Prof. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, originally from Sudan, is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law School. An internationally recognized scholar of Islam and human rights, and human rights in cross-cultural perspectives, Professor An-Na'im teaches courses in human rights, religion and human rights, Islamic law, and criminal law.
His research interests also include constitutionalism in Islamic and African countries, and Islam and politics. He directs several research projects which focus on advocacy strategies for reform through internal cultural transformation
Description of Work
There are two main aspects to An-Na’im’s work, both arising from his personal experiences as a Muslim from Northern Sudan struggling to reconcile his Islamic faith and identity with his commitment to universal acceptance of and respect for human rights. First, he is striving to promote two interrelated objectives, namely, a liberal modernist understanding of Islam, and the cultural legitimacy and practical efficacy of international human rights standards. This side of his vision and commitment has resulted in a wide range of publications, particularly in relation to Islamic and African societies. Second, he is concerned with rendering scholarship in the effective service of positive social change, especially in relation to the twin objectives mentioned above. This concern is reflected in his work in human rights advocacy in general, as well as the development and implementation of several public policy-oriented projects since he joined the Faculty of Emory Law School in 1995, as outlined below.
While a law student at the University of Khartoum, Sudan, An-Na’im joined the Islamic reform movement of Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha in 1968, and continued to participate in its work there until the movement was suppressed in December 1984. As Islamic fundamentalism was taking a stronger hold of Sudanese society and politics, An-Na’im left the country in April 1985. Hoping to be able to return to Sudan, he held a series of short-term positions until the early 1990s, when it became clear that the Islamic fundamentalist regime that came to power through a military coup in 1989 was consolidating its position in the country. As a result, An-Na’im accepted the position of Executive Director of Africa Watch, now the African Division of Human Rights Watch, based in Washington DC, from June 1993 until April 1995. He joined the Faculty of Emory Law School in June 1995, was granted tenure in 1997, and became Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law in 1999.
When he left Sudan in 1985, An-Na’im believed that his primary mission was to publicize and develop the main ideas of his mentor, Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. He started with publishing an English translation of Taha’s main book, The Second Message of Islam (1987), and began to develop the legal and human rights implications of that methodology through an extensive scholarly program. The primary objective of his scholarship has been a combination of the development of a liberal modernist understanding of Islam and the promotion of an overlapping consensus over the universality of human rights among different cultural and religious traditions of the world (see attached C.V. and list of select publications). The theoretical basis of this twofold scholarly project can be briefly explained as follows:
Taha’s comprehensive methodology of Islamic reform is premised on the view that the Qur’an and Traditions of the Prophet Mohamed can only be understood in specific historical context. As that context has changed drastically for present day Islamic societies, many public law aspects of what is commonly known as Shari'a (the normative system of Islam) would have to be reformulated if they are to remain relevant or applicable. An-Na’im initially took this view as a theoretical framework for developing a modernist reformulation of Shar'ia that is consistent with international human rights standards, as argued in his book Toward an Islamic Reformation (1990). About the same time, however, An-Na’im began to appreciate other aspects of the challenge of cultural and contextual relativity to the universality of human rights. In response, he began to develop a methodology of internal discourse within cultures, and cross-cultural dialogue among them, in order to promote an overlapping consensus on the universality of human rights. He first advanced this approach in the book he co-edited with Francis Deng, Human Rights in Africa: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (1990); and further developed and applied this approach in Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: Quest for Consensus (1992). Most of his scholarship over the last decade has been devoted to further refining and developing these two themes: modernization of Shari’a and cultural legitimization of human rights.
In Islam and the Secular State (2008) An-Na‘im makes his own argument for a secular state. He believes his argument to be consistent with the work of his mentor, Taha, as he understands it, but does not attribute his call for a state that is neutral regarding religion to his teacher.
Muslims and Global Justice (2011) is a collection of edited articles and book chapters previously published between 1986 and 2007. Although not initially written under that them, An-Na‘im explains in his Introduction to this new book how these previously published items represents the progression of his thinking under the theme of global justice. This collection has been translated into Indonesian and published in February 2013.
In Islam and the Secular State (2008) An-Na'im makes his own argument for a secular state. He believes his argument to be consistent with the work of his mentor, Taha, as he understands it, but does not attribute his call for a state that is neutral regarding religion to his teacher.
Muslims and Global Justice (2011) is a collection of edited articles and book chapters previously published between 1986 and 2007. Although not initially written under that them, An-Na'im explains in his Introduction to this new book how these previously published items represents the progression of his thinking under the theme of global justice. This collection has been translated into Indonesian and published in February 2013.
The second aspect of advocacy for social change in An-Na’im’s work goes back to his work with Taha’s Islamic reform movement since in 1968. That commitment continued through his work with Human Rights Watch in 9193-95, and membership of several human rights organizations in Africa and the Middle East, (see "professional memberships" in his C.V.) Upon coming to Emory Law School in 1995, he took a more strategic approach to this aspect of his work through the implementation of three major projects: (1) cultural transformation and human rights in Africa, which seeks to challenge cultural and religious obstacles to women’s access to land in seven countries, (2) a global study of the application of Islamic family law, and (3) a fellowship in Islam and human rights. The main activities of the first two are available at www.law.emory.edu/WAL, and www.law.emory.edu/IFL. The Islam and human rights fellowship program consists of two elements, training for fellows working on human rights in their own societies, and the establishment of a permanent network of scholars and activists working in this field. This network is based on a web site, www.law.emory.edu/IHR, which contain contact information about various resources, as well as scholarship and reports that can be downloaded and printed anywhere in the world. Many of An-Na’im’s publication are already available for this through the Publications section of this website.
Advocacy for social change continues in An-Na'im's work under the broad theme of The Future of Sharia, which draws on his recent books, Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Sharia (2008), and What is an American Muslim: Embracing Faith and Citizenship (2014) as explained next.
The current multifaceted project of An-Na'im since the publication of his book Islam and the Secular State in 2008, focuses on The Future of Sharia among modern pluralistic societies and communities. While insisting that Islam and the state must be separated, he concedes that the connectedness of Islam and politics remains but should be strictly regulated through the practice of constitutional government, equal citizenship and the protection of human rights. If Sharia norms are claimed to be enacted as positive law of the state, they lose their religious significance. But as ethical norms, Sharia norms can be enacted into law if supported by civic reason, without reference to their religious authority among believers. For instance, theft may be punished as a crime because it violates private property rights and undermines public law and order, but not because it is a sin from a religious point of view.
An-Na'im continues to develop, clarify and advocate this basic thesis through lectures and seminars in various parts of the world as well as through the publication of articles and book chapters. He is also attempting to apply his thesis to specific societies and communities, as he did in his book What is an American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizenship (2014). In undertaking these activities he beliefs the whole project to be "work in progress", subject to correction and further clarification through theoretical exploration and practical application.