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Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a Hardcover – Mar 31 2008

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 31 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674027760
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674027763
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.9 x 23.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 590 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,259,612 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


Two debates pervade almost all discussions about Islam, Muslim societies and the role of both in the 21st century. The first revolves around the shari'a, a kind of comprehensive Muslim guide to good conduct, and its applicability within Muslim majority states. The other frames capitalism, socialism and secularism as antipodes to what Islam cannot or should not be. This book engages both, arguing that secularism is not as an unwelcome counter force to 'true' Islam but is the indispensable path to reclaiming Islam to advance pluralism, human rights, women's rights, civil society and citizenship. Abdullahi An-Na'im is a public intellectual known far beyond the academy and the American continent. In Africa, in Asia and throughout the Middle East his is a courageous voice for secular Islam. There is no book like this one: brilliant, compelling, and optimistic.
--Bruce B. Lawrence, Duke University

Muslim scholar and human rights activist An-Na'im has written extensively on law and human rights in the Islamic world. Here, he turns to the subject of the state's coercive enforcement of Sharia--Koran-based Islamic law--in predominantly Muslim societies, arguing that its promulgation of Sharia is contrary to the Koranic insistence on the voluntary acceptance of Islam and the freely chosen adherence to its commandments.
--William P. Collins (Library Journal 2008-04-01)

Mak[es] a powerful theological case for abandoning the very notion of an Islamic state. [An-Na'im] argues that the claims of these so-called states to enforce the Sharia repudiate the fundamental right of religious choice implicit in a Koranic verse that says there can be "no compulsion in religion."
--Malise Ruthven (New York Review of Books 2008-05-29)

An-Na'im lays out with candor and elegance the need for the state to be secular for all citizens, and explores Muslim polities in Indonesia, India and Turkey.
--Emran Qureshi (Globe and Mail 2008-06-21)

[A] controversial and topical book...Although not all Muslim scholars will fully agree with An-Na'im's proposals regarding the institutional separation of Islam and the state, his thoughts are a step forward towards a healthy negotiation for the future of Sharia.
--Helen Haste (Times Higher Education Supplement 2008-06-26)

Few books in Islamic studies have been as eagerly awaited or intensely debated prior to publication as Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na‘im’s Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari‘a...[This book] testifies to the richness of [Ahmed An-Na‘im’s] life work, and to the courage of an author who deserves to be recognized as one of the most important religious thinkers of our age.
--Robert Hefner (

An-Na'im is an independent-minded intellectual who has raised sensitive issues (such as his belief that interpretations of sharia have led to discrimination against non-Muslim minorities in the Arab world) that many Muslims and their advocates would prefer to keep out of public debate...The crux of An-Na'im's Islam and the Secular State is that Muslims should be allowed to practice their faith as they see fit and should comply with sharia, but voluntarily. The call from Islamists to impose sharia with the full power of the state will only lead to totalitarianism, he argues. To bolster his claim, he notes that the Koran never mentions the idea of a state and does not prescribe a particular form of government.
--Geneive Abdo (Washington Post Book World 2008-07-27)

About the Author

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na‘im is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars 10 reviews
37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Liberal Age is not entirely over . . . July 25 2008
By Gregory R. Weiher - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It may seem at times as if Islamic political thought has been captured by Qutb, Maududi, and their intellectual descendents. It is hard to remember that from about 1840 to 1940 (the period that Hourani terms the "Liberal Age"), the dominant strain in Muslim political thinking was comprised of the work of Tahtawi, Kayr al-Din, Afghani, Abduh, and Rida, who struggled above all to combine the moral weight of Islam with the science and rationalism of the West. Their goal was to create societies that were progressive and humanist while remaining identifiably Islamic.

The failure of the Islamic modernists was not going far enough -- not finding a new understanding of Islam's relationship to both the socio-historical world and the physical universe. An-Naim is clearly working in this Islamic liberal tradition, but his work has greater promise since he offers what his precursors feared to -- a new synthesis of Islam and politics that goes beyond the traditionalist understanding of the Shariah.

