An Introduction to the Project
Since the late 1960s, when he was a student at the University of Khartoum, Sudan, Professor An-Na`im has struggled with the meaning and relevance of Shari`a for Muslims in the modern context. In his most recent book, Islam and the Secular State, An-Na`im presents Islamic arguments for the separation of Islam and the state, while regulating the relationship between Islam and politics.
He does not intend to present a final answer to the question about the future of Shari`a. Rather, Professor An-Na`im wants to encourage discussion about the future of Shari`a, and this website’s forums are the place where people from all over the world should feel welcome to voice their opinions and engage in debate about this issue – an issue that is at the root of many of the political crises currently facing Islamic societies throughout the world.
Shari'a is Changeable
There are many competing, legitimate views about Shari`a. The Qur’an and Sunna of the Prophet are immutable texts, but every interpretation of Shari`a is an exercise in human judgment. Thus, those interpretations should not go unchallenged because every judgment represents some human fallibility.
Consider the prevalence of human interpretation in the following example: Historically, ijtihad has been exercised where the Qur’an and Sunna do not provide express ruling; but just as ijtihad is an exercise in human judgment, so is determining where the texts govern a specific issue. Thus, all interpretations and implementations of the Sunna and the Qur’an are the result of human interpretation in a specific historical context – not a specific decree by the divine will of God.
The general canon of Shari`a is that Muslims are guaranteed freedom of action or omission unless there is a contravention of Islamic principles in those actions or omissions. Change is possible. But that change must be rooted in each Muslim community so that a new consensus may form, and any reform must not contradict the tenets of Islam.
The Paradox and Struggle of the Secular State
Despite the premise that a state should be secular, the state is inherently influenced by religion and politics.
First, the state is unavoidably political because all state action is actually people acting in the name of the state. Second, even though secularism separaates religion and the state, a secular state would not bar religious arguments from the political arena and formulation of public policy. Thus, the question is how to negotiate the overlapping realms of politics, state, and religion while maintaining a secular state.
The tenets of constitutionalism, human rights, citizenship and a requirement of civic reason provide a framework for the debate about Islam’s role in politics and the accompanying effect upon the state. These tenets are based in Islamic history. Freedom of debate and consensus, which is similar to the requirement of civic reason, allowed modern Shari`a principles to form, as some views accepted today were once considered heresy. Furthermore, the idea of inclusive debate that embraces differences and ensures rights for all people is based upon the Islamic principle of reciprocity (mu’awada), which can also be described as the Golden Rule.
Secularism and the four tenets listed above provide a peculiar ability to unite, as secularism imposes minimal moral obligations, which in turn allows diverse communities to co-exist in the same state.
Constitutionalism serves Muslims by ensuring that government adheres to the rule of law and acts in an accountable, responsive manner. Muslims can form a constitutional government to fit their specific needs, and the only immutable edict is that a constitutional government must serve the views of the people who do not actually control the state.
Advocating human rights also lines up with Muslim culture. As stated above, Muslim-majority states have begun accepting international human rights norms. But Muslims should insist upon advocating human rights in specific local contexts so that international whims do not undermine human rights’ protection. These human rights can spring from international conventions, but Muslims may also base those rights in the teaching of Islam.
Advocating citizenship is merely a means to guarantee that all Muslims stand on equal ground in the move to reform. Equal citizenship for all persons concurs with the Islamic principle of reciprocity. And active citizenship promises that government officials will act with accountability and transparency, as an effective state needs the cooperation of the people, who will cooperate only if given some role in the state’s governance.
Civic reason is the mediator. As discussed above, a secular state needs to be religiously neutral, but religion naturally plays a large, public role that affects the formulation of public policy. Civic reason allows for open debate where persons can present ideas based upon any number of concepts, including religion. But civic reason precludes charges of religious piety, as religion cannot serve as the sole basis for public policy. Civic reason is rooted in Islamic ideals. Early Islamic scholars gathered ideas from a wide variety of subjects, and civic reason’s championing of dissent follows the historical evolvement of Islam – several prominent Islamic scholars were once considered heretics because their views conflicted with those in power at the time. Further, civic reason ensures the separation of religion and the state, which protects Muslims’ right to form independent beliefs. The state should not dictate the function of civic reason. Rather, the state should merely provide a framework for inclusive, internal discourse.
What is the 'Secular State'
First, a secular state would not exclude religion from the public life of society. Oftentimes, Muslims object to the notion of a secular state because of the negative connotations associated with Western cultures and their “secular states.” But, even with a secular state, Islam and Shari`a would still have a public role. Separating religion from the state does not mean separating of religion and politics – Muslims will rightly seek to shape their lives around Islam, and Muslims generally want their political leaders to possess Islamic legitimacy.
