Skip to main content Accessibility help

Islamic Politics and Secular Politics: Can They Co-Exist?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 September 2015


Image of the first page of this article
Review Essay
Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 2009

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


1. The reviewer participated in a pre-publication workshop with the author in January 2007.

2. ‘Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im has written numerous books dealing with Islam and human rights, or Islam and constitutionalism, see, e.g., An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law (Syracuse Univ. Press 1990)Google Scholar; An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: A Quest for Consensus (Univ. Penn. Press 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, et al., Human Rights and Religious Values: An Uneasy Relationship? (Eerdman's Publ’g Co. 1995)Google Scholar; An-Na'im, Abdullahi Ahmed, Islamic Family Law in a Changing World: A Global Resource Book (Zed Books 2002)Google Scholar; An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, African Constitutionalism and the Role of Islam (Univ. Pa. Press 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. He also has numerous articles to his credit, including, for example, An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, The Rights of Women and International Law in the Muslim Context, 9 Whittier L. Rev. 491 (1987)Google Scholar; An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, Islam and International Law: Toward a Positive Mutual Engagement to Realize Shared Ideals, 98 Am. Soc'y Int'L L. Proc. 159 (2004)Google Scholar; An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, Globalization and Jurisprudence: An Islamic Law Perspective, 54 Emory L.J. 25 (2005)Google Scholar; An-Na’im, Abdullahi Ahmed, Shari'a and Positive Legislation: Is an Islamic State Possible or Viable?, in 5 Yearbook of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law 2942 (Contran, Eugene & Mallat, Chibli eds., 19981999)Google Scholar.

3. See, e.g., Westbrook, David A., Islamic International Law and Public International Law: Separate Expressions of World Order, 33 Va. J. Int'l L. 819 (1993)Google Scholar.

4. More than ten reviews of Islam and the Secular State have already been published on the blog The Immanent Frame. See The Immanent Frame: Islam and the Secular State, (last visited Dec. 13,2008).

5. Posting of ‘Abdllahi Ahmed An-Na’im to The Immanent Frame, (July 24, 2008, 07:49 EST) (entitled Islam and the Secular State: “Call it X”).

6. On the importance of distinguishing theological from legal arguments in the Islamic context, see generally Fadel, Mohammad, The True, the Good and the Reasonable: The Theological and Ethical Roots of Public Reason in Islamic Law, 21 Can. J.L. & Jurisprudence 5 (2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Fadel, Mohammad, Public Reason as a Strategy for Principled Reconciliation: The Case of Islamic Law and International Human Rights Law, 8 Chi. J. Int'l L. 1 (2007)Google Scholar.

7. See, e.g., posting of John Esposito to The Immanent Frame, 25, 2008, 15:30 EST) (entitled Islam and the Secular State: The Challenge of Creating Change); posting of Daniel Philpott to The Immanent Frame, (Jul. 13, 2008, 07:37 EST) (entitled Islam and the Secular State: Arguing with AnNa’im).

8. See, e.g., posting of John Esposito to The Immanent Frame, (Mar. 2, 2008, 13:04 EST) (entitled Rethinking Secularism: Who Speaks for Islam).

9. See Fadel, The True, the Good and the Reasonable, supra note 6, at 11-14 (giving a defense for using historical doctrines in this fashion).

10. Posting of Saïd Amir Arjomand to The Immanent Frame, (Aug. 19, 2008, 09:28 EST) (entitled Islam and the Secular State: Preaching to the Converted).

11. Some commentators have pointed out that Muslim liberals occupy a politically precarious position, a fact that undermines their claims to Islamic authenticity. Abu-Odeh, Lama, The Politics of (Mis)Recognition: Islamic Law Pedagogy in American Academia, 52 Am. J. Comp. L. 789, 808 (2004).CrossRefGoogle Scholar An-Na’im has himself made the point that inability of the international system to bind the United States to the norms of international law or to solve the Palestinian problem undermines the very idea of international law, including international human rights law. An-Na’im, Islam and Internationa! Law, supra note 2, at 8.

12. Fadl, Khaled Abou El, The Unique and International and the Imperative of Discourse, 8 Chi. J. Int'l L. 43, 43 (2007)Google Scholar (“Coherent theoretical stands are often the only safeguard against result-oriented activism. When human rights activists and religious activists act without the restraint of reflective and self-critical pauses, they often end up violating the moral space in which human beings function.”). To this risk should be added the presence of anti-Muslim groups who, in support of their conviction that Islam and Muslims constitute an ever-present danger, mine the Islamic tradition seeking only those elements most incompatible with modern sensibilities.

13. Laïcité is often translated as “secularism,” but is a complex doctrine relating to the relationship between the state, the citizen, religion and equality in connection with maintaining a democratic public space. Bowen, John Richard, Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, The State, and Public Space 23 (Princeton Univ. Press 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14. The Federalist No. 10, at 40 (James Madison) (Terence Ball ed., 2003).

15. Fadel, The True, the Good and the Reasonable, supra note 6, at 31-35.

16. An eleventh-century Muslim jurist made precisely this point in a treatise on public law. al-Hasan, AbuHabib, Ali, , Al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyya 69 (Dar al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya 2000)Google Scholar.

