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Abdullahi A. An-Na'im

The Synergy and Interdependence of Human Rights, Religion and Secularism


While appreciating the real tensions between human rights, religion and secularism, this paper explores possibilities of the synergy and interdependence of the three of them through an internal transformation within each, in relation to the other two. Each of the three needs the other two for fulfilling its own rationale, and sustaining its relevance and validity for its own constituency. Internal transformation within each paradigm is both necessary because of their interdependence, and is facilitated by the nature of this tripartite relationship. This process is essential for the legitimization of human rights, regulation of the role of religion in public life and affirmation of secularism in accordance with the rationale of each of the three. The proposed approach has clear practical benefits for individual freedom and social justice, in addition to its theoretical significance, as is illustrated with reference to Islam.



1. Introductory Remarks
2. Working Definitions
3. The Need for Synergy and Interdependence
3.1 For Human Rights
3.2 For Religion
3.3 For Secularism
3.4 The Role of Human Agency
4. Challenges and Prospects
4.1 Human Rights
4.2 Religion
4.3. Secularism
5. In the Islamic Context
5.1 Islam and Muslims
5.2 Theology and Politics
5.3 Islam and Secularism
6. Final Remark

 1. Introductory Remarks

Abdullahi A. An-Na'im:
Islam and Human Rights: Beyond the Universality Debate.
external linkArticle

Human Rights, Religion and Secularism: Does it have to be a Choice?
external linkWorking Draft

Siobhan McEvoy-Levy:
Thinking Globally about Religion and Human Rights – A Response to Dr Abdullahi An-Na'im.
external linkReply


  With clear appreciation of the reasons for the political and social reality of tension between human rights, religion and secularism, I will argue for synergy and interdependence of these three paradigms, rather than a choice between them. It may be instructive to briefly consider how this interdependence affects the definition and realization of individual freedom and social justice. People may strongly believe in the validity and utility of their own intuitive understanding of substantive aspects of these notions, although the precise meaning of these concepts, separately and in relation to each other, are among the most contentious issues in human history. Some may want individual freedom and social justice to be determined by religion, while others see them as premised on freedom from religion. Is it true that each person is entitled to their own views on the matter, whatever those views may be? What does "entitlement" mean if one's views have no prospects of ever being implemented in practice? Can one really trust the political process, however democratic it may be, to mediate between competing claims in this regard, or is there need for some "independent" criteria of what is, or is not, acceptable in this regard? In other words, is the issue simply one of procedure and process, or are there some "substantive" standards that should apply?

 2. Working Definitions

»Human rights are universal claims of rights that are due to all human beings by virtue of their humanity.«


  Human Rights: It may be helpful to distinguish between the two senses in which this term is often used. In popular discourse, the term is frequently used to signify an intuitive understanding of the objectives or implications of historical struggles for freedom and justice in general. But as used here, the term human rights refers to the particular conception of individual freedom and social justice articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, and more specifically specified in subsequent treaties in order to be implemented through a variety of implementation mechanisms. In this specific sense of the term, human rights are universal claims of rights that are due to all human beings by virtue of their humanity, without distinction on such grounds as race, sex (gender), religion, language, or national origin. The key feature of human rights in this specific sense is universality, in the sense that they are rights due all human beings, everywhere.

»Religion can be defined as a system of belief, practices, institutions and relationships that is used by a community of believers to identify and distinguish itself from other communities.«


  Religion: The working definition of religion I am proposing here focuses on what is particularly relevant to the proposed tripartite relationship with human rights and secularism, without claiming to be true of every conceivable understanding of religion, or comprehensively include all issues that might be raised regarding a particular religion. For this limited purpose, religion can be defined as a system of belief, practices, institutions and relationships that is used by a community of believers to identify and distinguish itself from other communities. The key feature of religion is this specific sense is the exclusivity of the community of believers, as defined by its own religious faith and practice. This is not to say that it is not possible to understand some religious traditions in more inclusive terms. In fact, I am counting on that possibility for the overlapping consensus I am proposing for the universality of human rights. But common human experience indicates that adherence to any religion is exclusive of those who are not accepted as members of the community of believers. Some form or degree of at least moral, and often material, exclusion seems to be necessary for vindicating the validity of the faith of one religious community, as distinguished from that of other religious communities. In contrast, human rights, as defined here, are supposed to be intrinsically inclusive of all human beings by virtue of their humanity, and irrespective of membership in any social group.

