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  Towards a Reformation of Islam from Within:
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im.
  Book Review By Dr Farish A. Noor  
  The Muslim world today bears witness to a number of Islamist projects and programmes that are moving in all directions. There are governments that have tried to impose Islamisation from above such as that of Pakistan's. In other countries we have witnessed the attempts to graft together Islamic thought with ideologies such as Communism and Socialism, leading to grandiose schemes such as the Islamisation in Libya according to the 'Green Book' of Muammar Ghadafi. In Afghanistan another form of Islamisation has taken root - that of the Talibani movement which seems to be dragging the entire country back to the age of medieval Islam, thanks to the literalist approach of its main protagonists.

Going against the grain of popular Islamist thought are a number of reformist thinkers who have taken the Islamists themselves to task. These reformers have raised a number of critical questions that aim to interrogate the premises, development and goals of the entire Islamist project itself. They have pointed out the contradictions, inconsistencies and blindspots that continue to render hollow the universalist claims of the Islamists. And the blindspots are not always small ones either: at times the contradictions can appear mind-bogglingly obvious. For instance, when the al-Azhar Islamic university of Cairo issued its proposal for an Islamic constitution in 1978, it failed to include in its draft constitution any mention of the rights and entitlements of non-Muslim citizens within the Islamic state they wished to create. In fact, the draft constitution was not even clear on the question of whether the non-Muslims qualified as citizens in the first place.

For the Muslim reformist thinker Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, such contradictions reflect the fundamental problem faced by dogmatic and conservative Islamist thinkers and practitioners who wish to build an Islamic state upon a literal interpretation of the Shariah alone. For An-Na'im, the blindspots within the al-Azhar constitution is a reflection of the blindspots that exist within the corpus of Islamist thought in general which remains chained to traditional interpretations of religion and the Shariah in particular. He has developed his ideas in his book entitled Towards An Islamic Reformation (1990) where he calls for the opening up of the Muslim mind and a reform of Islamic thought that breaks free from the pedagogic hold of the Shariah.

In his book An-Na'im shows that he is aware of the hold that the Shariah has on the mindset of the Muslim masses in general. Thanks to the sacralisation of the Shariah by generations of Ulama who have relied upon it as the final bastion in the defence of Islam and Muslim identity, the Shariah has come to be excepted as something essentially good and irrefutable in itself. The reason why the Shariah has developed an almost fetish or totem-like aura about it today lies in the way that the Ulama have made it appear as a solid body of laws and commandments that Muslims cannot reject or question. As An-Na'im puts it: 'As long as the public law of the Shariah continues to be regarded as the only valid view of the law of Islam, most Muslims would find it extremely difficult to object to any of its principles and rules or resist their practical implementation, however repugnant or inappropriate they may find it to be' (pg. 185).

But the body of laws and regulations that we now know as the Shariah was itself a product of historical development and contingency, as An-Na'im points out. Generations of Ulama in the past have adopted and adapted this vast body of laws and norms to suit the needs of Muslim society and that is why this body of laws still carries with it features that reflect the development of Muslim society as a whole. The Shariah's authority remains strongest in areas like family and personal law while it remains weak in other spheres such as penal and constitutional law. The way that the Shariah concentrates on the conscience of the individual Muslim, be it in the private or public sphere, rather than institutions of state or corporate entities is also a reflection of Shariah's inherent historicity, An-Na'im argues.

The problem with the present corpus of Shariah law, An-Na'im insists, is that its development stopped when the doors of ijtihad (free interpretation) were shut by the Ulama themselves centuries ago, in their bid to end the rounds of polemics and disputation that were threatening to tear apart the Muslim community. However, as a result of this sudden and unnatural halt to the process of intellectual debate and contestation, the internal dynamics of the Shariah has been lost. Since then the Shariah has not been able to come up with new solutions, formulae or orientations for the Muslims of the world who have had to adapt to radically different socio-cultural, economic and political circumstances.

Muslims today no longer find themselves living in homogeneous societies that are cut off from the outside world. Factors such as globalisation, migration, the legacy of colonial rule and others have brought Muslims into close proximity with the non-Muslim world. Yet the Ulama still rely on a body of historically dated Shariah laws to rationalise, guide and police the relations between Muslims and others till today. It is hardly a surprise, then, that the draft Islamic constitution from al-Azhar did not even mention the rights of non-Muslims as subjects and citizens.

Set against this present state of stasis, An-Na'im's critique of the Shariah is based on his belief that Muslims need to develop a code of laws and norms that will guide them in the present. For 'as long as Muslims continue to adhere to the framework of historical Shariah, they will never achieve the necessary degree of reform which would make Islamic public law workable today'.(pg. 34).

What does this reformation entail for An-Na'im? For a start, it must be pointed out that it does not entail a rejection of Islam per se or Islamic ethics in particular. On the contrary, An-Na'im insists that the Islamic principles of tolerance and the rule of reciprocity should play a central part in any attempt to revise and expand the Shariah in the present-day. The most pressing need is for Muslims to develop an ethnics of engagement with the Other, both in terms of differences within the community as well as learning to cope with differences without.

On the need for the recognition of pluralism within the Islamic world itself, An-Na'im is clear: 'The toleration of unorthodoxy and dissent is vital for the spiritual and intellectual benefit of Islam itself', he argues (pg. 184). While the need for greater recognition of cultural difference and pluralism outside the Muslim world is even more important for Muslims today, considering the fact that they now live in a world where the presence of other faith communities and ideologies is something that Muslims can neither reject nor avoid.

Can these changes be accomplished with the means at hand? Yes, argues An-Na'im, for the simple reason that the ethical framework of Islam is there to provide the guidelines that are required to construct such an ethics of engagement in the first place. But the real challenge would be for Muslims to break away from the dogmatic and rigid interpretations of the Shariah of the past and to recognise that an Islamic state cannot be built overnight simply through a literal application of the Shariah itself. As An-Na'im points out in his conclusion: 'The public law of Shariah has not been applied for many generations in most parts of the Muslim world. Moreover the nature and style of the classical treatises of the Shariah make them generally inaccessible even to the highly educated contemporary Muslim. As a result of these and other factors, the vast majority of Muslims today are unaware of the full implications of the modern application of the public law of Shariah. If contemporary Muslims can clearly envisage the ways in which the application of Shariah would affect their daily lives, and if they were given a free choice of opposing the application of Shariah without the threat of prosecution for apostasy or the fear of losing their faith in Islam, I believe that most of them would strongly oppose the application of Shariah today'. (pg. 185).
  Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse. 1990. Republished by the American University in Cairo Press, Cairo. 1992.
Paperback., 253. Pgs.