Muslim reformer's 'heresy': The Islamic state is a dead end
From Nigeria to Indonesia, Sudanese law professor spreads ideas of a secular state and human rights.
Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim has seen what can happen to an Islamic reformer: His mentor was executed in 1985 in Sudan; he himself had to flee the country. Still, the self-described "Muslim heretic" has no trouble traveling the Islamic world spreading his controversial message:Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
There is no such thing as an Islamic state.
A secular state and human rights are essential for all societies so that Muslims and others can practice their faith freely, he tells his co-religionists.
"My motivation is in fact about being an honest, true-to-myself Muslim, rather than someone complying with state dictates," says Mr. Naim, a professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta since 1999. "I need the state to be neutral about religious doctrine so that I can be the Muslim I choose to be."
So committed is this scholar to opening the door to free debate within his faith that he helped organize the first "Muslim Heretics Conference" in Atlanta over the weekend. Some 75 Muslims, engaged in various reform projects, gathered to discuss issues related to sharia (Islamic law), democracy, and women's rights – and how to cope with dissent and its consequences.
"We celebrate heresy simply to promote innovative thinking," he says. "Every orthodoxy was at one time a heresy."
Naim's personal project involves what he calls "negotiating the future of sharia." As Islamic societies struggle to define themselves in a globalized world and some talk of creating Islamic states to codify sharia, he says the state and religion must be kept separate. But religion should still have its place in political life, allowing Muslims to express principles of sharia as they see fit. He believes this is truly Islamic, and that articulating the reasons why will help ordinary Muslims not be taken in by political slogans.
"I know for a fact that Abdullahi has a following among young Muslims in places like Malaysia and Indonesia," says John Esposito, head of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "These people are often marginalized in their societies, but over time, these positions can become mainstream."
Naim's view is not just a theory picked up in the United States, but the result of painful personal experience. "As a Muslim from Sudan whose people have suffered tremendously from confusion over this issue, my mission is to clarify it so other Muslim societies don't go down the same road to come to the same dead end," he says in a phone interview. He has watched Sudan's institutions virtually collapse under fundamentalist Islamic rule and seen the disillusionment firsthand.
While a law student at the University of Khartoum in 1967, Naim heard a talk by a Sufi Muslim thinker, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. "That lecture turned my life around," he says, and he joined Taha's Islamic reform movement.
But when Sudanese strongman Jaafar al-Nimeiri was about to introduce sharia by decree in 1983, he jailed Taha, Naim, and others for 18 months. Taha was put on trial and executed.