Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, originally from Sudan, is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law School. An internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights, and human rights in cross-cultural perspectives, Professor An-Na’im teaches courses in human rights, international law, and Islamic law.
His research interests also include constitutionalism in Islamic and African countries, and Islam and politics. Before his current continuing project on “The Future of Sharia,” he directed three major research projects which focus on advocacy strategies for reform through internal cultural transformation.
Scholarship for Social Change: Process and Outcomes
The rationale of my academic and professional work is to advance my commitment to scholarship for social change. To that end I am striving for scholarly quality because poor scholarship does not advance any purpose or cause. In this brief overview of the rationale, process and outcomes of this work since the 1980s, I will begin with some personal background, describe the overarching objectives of my work, and outline some features of my publications and advocacy strategies. This statement is in the first person and presents a personal narrative because I am privileged to have areas of personal and professional concern so intertwined and write from a position of individual responsibility.
There are two main aspects to my work, both arising from my personal experience as a Sudanese Muslim struggling to reconcile my Islamic beliefs and identity with my commitment to constitutionalism and the protection of human rights. First, I have been striving to promote two interrelated objectives, namely, a liberal modernist understanding of Islam and the cultural legitimacy and practical efficacy of international human rights norms. This side of my work has resulted in a wide range of publications, particularly in relation to Islamic and African societies. Second, I am also concerned with facilitating the role of scholarship in the effective service of positive social change, especially in relation to constitutionalism and human rights in Islamic societies. This concern is reflected in the work of three public policy-oriented projects (women and land in Africa, Islamic family law, and Islam and human rights) which I implemented while on the faculty of Emory Law School. Summaries of the three websites of these projects are now accessible in the archives section of this website.
I was born in 1946 in a village on the Nile, north of Khartoum. I went to school in towns in northern Sudan, Atbara and Omdurman, and graduated in law from the University of Khartoum in 1970. I was then sent on a scholarship from the University of Khartoum to do graduate studies in law in the United Kingdom in order to return to teach law at the same university. I taught on the Faculty of Law in October 1976, until I was detained without charge or trial from May 1983 to December 1984.
I joined the Islamic reform movement of Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha in 1968 and continued to participate in its activities until it was banned and its founder and leader, Ustadh Mahmoud, executed for apostasy in January 1985. I left Sudan in April 1985. Hoping to be able to return to Sudan, I held a series of temporary teaching and research positions until 1992, when it became clear to me that the Islamist regime which came to power through a military coup in 1989 was consolidating its authoritarian hold on the country. In light of that realization, I took my first open-ended position outside Sudan in June 1993, as Executive Director of Africa Watch (before it was integrated into Human Rights Watch), based in Washington, D.C.. I resigned from that position in April 1995 and joined the faculty of Emory Law School in June of that year. I was granted tenure at Emory Law School in 1997 and became Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law in 1999.
When I left Sudan in 1985, I pursued as my primary mission the publication of the main ideas of Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, to contribute to ensuring that ideas cannot be killed by the murder of their authors. I started my work by finishing a task Taha himself charged me with around 1980, namely, preparing an English translation of his main book, al-Risala al-Thaniya min al-Islam, published in English as The Second Message of Islam (1987). Out of that experience, and drawing on my personal association with Ustadh Mahmoud and his movement in Sudan since 1968, I began to develop the constitutional and human rights implications of Taha’s Islamic reform methodology. The primary objective of my work since I left Sudan in 1985 has been a combination of the development of a liberal modernist understanding of Islam based on Taha’s methodology and the promotion of an overlapping consensus on the universality of human rights among different cultural and religious traditions of the world. These two themes are illustrated in the publications and projects which can be briefly described as follows:
Taha’s comprehensive methodology of Islamic reform is premised on the view that the Qur’an and Sunna (Hadith) of the Prophet Mohamed should be understood in specific historical context. As that context has changed drastically for present day Islamic societies, some specific aspects of what is commonly known today as Shari‘a should be reformulated in order to play their proper social and political role in present Islamic societies and communities. I argued for this position in detail in my book Toward an Islamic Reformation (1990) and several articles and book chapters published between 1986 and 1995. Many of those articles and chapters have also been published in two volumes of collected essays: Islam and Human Rights (edited by Mashood A. Baderin, 2010) and Muslims and Global Justice (2011). Most of those articles and chapters can also be downloaded from this website at: https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/aannaim/recent-publications/ and https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/aannaim/publications/.
Regarding the promotion of an overlapping consensus on the universality of human rights, I also began to appreciate other aspects of the challenge of cultural and contextual relativity to the universality of human rights. In response, I began to develop a methodology of internal discourse within cultures, and cross-cultural dialogue among them, in order to promote an overlapping consensus on the universality of human rights. I first advanced this approach in a book I co-edited with Francis Deng, Human Rights in Africa: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (1990) and further developed and applied this approach in my edited volume, Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: Quest for Consensus (1992). I examined additional dimensions of this tension in another two edited volumes, Cultural Transformation and Human Rights in Africa (2002) and Human Rights under African Constitutions: Realizing the Promise for Ourselves (2003). More publications on these issues can be found in the edited volumes cited and the links noted in the preceding paragraph.
Another aspect of the theme of advocacy for social change since I joined the faculty of Emory Law School in 1995 has been through the implementation of three major projects: (1) cultural transformation and human rights in Africa, which seeks to challenge cultural and religious obstacles to women’s access to land in seven countries; (2) a global study of the application of Islamic family law; and (3) a fellowship in Islam and human rights. The work, no longer updated, done under these projects during their operation can now be accessed in the link: https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/aannaim/project-archive/.
Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari‘a: I initially focused on the reformulation of Shari‘a through the methodology proposed by Ustadh Mahmoud, without addressing the question of the relationship of modernist Shari‘a and the state. When I began to reflect on the specific question of the relationship between Islam and the state in the late 1990s, it became clear to me that I am in fact calling for the separation of Islam and the state. It is important to emphasize that I am calling for the religious neutrality of the state, the secular state, and not for a secular society. In fact, my call for a secular state from an Islamic perspective makes possible individual piety and collective religious identity:
In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state. By a secular state I mean one that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari‘a … My call for the state, and not society, to be secular is intended to enhance and promote genuine religious observance, to affirm, nurture and regulate the role of Islam in the public life of the community. Islam and the Secular State (2008), p. 1.
This is my position on the issues of Islam, the state, society, politics, and law. It is based on my understanding of the views of Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, but I am not attributing my position to him. Other interpretations of his ideas are possible. I speak here from my individual responsibility.