Today's date:
Winter 2002


The Islamic Counter-Reformation

Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im was a member of the Faculty of Law at the University of Khartoum in the Sudan and a leading member of an Islamic reformist group called the Republican Brothers until he was imprisoned without charge in 1983-1984 by then Sudanese President Numiery.
In 1985, Numiery executed the leader of the Republican Brothers, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, for "apostasy." Subsequently, An-Na'im translated Mohammed Taha's The Second Message of Islam (Syracuse University Press).

In the following, Professor An-Na'im, now on the law faculty at Emory University, argues that the effort to reform Islam in accord with human rights and civil liberties must be based on the earliest message of Islam, the "Mecca message."

AUTHORS' NOTE: It would be totally inappropriate for me to consent to presenting this Universalist and inclusive vision of Islam introduced by a Sudanese Muslim reformer since the early 1950s, without registering my strongest protest against the military campaign of the United States of America that is killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan for the sins of their oppressors.

I remain fully committed to Taha's vision and continue to do my best to realize it. Nevertheless, and precisely because of that commitment, I also believe that the illegal, immoral and inhumane campaign by the US against the people of Afghanistan constitutes a fundamental betrayal of any possibility of the rule of law and respect for human rights in international relations, which are the underlying premise of Taha's ideas. In this context, I don't wish my representation of Taha's vision to be seen as saying that all will be well if only "moderate Muslims struggle for an Islamic reformation."

Taha proposed a paradigm shift in Islamic religious and legal thinking, including the total repudiation of the notion of jihad as aggressive war, on the premise that we all now live in a world that is governed according to the rule of law in international relations and protection of human rights and humanitarian legal principles. It is therefore particularly discouraging that the US, as the world's sole superpower chooses to deliberately and persistently violate those civilized principles.

Nevertheless, I do hereby consent to the re-publication of this article, first published in spring 1987, because I refuse to allow American exceptionalism and unilateralism to defeat Taha's humane and civilized vision.
-Abdullahi An'Naim, November 1, 2001

Cairo-The tragedy of Islam today is that the Muslim leadership has locked itself into being intimidated by its extremist elements. These Muslim leaders, whose moral bankruptcy and weakness are represented by the opulent lifestyles of the Saudi Sheikhs, live on the fringes of Islam as well as Western civilization. They lack the essence of either. In that sense, they are twice as corrupt and twice as Satanic as radical Muslims claim the West to be.

As a result, a few militant and highly motivated gangsters-real criminals-are holding Muslim cultures and Muslim leadership hostage.

The primary motivation of radical Muslims is a reaction to Western neocolonialism and, more significantly, Western cultural domination. The revolt against Western cultural domination is legitimate, but how that revolt develops is the key question for Islam today.

The complete and immediate implementation of Shari'a (the historic code of Islam), which is what radical Muslims such as the Taliban demanded, is the least Islamic position for a Muslim to adopt today. To try to build a new Islamic identity in this way is tantamount to saying that Islam stands for repression and discrimination at home and aggressive war abroad.

In order to sustain and strengthen the Islamic faith, Muslims need to reassert in a modern context the fundamental truths of the Koran and the Prophet's original Mecca message which was based on broad principles of justice and equality. Only by removing the serious inconsistencies between their historical Islamic self-identity and the realities of the modern world can Muslims effectively challenge Western domination. If they fail, they will lose their Islamic identity and tradition altogether.

COUNTER-REFORMATION BEFORE REFORM | The benefits of Western secularism for the Muslim world, such as technology, human rights and civil international relations, are only superficially entrenched. In the Iranian revolution, these frail acquisitions of civilization were swept away wholesale because they were not indigenous or legitimized from within Islam itself.

The Islamic world never experienced the Enlightenment or had its own Reformation out of which the Islamic equivalent of Western concepts of democracy, human rights and civil liberties could have developed. The emergence of a bourgeoisie and heightened individual consciousness which presaged these great European movements did not arise in the Muslim context until the present day.

Today, Islam is in a period of pre-Reformation. Paradoxically, the coming Islamic Reformation has its roots in the Muslim reaction to the muted influences of European modernity.