His initial premise is that if Muslims are to be Muslims, the state must remain secular. The Quran tells us clearly that there is no coercion in religion. A state created along the lines set out by Maududi and Qutb, one that would coerce belief, would foreclose the only path to true religious practice -- the path of the religious seeker, finding her own way to draw near to God.

A secular state does not mean one that is outside the influence of religiously motivated Muslims. Individuals can not hope to divorce their religious beliefs from their participation in politics. But policies that incorporate religiously inspired input must be adopted as a result of open, democratic dialogue. In An-Naim's terms, policy congenial to the Muslim community must be adopted through the process of civic reason, not imposed by the state. In order to protect this process, he calls for a constitutional order, a theory of individual equal citizenship, and the guarantee of individual human rights.

One of the most valuable components of the book is An-Naim's impressive scholarship that establishes the fact that the Shariah in concept is an unchanging, comprehensive body of divine law; but that in historical terms it has always been applied by human beings who engaged in "ijtihad", or independent reasoning, to discern what the divine law actually requires of timebound human beings in historical situations. This is a useful counterpose to the position of the Islamic militants who argue, in Maududi's terms, that the Shariah "makes God's regulations very clear and specific and thus provides guidance for the regulations of how man should live". All experience with fundamental law, whether it be the Shariah, the Ten Commandments, or the American Constitution, argues that an-Naim's position is correct and Maududi's is wrong.

An-Naim goes farther than the original Islamic liberals by calling for a basic shift in the interpretation of the Shariah based on the work of Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. The new paradigm would emphasize the verses in the Quran that were revealed to Muhammad during the Maccan period rather than the Medinan period. The revelation of the Medinan period was intended for a community surrounded by enemies and at war. That of the Maccan period emphasized more the universal doctrines of Islam. A focus on the latter is more in keeping with the requirements of an Islamic community that is a strong component of an open, democratic, and secular state.

There is more of value in this book. Suffice it to say that it is a required read for those who are interested specifically in the development of Islamic law, and more generally in identifying voices in the Islamic world who call for Muslims to find ways to embrace the future rather than reacting to the past.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Modern Islam March 2 2009
By Nick Veltjens - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im has written a book that should be read by Muslims as well as Non-Muslims. It analises the basis of Shari'a and its acceptance through generations of consensus, and in various regions of the world. Based on the studies of the Qur'an by Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, his revered teacher, he suggests that the Qur'an and the Sunna provide the irrevocable meaning of Islam, while the Shari'a was their interpretation to establish Islamic law.

He argues that the Qur'an and Sunna provide the original and divine documents derived from the revelations and actions by Muhammad. On the other hand, he believes that Shari'a, being law, can and should continually be reviewed to bring it up to accord with the international regard for human rights, including equality of the sexes, and the separation of state and religion. In fact he argues that such a separation is essential for Islam to be a true religion, where believers join it without pressure or even threat, and quotes the Qur'an in saying that coercive enforcement promotes hypocricy (nifaq).

An-Na'im puts a convincing argument that Shari'a should not be enforced by the state, but state law should allow Islam and other religions and worldviews to be free to act in accordance with their doctrine, albeit also in accordance with the state's acceptance of international law.

I highly recommend this book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Book Offers Universal Messages Oct. 9 2009
By Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University - Published on
Format: Paperback
A new book by Emory Law Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im offers a formula for nations and peoples of the world - including the United States and its current presidential candidates -- struggling with the separation of religion and politics.

"The American Constitution got it right on the separation of church and state, but there isn't much clarity of the relationship between religion and politics," said An-Na`im, a senior fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory University. "You can't separate religion and politics even if you try. Believers will act politically as believers."

An-Na`im wrote Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a (Harvard University Press) to help countries navigate this tricky and treacherous plane, no matter the religion, no matter the geography. The book was first published in Indonesia last year and is available on the Internet in eight languages spoken by Muslims. It is a product of An-Na`im's role in the CSLR's Islamic Legal Studies research project and was funded in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation.