17. Fadel, The True, the Good and the Reasonable, supra note 6, at 61-65 (discussing medieval debates regarding when it is permissible to coerce non-Muslims to comply with Islamic law). Note, however, that while it is possible to show why enforcement of religious rules coercively with respect to believers does not necessarily violate their religious freedom, it requires one to assume, counter to all evidence, that believers are all well-trained theologians who have thoroughly assimilated the doctrines of Islamic theology and ethics. To the extent that such an assumption is unjustifiable, one could construct an argument on Islamic theological grounds that in such circumstances, there is no religious basis to enforce religious law as religious law. Space constraints, however, do not permit me to develop the details of such an argument here.

18. For a general account of the role of probability in Sunni moral and legal thought, see Zysow, Aron, The Economy of Certainty (1984) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University)Google Scholar.

19. Johansen, Baber, Truth and Validity of the Qadi's Judgment. A Legal Debate Among Muslim Sunnite Jurists from the 9th to the 13th Centuries, 14 Recht van de Islam 1 (1997)Google Scholar.

20. Fadel, The True, the Good and the Reasonable, supra note 6, at 58 n. 234.

21. The medieval jurist and theologian, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, in fact uses a policy dispute between the first two Sunni caliphs regarding whether public resources should be distributed equally or on the basis of individual merit as evidence that in those areas of life not regulated by a definitive rule of revelation, the views of all qualified interpreters of the law are equally valid. Muhammad, Abu Hamid Muhammad, B. Muhammad, al-Mustasfa fi ‘ilm al-Usul 353–54 (al-Shafi, Muhammad ‘Abd al-salam ‘Abd ed., 1992)Google Scholar. He did not conclude, however, that neither caliph was therefore precluded from resolving the policy dispute; rather, each caliph was free to follow the policy that he thought was best.

22. Al-Hasan b. Yusuf b. Alî (known as Ibn ul-Mụtahhar al-Hillî), ‘Ashar, Al-Bãbu ‘l-hâdî: A Treatise on the Principles of Shi’ite Theology 6268 (Miller, William McElwee trans., Royal Asiatic Soc'y Gr. Brit. & Ir. 1958)Google Scholar (explaining that the obligation to have an imam who combines religious and political knowledge and who is immune from sin is rationally necessary by virtue of God's inherent goodness).

23. For example, the early Hanafi jurist Muhammad b. Hasan al-Shaybani's regular use of terms like “obligation of the Muslims (dhimmat al-muslimin),” “the Muslims' ruler (imam al-muslimin)” and ‘the Muslims' power (mana‘at al-muslimin)” in the course of his explanation of the rules governing treaties and international relations suggests a normative conception of the state as being an instrumentality that belongs exclusively to the Muslims. Sarakhsi, Muhammad ibn Ahmad, Sharh Kitab al-Siyar al-Kabir Lil-imam Muhammad Ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani (1st ed., Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya 1997)Google Scholar.

24. Heer, Nicholas, The Priority of Reason in the Interpretation of Scripture: Ibn Taymiyyah and The Mutakallimun, in Literary Heritage Of Classical Islam 181–95 (Mir, Mustansir ed., Darwin Press Inc. 1993)Google Scholar.

25. Many twentieth-century Muslim jurists engaged in “Jihad-revisionism,” arguing that earlier scholars based their doctrines of aggressive jihad on the assumption that the default relationship between states was war. Because of the introduction of international organizations and the spread of international law, that factual presumption is no longer warranted, thereby requiring a revision of the legal rules governing international conflict so that only defensive war is permissible. In this connection, see Zahra, Muhammad Abu, Al-‘Alaqat al-Dawliyah fi al-Islam (al-Dar al-Qawmiyya li-l-Tiba'ah wa-l-Nashr 1964)Google Scholar; al-Zuhayli, Wahba, al-‘Alaqat al-Duwaliyya fi al-Islam: Muqaranah bi-l-Qanun al-Dawli al-Hadith (Mu'assasat al-Risala 1981)Google Scholar; Shaltut, Mahmud, A Modernist Interpretation of Jihad: Mahmud Shaltut Treatise Koran and Fighting, in Jihad In Classical and Modern Islam: A Reader 59102 (Peters, Rudolph ed., Markus Wiener Pub. 1996)Google Scholar.

26. Kamali, Mohammad Hashim, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence 285 (Islamic Texts Soc'y 1991)Google Scholar (noting that legal reasoning often incorporate conditions that prevailed at the time of their formulation, and accordingly, if those circumstances change, legal reasoning must be updated in light of those changed circumstances).

27. Id. at 288 (stating that the general terms of a revelatory text can be qualified by custom in certain circumstances).

28. Fadel, Mohammad, Adjudication in the Maliki Madhhab: A Study of Legal Process in Medieval Islamic Law 39, n. 8 (1995) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago)Google Scholar.

29. Jackson, Sherman A., From Prophetic Actions to Constitutional Theory, 25 Int'l J. Middle E. Stud. 71, 74 (1993)Google Scholar.

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 19 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 26th January 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Hostname: page-component-898fc554b-r79h5 Total loading time: 0.474 Render date: 2021-01-26T16:45:21.626Z Query parameters: { "hasAccess": "0", "openAccess": "0", "isLogged": "0", "lang": "en" } Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false }

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Islamic Politics and Secular Politics: Can They Co-Exist?
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Islamic Politics and Secular Politics: Can They Co-Exist?
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Islamic Politics and Secular Politics: Can They Co-Exist?
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *