Book Review: Islam in a Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shariah

For Muslims to fully practise their rights by conviction and free choice, it can only be actualised in a secular state. The secular state acts as a safeguard against the hegemonic enforcement of the Shariah that opposes the universal values of Islam. The secular state is also intended to nurture and regulate the role of Islam in public life through the shaping of ethical norms that can be reflected in public institutions, policies and social relations (pp. 1-3). This is the crux of An-Naim’s book, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a. At the heart of this ground-breaking book is a compelling narrative on how Muslim societies can approach the dilemmas that emerged from the dialectical relationship between the state and religion, particularly Islam. The author Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a renowned Islamic scholar and human rights activist from Sudan, is a leading voice on Islamic reform and a staunch critic of Islamism and authoritarianism in the Muslim world. Although An-Na’im has primarily spent the better part of his intellectual life in the United States, it can be argued that as an academic in exile, his intellectual project is shaped by his active involvement in Sudan’s struggle to reconcile Islam, the state, and society.

For this reason, An-Na’im extrapolated lessons from Sudan’s tumultuous history through the methodological framework of his teacher, Ustadh Mahmoud Taha, also a Sudanese Muslim reformer, to promote an ethical compliance of Shariah that can play a transformative role in the life of Muslims and nation-building, which is essentially the aim of the book (p. 2). This paper provides a critical analysis of An-Na’im’s ideas based on the book’s first chapter. Though it is crucial to read it in its entirety, the opening chapter provides a summative overview of An-Na’im’s intellectual project. It lays the theoretical foundation for studying the relationship between Islam and the secular state.

While the central proposition of An-Naim rested on the institutional separation between Islam and the state, he recognises that Islam cannot be excluded from public life and politics. Maintaining the connection between Islam and politics would allow the implementation of universal Islamic values such as justice in policymaking and concomitantly provide the ideological underpinnings for the maximisation of key notions of human rights, constitutionalism, and citizenship (pp. 4-5). Thus, the key challenge that the book attempts to address is how to sustain the separation between Islam and the state while regulating the role of Islam in the political sphere. In order to address this conundrum, it is crucial to understand three key ideas that the book is premised upon: the secular state, the Shariah, and the discursive interaction between the two.

Crucial to the book’s argument is that the secular state is not entirely foreign to Islam; instead, it can be defended based on Islamic history and its intellectual traditions (p. 4). An-Na’im argues that the Quran addresses Muslims as individuals or a community of believers without citing the need for a state or a particular system of governance. In this regard, the Quran allows Muslims to construct their understanding of a state that is ultimately a human construction and inherently ‘secular’. For An-Naim, the mechanisms of a secular state can negotiate differences among various groups and religious communities without favouring any religion. Indeed, the state is not entirely neutral. Still, it uses its organs and institutions to protect freedom of belief and expression crucial for developing and transforming religious communities that share the same socio-political space. It is essential to recognise that this freedom is not unfettered due to the existence of an overarching framework that mediates any possible tensions. This framework can also be supported by the Islamic principle of mu’awada (reciprocity) and accentuated by the political principles of self-determination (p. 38). It essentially forms the basis of modern citizenship that denotes an affirmative belonging to a pluralistic and inclusive community that protects equal rights for all without discrimination (p. 33).

Nonetheless, An-Naim also makes it clear that his call for a secular state is different from the secularisation of society or the removal of religion from public life which he deeply opposes (p. 8). A state should be secular in the sense that it is unbiased to all the different religious communities. State impartiality is necessary for true conviction to be the driving force of religious and social practice without fearing those who control the state. Against this backdrop, there is a need to place secularism on a spectrum to avoid faulty generalisations that overlook the term’s complexities. In short, secularism as an equitable political system and not as a coercive philosophy is acceptable in Islam and desirable to Muslims, particularly in places where they are the minority. Singapore’s unique model of secularism is a good case in point, which is described as ‘secularism with a soul’. As a secular state, it does not accord any preference to religion(s) to subvert public order. However, it provides its citizens with the freedom to believe or not to believe. Moreover, religion plays a role in influencing public policies to maintain Singapore’s social fabric. The formation of The Presidential Council for Religious Harmony to advise the Singapore government on social cohesion reflects this desirability.

In view of this, An-Naim’s notion of the secular diametrically opposes the French form of hegemonic secularism that must be located in the broader context of France’s historical revolutions and postcolonial anxieties with its former colonies, particularly Algeria (pp. 40-41). This hegemony also applies to the notion of an Islamic state which, according to An-Naim, is a postcolonial invention that combines a European idea of a nation-state and a totalitarian understanding of the Shariah to regulate individual behaviours and social relations (p. 7).

According to An-Naim, the enforcement of the Shariah by the state will always be secular and not reflective of any superior Islamic authority. In fact, the idea of a ‘Shariah state’ is a modern invention of the 20th century that was a byproduct of colonialism and Islamic revivalism in its epistemic sense. This understanding of Shariah is fundamentally problematic as the nature of Shariah in its most profound meaning is antithetical to codification. An-Naim added that the interpretation of Shariah by its very nature entails plurality in views about what it means and how it should be applied. In other words, it is not just about law as it represents a complex set of moral, economic, and cultural practices that deeply pervade social structures. On the contrary, codification diminishes the complexity of a vast tradition tolerant of ambiguities to a simplistic view that represents the interests of the people who control the state and not the Islamic intellectual tradition. This is because a key marker of a modern territorial state is the centralisation of its laws for the state to supervise the legal realm actively. To overcome this problem, the state not only has to be secular, but An-Naim proposes a rather exciting idea to rethink the Shariah as a product of intergenerational negotiation and consensus. It implies that the Shariah cannot be part of a statist project that regulates the behaviour of its people from a coercive position. Instead, the interactions within the Islamicate[1] have acquainted us that the Shariah, albeit deriving from the religious texts, is always negotiated through the lived experiences of a community and not imposed by the state.

