Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim: Islam and the Secular State

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a lecture a couple of weeks ago given by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim. The event was sponsored by the Loyola University Islamic World Studies Program (directed by Dr. Marcia Hermansen, translator of Shah Wali Allah’s Hujjat Allah al-Baligha) and co-sponsored by the Chicago Muslim Bar Association. I am extremely grateful that the sponsors allowed me to attend a dinner with Dr. An-Naim after the event where I was able to discuss his ideas in a little more detail and I hope they didn’t regret it based on the fact that I heatedly disagreed with Dr. An-Naim on some issues. May Allaah (swt) forgive me, I am generally extremely calm and mild-mannered but when that Irish temper gets going, it’s all over!

Dr. An-Naim discussed his new book Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’ah. There is a lecture about the book available on Dr. An-Naim’s website as well. I have not read the book yet, so I am just tentatively addressing some of the issues that came out in discussion, and I pray I do not misstate or misrepresent Dr. An-Naim’s postion in any way.

As background, Dr. An-Naim is an extremely prolific scholar based at Emory University in Atlanta. He writes on a wide variety of Islamic and African issues. He comes from the background of a political activist and has a strong ‘progressive’ outlook. I use the term here in the sense of politically progressive and not to necessarily associate him with the “Progressive Islam” movement or mode of thinking. Although as I state, Dr. An-Naim is very prolific as a scholar he is best known to me as being a former student of Ustadh (Teacher) Mahmoud Taha. Dr. An-Naim also translated one of Taha’s works into english. I have not read Taha’s work either, but he was an opponent of and was executed by a Sudanese dictator who used religion as a justification for persecuting Taha. Again, I have not read it so I don’t claim to understand the ideas in their entirety or in depth, but they do seem to be unorthodox. One point usually emphasized in discussing these ideas is that the Makkan suras of the Qur’an (revealed pre-hijrah or before the Prophet(saw) had any political power) are a universal message valid for all times and peoples while the Madinan suras (revealed while the Prophet (saw) was a political leader) were in their specifics directed towards that particular time and place and those specifics are not necessarily binding for other times and places. Something that probably doesn’t sound too controversial to the non-Muslim modern western ear but which is, as I said, very ‘unorthodox’ to Muslims.

In any event, Dr. An-Naim in his lecture stressed a couple of good ideas. First, he stressed the idea of ‘negotiation’ which is in his title. He repeatedly said that he was throwing out some principles and some ideas but that the specifics would have to be worked out in Muslim societies on the ground. Along these lines, he stressed that “secular” does not have a single fixed meaning. Western states such as the U.S., the United Kingdom and France or even a Muslim state like Turkey are generally accepted to be ‘secular,’ yet ‘secular’ means very different things in each of these countries. And Mr. An-Naim stressed that he was talking about “secular states” not “secular societies.

Mr. An-Naim generally presented his argument in a pro-religion manner. He attempted to advance arguments that proper observance of Islam ‘required’ a secular state, for example because one needed to be absolutely free to choose to worship or not worship in order to have the correct niyyah or intention.

Mr. An-Naim also frequently referredt to the problem of different Muslims having different interpretations of an Islamic issue and the injustice inherent in being forced to follow the authorities understanding even if one disagreed with it. This was a moving argument, especially in light of the recent history of Mr. An-Naim’s own country Sudan as well as he referred to Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Mr. An-Naim acknowledged that in a society made up of Muslims, there is no doubt that Islamic “values” and even particular religious ideas of right and wrong would undoubtedly influence legislation if the society is democratic. Mr. An-Naim said this was not a problem for him, but stressed that in all cases people should in public debate advance rationales or justifications for policies that were not religiously based. (The idea that the U.S. Supreme Court gets at in the Lemon test where it said that all legislation must have a “valid secular purpose.”)

As someone who is a product of the United States in specific and the European cultural tradition in general, I am certainly not unfamiliar with the postive arguments for secularism. I am also not completely unsympathetic to those arguments especially when ‘secularism’ is understood in the American, First Amendment sense where it is coupled with a strong defense of the freedom of religious exercise.

