If the state is going to enforce any principle from Islamic sources, according to Abdullahi An-Na‘im, then it should implement the principle that the state should not enforce Islamic principles. This is the crux of An-Na‘im’s new book, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari‘a. An-Na‘im, a renowned Islamic scholar and human rights activist, is a leading member of the generation of Muslim intellectuals that came to prominence in the 1980s as critics of both Islamist revolutionaries and post-colonial dictators. According to An-Na‘im, the secular state is not just a good thing on public-policy grounds; it is also justified on Islamic grounds.

An-Na‘im recognizes that this case may seem to be a hard sell for the Muslims who are his primary audience. He reports that a series of focus groups that he sponsored in Indonesia to discuss these ideas were almost uniformly hostile to the concept of a secular state, which participants associated with Western attempts to undermine Islam. In Indonesia and elsewhere, many devout Muslims associate the secular state with the promotion of irreligion.

An-Na‘im proposes that the opposite is more likely. Through a variety of Islamic arguments, he makes the case that a secular state is actually good for religion. From the standpoint of Islamic ethics (‘ilm al-akhlaq), he argues that state enforcement of shari‘a vitiates Muslims’ ability to carry out their religious duties through the exercise of human will. From the perspective of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), An-Na‘im remarks that Islamic sacred sources say little about the form of government that Muslims should adopt, citing work by other major scholars such ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq (Egypt, 1888-1966) and Nurcholish Madjid (Indonesia, 1939-2005). He argues that the existence of multiple interpretations of Islam undermines the claim that there is a single, timeless set of shari‘a regulations for the state to enforce.

From the biographies of the earliest generations of Muslims (siyar al-salaf), An-Na‘im argues that the first four successors to Muhammad in the 7th century offered a precedent for the modern secular state. These leaders, known in the Islamic heritage as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs,” were particularly devout and religiously knowledgeable, An-Na‘im notes (to note otherwise would place him outside of the Sunni mainstream). Their legitimacy as rulers of the Muslim community was based not on their religious authority, he argues, but rather on their political authority as heads of state. Other companions of the Prophet, who are also revered for their piety and Islamic learning, did not necessarily agree with the policies of these first caliphs, but they accepted caliphal authority in order to protect the new polity.

And from the standpoint of contemporary Islamic welfare (maslaha), An-Na‘im argues that state enforcement of shari‘a — as it has been traditionally understood — undermines democracy and human rights, including the rights of women, non-Muslims, and the freedom to choose one’s religion. In each of these areas, An-Na‘im suggests that Muslims need to engage their religious traditions in a spirit of self-criticism, rather than perpetuate misguided aspects of Islamic heritage out of understandable defensiveness about Western colonial and post-colonial influences.

An-Na‘im weaves these Islamic discourses together with case studies of three secular states — Turkey, India, and Indonesia — where Islamic faith is, if anything, on the rise. An-Na‘im notes some of the drawbacks of these secular regimes. In Turkey, the Kemalist version of secularism inhibits the free expression of religiosity (most famously women’s desire to wear headscarves in public institutions). In India, the post-colonial state has largely endorsed the colonial-era Anglo-Mohammedan system of personal and family law, to the detriment of Islamic reformist movements. In Indonesia, the government forces citizens to register as members of one of the five official religions. Still, these secular governments have not undermined religion, as some devout Muslims fear. If anything, Muslims’ religious freedom may be greater under these regimes than under so-called Islamic regimes, which favor certain sects and interpretations and impose barriers on others.

An-Na‘im does not engage in statistical analysis, but one could add to his argument the findings of the World Values Survey: among Muslims in India, Indonesia, and Turkey, regular attendance at religious services (weekly or more often) is higher than under the decidedly pro-shari‘a regimes in Iran and Saudi Arabia. In fact, religious attendance in Iran and Saudi Arabia is among the lowest quartile of 20 countries with significant Muslim populations surveyed by the World Values Survey over the past decade. These figures — and An-Na‘im’s case for secularism — seem to be consistent with competition theories in the sociology of Christianity: the less monopolistic the religious scene, the greater the incentives for religious denominations to market themselves to potential adherents, with the result that more people are drawn into religious participation.

The World Values Survey also asked Muslims in eight countries whether the state should enforce only shari‘a law, and 68 percent agreed. Yet a majority of these pro-shari‘a respondents also agreed with the statement that “Democracy may have problems but it’s better than any other form of government.” Similarly in the Pew Global Attitudes Project, a majority of Muslims in 10 countries who said that they wanted Islam to play “a very large role” in political life also said that “democracy is not just for the West and can work well here.” The Gallup World Poll appears to found a similar overlap between pro-shari‘a and pro-democracy attitudes in many Muslim-majority countries, though the detailed findings are beyond my budget (the WVS and Pew data are free).

