Islam and the Secular State

August 25th, 2008

The challenge of creating change

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Abdullahi An-Na‘im’s Islam and the Secular State has rightfully received a great deal of attention and commentary. A prominent Muslim scholar and human rights activist, he brings to bear an impressive scholarship and candor in addressing a pivotal and hotly contested issue in contemporary Islam. Although An-Na‘im wishes to present his views from within the Islamic tradition, he also states early on that his arguments are not exegetical in nature and therefore do not aim to interpret traditional Islamic sources such as Qur’an, hadith, tafsir, or legal theory (usul al-fiqh). Rather, An-Na‘im desires to provide an “interpretative framework” upon which more substantive arguments and analysis can be built in the future. This reliance on theory rather than on textual sources or theology is flawed if one expects to foster broad-based reform rather than be read and celebrated by a small elite Muslim and non-Muslim readership. [...]

August 19th, 2008

Preaching to the converted

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Islam and The Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a is avowedly didactic, aiming to persuade Muslims in public debate that constitutional rule of law, human rights and democratic citizenship in a secular state represent the only form of political regime consistent with Islam in the modern world. Despite lengthy and repetitious exposition of the notions of democratic constitutionalism, “civic reason,” citizenship and human rights, An-Na`im fails in his explicit purpose of justifying and legitimizing them in Islamic terms, which appear somewhat incidentally and do not carry the primary charge of justification. In this regard, his preaching can only have an effect on those already converted.

July 24th, 2008

“Call it X”

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I am grateful for the kind and thoughtful comments posted at The Immanent Frame about Islam and the Secular State. It is fascinating and instructive to see a text grow to have a life of its own, with some readers adding clarification and more effective communication of what one is attempting to say. Even misunderstanding is helpful in alerting an author to the risks of miscommunication, instead of assuming that people do understand what we say as we mean it. Indeed, it is the combination of the author’s purpose and the reader’s comprehension that determines what is actually communicated. It is that complex outcome unfolding over time, and not an author’s unilateral theorizing, that can make “a good theory,” for according to Kurt Lewin’s helpful insight, “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” In this light, I offer the following reflections in the spirit of contributing to a process of collaborative theory-making. [...]

July 21st, 2008

Does tolerance require struggle?

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Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s erudite and thought-provoking book Islam and The Secular State provides a clear-sighted argument made from within the Islamic tradition for a state formation that allows Islamic beliefs and culture to enter the public domain through politics (as one of many rationally contested visions) and thereby influence the laws of the land. The keys to An-Na’im’s vision are Islamic morality and civic reason, both of which, in his interpretation, ensure a shared respect for constitutionalism, citizenship and human rights, and a neutral, secular state that provides an even playing field for public debate and makes sure that non-democratic instincts are kept in check. An-Na’im’s utopian vision stumbles here, however, in failing to provide any mechanisms for achieving its desired outcomes beyond good will, morality, and reason. [...]

July 14th, 2008

Arguing with An-Na`im

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What is interesting about An-Na`im’s arguments is that they ground the case for the secular state not in the Quran, not in claims about the presence of the imago Dei in the person or in some other source of the person’s intrinsic dignity, not in natural law, some closely similar type of practical reason, or universal moral precepts, but rather in what might be called “second order” observations about the phenomenology of belief, the character of government, the lessons of history, and the like. To be sure, good reasons for the secular state lie therein. But are these arguments sufficient to ground an Islamic case for constitutionalism, human rights, and the secular state? I doubt it.

July 9th, 2008

Disentangling Islam and the post-colonial state

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The separation—and combination—of religion and state have created almost as many configurations as there are states in the world today. All sorts of institutional and normative orders have emerged out of the struggle and cooperation of state and religious forces. Even in the United States, with its purported strict separation of state and religion and its constitutional prohibition against the state’s establishment of any single religion, all sorts of complicated relationships have existed, from the status of Christmas as an official state holiday to the religious invocations delivered in Congress. … All this is to say that any simple categorization of states as simply secular or religious will probably miss what is most interesting in how citizens experience daily life and how the religious and political realms are intertwined. [...]

July 1st, 2008

Islamic politics and human rights

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Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s expressed goal in Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a is to convince Muslims on religious grounds that, in order for Islam to flourish, they need to establish secular states based on the protection of human rights. I would say in response that convincing Muslims of this would inflect Islamic politics progressively in a world where most of the forces that shape Islamic politics are not indigenously Islamic. [...]

June 21st, 2008

Liberating shari’a

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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.[...]

June 20th, 2008

A secular state must deliver

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It is hard to disagree with the main arguments of Abdullahi an-Na’im’s impeccable book: a healthy religious life requires a secular state, even as political life may remain infused with the religious values of the population. And the historical examples provide added credence to the point. An Islamic state as such never existed historically, even though pre-modern states cannot be regarded as secular in the contemporary sense of the word. But there has never been a state in Islamic history that fused entirely religious and political authority after Muhammad, and it is far from obvious that Muhammad’s own Medina community constituted a state or was meant as a model for any state. [...]

May 29th, 2008

Misrepresenting Islam

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Suggestions that Presidential candidate Barack Obama was a Muslim seemed to have subsided when his controversial pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, walked onto the stage. But even as Obama defended his Christian faith, and his choice of churches, speculation about his connection to Islam continued on-line as well as within the mainstream press, including an Op-Ed entitled “President Apostate” in The New York Times (May 12, 2008) by the military strategist and historian Edward Luttwak (and, exactly a week later, in a May 19 Christian Science Monitor Op-Ed entitled “Barack Obama–Muslim Apostate?“). Now, as if to flip the Muslim coin, Mr. Luttwak, Ms. Burki, and others speculate that Muslims will hold Mr. Obama to a higher religious standard because he does not embrace the religion of his father. [...]