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
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
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
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
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 and HUMAN RIGHTS | 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
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
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.
REFORM: THE CONTRIBUTION OF THE WEST | 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
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
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.
SUPERFUNDAMENTALIST REFORM | 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
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
If universal values are not adapted from within indigenous traditions,
reform only foments the very cultural reaction witnessed in the Islamic