»Secularism can be defined as a principle of public policy for organizing the relationship between religion and the state in a specific context.«


  Secularism: For the limited purposes of this discussion, secularism can be defined as a principle of public policy for organizing the relationship between religion and the state in a specific context. Since historical experience has shown that the exclusivity of religion tends to undermine possibilities of peaceful co-existence and solidarity among different communities of believers, secularism has evolved as the means for ensuring the possibility of pluralistic political community among different religious communities. The key feature of secularism is its ability to safeguard the pluralism of political community, subject to significant differences as to how that might be achieved in practice. In other words, I am concerned here with this particular feature of secularism, however it may be understood and applied under different regimes of government. As emphasized below, however, secularism must be understood in a dynamic and deeply contextual sense for each society, rather than preconceived notions, such as the so-called strict separation of "church and state", to be transplanted from setting to another.

 3. The Need for Synergy and Interdependence

 3.1 For Human Rights

Morton Winston:
On the Indivisibility and Interdependence of Human Rights.
Paideia World Philosophy Conference Paper.
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John D. Montgomery:
Human Values As Human Rights.
Pacific Basin Research Center Working Paper.
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  As universal standards that are necessary for the protection of fundamental rights against the contingencies of national politics, human rights norms are supposed to be the product of international agreement. Moreover, the claim of the international community to act as arbiter in safeguarding certain minimum standards is not plausible without the corresponding commitment of its members to encourage and support each other in the process. This is particularly critical in view of significant differences in the degree of political will, and gross differentials in institutional capacity and material resources for the implementation of these rights in different parts of the world. Accordingly, the distinguishing features of human rights are universal recognition of the same rights and international cooperation in their implementation.


  However, the present apparent consensus on international human rights standards often obscures serious cultural or ideological differences, with significant practical consequences. While problems of non-western cultures regarding the rights of women, for example, are well known, there is little awareness of western cultural or ideological problems with the true universality of human rights. From a normative point of view, economic, social and cultural rights, like the right to housing and education, are as fundamental as civil and political rights of freedom of belief or expression. To take a positivist view of human rights, widely ratified treaties provide for both sets of rights. Yet, western governments and public opinion alike have found it difficult to accept that economic, social and cultural rights are human rights in the current sense of the term. In this light, it is clear that both western and non-western societies face the challenge of accepting the universality of some human rights within their own cultures.


  Another point to note here is that agreement on international standards of human rights was only possible on the understanding that these rights are to be implemented through the agency of the state. Given prevalent understandings of national sovereignty and international relations, it was imperative for the Charter of the United Nations and the UDHR to strike a balance between the international protection of human rights, on the one hand, and respect for the domestic jurisdiction of nation states, on the other. Thus, by universalizing certain notions of fundamental rights, the international human rights system seeks to make these rights binding under international law, while leaving application on the ground to the agency of the nation state. The mitigation of this paradox of state self-regulation of its own human rights performance requires a clear understanding of local, national and international actors and processes which influence the actual conduct of states in this regard, including the role of different religious communities and their view of secularism.


  Addressing the underlying causes of violations, in addition to providing effective remedy for individual violations as and when they occur, requires the mobilization of the maximum possible degree of political will at the local, national and international level. By their very nature, the modern human rights paradigm is unlikely to be overcome without solidarity and cooperation among different religious communities. Since this is not readily available within currently prevalent exclusive understandings of religion, human rights and secularism are needed the internal transformation of religious doctrine, as discussed below.

