Few books in Islamic studies have been as eagerly awaited or intensely debated prior to publication as Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im’s Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a. Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University, An-Na`im has for more than twenty years been a tireless proponent of a deeply religious but liberal-modernist reformation of Islamic politics and ethics. Published just five years after his flight from the Sudan in April 1985 (after the Numeiri regime executed his Sufi teacher, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha), An-Na`im’s Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law established him as one of our era’s most articulate exponents of the Islamic grounds for constitutionalism and human rights.

In a trademark gesture of democratic openness, in late 2003 An-Na`im circulated a draft of his new book to scholars and activists in Turkey, Egypt, the Sudan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia, India, and Nigeria. From January 2004 to September 2006, he worked with local Islamic associations in all of these countries to organize workshops and focus groups to discuss and refine the book’s arguments. The English manuscript was also translated into Arabic, Indonesian, Bengali, French, Persian, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu; it was also made available on the Internet. Among the global Muslim intelligentsia, the draft quickly became a cultural event in its own right. The book version of the manuscript will both broaden the discussion and deepen the controversy.

Two things distinguish this new work from An-Na`im’s early writings. The first is his explicit endorsement of a secular state as the best form of government for Muslims and for the flourishing of Islam. In Toward an Islamic Reformation, An-Na`im had dedicated his energies to addressing believers’ understandings of Islam and Shari`a, and had less to say about the appropriate form of the state. As he put it, he hoped “to reconcile Muslim commitment to Islamic law with the achievement of the benefits of secularism within a religious framework.” In this new book, he sets his sights squarely on providing Islamic rationales for secular government.

The second quality that distinguishes this book from his earlier scholarship is its systematic effort to ground arguments in support of freedom, constitutionalism, and secularity on two bodies of research: historical studies of the development of Muslim politics and Shari`a from the early Islamic period to the rise of the Ottoman Empire; and case studies of Shari`a politics in modern India, Turkey, and Indonesia. An-Na`im plumbs the depths of these empirical materials to provide corroborating evidence in support of his larger argument.

The argument has three pillars: first, and contrary to the claims of some Western scholars and Islamist intellectuals like Hassan al-Turabi, religious and state institutions in Muslim societies have been effectively separated since the death of the Prophet Muhammad; second, modern Islamists’ demands for the establishment of an Islamic state based on a fusion of religion and state reflect, not enduring Islamic precedents, but a “postcolonial discourse that relies on European notions of the state and positive law”; and, third, Muslims can best realize Shari`a ideals in a secular state neutral on matters of religion but otherwise responsive to citizen values, as long as these are expressed through a “civic reason” accessible to all citizens.

In short, An-Na`im’s book presents an “Islamic argument for a secular state,” premised on constitutional governance and universal human rights. The appeal to civic reason has parallels with the recent statements by Charles Taylor and Jürgen Habermas on religion and the public sphere. However, An-Na`im’s commitment to secular government is distinctive in that the appeal is oriented toward not only concepts of popular welfare, but “the survival and development of Islam itself.”

On this latter point, An-Na`im’s approach bears a striking resemblance to that of two other modern Muslim pluralists, the late Nurcholish Madjid of Indonesia and Abdulkarim Soroush of Iran. Like both of these authors, An-Na`im argues that the most compelling grounds for a separation of religion and state have to do with, not liberalism, but efforts to safeguard Islam from abuse at the hands of the powerful. Also like these authors, An-Na`im’s secularism is of a sort that, while mandating a formal separation of religious and state institutions, allows and even requires religious actors and values to play a role in legislation, subject to the restriction that the values are recast in a non-sectarian form. Indeed, An-Na`im argues, secularism—“defined to mean only the separation of religion and state”—makes such “minimal moral claims” that it is “incapable of meeting the collective requirements of public policy.” The weakness is especially serious with regard to vexing moral issues like abortion and capital punishment. Inasmuch as this is so, the secular state must allow citizens of religious conviction to publicly express their views and influence legislation, with the proviso that that such legislation must be cast in terms “acceptable and convincing to the generality of citizens regardless of their religious or other beliefs.” The balance struck here between formal separation and allowing for the public role of religion “is difficult to establish and maintain, but there is no alternative to striving to achieve it.”

An-Na`im observes that one of the greatest threats to Islamic piety and observance today comes, not from outside the Muslim community, but from Muslims who would abolish the separation of religion and state in the name of an ostensibly Islamic government. He argues that all such étatizing projects are not only politically dangerous but religiously mistaken. Their religious error lies in their failure to recognize that the Qur’an places ultimate responsibility for observance of God’s commands, not on the state, but on individuals and the community of believers. “Shari`a principles by their nature and function defy any possibility of enforcement by the state.” By surrendering responsibility for the Shari`a to state authorities, proponents of the Islamic state create a “totalitarian” entity that is “incoherent and unworkable,” and thus doomed to foster hypocrisy, corruption, and cynicism among believers.