What I wanted to hear Mr. An-Naim respond to were concerns that even if one understands some of the benefits of ‘secularism’ of this type, what does one say to the obligations clearly imposed in the Qur’an to rule “according to what Allaah has revealed”? How could one possibly justify a society made up of Muslims recognizing as legitimate and presumably collecting tax revenue based off the sale of alcohol, or gambling, or even riba banking?

I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. An-Naim that there is great room for negotiation on what a modern day Islamic state should or must look like. As part of that discussion, one can start with the problem of authority using religion to oppress people as being something to keep at the front of our minds. I disagree strongly with the idea that we should start the discussion with the assumption that this is an unaddressable problem and that the state must be “secular.” This does not address the need of a Muslim to respond to the comandments of God whether he or she is an individual or a community, a private citizen or a state official.

I especially object to arguments that Islam somehow requires a secular state. I understand that someone like Dr. An-Naim in making this argument is trying to be sensitive to people who want to remain faithful to the tradition but the result is exactly the opposite. And this is what most bothered me about his position. He cannot account for the fact that the companions of the Prophet (saw), the Khulafaa Rashidoon, the four eponomyous imams of the classical Sunni schools of law, and basically all major scholars in the Islamic tradition did not see it as wrong for the govenrment authority to institute Shari’ah as state policy, but instead all understood it to be required. And although undoubtedly the reality of government authority and the concept of a “state” was not the same 1000 years ago as it is generally today, it surely cannot be argued that the classical scholars did not understand and in fact experience the potential for government power to be abused greatly in the name of the religion.

Dr. An-Naim can not, as far as I can tell, account for this problem. This is where I see essentially a modernist argument being made. He makes some motions to try to argue on the basis of tradition, but when matters come to a head, he says we must have secularism for these reasons (and they may be good: human rights, women’s rights, etc.) and even if we find the tradition unanimously disagreeing with us this will not lead us to rethink and renegotiate our understanding of what is needed, but we will in essence simply declare our predecessors to have been wrong and we are now going to be right. This is not acceptable for a Muslim to claim that the earliest generations of Muslims and the great classical scholars did not truly understand Islam but we, the people of today, are going to be able to come and correct them. If someone is going to, at the end of the day, adopt that view, I cannot see any way to engage in ‘negotiation’ with each other philosophically, becasue we are just speaking past each other. My true concerns are not your true concerns.

Now, is there room to ‘negotiate’ across such lines when one takes the discussion down from the realm of the philosophical to the practical or the pragmatic? I don’t know.

Allaah knows best.

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2 Responses to “Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim: Islam and the Secular State”

  1. Marc Says:

    Abu Nur, wa ‘alaykum salaam. I read your post. I think some of your arguments are ok, though of course I’d disagre with a few points here and there, but just a technical note: if you’re going to disagree with an-Naim, it would come across are more valid if you have actually read his book and not just attended his lecture. Perhaps you can acquire a copy, review it and make an addendum to your post here.

    Thanks. Salaams.

  2. abunooralirlandee Says:


    Jazzak Allahu Khayr for commenting. Of course, your second point is why I mentioned specifically that I had not read the book and was just responding to points made by Dr.An-Naim either in his lecture or in our conversation. I am obviously very interested in the subject matter, but for the reasons I tried to get at a little bit here, our conversation kinda made me less interested in reading the book then I would have been otherwise. Still, if I can get it from the library or something, I would be interested in reading the ideas in a fuller form and will add an addendum here.

    Also, I would love for you or anyone else to raise any points, if not about Dr. An-Naim’s argument then on the points of discussion I’ve raised…as I said I realize the post was not really polished but was an attempt to throw out some thoughts that I had in the interest of promoting discussion. The impression it leaves may not even really reflect my own views. However, I should restate that I approached both the lecture and this post intending to be as intellectually charitable as possible and with an open mind to a variety of views. I suspect that upon further study I will find myself even much more opposed and in disagreement with Dr. An-Naim’s proposed solutions while still sympathetic to much of his critique of the way notions of shari’ah can be misused by tyrannical, hypocritical regimes.

    Again, Jazzak Allaahu khayr for reading and commenting Marc.

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