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An-Naʿim, Abdullahi Ahmed

Lee Ann Bambach
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

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An-Naʿim, Abdullahi Ahmed


is a scholar of human rights and Islamic law. A prolific author, he has written and edited numerous books and articles examining the cross-cultural legitimacy of human rights. He has also advocated for the reform and modernization of Sharīʿah from the perspective of liberalism. He maintains that this is best done within the context of a secular state, albeit one in which Sharīʿah plays an important role in informing politics and civil reason.

An-Naʿim was born in Sudan and received his LLB from the University of Khartoum in 1970. While still a law student, he joined the Republican Brothers, a group founded by Maḥmūd Muḥammad Ṭāhā, which called for the reform of Islam and a new approach to Sharīʿah. He received an LLB from the University of Cambridge in 1973 and his PhD from the University of Edinburg in 1976. Returning to Sudan, he began teaching law, becoming the head of the Department of Public Law at the University of Khartoum in 1979.

In addition to his academic work, An-Naʿim remained active in the Republican Brothers. In 1983 he was arrested in a mass sweep of Republican Brothers and held without charges for over a year and a half. After Ṭāhā’s execution in 1985, An-Naʿim left Sudan, where he risked being charged with the capital crime of apostasy. Since then he has lived primarily in the United States, serving as executive director of Human Rights Watch/Africa from 1993 to 1995 and joining the faculty of the Emory University School of Law in 1995.

An-Naʿim’s work as a human rights activist and scholar focuses primarily on the need for and development of cultural legitimacy of human rights standards, especially in Islamic and African societies. He promotes defining and implementing globally inclusive conceptions of social justice to enable the development of an “overlapping consensus” (as understood in liberal and human rights discourses) among religious or cultural traditions when it comes to human rights. An-Naʿim views enhancing the cultural legitimacy of human rights as an integral step toward compliance with such norms, as grounding human rights standards within a religious or cultural tradition precludes them from being dismissed as alien impositions or threats to national sovereignty.

An-Naʿim has also been instrumental in promoting the reformist ideas of Maḥmūd Muḥammad Ṭāhā, translating Ṭāhā’s major book on the topic, The Second Message of Islam, into English. An-Naʿim’s early work expands on the methodology developed by Ṭāhā that rejects the traditional view that Qurʾānic verses revealed later in the Prophet’s life abrogated earlier ones (naskh). Instead Ṭāhā’s approach views the earlier verses, which were primarily revealed during the Prophet’s time in Mecca and tend to accord more with modern notions of tolerance and egalitarianism than the later verses, as having been merely postponed temporarily until society was prepared to implement them. The time is now ripe for their restoration.

An-Naʿim acknowledges the centrality of the Sharīʿah to Muslim identity and society but maintains that it is not divine in the sense of being direct revelation. Rather, the Sharīʿah is always based on a process of human interpretation of the Qurʾān and Sunnah, which necessarily means that the content of the Sharīʿah can change over time.

In his book Toward an Islamic Reformation, published in 1990, An-Naʿim contends that traditional approaches to reforming the Sharīʿah are inadequate because of their inability to clearly and coherently address the problems posed by explicit Qurʾānic texts, such as those that place restrictions on the rights of women and non-Muslims. He proposes employing Ṭāhā’s methodology to create an alternative conception of Islamic public law to remove some of the main hurdles faced in reconciling the traditional Sharīʿah with modern conceptions of constitutional law, criminal justice, international relations, and human rights. An-Naʿim has been criticized for his embrace of Ṭāhā’s reform methodology, which many see as problematic not only because its wholesale rejection of traditional Sharīʿah is likely to alienate many Muslims, but also because of questions about what criteria would be used to determine the proper ranking of Qurʾānic texts.

An-Naʿim’s later scholarship and his calls for the modernization of the Sharīʿah are broadly based, however, and he accepts that other methodologies may be capable of achieving reform.

An-Naʿim’s ambitious Future of Sharia project, begun in 2004, sought to open up a discussion both within the Muslim world and more broadly over the role of the Sharīʿah in the public domain. For several years he engaged in discussion and debate on the topic with scholars and other interested parties throughout the Muslim world, Europe, and the United States, traveling extensively and establishing a website allowing Muslims and non-Muslims to access and critique his proposals in multiple languages.

In his resulting book, Islam and the Secular State, An-Naʿim calls for the institutional separation of the Sharīʿah and the state. While believing that all Muslims, whether living in a majority- or minority-Muslim state, are bound to observe the Sharīʿah as a matter of religious obligation, he argues that that this is accomplished best in a secular state, in the sense that the state is neutral regarding religious doctrine. He dismisses the idea that an Islamic state can or should enforce the Sharīʿah as a “dangerous illusion,” and contends that a secular state is the best avenue available to enable Muslims to live by the Sharīʿah as a matter of personal belief and religious obligation rather than coercion. He states that Sharīʿah principles should not be privileged or enforced simply because they are deemed “Sharīʿah” nor used to deny fundamental constitutional or human rights. But An-Naʿim nonetheless holds that the Sharīʿah should still play an important public role in Muslim life, informing Muslims’ political views and thereby serving as a source of public policy and legislation through civil reasoning and public debate.

While An-Naʿim has been praised in many corners for creating an important interpretive framework and seeking to stimulate discussions within Muslim societies across the globe, his proposals have also been criticized as failing to sufficiently reconcile the dilemma of trying to identify and apply universal norms in the context of global diversity, and thus providing no coherent roadmap to meeting the challenges of separating state and religious institutions in Muslim states. His ideas have also been faulted as not sufficiently grounded in Islamic thought and tradition to gain much traction in traditional Muslim societies.


  • An-Naʿim, Abdullahi Ahmed. Muslims and Global Justice. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Find it in your Library
  • An-Naʿim, Abdullahi Ahmed. Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • An-Naʿim, Abdullahi Ahmed. African Constitutionalism and the Role of Islam. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
  • An-Naʿim, Abdullahi Ahmed, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1990.
  • Esposito, John L. “Islam and the Secular State: The Challenge of Creating Change.” The Imminent Frame, 25 August 2008. Available at blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2008/08/25/the-challenge-of-creating-change Find it in your Library
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