Although at first some of this may sound like a familiar critique of Islamist programs, An-Na`im’s ideas differ from Western liberal commentaries in that, while advocating a religiously-neutral state, they do not promote a religiously-neutral society. An-Na`im repeatedly emphasizes that for all observant Muslims the Shari`a is an unavoidable and hallowed obligation. Moreover, he explains, because its ethical discipline is socially encompassing, the Shari`a cannot be transformed into a system of purely personal ethics, as both liberal and authoritarian secularists have long recommended. Inasmuch as the Shari`a has such scope, the challenge for An-Na`im becomes to identify just what the Shari`a prescribes, and, having answered this question, to determine the sociopolitical arrangements that can most effectively realize its aims.

On the first of these two questions, concerning the Shari`a’s ethical prescriptions, An-Na`im takes what is from the perspective of Islamic scholarship (especially jurisprudence) a thoughtful but controversial tack. Rather than deducing the Shari`a’s stipulations from exegeses of Islamic sources, An-Na`im explains that his first order of business must be to develop an “interpretative framework” for understanding how believers come to understand Shari`a meanings. The argument here is that believers “always understand Islamic sources (or any other text, for that matter) as who we are, in our specific location and context.” Inasmuch as understanding is situationally contingent in this way, believers must take care to distinguish Shari`a as the “totality of the duty of Muslims” from “any particular perception of it through a specific human methodology of interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna.”

Readers familiar with late-nineteenth century German Biblical scholarship will not be surprised to learn that An-Na`im uses this constructionist model of religious knowledge to relativize the claim that the Shari`a provides clear and immutable guidelines for politics and ethics. Although some modernist Muslim scholars have advocated a partial heremeneuticization of believers’ understanding of divine law—by, for example, insisting that jurisprudence (fiqh) is changeable but the Shari`a is not—An-Na`im insists scholars must go further. He rejects the latter distinction as temporizing, insisting that, though God’s revelation is absolute, human judgment is not; “human interpretation of relevant texts… is unavoidable in both aspects of this issue.”

This emphasis on the situatedness and fallibility of human judgment provides the bridge between An-Na`im’s religious epistemology and his more general arguments concerning freedom, democracy, and constitutionalism. Just as an awareness of human agency as situated and fallible is “integral to any approach to the Qur’an and the Sunna,” so too “the whole process of formulating and implementing public policy and legislation is subject to human error and fallibility.” Institutional safeguards must be implemented in both realms, so as to guard against corrupting powers and policies that cloak temporal human judgments in the garb of divine commands.

As these statements hint, the social ontology underlying An-Na`im’s approach is egalitarian and, in a strictly delimited sense, liberal. The framework is liberal in that it aims to maximize religious freedom – albeit, for Muslims, within the compass of a divine law that must be observed even as it can never be known with absolute certainty. “Knowing and upholding Shari`a is the permanent and inescapable responsibility of every Muslim,” An-Na`im writes, echoing a near-universal opinion among Muslim scholars. But An-Na`im quickly adds an observation that tradition-minded scholars will find less familiar: Because upholding the Shari`a is the foundation for all Muslim ethics, “no human being or institution should control this process,” not least of all by prescribing just who is and who is not “qualified to exercise ijtihad” (independent religious judgment). Although the emphasis on opening the process of ijtihad to a broader public has been a leitmotif of Islamic modernism since the nineteenth century, statements like these make clear that An-Na`im aims to extend and equalize the right to a far greater degree than most reform-minded modernists. Conservative critics view proposals like these as an invitation to intellectual license, as well as an attempt to dynamite the hierarchical edifice of scholarship and learning on which their own religious authority depends.

There’s a deeper, albeit no less controversial, religious premise to An-Na`im’s argument. It is his conviction that the Shari`a is primarily concerned not with matters of state or criminal codes, but with “regulating the relationship between God and human believers” in a direct and unmediated manner. An-Na`im uses this characterization as the grounds for another boldly egalitarian prescription, one central to the book’s political argument. “Believers can neither abdicate nor delegate their responsibility” for abiding by the Shari`a; they alone must fulfill the obligation. Inasmuch as this responsibility allows no delegation, the idea of creating a religious or Islamic state is both logically and ethically impossible. It is in this sense that An-Na`im asserts that the state is “by definition secular and not religious,” and those who think otherwise act contrary to the spirit of God’s law.

As the historical discussion in the middle chapters of this book demonstrates, An-Na`im is well aware that since the first centuries of the Muslim era, believers have tended to see the relation of religion and state in a manner other than the separationist model he is proposing. When they wrote about it at all, most Muslim scholars described the state as neither secular nor religious, but as an entity whose legitimacy depended on the rulers’ ability to create conditions in which Muslims and the Shari`a could flourish.

In the book’s second chapter, An-Na`im provides a careful overview of the relationship of the ulama to the state from the time of the “rightly guided caliphs” to the modern Ottoman empire. Drawing on both Muslim and Western sources, he demonstrates that the separation of religious and state institutions was not the result of Western colonialism (as Turabi and other Islamist intellectuals have suggested), but developed as the early Muslim community evolved from a small Arabian movement into a vast empire. Even where rulers attempted to impose a “fusion model” of religion and state, as did the Fatimid dynasty in tenth and eleventh century Egypt, religious scholars still enjoyed significant practical autonomy.