In the 19th century, Muslims thought they could reap the benefits of the European Enlightenment by emulating it-such as in Turkey and Egypt with the adoption of the European codes. Elitist Muslims saw that they could neutralize the rising expectations of the masses in this way. This has continued up to the present time.

Today, because advanced communications and transportation enable Muslims to travel, read and watch television, they readily see that their institutions and doctrines are extremely inadequate in terms of even superficially emulating the West. However, this surface modernization has raised the economic expectations and heightened the political frustration of Muslims because of the lack of freedoms at home.

At the same time it has made Muslims feel that they have lost touch with their own Islamic identity and tradition. Especially in the wake of decolonization, they understand that national self-determination must be of an Islamic nature. Caught in a kind of limbo between tradition and modernity, Muslims have found themselves where their leaders have taken them-superficially Islamic and superficially modern.

One attempt to resolve this dilemma has been the great Islamic "counter-reformation." This reaction against Western influence and the search for an historical Islamic identity is precisely why the Reformation will ultimately come about. The historical model promoted by Iran has remained an ideal which Muslims sentimentalize and glorify, believing that it can miraculously overcome all their problems. When it is seen to fail, a new Islamic identity that accommodates human rights and international law will come about. In this sense, our counter-Reformation is the prelude to the Islamic Reformation.

Meanwhile, the situation grows worse. There may be a great deal of killing and human suffering before things get better.
Fundamentalism is growing. We have been visited with the experiences of Iran, Pakistan, the Sudan and Afghanistan. Egypt remains a target. It is extremely significant because it is the most vital and vigorous center of learning in the whole Muslim world. If Egypt should fall, many other Muslim countries would fall very quickly. Khomeini types or Sunni fundamentalists like the Muslim Brothers, who are also in Syria and Tunisia, are likely to succeed unless Muslims can develop progressive reforms that are Islamically genuine.

However, it is an optimistic and religiously determined path we are taking. We believe all this human suffering has been visited upon us to excite our religious imagination, to sharpen our intellect and our moral response. It has prepared us for the next step-realization that Islamic self-identity based on Shari'a is an historically dated identity that needs to be reformed.

Shari'a is the law of Islam developed by early jurists from basic sources: the Koran-which Muslims believe to be the final and literal word of God, and the living example of the Prophet Himself. Shari'a is very broad and comprehensive. It includes worship rituals-how to pray, cleanliness for worship, how to fast and rules for social etiquette-how to dress and how to wash. There is no inconsistency with these rituals and questions of human rights.

What is a problem with Shari'a is that part which has to do with penal law, rights and civil liberties and the treatment of minorities, non-Muslims and women. It is these aspects of the Islamic code that have tended to hit the Western headlines-the quick-justice amputations for theft or veils on women.

For political expediency, some Muslim governments emphasize the penal aspects as window dressing to publicize their commitment to Shari'a without genuinely being committed to other, more important rules about economic and social justice and legitimate political power. For example, if there were a genuine commitment to Shari'a in Saudi Arabia, the hereditary monarchy would be rejected as illegitimate because, according to Shari'a, the personal lifestyle and conduct of the ruler are alone the basis for his claim to rule.

Unfortunately, because they are afraid of creating the conditions for civil strife, many Islamic jurists have been co-opted by the regimes in power and have contributed to the distortion of Islam.

The first Islamic state was established in Arabia, around 622, in the city of Medina after the Prophet Mohammed's migration from Mecca. It is only in the last 100 years that the historical model of Shari'a, based on the circumstances of Medina, has lost its legitimacy and moral validity. The notion of aggressive jihad has become morally untenable as a means of conducting international relations; and the rise of the modern human rights movement has tumbled the moral foundations of segregation and discrimination against women and non-Muslims.

Human rights and the international rule of law were contributions to civilization from the West. Since the West has had a very significant role in developing the totality of the human experience, Muslims are entitled, even required, to take advantage of these positive achievements.

In each cycle of the growth of civilization, a new contribution is added to the total course of human experience. The ancient Romans incorporated what the Greeks had contributed. Roman civilization was, in turn, developed and promoted by Muslims. Then Muslims handed it back to Europe. The Islamic task now is to reconcile human progress with traditions; to reject the remnants of colonial domination and spiritual corruption, of whatever source, while accepting the standards of economic and political justice and the rights of individuals.