 3.2 For Religion

Ronald A. Kuipers:
Toward a Peaceable Mosaic of Worldviews and Religions: Incommensurability, Pluralism, and the Philosophy of Religion.
Paideia World Philosophy Conference Paper.
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Michael Pye:
"Reflecting on the plurality of religions".
In: Marburg Journal of Religion 2.1 (1997).
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  The apparent avoidance of religious perspectives in the language of the UDHR can diminish the moral force of the purported universality of human rights. But the obvious reason for this avoidance is the exclusive nature of religious traditions. Since religion divides rather than unite human beings, the argument goes, it is better to avoid it altogether in order to find common ground for the protection of human rights among all religious believers and non-believers alike. The validity of this characterization of the basic tension between these two normative systems is enhanced, rather than diminished, by the consistency of theory and practice. The more one is a "true believer" the less likely will he/she accept non-believers as moral equals. Conversely, the more religious perspectives are excluded from human rights discourse, the less likely are believers to accept the universality of human rights.


  The question is how to make an understanding of human rights equally valid and legitimate from the perspectives of the wide variety of believers, as well as non-believers, around the world. Without suggesting that religion is the only source of morality in any society, one can appreciate that those who believe that religion is a powerful foundation of the morality of political community have as much right to that claim as those who believe in non-religious foundations. Accordingly, different foundations of human rights as an essential framework for individual freedom and social justice in the present context should in fact be seen as interdependent and mutually supportive, rather than antagonistic and exclusive of each other.


  But religion is unlikely to play this role without internal transformation within the relevant religious tradition. As explained and illustrated in relation to Islam below, transformation is necessary and possible precisely because of what might be called "the secular dimension of religion". The transcendental aspect of religion is supposed to address the actual experiences of communities of believers, and can only be understood in the concrete historical context and material circumstances of each religious community. In other words, competing interpretations of religious doctrine and their normative implications are bound to reflect existing human power relations within each community of believers. Human rights and secularism are critical for the fair and sustainable mediation of these competing claims within the framework of prevalent power relations of each community of believers, as well as between different communities. The consequent religious transformation, in turn, would facilitate synergy and interdependence between the religion in question, human rights and secularism.

 3.3 For Secularism

Wolfhart Pannenberg:
"How to Think About Secularism".
In: First Things 64 (1996).
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Fred Dallmayr:
"Rethinking Secularism (with Raimon Panikkar)".
In: The Review of Politics 61.4 (1999).
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  The basic limitation of secularism, as a social and political framework is that appeal to it as a basis of political pluralism in diverse societies is premised on its limited view of the social good. In other words, secularism is able to unite diverse communities into one political community precisely because it makes the least moral claims on the community and its members. I am not suggesting that secularism is totally neutral from a normative point of view, as it has to at least prescribe a certain civic ethos on the basis of some specific understanding of the person in relation to the community. Rather, my point here is that its necessarily minimalist normative content is too narrow to provide inter-religious and cross-cultural foundations for the universality of human rights.


  From a pragmatic or political point of view, the most serious objection to secularism as the foundation of the universality of human rights is its inability to inspire or motivate believers, who are the vast majority of the world population. In the grand sweep of human history at large, religion has been more influential than secularism as a foundation of political and social institutions. Indeed, as emphasized below, it may be necessary to seek a religious foundation or justification for the principle of secularism itself. I am not saying that a serious engagement of religion is essential for the legitimacy of both human rights and secularism everywhere, but I do believe that to be true for believers, who constitute the clear majority of people around the world.


  A related concern is that secularism by itself is also unable to address any objections or reservations believers may have about any specific human rights standard or secular principle from own their religious point of view. For instance, since discrimination against women is often justified on religious grounds in many societies around the world, this source of systematic and gross violation of human rights cannot be eliminated without addressing its alleged religious rationale. Moreover, this must be done without violating freedom of religion or belief, as a fundamental human right in itself. While a purely secular discourse can be understanding and respectful of religion in general, its rebuttal of religious justifications of discrimination against women is unlikely to be convincing to, or accepted as legitimate by, believers in that religion. As discussed in the next section of this paper, however, human rights and secularism are needed to encourage and facilitate internal transformation within religious traditions in order to overcome religious-based objections or reservations about human rights standards or secular principles.


  The preceding remarks about secularism are not meant to deny the possibility of non-religious sources for the moral basis of social policy in any political community. Moreover, the limitations of secularism as the primary or sole foundation of the universality of human rights are not intended to imply that any religion as such is necessarily a better alternative. Every major religion has certainly been at least as destructive as a purely secular foundation of political community throughout human history and in all parts of the world. The suggested synergy and interdependence to guard against the risks of religious as well as secular authoritarianism and oppression seeks to enhance the positive value of each of these three paradigms for its own rationale by mediating the tension between them.