Democratic procedures are only one of An-Nai’m’s criteria for a truly secular state. At other points in this book, An-Na‘im also suggests that all modern states count as “secular”: “the state is by definition a secular political institution, especially in the present context of Islamic societies,” since some or all of the personnel in charge of the state are lay rulers whose selection and policies depend on factors external to religious interpretation — even the Saudi monarchy (which came to power through force) or the Iranian president (who came to power through popular, if limited, election). The very idea of the nation-state, which has become entrenched in post-colonial societies, is a secular notion. (Though some governments have tried to Islamicize the concept — in Uzbekistan, for example, the Communist-era bosses who run the post-Soviet state posted billboards quoting a statement of the Prophet Muhammad, “Feeling for one’s homeland (vatan) is greater than all things.”)

Elsewhere, An-Na‘im offers a more restrictive definition of the secular state that involves the substance of state policies: states that attempt to enforce traditional shari‘a norms are not secular, by these lights. To count as secular, a state must protect human rights, even when these run counter to the will of the majority or to traditional understandings of Islamic piety. In an earlier project, Islamic Family Law in a Changing World, An-Na‘im documented many of these legal limitations on a country-by-country basis, and his current work encourages Muslims to face up to these human rights failings.

An-Na‘im also offers an even more restrictive definition of the secular state that focuses not just on the substance of policy but also on the form of political discourse used to make policy. To invoke religious authority as the basis for policy, he argues, is a breach of secularism, regardless of the content of the policy. In this vision of the secular state, policy must be grounded in civic reason: “For example, if all I can say in support of the prohibition of interest on loans is that it is prohibited for me as a Muslim (haram), then there is nothing to discuss with other citizens, who must either reject or accept my proposal only on the strength of my religious belief. … It is also better for my own faith as a Muslim to reflect on the social rationale for the dictates of Shari‘a and try to persuade others of the general good of those commandments.”

This approach overlaps considerably with John Rawls’s concept of “public reason,” An-Na‘im notes, but the authors also differ in significant ways. For Rawls, religion was a side issue and only permissible in political debate under exceptional circumstances, such as the social divides that confronted the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement in the United States. Rawls’s position was firmly allied with the secularization thesis in the sociology of religion, whereby religion inevitably recedes from the public sphere as a country modernizes. For An-Na‘im, by contrast, religion is a permanent and worthwhile feature of human life that informs many citizens’ political priorities, just as other aspects of social position and ideology do — a position that is consistent with the work of Christian Smith and others in the sociology of religion who have contested the secularization thesis. An-Na‘im favors a secular state, but he also favors a robust role for faith in public life.

Rawls and An-Na‘im also differ in the focus of their normative judgments. An-Na‘im is writing primarily for Muslims, and he urges non-Muslims to let Muslims take the lead in gaining their freedoms. By contrast, Rawls wrote primarily for the United States and other North Atlantic democracies — these countries provide the bulk of his examples and the institutional framework for his ideals of justice. His main consideration of the rest of the world, a late book entitled The Law of Peoples, focuses primarily on the threat that illiberal regimes pose to the North Atlantic democracies. These other regions must be contained or reformed, by military intervention if necessary — the same “civilizing mission” reasoning propagated by imperialists. An-Na‘im considers such interventions to be hypocritical and ineffective — hypocritical since altruistic discourses are almost always combined with exploitative practices, and ineffective because the aftermath of the intervention is rarely liberal or democratic.

At the same time, Rawls also considers the possibility of “decent” non-liberal peoples, whose polities may not be fully democratic but at least enforce the rule of law and respect human rights. These “decent” nations pose no threat to the international order and should be left alone to live their own way, so long as they do not become indecent. Rawls’s example of a “decent” non-liberal people, tellingly, is a fictional Muslim country, “Kazanistan” — presumably a play on the capital of Tatarstan, Kazan. An-Na‘im, writing for the citizens of the “Kazanistans” of the world, is not prepared to give non-liberal Islamic states a free pass. He does not call for Western intervention, but rather for internal reform. Muslims themselves have a duty to bring about constitutionalism, human rights, and democratic citizenship, An-Na‘im argues. He proposes that the best path toward these ideals — and the best path toward Islamic fulfillment — is a secular state.