A Quranic Argument for Secularism: A Seminar

Annisl_au The Immanent Frame has a series of interesting posts about Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a, all well worth reading. Daniel Philpott:

An-Na`im’s gigantic lifelong task has been to develop an Islamic basis for human rights and constitutional government, including religious freedom and full equality of citizenship for Muslims and non-Muslims and for men and women. He offers his latest book, Islam and the Secular State, as the culmination of this work.  Here, he defends a “secular state” that is based on these values and where sharia is not the basis of constitutional law. He makes clear that he is not arguing for the exclusion of religion from politics. Muslims remain free to argue for policies based on their convictions about sharia, but they ought to do so on the basis of secular “civic” reasons and within the framework of a constitutional order based on human rights. Secular, for him, does not mean hostile to religion but rather a differentiation between religion and state. In fact, he seeks an Islamic justification for the secular state. It is the high quality of his pursuit of such a justification over the course of his career that makes him a giant.

His work has long followed the lead of his mentor and inspiration, the Sudanese intellectual Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who sought to reinterpret the Quran so as to ground human rights and equality. Like Taha, An-Na`im holds that traditional sharia, as it developed over the centuries following the revelation of the Quran, indeed sanctions aggressive jihad, the killing of apostates, the subordination of women, and dhimmitude or worse for non-Muslims. This history cannot be interpreted away. What can be reinterpreted is the Quran, which includes verses both from the earlier, more tolerant, Mecca period of Mohammed’s life, as well as those from the later Medina portion, marked by conquest and subordination. It was the Medina version that had become orthodoxy by the 10th century. But it is the verses from the earlier period that represent the true, universal message of Islam; the Medina verses were in fact an adaptation to particular historical circumstances in the life of the embryonic umma.  An “Islamic Reformation,” to borrow from the title of An-Na`im’s previous prominent work, would retrieve the Meccan verses for politics today, making them the ground for human rights, equality, and the rule of law. In the spirit of Taha, whose teachings led to his martyrdom at the hands of the Sudanese state in 1985, An-Na`im has courageously taken his arguments for Islam and human rights all over the Muslim world.