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Muslim Scholar Abdullahi An-Naim puts the shari’a in its place

In recent years, Canadians have had a public and heated debate on the possibility of shari’a courts for Muslim family disputes. For many, the term “shari’a” is usually associated with law, which is one of the things that makes it so controversial.

But shari'a shouldn't have a place in the legal system, according to Abdullahi An-Naim, a Sudanese Muslim scholar hosted by Simon Fraser University on Tuesday evening. An-Naim gave a public lecture at Harbour Centre, boldly titled “The relevance and irrelevance of shari’a.”

An-Naim fled Sudan in 1985, after his mentor, Mahmoud Taha, was murdered by the “Islamizing” al-Numeiry regime. Residing in the US, he is now a prominent scholar of human rights and the author of numerous books, including Towards an Islamic Reformation, and Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspective.

The opening sentence of his famous book, Islam and the Secular State, reads:

“In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way to be a Muslim, I need a secular state. Since shari’a principles by their nature and function defy any possibility of enforcement by the state, claiming to enforce shari’a principles as state law is a logical contradiction.”

These statements are a direct challenge to Islamist movements around the world. He also scorned the idea that respect for human rights can only come from a western secular worldview. Clearly, this is a man who is unafraid of controversy.

An-Naim was no less provocative in person. His attacked the very concept of an “Islamic” state as a modern distortion, with no foundation in Muslim history.

States are and have always been political institutions, he argued, and to dignify them with religious identity is to distort religion and create very dangerous political claims to divine authority. Citing Iran and Saudi Arabia as examples of this error, he reminded his audience that faith is a matter of personal conviction, not public policy. A secular state need not mean a faithless society.

For An-Naim, the secular state protects the varied ways that Muslims understand their faith, and their freedom to reinterpret its principles. He firmly opposed any suggestion that Islam required Muslims to observe medieval understandings of gender roles or punishment. While his position may seem radical to some Muslims, An-Naim argues that moderation is the key, not only to being a faithful Muslim, but also to living in multicultural societies. Muslims, followers of other religions, and atheists may support the same set of human rights from very different codes of personal ethics.

Asked to comment on the Arab spring, his response was cautious. It takes time for a rebellion to turn into a revolution, he noted. Islamist movements should be allowed to participate in — and be discredited by — an open democratic process. Outright suppression, in his view, would be an unwise policy.

Abdullahi An-Naim does not fit easily into any stereotype. He is a long time advocate of human rights and secularism who is also a passionate believer in Islam. A Muslim who asserts that the shari’a should remain a private (and evolving) ethical guide.  

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