“We Muslims Have No Church!”

Human rights and secularism, says Ahmed An-Na’im, create a space for protest. And, surprisingly, the lawyer, who is originally from Sudan, sees in the Muslim law system, the Sharia, the third pillar of a humane civil society. Interview by Edith Kresta

 The Sudanese born Abdullah Ahmed An-Na’im teaches law at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Active in the fields of civil, human and international rights, he sees the Islamic Sharia as an important point of reference for him. The Muslim law system, which dates back to the seventh century, must, in his opinion, always be open to being questioned.

It can, however, even today, provide answers through fresh interpretations, which each person must be prepared to carry out for him or herself. The Sharia is not, according to him, to be thought of as a national law, but rather as a frame of moral values similar to that provided for Christianity by the Ten Commandments.

“One must engage with a situation as it actually is,” says An-Na’im, “so religion is certainly going to play an important role in social development in Islamic countries”. The lawyer is currently working on a project entitled “The Future of the Sharia”, which is looking at the effects of modern global conditions on Islamic societies. He has come to Berlin at the invitation of the Irmgard Coninx Foundation.

Professor An-Na’im, you are very much involved in human, civil and international rights issues; at the same time, however, you also like to turn to the Sharia for guidance. Do the two things go together?

Ahmed An-Na’im: I do not distinguish between secularism and religion because I believe that in the secular there is much that is religious and it is difficult to separate them. I do think, however, that religion is a very strong social and mobilising force. If you exclude religion from the social and political processes, you will find yourself being cut off from those who are religious.

And that would mean, in your country, Sudan, very many!

An-Na’im: Yes, human rights and secularism need political support. If you fail to convince people that secularism and human rights are good for them, and if you do not manage to convince them of this in terms of their own religious beliefs, then you leave the field to the fundamentalists. You then give them the opportunity to mobilise the power of faith for their own political purposes. And, by the way, religion has not disappeared from Europe either! Those values which society chooses to uphold, whether in national institutions, or laws, are all religious values.

Is religion to you then the ethical-cultural tradition?

An-Na’im: Yes, in one sense. I do not believe that secularism has any ready answers to profound ethical problems. In order to fulfil its function, secularism needs to be ethically minimalist. There are many questions in which it cannot interfere. It can handle the basics about how we can live with and maintain respect for one another. But answers to questions on things like abortion or the right to take one’s own life must be sought elsewhere. For most people, it would be religion that they would turn to.

In Europe, the word Sharia is associated with hands being cut off, with stoning or the oppression of women.

An-Na’im: First of all, I believe that religion and the state should be separate, institutionally. If one looks at Muslim history, one sees that the two have always been treated as separate entities. The idea that politics and the state go together is postcolonial. In Muslim history, this came about only in the 20th century. Before then an Islamic state, like the one in Iran, was something unknown.

What is it then that you mean by Sharia?

An-Na’im: The Sharia appears in the Koran in the sense that believers look at the sources of their faith in order to find guidance. The Sharia is not a law. The state cannot decide to make a family law out of it. It would then no longer be the Sharia, but rather the political will of the state.

But the Sharia does, nevertheless, affect the justice system. Take the case of the law of succession, for example, where women in Muslim countries, as in many others, do not have equality.

All that is only a legitimising discourse for the existing power relations. If you look at the Islamic world then you see that there is an enormous difference in the interpretation of individual points. It is always, in the final analysis, the political will to get something done that is decisive. Islam, Marxism or nationalism can all be made to work for one’s own cause.

So religion should not be treated any differently to other ideologies that serve to legitimate claims to power?

An-Na’im: That’s right. But the right of every Muslim to live his or her life in accordance with the Sharia must be accepted. One must be sure to guard against any authorities that assume the right of interpretation for themselves. A Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a Christian man. Why not? It is the Muslim’s duty to ask why. We do not accept any single religious body as authority. We have no Church.

In Germany an attempt is being made to set up a Muslim association with which the state can negotiate on behalf of Muslims living here.

An-Na’im: I believe this to be completely misguided. I have difficulties with the idea of someone else defining what my religion should mean to me. No one should be given the power of deciding what is right or wrong.

What would the alternative be?

An-Na’im: Civil participation. Full civil participation. Whether I am a Muslim or not is irrelevant to me as a citizen. It is the duty of the state to treat me as a citizen. If I am in need of money so that my children can receive religious education, then the state must help me. These are civil rights. Without this you get a clergy which will accentuate difference. This, in turn, makes integration of Muslims more problematic because they are then identified as Muslim, while their fellow citizens are defined through their nationality, not their religious affiliations.

For you then it’s about deconstructing what lies behind the veil. So, what is behind it?

An-Na’im: Power, privileges, hegemony. These things are all the result of human actions, in religion as in politics. There is no divine in the abstract.

Do you believe in Revelation?

An-Na’im: It is always human beings who tell us what God says. This cannot be separated from questions of power. It all has to do with human relations. When we talk about Muslims rather than about Islam, then we are talking about the social context. And it is people who form, or fail to change it. Human rights and secularism are so important to me because they create a space within which I may protest.

Does your religion help you to find answers to your questions?

An-Na’im: Yes, but I reserve the right to answer them myself. There is much that religion gives me. There are some Muslims who see me as a heretic; that’s okay, as long as they don’t kill me.

This all sounds very modern, very individualistic. Does the Sharia, for you, rank among the legitimising bases of modern thought?

An-Na’im: There is nothing that has not already been thought, debated or rejected in the 1500-year history of Islam. My thinking is part of a long tradition.

How do those who lack your education go about finding their own answers in religion?

An-Na’im: If you want to have control over your own life, there is no alternative but to pursue education. If you want the power of self-determination, you cannot have anyone as guardian of your religion or your values. Whatever your value system is, it is you, not the Imam who must decide what is relevant and what isn’t. It is about taking responsibility for yourself. What I want to say is, heresy is necessary if you want a living religion.

Every orthodoxy began as heresy. All religions have their roots in heresy. Christianity began as a Jewish heresy; Islam was once a Christian-Jewish heresy. It is in breaking with tradition that we strike the vein of greatest creativity. This is true of all societies. So celebrate heresy! In Europe you have both the right and the opportunity to do so.

It is not so easy for many Muslim women, though, who find themselves oppressed or threatened in the name of honour or religion. What is your advice to them?

An-Na’im: Protest! Fight! There is no progress without struggle, not even for women in Europe. Just think about it: For how long have women in this country had the vote? Less than ninety years. One always has to fight against particular interpretations of one’s own culture. There is no other alternative.