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:
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.
The essence of the Sufi's message had been that certain verses in the Koran represented the universal, eternal message of Islam, while others were relevant to a particular historical context and no longer viable. "Specifically [he argued] for equality for women, freedom of religion, and equality for non-Muslims," Naim says. After fleeing the country, he translated Taha's work, "The Second Message of Islam," into English.
Naim later became director of Africa Watch, monitoring human rights on the continent, and in 1995 began teaching at Emory. He's written books on human rights and sponsored social-change projects promoting human rights in local communities in Yemen, Tanzania, and Southeast Asia.
A new book just released in English, "Islam and the Secular State," represents the culmination of his life's work, he says.
Islam teaches that every Muslim stands before God and is responsible for making his own moral choices in observing sharia. The Koran does not prescribe a form of government, but speaks only of the community of Muslims. The book argues that there has never been an Islamic state.
"You will not find any reference to an Islamic state or to state enforcement of sharia before the mid-20th century – it's a post-colonial discourse based on a European-style state," he explains.
While Iran, for instance, claims to be a republic, implying popular sovereignty, a council of clerics is supposed to ensure that it is Islamic. But that council is made up of fallible humans as political as everyone else, he argues. "How is it that 30 years after the revolution they cannot trust the Muslim citizens to make the choice as to who is likely to be faithful to Islamic values and to represent them?"
Further, Iran and Saudi Arabia both claim to be Islamic states, but to each other they are heresies, he adds. So what does Islamic mean? To call a state Islamic is to attempt to silence political or theological dissent, he says.
"Most Muslims have an intuitive feeling about this but can't articulate it, so when confronted by Islamists who say this is the will of God, they are defenseless," Naim says. "My hope is that with this book, we give people confidence to respond that "this is not Islam, it is your view of Islam."
For some time, Naim has been visiting countries across the Muslim world from Nigeria to Indonesia, testing his ideas in public gatherings, which may range from 25 to 800 people. Before he set out, early manuscripts of his book were translated into Indonesian, Bengali, French, Persian, Russian, Swahili, Turkish, and Urdu and uploaded onto a website.
Only once has he felt physically threatened – after a talk in northern Nigeria – although people have tried to shout him down. "I try to persuade gently, to give examples from Muslim history that people understand, and that helps," he says.
One huge challenge is the negative connotation in the Muslim world of "secularism," often seen as being antireligion.
Yet Radwan Masmoudi, director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, believes Naim's goal of separating political and religious institutions is what a majority of Muslims want. Gallup's recent global poll showed "that 80 to 90 percent of Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia want democracy," he says, but similar majorities also want sharia to be a source, or the only source, of law in their countries.
"This is the struggle of our time, coming up with a modern interpretation of sharia that is true to Islamic principles but also to democratic values," he adds.