Abdullahi An-Na’im is a man with a mission. As the expatriate Sudanese law professor told The New Yorker writer George Packer in a recent article, his new book on Islam and the Secular State was written as “a work of advocacy more than of scholarship.” But as an advocate to whom? After all, one would think that the main thesis of the book—that Islamic ideas of law should not be mandated by a political state—is not the sort of thing that would be disputed by most readers of books published by Harvard University Press. Yet, as An-Na’im explains in the introduction to his book, it is not his Harvard Press readers or his colleagues at Emory University that he hopes to convert—though he doesn’t mind reminding the non-Muslim world that his religious tradition is more complex and tolerant than the jihadi extremists would have us believe. Rather, he is trying to reach out to his fellow religionists in the wider Muslim world. An-Na’im is especially interested in reaching out to Muslims beyond the Arab heartland, such as those in North Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, who he believes are more receptive to alternative ways of conceiving of the role of shari’a in relation to the secular state.
For this reason, An-Na’im has created a website where chapters of the book are available in a variety of languages-Urdu, Bengali, Bahasha Indonesia, Persian, Turkish, Russian, and French, in addition to Arabic and English. Moreover, as An-Na’im explains, a great many English-speaking Muslims, especially expatriate Pakistanis and Muslims of Middle East origins in the UK and the United States, will read the English version of the book in print and on the website. It is difficult to know how many readers have accessed the chapters in their various languages, though a recent visit to the site indicated that a forum set up for comments had thus far garnered only one remark: “nice site,” said the reader, adding a smiley face :).
There is reason, however, to think that there might be more interest in An-Na’im’s thesis than that within the Muslim world, since he is unabashedly pro-Muslim and opposed to secularism. An-Na’im affirms that religion in general—and Islam in particular—has a role to play in public life. He admires shari’a and thinks that it should be embraced, but accepted voluntarily. In fact, An-Na’im believes that it does a disservice to Islamic principles for them to be forced on the public whether it accepts them or not. For the sake of Islam, then, he believes that the state should be neutral with regard to the enforcement of religious values and concepts. For this reason he insists that the state should be secular. It is a position not unlike that of the Iranian Sh’ite theologian, Abdolkarim Soroush, who advocated that Islam and politics should be separated for the sake of Islam, which he thought had become compromised by becoming an instrument of the state.
One would think that this pro-Muslim view of the separation of religion and state would be seriously considered within Muslim society, and within some quarters it has been. Yet in the Sudan, the country of An-Na’im’s birth, the response from the state has been hostile. The mentor of An-Na’im, Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, was tried for apostasy and executed by the Sudanese state in 1985. Taha, who some regard as the “Gandhi of Sudan,” had earlier been jailed by the British for his role in Sudan’s independence movement. His political party, the Republican Brothers, was intended to be an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, calling for a secular constitution and political framework rather than one based on strict Shari’a codes. Like An-Na’im, Taha was a deeply religious man, and regarded the separation of religion and state to be essential for the purity of the Islamic faith as well as vital for the protection of human rights. According to Packer’s article on An-Na’im and Taha in The New Yorker, “The Moderate Martyr,” as a young law student at the University of Khartoum in the 1960s, An-Na’im had been in a “deadlock” between his love for Islam and his admiration of human rights, and it was something of an epiphany for him to find in Taha the acceptance of both. Indeed he saw each reinforcing the other.
In this rich and interesting book, An-Naim is determined to bring Taha’s way of thinking to the wider Muslim world. The book examines the relation of Islam and politics in history, and finds that most political authorities in Muslim societies have not forced their beliefs and principles down the throats of their subjects. At the same time, the relationship between Islam and secularism has been problematic. An-Na’im examines the cases of India, Indonesia and Turkey for insights into how the secular state can be embraced by Islam. He also critically analyzes the attempts of Mawdudi, Qutb, and modern Muslim activists to create an Islamic state, which An-Na’im regards as inappropriate for Muslim tradition, for it tacitly accepts the Western constructs of nationhood and religion. For Islam to be true to itself, An-Naim argues, it must be free to play a positive public role unfettered by state control. It is a compelling argument, one that deserves wide discussion. Some twenty years after the Sudanese regime attempted to silence Taha’s thinking, it is impressive to see that An-Na’im’s writings and multi-language website continue to give him voice.