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Secularism for Religion- Compatible?


The controversial reformist Abduhalli An-Naim has a penchant for writing contentious works on some of the most divisive issues facing the Islamic world. In the past he wrote Towards an Islamic Reformation, an ambitious book arguing for a radical reformulation of Islamic law and rethinking the field of Usul-al-fiqh and the method of interpreting religious texts. In a way his new book, Islam and the Secular State, is a logical extension of his vision for reform.

The book is a blend of theory and practice which makes An-Naim such a convincing public intellectual — he not only has a grasp of the intricacies of legal philosophy but can also demonstrate their relevance to real life. In his case studies on Turkey, Indonesia and India, he illustrates the diversity of Muslim interactions and models of secularism.

While before An-Naim worked within the Islamic tradition to reinterpret a more humane and liberal version of Islamic public law, this is a much more political work. Here, An-Naim combines his own unique theory of “Islamic Secularism’’, characterised by this now famous statement in the opening pages of the book, “In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state.”

For An-Naim, without freedom there is no Islam, because freedom is what sustains and animates the whole ethical ideal and spiritual philosophy of Islam. To his credit An-Naim makes this statement with justification from familiar Quranic verses employed by Islamic liberals and reformists, which all emphasise personal responsibility. An-Naim’s ethical and religious arguments for secularism are hinged on the ideals of personal responsibility, individual conscience, the sanctity of the individual’s relationship to God and universal justice for all citizens. But that’s the end of An-Naim’s theological argument.

Next he elaborates practical reasons for a secular state, to prevent discrimination, provide justice and to secure religious freedom. Although he does make references to Islamic sources, one can’t help but feel he has left himself exposed in this case.

To make a truly Islamic case for secularism perhaps requires a more robust interaction with the religious texts and traditions. An-Naim could have followed Abdulaziz Sachedina’s works, (The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism and Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights) or Khaled Abou El Fadl’s (Islam and the Challenge of Democracy) as they ground democracy, human rights and secularism using a particular religious ethic.

An-Naim, however, radically deconstructs the fiqh tradition arguing that all human beings are essentially fallible and what the Islamists present as “Sharia’’ is only ever an incomplete, imperfect and fallible interpretation, becuase Sharia is man-made and not handed down directly by the Quran. An-Naim’s assault on clerical authority is therefore connected to the philosophical attitude that no human being can determine the will of God with complete confidence.

His argument arises from intellectual and spiritual humility. He sets out his vision early on in the book: “The purpose of the proposal presented here is to secure the political, social, and intellectual space for debate and reformation, not to prescribe a particular approach to that debate.’’

But to be sure there are contentious statements, that some Islamic intellectuals and scholars will take issue with, for example that Sharia principles cannot be instituted by the state: “By its nature and purpose, Shari‘a can only be freely observed by believers; its principles lose their religious authority and value when enforced by the state.”

The point he makes is that following the Sharia is a spiritual and religious obligation which requires individuals to make decisions and choices freely without the interference of the state. This is a classical argument for secularism put forward by liberal Christian philosophers like John Locke during the Enlightenment and in many ways echoes Locke’s sentiments of moral agency.

Here again, An-Naim’s intellectual approach can be critiqued; what mechanism can allow the Sharia to function in total independence of the modern nation state? Furthermore, it would be easier to argue that Islamic law includes two elements, a divine, unchanging injunction and a human interpretation and application (fiqh). In his quest to humanise and deconstruct the articulation of religious knowledge An-Naim misses out on making this distinction between spirituality and worldy application — he tries to reimagine the entirety of the Sharia as a religious-moral concept.

Again An-Naim’s reading of Islamic history to grant functional secularism some sort of legitimacy is eloquently argued but shaky. The question to ask is what if the authority of the Sharia contradicts the authority of the nation state with its human rights regime? Clearly, An-Naim has examined the conflicts between modern human rights and classical Islamic law with his solution of a framework of liberal ijtihad as a solution.

An-Naim’s “Islamic arguments’’ are weak and could be entirely dismissed by a more unsympathetic reader, but his knowledge and comments on the experience of the post-colonial Muslim encounter with secularism in Turkey, India and Indonesia are superb.

A thoroughly contextualised approach to each of these three scenarios leaves no doubt that

An-Naim is all too aware of the multi-lateral challenges of modern politics. His commentary on political philosophy and critical analysis of the different models leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind about the diversity of challenges different Muslim societies face in their transition to successful democratic states.

As a side point, An-Naim could have analysed Pakistan in addition to his existing three case studies. His comments on Jinnah and the Pakistan Movement could have been revealing and perhaps he would have found Jinnah’s vision of “Islamic democracy’’ similar to his moral arguments for a secular state.

An-Naim, too, understands the dangers of authoritarian secularism and although recognises that there has to be a division between religion and the state, he strongly believes in an interconnectedness between politics and religion. Failure to recognise this link between religion and politics and to distinguish between the state and politics conceptually leads us to authoritarian models of secularism as seen in the policies of the Kemalist establishment in Turkey which An-Naim criticises in strong terms.

But what about the Sharia? An-Naim throughout his work has always recognised that Sharia should have a public role but should not be exclusively defined by the state. Sharia values can influence legislation but only through the use of “civic reason’’ and via the democratic process. Only through robust debate and mutual consensus can Sharia influence legislation. In this sense, Sharia is imagined as a moral culture that acts as an ethical imperative for civil, legal and political participation.

In other words, Sharia norms should be articulated rationally rather than be taken as eternal religious truth. The meaning of Sharia has to be democratically disputed in the public sphere rather than be defined by an exclusively clerical class.

Finally, although An-Naim’s work has received a lot of critical attention in the West, it has not received the attention that it should do from the intelligentsia and activists from the Muslim world.

An-Naim seeks a separation between religion and the state, but does not want to marginalise religion from civil society. He wants religion not to be granted exclusive institutional privileges but rather be involved and play a liberating role in the public conversation and public policy. This subtle vision of a “civic religion’’ An-Naim proposes is an attractive model and in the Pakistani context is perhaps the most apt description of Jinnah’s vision of a theocracy-free Muslim democracy. An-Naim’s work could solve the perceived paradoxes of Jinnah’s politics in the Pakistani context — and for this reason Pakistanis should seriously consider what An-Naim has to say.

Book Review on 'Islam and the Secular State': Negotiating the Future of Shari’a. (RELIGION), By Abduhalli An-Naim, Harvard University Press, US , ISBN 674027760
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