An-Naim further argues that the Shariah ceases to serve its ethical commitments once it becomes a statute as religious and state recognition are two distinct categories that cannot be collapsed on each other. In fact, the Quran does not address institutions or states; instead, it speaks to the community of believers. Following this premise, the Shariah as it is understood today in Muslim-majority countries is an anomaly for two reasons. First, the state cannot have a religion due to its epistemic variance. Second, its monolithic imposition inhibits the growth of independent inquiry and personal responsibility, which are fundamental requirements to facilitate the moral and volitional choices Muslims make (p. 3).

Nonetheless, it is crucial to recognise that the Shariah is not inherently hostile to modern laws as it can serve as a moral directive that allows constructive pathways for engaging modernity. If rightly understood, according to An-Naim, Muslims can embrace a more sophisticated view of the Shariah that is essentially humanistic without feeling conflicted with their multiple identities. Here, An-Naim’s overall understanding of the Shariah draws similarities with the definition put forward by the great Muslim jurist Ibn al-Qayyim wherein the Shariah aims to secure the common good for everyone regardless of their religion by protecting the community from injustices, hostility, and harm. In this regard, the Shariah should aim to reconcile the totality of a Muslim’s piety with the common good voluntarily and not through coercive enforcement by the state. To facilitate this, An-Naim suggests a cross-cultural dialogue to establish an equilibrium between the secular state and religion that must be grounded in civic reason (pp. 37-42).

Civic reason here refers to a process in which most citizens can accept or reject the foundation and aims of public policies and legislation. Here, An-Naim, to a certain degree, alludes to Immanuel Kant’s notion of a ‘categorical imperative’ wherein one should act in accordance with the rules that could hold for everyone. Additionally, civic reason entitles all citizens to publicly debate on the common good and how it can be translated into society. This process of reasoning is equally accessible to everyone without the need to refer to religious beliefs. Thus, it is incorrect to enforce a state policy by using God as a pretext for a pernicious political interest. Instead, the implementation of state policies has to be persuasive to everyone on account of being a citizen of the state. An-Naim reiterates that civic reasoning does not inhibit the Shariah but drives Muslims to reflect on the higher objectives of the Shariah to persuade others in the name of the common good without reference to the sacred texts. For example, a Muslim may argue that riba (interest) should be illegal because it contravenes the higher objective of the Shariah – to prevent the unjust depletion of wealth – and can also demonstrate policy rationales to substantiate the argument in a way that other citizens can deliberate, accept or reject without passing judgment based on the normative positions of the religious texts on riba (p. 281). In this sense, the Shariah is not imposed anachronistically based on the conditions of 7th century Arabia, but it is lived and actualised throughout time. An-Naim further argues that civic reason guarantees the separation of state and religion, which essentially benefits Muslims by protecting their rights to form independent beliefs as long as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. He also added that civic reason should not be left unchecked for the state to dictate or exploit but should merely provide a framework for inclusive, internal discourse. This approach overlaps considerably with John Rawls and Habermas’ notion of ‘public reason’ to a certain degree. However, An-Naim notes that his concept differs from theirs as ‘public reason’ marginalises the role of religion in the public sphere, which aligns with the secularisation thesis that An-Naim opposes (pp. 97-101). Instead, civic reason favours a robust role for religion in public life to advance the common good and ensure human flourishing.

Notwithstanding An-Naim’s bold attempts to resolve the tensions between the requirements of a secular state and the Islamic tradition, it might be argued that his arguments are inadequately grounded in the hermeneutical analysis of Islamic sources to be taken seriously by traditional Muslims. This is because his scheme disregards the doctrinal approach that uses theological orthodoxy as a baseline for Islamic commitments in favour of empirical methods of social sciences that might resonate with those who already accept the desirability of a secular state rather than convincing orthodox Muslim skeptics of the plausibility of a secular state in Islam. Concerning Islamic orthodoxy, it is also difficult to imagine an orthodox Shia Muslim openly embracing An-Naim’s secular thesis due to the need for an infallible imam that is part of their doctrinal commitments. Nonetheless, in critically assessing An-Naim’s Islamic justification for the desirability of a secular state, it should not give the impression that such a project is impossible to achieve nor trivialise the importance of the project, for that matter. Instead, it is offering suggestions to provide more depth and persuasiveness should An-Naim spend more time tapping into the resources of Islam’s theological, ethical, and historical tradition rather than slantingly depending on the heuristics of social sciences. As a matter of fact, An-Naim’s central idea that the state can protect the rights of a Muslim society based on democratic principles and that the Shariah can be ideated as an ethical system committed to justice and the rule of law, can be extrapolated from a wide range of Islamic theological and political discourses of the tradition.

Despite the slight dissatisfaction with An-Naim’s Islamic justification for a secular state, this chapter and, by extension, the entire book provides a practical and persuasive way for Muslims who are in favour of a secular state and, to some extent, traditional Muslims who seek to live their lives within the framework of a modern nation-state. Overall, the thought-provoking reflections from the book are helpful for readers to understand how Muslim societies can and should address the dilemmas that emerged from the interactions between state, law, and religion. ⬛

1 The term Islamicate was coined by Marshall Hodgson in his book The Venture of Islam, which refers to “the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims” (p.59).


Sheikh Mohamad Farouq Abdul Fareez was a Senior Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He holds a Master’s degree in Islamic Thought and Applied Ethics. His area of interest involves issues concerning religion, human development and ethics.

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