An-Naim hopes that the situation will gradually improve

What is Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim’s view of Sharia? A piece by Cem Say from 2006 explores the subject.

Islamic law, the Sharia, has a bad reputation – especially in the West, but also among many secular Muslims. It stands for the oppression of women, contempt for human rights, and backwardness. Abdullah An-Naim, Professor of Law at Emory University in Atlanta, USA and anything but a fundamentalist, understands the concept of Sharia quite differently. Sharia, he says, is positive and has a future.

According to An-Naim, the legal doctrines of the Sharia in their original form, which go back to the seventh century, are simply incompatible with the realities of life in the 21st century.

Yes. So then why hang on to the Sharia? Why change the substance but keep the name? Why not just move on?

Sudanese-born An-Naim is strictly against the concept of an Islamic state as currently practiced in Iran and Afghanistan. It contradicts Islamic tradition, he claims.

An-Naim, therefore, supports secularism, in which a neutral state makes the laws for all citizens, while leaving enough room for them to lead their lives according to the rules of their own religion. A Muslim businessman, for instance, could thereby conduct his business without charging interest – even when the state doesn’t prohibit interest in general.

But that’s an easy example. Why choose the easy example to illustrate the point when it’s the hard ones that make the point so very dubious? Never mind charging interest or not charging interest, what about inheritance laws that allot women half? What about laws on “adultery”? What about stoning? What about rape and the requirement for four male witnesses? What about allowing up to four wives for men but no more than one husband for women?

Abdullah An-Naim was first introduced to these ideas as a 22-year-old law student in his native Sudan. At the time, he was a follower of the Islamic reform movement under Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. In 1986, after Taha was executed for his divergent views, An-Naim left his country as a political refugee.

Since then, he has continued to work in the USA on developing Taha’s theories – “without implicating anyone in Sudan,” he is quick to add, as the Islamic reform movement is still heavily persecuted in the African country. Adhering to such views could result in the death penalty, although An-Naim hopes that the situation will gradually improve. He does not feel isolated in his ideas and even finds support within the Islamic world.

Reform is good. Will the new center for the study of Islamic Law and Civilization at Yale be about reform and reformists? When the funding comes from a Saudi tycoon? I don’t know, but it seems unlikely.

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