"The Future of Sharia Is the Secular State"

According to law professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, the application of the Sharia, as propagated by current-day Islamists, contradicts international law. Cem Say has spoken with him on the compatibility of Sharia with modern life

Abdullahi An-Naim (photo: Emory Law School)
Western views on the Islamic world are generally marked by arrogance, An-Naim claims

​​Islamic law, the Sharia, has a bad reputation – especially in the West, but also among many secular Muslims. It stands for the oppression of women, contempt for human rights, and backwardness. Abdullah An-Naim, Professor of Law at Emory University in Atlanta, USA and anything but a fundamentalist, understands the concept of Sharia quite differently. Sharia, he says, is positive and has a future.

According to An-Naim, the legal doctrines of the Sharia in their original form, which go back to the seventh century, are simply incompatible with the realities of life in the 21st century.

An-Naim attempts to convey his thought in his new book project, "The Future of the Sharia." In addition to an Arab language edition, the book will be published in a total of seven languages ranging from Farsi to Russian aimed at readers in Central Asia. The debate over the Sharia is quite topical among many Muslims.

"Islamic law has always been subject to change"

Sudanese-born An-Naim is strictly against the concept of an Islamic state as currently practiced in Iran and Afghanistan. It contradicts Islamic tradition, he claims.

An-Naim, therefore, supports secularism, in which a neutral state makes the laws for all citizens, while leaving enough room for them to lead their lives according to the rules of their own religion. A Muslim businessman, for instance, could thereby conduct his business without charging interest – even when the state doesn't prohibit interest in general. At the same time, the many extant interpretations of Islam must be developed, stresses the Sharia expert. Islamic law has always been interpreted in very different ways.

His liberal position is not a result of his living twenty years in the West, emphasizes An-Naim. Even though Europeans know somewhat more about Islam and its history than Americans do, Western views on the Islamic world are generally marked by arrogance, he claims.

Abdullah An-Naim was first introduced to these ideas as a 22-year-old law student in his native Sudan. At the time, he was a follower of the Islamic reform movement under Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. In 1986, after Taha was executed for his divergent views, An-Naim left his country as a political refugee.

Support within the Islamic world

Since then, he has continued to work in the USA on developing Taha's theories – "without implicating anyone in Sudan," he is quick to add, as the Islamic reform movement is still heavily persecuted in the African country. Adhering to such views could result in the death penalty, although An-Naim hopes that the situation will gradually improve. He does not feel isolated in his ideas and even finds support within the Islamic world.

"In fact, I am far from being alone," An-Naim says. "My voice is actually the voice of the majority! The spectacular, violent, and theatrical expressions of today's terrorism are the direct result of a minority wanting to impose their views upon everyone else through force. Yet, we also call out to democratic and constitutional governments and states that respect human rights and let them know that we are the majority! Our voices are not heard as much, because these are not the voices that shape today's headlines."

The Arab world, in particular, and its Islamic scholars are constantly searching for alternatives to the traditional interpretations of Islam. They could learn something from the experiences of Muslims living in non-Islamic or, at least, non-Arab countries, for instance in matters such as human rights, democracy, and secularism. An-Naim regards himself as part of the international community of Islamic intellectuals that is debating the current challenges facing the Islamic world. He sees the need to take part and to search for the right way as his duty as a practicing Muslim.

"We meet and discuss issues. My own (Sharia) project, the attempt to specifically reach Muslims in their own language, is also a part of this process."

After publishing his book, Abdullah An-Naim plans to journey to a number of Islamic countries in order to present his ideas. The now 60-year-old legal scholar, who became an American citizen five years ago, can once again travel to Sudan. Even there, public discussion has been able to take place and An-Naim is pleased that great interest has been shown towards his work. He is full of hope that things will also change in Sudan.

Cem Say

© DEUTSCHE WELLE/Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron


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