Saturday, 9 February 2008

Archbishop Rowan Williams Vs Professor Abdullahi An-Na’im: The Future of Shar'ia

Archbishop Rowan Williams has come under fire for stating that certain elements of Islamic Law (Shar’ia) are ‘unavoidable’ in Britain. There have been calls for his resignation by senior Church of England members and also criticism from within the Muslim communities.

I’m not quite sure where to start with this one. What are the real issues at stake here? If the criticism is against the current state of Shar’ia Law which I believe is a historical law which was best suited for medieval times then this I fully support. Islamic Law was never stagnant. Let me be absolutely clear here that Islamic Law is not a ‘divine law’, it is a mixture of Qur’anic passages and practices and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad but they are presented to support the jurists opinion on matters. In what way is this then ‘purely divine’? The literal meaning of ‘Shar’iah’ is ‘way to the watering hole’, which means that a Muslim’s practices must continue to spiritually flow in the same way that water does. Has this happened over the years? Has there been a constant development of Islamic Law since its inception? Has certain aspects of the law kept up with current social norms which were not prevalent during medieval times? For example during medieval times there was a practice for men to have multiple wives but today western societies do not accept this as a social norm, has Islamic Law developed to keep this argument in mind? Is this stagnant historical Shar’iah to blame for the neither here nor there Scottish/British Muslims who fail to bridge the gap between medieval Islam and the contemporary world? Stuck between upholding a past that doesn't quite fit in to todays world. Has anyone even bothered to bridge this gap? A lot of Muslims talk about ‘ijtihad’, which is creative independent reasoning, but to what extent is this happening? Everyone is calling for reform in Islamic cultures and societies but how many Muslims are willing to get their hands dirty and speak out against injustice? Islamic Law was established to uphold peace, safety and security in society so when it fails to do this we must certainly reconsider the issues. And if the criticism is by ignorant folk who have no understanding what Islamic Law is except the chopping of hands and heads then my answer to them is go and understand what the Shar’ia is before you base your opinion on stereotypes and prejudices. I have no time of day for those who abuse critical thinkers seeking progress in order to further their own prejudices and hatred.

I’ve raised the questions and now I want to point you in the direction of one of my most beloved and respected teachers, Professor Abdullahi An-Na’im who is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law. His specialties include human rights in Islam and cross-cultural issues in human rights, and is the director of the Religion and Human Rights Program at Emory. He argues for a synergy and interdependence between human rights, religion and secularism, instead of a dichotomy and incompatibility between them. An-Naim is originally from Sudan, where he was greatly influenced by the Islamic reform movement of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. I had the good fortune of learning from him during my time working on a social justice philanthropy project for the Ford Foundation New York.

This is Professor An-Na’im’s current project in his own words:

"The main objective of this project is to promote the future of Shari`a among believers and their communities, but not through the enforcement of its principles by coercive powers of the state. By its nature and purpose, Shari`a can only be observed freely by believers, and its principles lose their religious authority and value when enforced by the state. From this fundamental religious perspective, the state must not be allowed to claim the authority of Islam. It is true that the state has its proper functions, as explained below, which may include adjudication among competing claims of religious and secular institutions, but that should be seen as performing secular functions of a political institution, without allowing the state to claim religious authority as such. It is also true that the religious beliefs of Muslims, whether as officials of the state or private citizens, always influence their actions and political behavior. However, these are good reasons to keep a clear distinction between Islam and the state, as well as between the state and politics.

My purpose is to affirm and support the institutional separation of Islam and the state as necessary for Shari`a to have its proper positive and enlightening role in the lives of Muslims and Islamic societies. This view can also be called ‘the religious neutrality of the state’, whereby state institutions neither favor nor disfavor any religious doctrine or principle. The object of such neutrality, however, is precisely the freedom of individuals in their communities to favor, dispute, or modify any view of religious doctrine or principles. This does not mean that Islam and politics should be completely separated, as this is neither necessary nor desirable. The separation of Islam and the state while maintaining the connection between Islam and politics allows the implementation of Islamic principles in official policy and legislation, but subject to safeguards. This view is premised on a difficult distinction between the state and politics, despite their obvious and permanent connection.

The distinction between the state and politics therefore assumes constant interaction among the organs and institutions of the state, on the one hand, and organized political and social actors and their competing visions of the public good, on the other. This distinction is also premised on an acute awareness of the risks of abuse or corruption of the necessary coercive powers of the state. It is necessary to ensure that the state is not simply a complete reflection of daily politics because it must be able to mediate and adjudicate among the competing visions and policy proposals, which require it to remain relatively independent from different political forces in society. Since complete independence is not possible either, it is sometimes important to recall the political nature of the state because it cannot be totally autonomous from those political actors who control the apparatus of the state. Paradoxically, this reality of connectedness makes it necessary to strive for separating the state from politics, so that those excluded by the political processes of the day can still resort to state organs and institutions for protection against the excesses and abuse of power by state officials."

You can view a lecture by Professor An-Na'im on this at:
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