"I want to help clarify the role of religion in society so that it is seen as a positive, humanizing force, not as a bigoted, narrow-minded, destructive force," he said. "The state is the institutional continuity. Countries must be able to keep this alive while allowing elected officials to lead, but without allowing them to take over the state."

An-Na`im, who serves as Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory, pointed to the Bush Administration's dismissal of federal prosecutors as an abuse of political power. "President Bush used the Justice Department to further his own agenda - he tried to take over the department, he didn't just lead," he said.

One of the ways An-Na`im proposes to keep religion and politics in balance is by using civic reason. "Law and public policy can't be adopted based on religious convictions alone. Non-religious reasons that can be appreciated by all people, including non-believers, should be the basis of adopting a law," he said.

An-Na`im said the abortion issue is a prime example. "Don't say it should be eliminated because it is a sin, because God says so. Give reasons beyond religious convictions so we can all share in the debate."

Another major purpose of the book, says An-Na`im, is to "rehabilitate" Islam. "I worry about the demonization of Islam, which is driven by fear of what the extremists have done and threaten to do. What I speak of in my book is closer to Islam as a religion than what the extremists talk about."

An-Na`im will have help spreading his messages. The Ford Foundation has provided a new, $100,000 grant, this one to hire a public relations firm to promote the book throughout the United States.

"I hope to help people clarify what they already know and accept about the separation of religion and politics. They know this balance is important, but they should know more about defending and working with it," he said.


The Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University is home to world-class scholars and forums on the religious foundations of law, politics, and society. It offers first-rank expertise on how the teachings and practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have shaped and can continue to transform the fundamental ideas and institutions of our public and private lives. The scholarship of CSLR faculty provides the latest perspectives, while its conferences and public forums foster reasoned and robust public debate.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bringing Islam into the modern age Dec 11 2009
By George Miranda - Published on
Format: Paperback
Before Europe crawled out of the muck of the Dark Ages onto the shores of the Renaissance, Muslims from Egypt to India were widening the borders of enlightenment in their schools of law, science and mathematics, and preserving the collective knowledge of the empires before them, that the Barbarians very nearly obliterated.
Today, we of the West fancy ourselves the enlightened ones, and one of our cartoonish perceptions of the Islamic world is that of a backward, feudalistic and barbaric culture. Nothing could be further from the truth; however, the behavior of some extremist elements, who brandish the Crescent to baptize their political ambitions with religious justification, create ample material for the xenophobes of the West to manufacture damaging stereotypes of Muslim people.
An-Na'im creates a marvelous and important work, laying the foundation for a modern understanding of Islamic ethic and lifestyle that enables Muslims to live and thrive in the political realities of the postcolonial world. Whereas the radical conservative movments within Islam (the only ones we tend to see portrayed on Fox News) seek to stuff the modern world back into the construct of the Caliphate, An-na'im correctly and pragmatically points out that that world has passed away, and that, in fact, it never was real in the first place, at least as it is portrayed by the Islamic right.
Every few centuries a figure comes along who revolutionizes the paradigms that undergird our philosophical, religious, political and social understandings and catapults us into the next level of cultural evolution. Jesus was such a figure in the evolution of Judaism and the birth of Christianity. Martin Luther another in the triggering of the Reformation. The Prophet, as well, in transforming the world of the Arab tribal system and the religious traditions of Judaism and Christianity into what became the Muslim World.
Now, An-Na'im is set to revolutionize the Muslim world itself, providing Islam with the concepts and tools to evolve into a new iteration that will allow both the faith and the communities in which it is practiced to mutually nourish one another.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good book, great author June 26 2013
By SarahElizabeth - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Bought this for a research project, have yet to read all the way through it but from what I've read.. it's well written and a very good source. The author is also highly knowledgeable and highly regarded.