An-Na`im: Secularism Critical to Future of Islamic Law

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Frank Alexander and Abdullahi An-Na`im

By Kathy Morse

Shari‘a, the “passageway into being Muslim,” must be freely observed by believers and loses its value when coerced by the state, said Abdullahi An-Na‘im during the 2007 Currie Lecture at Emory University School of Law in late January (view webcast).  An-Na‘im is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory and a senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR), which hosted the event.

An-Na‘im spoke of the principles outlined in his forthcoming book, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a. Chapters of the book are currently posted on the web in eight languages in order to generate comments, questions and debate around the world. He hopes the book and its teachings will promote voluntary compliance with Shari‘a among Muslims in their communities by repudiating claims that those principles can be enforced through the coercive powers of the state.

“Shari‘a can only be freely observed by believers -- its principles lose their religious authority and value when enforced by the state. From this fundamental religious perspective, the state must not be allowed to claim the authority of Islam,” he said.

An-Na`im’s work arises from his experience as a Muslim from Northern Sudan, where he joined the Islamic reform movement exploring legal and human rights and a modern understanding of Islam during a time of growing fundamentalism.

In his book, An-Na‘im explains that Islam is a monotheistic religion that the Prophet Muhammad propagated between 610 and 632 CE when he delivered the Qur’an and expounded its meaning and application through what come to be known as Sunna of the Prophet. These two sources provide the articles of faith and doctrine that Muslims espouse, including the ritual practices they are supposed to observe and the moral and ethical precepts they are bound to respect. The Qur’an and Sunna are also where Muslims look for guidance in developing their social and political relations, legal norms and institutions.

“The term Shari‘a is often used to present Islamic discourse as if it is synonymous with Islam itself, as the totality of Muslim obligation in both the private personal religious sense, as well as regarding social, political and legal norms and institutions. Shari‘a is the passageway into being Muslim, but there is more to being Muslim than Shari‘a,” he writes.

During the lecture, An-Na‘im pointed out that “Shari‘a principles are always derived from human interpretation of the Qur’an and Sunna; they are what human beings can comprehend and seek to comply within their own specific historical context. Striving to know and observe Shari‘a is always the product of what I call the ‘human agency’ of believers – a system of meaning that is constructed out of human experience and reflection.”

He outlined the breadth and scope of the Islamic faith, noting that “it is a world religion, huge and global and has been the framework of civilization for many people for 1,500 years”:

  • One fifth of the people in the world identify themselves as Muslims.
  • The CIA lists 44 countries where Muslims are the majority of the population.
  • One in four members of the United Nations are countries where Muslims comprise the majority population.

 “Muslims are very diverse – there are 40 million Muslim Chinese. What do we know about them?” he said.

During the Currie Lecture’s opening comments, CSLR Founding Director Frank Alexander likened An-Na`im to other human rights luminaries. “Because Professor An-Na‘im believes in theological authority rather than authoritarian theology, he is the Martin Luther King of the Islamic faith. Because Professor An-Na‘im believes in the neutral secular state, he is the Thomas Jefferson for the Islamic faith.”

An-Na‘im came to the podium in the traditional clothes and turban of his native Sudan. “These clothes are a statement that I am an African-American Muslim from Northern Sudan. This is how I see myself. Around the world Muslims are denied that same privilege of being comfortable with who they are.”

Through his projects, books and writings – many translated into the languages of Muslims around the world – An-Na‘im is trying to reach people everywhere. “The foundation is our shared humanity, and so we would seek understanding. ‘Human rights’ are about the right to be the same and the right to be different.”

The Currie Lecture Series in Law and Religion was founded in 1986 with a generous grant from Overton and Lavona Currie. Among previous Currie lecturers were Menachem Elon of the Israeli Supreme Court and Desmond Tutu of South Africa.


The Center for the Study of Law and Religion is home to world-class scholars and forums on the religious foundations of law, politics, and society. It offers first-rank expertise on how the teachings and practices of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have shaped and can continue to transform the fundamental ideas and institutions of our public and private lives. The scholarship of CSLR faculty provides the latest perspectives, while its conferences and public forums foster reasoned and robust public debate.

For more lecture coverage, go to the Emory Report.

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