Islamic Constitutional Law versus Secular Absolutism

Islamic Constitutional Law versus Secular Absolutism

The most brilliant Paleo-Conservative yet to emerge among Muslims in America has just published a path-breaking book. This intellectual breakthrough by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na`im is entitled Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a. As Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University, An-Na`im has for more than twenty years been a tireless proponent of a deeply religious but liberal-modernist reformation of Islamic politics and ethics. Published just five years after his flight from the Sudan in April 1985 (after the Numeiri regime executed his Sufi teacher, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha), An-Na`im’s Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law established him as one of our era’s most articulate exponents of the Islamic grounds for constitutionalism and human rights.

An-Na’im’s background includes the same “baggage” that some other great scholars carry who dismiss the ahadith and do not yet appreciate the role of the normative maqasid as a methodology for evaluating the hadith and sirah as this is being revived by the International Institute of Islamic Thought. Although his latest book is billed as the culmination of his life’s work, more likely, in sha’a Allah, it is a work in transition.

Professor An-Na’im, echoes Edmund Burke, who was the original Paleoconservative in the English Whig tradition of the 18th century, and its greatest contemporary philosopher, the 20th century’s Russell Kirk. The most famous of the paleo-conservatives, Thomas Jefferson, who was routinely attacked politically as an atheist, wrote that, “No people can remain free unless they are properly educated; education consists primarily in learning virtue; and no people can remain virtuous unless all life, both personal and public, is infused with awareness of a loving Providence [his word for God].”

Dr. An-Na’im’s major failing, at least in the American environment, is his use of the term “secular” in the sense of neutrality toward “religion.” In American parlance, though not in most of the rest of the English-speaking world, secularism means hostility toward all religion. This is basic to the modernist elevation of political corporatism, known as the “sovereign state,” to the level of an ultimate authority or false god, as in “the Islamic state,” or “the Jewish state,” or the “American Christian State.” This immanent opposite of constitutional governance based on the transcendent authority of universal natural law, the Sunnat Allah, leads to oppressive extremism by denying the very existence of multiple levels of identity and community, ranging from the nuclear human family to entire nations and even to the community of humankind or of sentient beings throughout the universe.

The profound approach of Dr. An-Na’im is the subject of a whole series of books that have been and are being translated at the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, Virginia, to rescue from six centuries of obscurity the normative law paradigm developed over many centuries by some of humankind’s greatest minds in the maqasid al shari’ah. The IIIT’s major effort includes books recently written and under preparation, including my own, “The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice” and one under preparation, “The Natural Law of Faith-Based Reconciliation.” Both of these may serve as introductions to a monumental Faith-Based Encyclopedia of Natural Law, which is designed to provide a framework functionally equivalent to Professor An-Na’im’s but with greater reliance on the Islamic intellectual heritage embodied in the maqasid and with more culturally sensitive terminology for an era in which ontological, epistemological, and politico-economic relativism has almost eliminated even the concept of justice.

The essential paleo-conservatism at the core of all world religions and in Dr. An-Na’im writings would be more acceptable to Americans if he based all his writings on the normative paradigm enshrined in the Preamble of the American Constitution, which lists the purposes of founding The Great American Experiment. These start with justice and end with freedom, because order, prosperity, and freedom are the product of transcendent justice.

See also The American Muslim article collection on Shariah, Fiqh, and Islamic Law