A secular state does not follow an absolute definition. Rather, instituting a secular state is a constant exercise in negotiating the relationship between religion and the state. The only normative content of a secular state is the attempt to keep religion separate from state action; therefore, the secular state imposes a minimal ethos on its population and embraces mediation and balance.
Why and How Change Should Occur
The political crises facing the Muslim world provide the impetus for change. Further, the changing social norms of the Muslim world show that Muslims will accept and promote change.
Consider that several Muslim-majority countries have signed treaties that forbid discrimination on the grounds of religion or sex. Certain historical interpretations of Shari`a place women and People of the Book in secondary positions within society, but those interpretations arose from past cultures and are not inviolate rules. Accordingly, Muslims should mold new interpretations of Shari`a that better represent modern times.
To be legitimate and sustainable, the change must be grounded in the culture itself. Therefore, internal discourse among members of each community is the avenue for change. Civic reason, as discussed below, provides an inclusive avenue, and Muslims should champion secularism because separating Islam and the state is a safeguard against the political abuse of Islam. Lastly, any reform must be systematic and thorough, harnessing Islamic principles so that the reform can be properly rooted in Muslim society.
Why is an Islamic State Untenable
The idea of an Islamic State derives from the unique role that the Prophet Muhammad held in Medina, where the Prophet concurrently asserted political, military and religious leadership. But conflating religion and the state is untenable because only the Prophet was capable of holding all of that authority at once, and Muslims do not accept the possibility of another Prophet.
Furthermore, the idea of an Islamic state is not borne from Islamic culture. The idea stems from a European view where law is positive and the state is totalitarian entity that seeks to form society in the state’s image. Historically, Islamic societies have differentiated between state and religious institutions, and permitting a state to force its view upon unwilling citizens violates the principles of Islam that teach individuals to live through personal choice and accept differences and disagreements with others.
Islamic societies have traditionally differentiated between state and religious institutions because religious and political authority are fundamentally different. Religious authority comes from personal, subjective judgments about a scholar’s religious piety and knowledge. Political authority is determined on an objective basis as people assess a leader’s ability to exercise coercive power and administrate effectively. Additionally, religious authority invokes divine power, which transcens human challenge, whereas political authority is supposed to represent the views of the population and is thus based upon human judgment which can be challenged by other human beings.
Also, the flexibility of Shari`a conflicts with the state’s need for practicability and stability. As demonstrated below, Shari`a is subject to changing human interpretations, and if Shari`a is the entire basis for a state’s law, then that law could be undermined by the potential for wholesale change. Further, Shari`a does not provide effective guidance for the state on practical issues like daily administration and international trade.
Practices of the Prophet Muhammad support the idea that a state needs skills that stand apart from religious authority. The Prophet repeatedly appointed a man as commander of the Muslim armies even though the Prophet was dissatisfied with the commander’s religious piety.
Just like there is an inherent connectedness between religion and politics, there is interplay between religious and political authority. For example, a political leader may have a degree of religious authority. But the fundamental differences between religious and political authority mandate separating the two precepts.
Why the State Should be Secular
The base of this discussion is Professor An-Na`im’s belief that the state should be secular (i.e. neutral about religion) and not an enforcer of Shari`a.
First, the state should not commandeer Shari`a because Islam decrees that Muslims practice their religion through personal, voluntary conviction without the influence of state coercion. Additionally, the idea of a secular state is more consistent with Islamic history than the notion of an islamic state that conflates religious and state institutions.
Second, state enforcement of Shari`a undermines the religious authority of Shari`a and leads to possibilities of hypocrisy (nifaq). For example, consider how some Islamic scholars assert that apostasy (heresy) is punishable by death although the Qur’an does not provide any legal punishment for apostasy. Thus, if a state enforced the views of those scholars, then some Muslims may be forced to contradict their own beliefs, violating their personal freedom of religion, and undermining the credibility and coherence of Islam itself.
Contextual Considerations for this Discussion
First, the link between Islam and the state’s legitimacy is well-grounded in history, although states have always sought to enlist Shari`a to bolster political authority.
Second, as literacy has risen, modern Muslims should seize the ability to form independent beliefs. Today, ulama no longer have an intellectual monopoly.
Third, the worldwide arena pressures state action. The international practices of equality and non-discrimination influence all states to adopt those measures even if those rights are not part of the state’s agenda.
Fourth, the state’s standing is naturally dependent upon society. Public policy inherently favors the majority, as a state’s legitimacy and power relates to its acceptance among the people. Thus, the state is always acting based upon its underlying need for persuasion and approval. However, the tenets of secularism, constitutionalism, and human rights should prevent the majority from imposing its religious and cuiltural identity upon the minority.