Sometimes, context is everything. For much of the twentieth century, at least since the 1920s in Egypt and the 1900s in Iran, activists advanced Islam as an alternative to existing government in Muslim-majority countries. Actually existing government was identified with secularism—first in the colonial and then in the independence period—and “Islam” specifically with its operationalization in Shari’a. As comprehensive guidance to right conduct from ritual to social and business relations, Shari’a is more than law, to which it is sometimes reduced when positioned as alternative to secular, civil codes and more ambitiously deployed to preclude legislation on such matters. Until the Iranian revolution, it came to stand for the path not chosen: the cry that “Islam is the answer” in the form of implementing or governing by Shari’a was set against the moral dis-orders of authoritarianism in Muslim countries and against a composite of capitalism, individualism and consumerism globally. The abstract, theoretical quality of such positioning bespoke the background situation of strong states and weak civil society, which made calls for purely secular states as a way of liberating Islam from political theory all the more remarkable.
Some have read such calls as part of the failure of political Islam to generate robustly institutional theories of governance (i.e., beyond using state power pragmatically to enforce morality). But another sentiment holding back that project is the suspicion, and lately the observation, that power, particularly state power, corrupts religion, and not just as an alternative or as something to identify with, but also by compromising the fundamentally liberating role of religion. It is as the best guarantee for that liberating role of religion that Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im argues—in his latest book Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a—for a strictly secular state that neither enforces religion nor seeks legitimacy from it, but instead “recommends normative and institutional parameters and safeguards for the negotiation and mediation of the role of Shari’a.” This may make sense, and register as judiciousness, to a professor of law arguing for religious neutrality of the state, which An-Na’im is; but is it more than a retreat from strong versions of the notion that the essential role of Muslim government is to prevent vice and promote virtue? That is, what is institutional about it? This really isn’t Thomas Jefferson’s solution, or John Locke’s. What specific kinds of institutions of governance does this envision?
Constitutionalism is the answer for An-Nai’m. His argument is profoundly deontological; means matter and diversity is the natural condition of humanity and so also for the human project of governance. He traces a path from colonial India to postcolonial Turkey and Indonesia as examples for “focusing on internal dynamics and processes to establish and consolidate constitutionalism, human rights, and citizenship within Islamic societies on their own terms and not as Western imposition.” So his turn to resources external to the Shari’a is at least in the abstract a sociological one that has at least two broader points of entré.
An-Na’im’s argument that mundane diversity requires the hands of the state to be kept off religion puts a precise formulation on widespread, more inchoate senses that fusing them corrupts both. This is broadly a middle class sentiment, associated by religious authorities with privatization of religion, but also with something else. Sociologists of religion in the West who have for over a century focused on mass bourgeois societies have long noted, as the cliché goes, that in them church is often more important than religion. That is, religion as doctrine and dogma divides what church unites, which is a fuller, multidimensional sense of moral community; so, while religious discussion in the wider public is best avoided in the interests of comity (what Locke operationalized politically as “tolerance”), necessary for getting on with other things, church attendance and affiliation with religious organization provides a handy marker in that wider public of being a morally guided actor. Pragmatically, religious practice is social assurance in a way that religious profession is not. It marks a moral actor who, although otherwise a stranger, can likely be relied upon in the multiple other capacities of modern life. This context is the sociological surround that Nai’m's more formal argumentation invokes and where it resonates with practical live-and-let-live attitudes that grow with growing middle classes and their characteristic mobilities.
On the surface, An-Na’im’s treatise, his final statement of a life’s work, he says, is an example of the phenomenon that Dale Eickelman associated with rising mass education in the post-colonial Muslim world, the application of alternative intellectual techniques for interpreting Islam. That is certainly a context, also, of his constitutionalist vision. So, too, is the wider growth of modern middle classes and more inchoate sensibilities that grow with them of diversities as something other than fitna, to which Islam and the Secular State gives voice.