There is no incompatibility between secularism and sharia (Islamic law), said Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im (Professor of Law at Emory University) in his keynote speech at the 30th German Congress of Oriental Studies, which gathered in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany (Sept 24-28), and whichRW attended. Issues related to Islam had a strong presence at the conference and was seen by several observers as indicative of new trends in German Orientalism.
Born in Sudan, An-Na’im is one of the leading advocates of Islamic reform. He is currently involved in a major project on the future of sharia (http://www.law.emory.edu/fs). The result will be a book, of which several chapters are already online and which is translated into eight languages in Muslim countries, before the English print edition will come out next year. An-Na’im recently went to Indonesia for the purpose of launching the book in several cities. He reports to have come across many Muslims who agree with his views.
An-Na’im makes a strong criticism of the concept of an Islamic state. He says the state cannot be religious, since it is a political institution, with citizenship as its basis, and there never was an Islamic state at any time in history. Islam and the State were always differentiated, while not always separate, claims An-Na’im. Sharia remains binding for Muslims, but it cannot be enforced by the state; if it is, then it is no longer sharia. Consequently, An-Na’im sees the secular state as the best environment for Muslims: “I need a secular state in order to be a Muslim by conviction.” Moreover, he insists that sharia has always been negotiated: it is fluid, contested, contingent and contextual.
Among the papers on Muslim reformists presented at the conference, one dealt with an important figure in India, Ashgar Ali Engineer, who was born in 1939 in a learned Muslim family and works with the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai (http://www.csss-isla.com). The author of the paper, Fatma Sagir (University of Freiburg), observed how Ashgar Ali Engineer always strives to base his statements on the Quran. He fully identifies himself with Indian democracy, which gives him a freedom of speech he would enjoy in few Muslim countries. In a lecture on “Islam and the State,” which Engineer gave in October. 2006 in London and which was just published by the International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (a network of Islamic intellectuals and activists), Engineer stated that the true practice of Islam cannot be enforced and should go along with freedom; otherwise it loses its value. He sees attempts at creating an Islamic state primarily as tools for exercising power and repressing political opponents.
It is worth noting that such reformists are eager not to appear as people who are cut off from the Muslim masses, or to leave to fundamentalists the monopoly of legitimacy in terms of representing Islam. They want to be seen not as people who “relax” Islam in order to make it palatable to the West, but claim that they actually have the true understanding of Islam. It may be that such views will increasingly find a receptive audience in the current context, although their real impact is difficult to assess at this point.
— By Jean-Francois Mayer
(International Forum for Islamic Dialogue (IFID), BM Box 5856, London WC1N 3XX, UK – http://www.islam21.net)