An-Na`im emphasizes that, although institutionally differentiated, rulers and scholars in most countries developed a “mutually sustaining relationship.” This insight leads An-Na`im to emphasize what he describes as the central paradox of politics and religion in Muslim societies. Rulers “could not function without the consent of their subjects, which rested upon an unyielding demand that they implement and uphold Islamic orthodoxy.” At the same time, “the ulama and their institutions could not function without the support of the state apparatus, which not only protected the borders of the Islamic lands … but also endowed religious institution and enforced the regulations of the awqaf” (religious endowments on which mosques and madrasas depended for funding).

After reading comments like these on the interdependency of religious and state institutions, some Muslim readers may be tempted to draw conclusions different from those of An-Na`im concerning the proper relation of religion to state today. Rather than a secular state, some might feel that it makes more sense for Muslim societies to move toward a modernized and “massified” variant of the long-established relationship of mutual sustenance between rulers and ulama. As many modern analysts have pointed out, mass education, urbanization, and religious resurgence have created new Muslim publics in which the ulama’s monopoly over religious knowledge has been diminished. But some ulama have responded deftly to the challenge and developed methods for winning followers in the new mass market. In the face of Islamic resurgences and ulama re-assertions in countries like Egypt, Pakistan, and Indonesia, once-secular rulers have concluded that it is in their interest to court favor with segments of the scholarly establishment, especially where state power is being challenged by populist protest (political dynamics nicely illustrated, for Pakistan, in Muhammad Qasim Zaman’s The Ulama in Modern Society, and, for Egypt, in Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s Mobilizing Islam).

An-Na`im is familiar with this trend toward a neo-conservative accommodation of ulama and state. However, in keeping with his egalitarian and democratic vision of Shari`a, and in light of the abuses he has witnessed in Sudan and elsewhere, he holds firmly to the conviction that collaborations like these are intrinsically corrupting. “[I]f religious belief and piety are declining in any society, they cannot be restored through coercion or inducement through state institutions. To the contrary, state intervention in matters of religious belief and practice is deeply corrupting, by breeding hypocrisy (nifaq), which is repeatedly and categorically condemned in the Qur’an.” As scholars like David Martin and Hugh McLeod have shown, the evidence from Western Europe and the United States points to a similar conclusion: that popular piety and religious conviction are likely to remain socially vibrant where responsibility for religious matters is dispersed into the meeting houses and prayer groups of civil society rather than concentrated in the hands of state bureaucrats.

An-Na`im concludes his book with an observation that again underscores the depths of his commitment to a deeply pious but egalitarian profession of Islam. “I say that no human being should have the power to control what others may wish to believe or disbelieve.” No doubt the memories of his beloved teacher, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, hover over this assertion. But the argument is also informed by An-Na`im’s first principle of religious conviction: “Religious compliance must be completely voluntary according to personal pious intention (niyah), which is necessarily invalidated by coercive enforcement of those obligations.” Although this conviction resonates with modern ideals of freedom and equality, it is not derivative of Western discourses, but builds on long-established traditions of piety and mysticism in Islam.

This individualized vision of piety is not one to which all Muslims or even believing non-Muslims will subscribe. Even Muslims who agree with An-Na`im in rejecting the fiction of the Islamic state may see his pietistic politics as idealistic but unworkable in light of the political dynamics of modern Muslim societies. Like their Western Christian counterparts in the early modern age, many mainstream Muslim leaders seem comfortable with the idea that, however much it may be at variance with liberal notions, the state has a positive role to play in promoting Islamic learning and piety. Religious education in public schools, the call to prayers on radio and television, state-coordinated alms-collection—these and other collaborations across the state-society divide have become the norm, rather than the exception, in the late-modern Muslim world. As with the development of democracy in Western Europe in the late nineteenth century, these collaborations—though still far short of anything like an “Islamic” state—may not be good for full religious freedom. However, as also in the late nineteenth century West, some Muslim societies may work from such compromised circumstances to strike an ever-evolving balance between limited state support for religion and a functioning if not-fully-liberal democracy. Although far from the liberal ideal, compromise arrangements like these may well be the path-dependent way through which democratization proceeds in many parts of the Muslim world.

Although political developments in Muslim societies may as yet be inhospitable to a full realization of An-Na`im’s egalitarian pietism, recent developments have created circumstances and public opinion quite favorable to his critique of the Islamic state. “The fundamental defect of the idea of the Islamic state is that the logic of the invocation of religious or moral authority can very easily be inverted, so that instead of regulating political power by religious authority, religion itself becomes subordinated to power.” This message resonates powerfully with the experience of many modern Muslims, who find themselves living under authoritarian regimes claiming to govern in the name of Islam. As with An-Na`im, opposition to these regimes, and support for a qualified separation of religion and state, is likely to be grounded as much on religious as political rationales.

In its preface, An-Na`im describes his new book as “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.” Islam and the Secular State testifies to the richness of that life work, and to the courage of an author who deserves to be recognized as one of the most important religious thinkers of our age.