reward in the Hereafter (as they failed to pray sincerely).1The act of legislation, or its enforcement, cannot be said to expunge belief from their hearts (how would it do that?).

Fifth, there is no guarantee or even likelihood that An-Na’im’s alternative model of religious laissez-faire (?) would promote more genuine religious observance. Rather, one could argue the contrary in that the removal of a temporal deterrent could facilitate more un -Islamic behaviour as the more impressionable, easily distracted and known backsliders might cease to perform required religious observance, and lapse into a habit of disobedience. Is it not ‘Islamic’ to encourage religious performance to nurture ‘Islamic’ habits? Moreover, why should we deny the ‘state’ the right to promote religion, when local communities would not be so prohibited and whose disapproval could stigmatize and coerce individuals in practice more than acts of ‘state’ ?

The latter argument addresses the core rationale of the notion of the ‘Islamic’ state – as it does the ‘Socialist’ or ‘Capitalist’ state – that the State can be an agent of effective social change and a conveyor of accepted social values. If Hugo Chavez can use law effectively to promote and protect socialist lifestyles and values in Venezuela2, then a case might be made for an ‘Islamist’ government to do the same for Islamic lifestyles and values in a Muslim country.

Sixth, if An-Na’im wanted to demonstrate an ‘Islamist’ government is incapable of governing according to ‘Islamic’ values and necessarily oppressive, he should research systematically and empirically all those states who have undertaken that experiment. The Malaysian state of Kelantan, which has continued to return an ‘Islamist’ state government in free and democratic elections3, and in the face of a secular and much better funded Federal Government, would be a good starting point and, perhaps, more appropriate than Aceh where the experiment has only just begun.

1 This comes from the famous hadith narrated through the companion, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, that “ Matters are determined according to intention,” reported in the Saheeh collection of Muslim.

2 This should not be construed as implying Hugo Chavez has been effective.

3 It should be recognized, however, that the State Government of Kelantan is prevented from implementing all of its ‘Islamic’ agenda, especially in Criminal Law, because of certain provisions in the Malaysian Federal Constitution.

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

Citation: Farrar, S., ‘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). <>