For example, as Muslims, we should accept female equality. That is a universal value. But the way we develop our indigenous response to this challenge is our business. Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, the leader of the Republican Brothers in the Sudan who was executed by President Numiery, was first imprisoned for challenging the colonial authorities who had arrested a woman for circumcising her daughter. Although Taha opposed the practice of circumcision as a means of subordinating women, he felt that such an unhealthy and oppressive practice should be countered by indigenous medical and moral education, not by the imposition of European norms by colonial authorities.

As Muslims, we should also accept the full human dignity of non-Muslims and their right to be equal citizens. The very ideas of the national state, constitutional government, limitations of power and equality regardless of sex or religion are part of the universal values to which Islamic law must adapt.

However, regarding penal law, I cannot find a way, in principle, to abolish what is perceived to be the harshest aspects of the law-amputations and floggings. But we can de-emphasize their importance as primary instruments of justice while we place the highest priority on social and economic justice.

Penal law should not be applied in the spirit of vengeance and intimidation. For example, in the Jewish tradition there is still a wide range of about 50 offenses punishable by death, but Jewish jurists have developed pre-requirements and procedural safeguards that effectively preclude application of penalties.
Human judgment cannot abolish the offense because it is a matter of religious principle, but human judgment can decide whether the conditions for enforcement of the penalty have been satisfied.

In considering the reform of Islam, it is useful to think in terms of the combined roles played by Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther in the adaptation of Christian tradition to the development of the modern world. This analogy illustrates both the commitment to tradition and fundamental religious notions, while at the same time seeking reformation and a challenge to orthodoxy.

In Mecca, for the 13 years before His migration to Medina, the Prophet received the ?rst part of the Koran-the Mecca part. This Mecca period established the moral and ethical foundation of the Muslim community.

Because this peaceful and voluntary Mecca message of fundamental social and economic egalitarianism was violently rejected in Mecca and Arabia in general, the Mecca message was not suitable for that stage of human development. Thus, the Prophet's migration to Medina not only signified a tactical move to seek a more receptive environment, but also a shift in the content of the message itself.

The rest of the Koran-the Medina message-which later became codified in Shari'a as the model for an Islamic state by the majority of Muslims, was a step backward. For example, there are many verses in the Koran from the Mecca message which say there is no compulsion in matters of religion or belief and people should be left to decide for themselves whether they want to believe or not believe. In the Medina message, there are verses that say one should go out and fight infidels wherever one finds them and kill them. There are verses which say one should fight Christian and Jewish believers, making them submit to Muslim rule or be subjugated by force.

Now, according to Islamic belief, each message, including Judaism and Christianity, is valid only to the extent that it is relevant and applicable to changing people's lives. So, it was very necessary, logical and valid in that context for the Prophet to apply the Medina message. But the Medina message is not the fundamental, universal, eternal message of Islam. That founding message is from Mecca.

So, the reformation of Islam must be based on a return to the Mecca message. In order to reconcile the Mecca and Medina messages into a single system, Muslim jurists have said that some of the Medina verses have abrogated the corresponding earlier verses from Mecca. Although the abrogation did take place, and it was logical and valid jurisprudence at one time, it was a postponement, not a permanent abrogation. If we accept the process as a permanent abrogation, we will have lost the best part of our religion-the most humane and the most universal, egalitarian aspects.

The Mecca verses should now be made the basis of the law and the Medina verses should be abrogated. This counter-abrogation will result in the total conciliation between Islamic law and the modern development of human rights and civil liberties. In this sense we reformers are superfundamentalists.

The key to our reformation will be a positive and receptive attitude toward the totality of the human experience. What we find to be consistent with our fundamental principles, we accept, whatever the source.

For example, the democratic component of Western experience, not the capitalistic component, is a positive aspect. The social component of the Marxist experience, not the atheist or totalitarian aspect, is a positive aspect. We would not accept the humanism of the Western Enlightenment unqualified. We accept that God is the Creator in the first place; Man the creator only in the second place-to the extent that he is a reflection of the original Creator. For this reason, the Islamic religious orientation would remain even in a neutral state that retains a functional separation between state and religion.

If universal values are not adapted from within indigenous traditions, reform only foments the very cultural reaction witnessed in the Islamic world today.