 3.4 The Role of Human Agency

»The question is how to secure the best possible conditions for human agency to achieve the necessary transformation of religious understandings for the legitimization of human rights and affirmation of secularism in each community of believers.«


  The approach I propose for achieving this reconciliation is premised on a belief in the ability of human agency to promote understandings and practice of each of the three that are conducive to meaningful interdependence with the other two, as discussed in the next section. One challenge is to prevent the purported moral superiority of one religious community from diminishing the human dignity and rights of those who do not subscribe to that faith. Secularism is critical for maintaining the equal human dignity and rights of believers and non-believers alike, but its ability to play its role in political communities depends on its legitimacy to all segments of the population, including religious believers. In other words, secularism itself is unlikely to be effective in practice without religious justification for believers. Since this effort is critical for the practical utility of both human rights and secularism in the daily lives of believers, one should focus on ways of achieving it for every religion, instead of conceding that it cannot be done with one religion or another.


  In terms of my analysis here, the question is how to secure the best possible conditions for human agency to achieve the necessary transformation of religious understandings for the legitimization of human rights and affirmation of secularism in each community of believers. The same applies to human rights and secularism in relation to each other and to religion, as discussed below. However, in emphasizing the centrality of human agency in this context, I am not assuming that would necessarily follow as a matter of course. Not only does the human agency of some actors tend to diminish the social and political "space" for the human agency of others to operate freely, but the outcome of the agency of every actor is also likely to be objectionable from some point of view of another. But human agency of some people is also capable, in my view, of countering the negative manifestations of the agency of others.

 4. Challenges and Prospects



  It seems to me that there are two main elements in the process of promoting the synergy and interdependence of human rights, religion and secularism. First, a clear and dynamic understanding of the ways in which each side in this tripartite relationship is dependent on the other two for achieving its own objectives. This understanding should include ways in which this interdependence is already working, and how it might be deliberately improved and promoted. The second main element is a strong appreciation of the role of human agency in promoting internal transformation within each paradigm in support of greater synergy and interdependence. This appreciation should also include an assessment of the negative as well as positive possibilities of the specific context in which human agency is operating. However reasonable or obvious the synergy and interdependence of the three paradigms may seem, one should not expect them to be readily appreciated or acted upon without some deliberate strategies for promoting those possibilities.

 4.1 Human Rights

»Human rights in a general sense is the current expression of ancient struggles for social justice and human dignity.«


  As noted at the beginning, human rights in a general sense is the current expression of ancient struggles for social justice and human dignity. However, the specific sense of the term since the adoption of the UDHR is particularly appropriate today for organizing the extensive powers of the state over every aspect of life. Since all human societies are governed today by nation-states, certain safeguards and mechanisms have proven necessary for protecting individual rights and social justice. But the validity and sustainability of the second sense of the term is dependent on its vindication of human rights in the more general sense. In my view, the human rights paradigm has to effectively respond to the following continuing challenges if it is to achieve and maintain its legitimacy for most people around the world.

»The global and structural nature of political oppression and economic deprivation call for global strategies of response that are facilitated by the same mechanisms and technologies of global integration.«


  To begin with, the essence of the human rights idea is that all such entitlements should be provided as of right, and not simply as the incidental outcome of social policy, or be subject to the contingencies of the political process. People are more likely to accept the more specific sense of the term not only to the extent that it corresponds to their understanding of human rights in the general sense of social justice and human dignity, but also represent an added value in this regard. In other words, it is necessary for the specific sense of the term to represent effective means for realizing superior claims on the state and society at large.


  By referring to human rights as "organizing" the extensive powers of the state, I am emphasizing that this paradigm includes positive obligations to implement what is commonly known as economic, social and cultural rights, as well as "limiting" those powers in the traditional liberal sense of civil and political rights. For example, the so-called "negative" liberty of freedom of expression was traditionally understood to mean that the state should refrain from action that infringes on the right of people to express their opinion. In a more integrated sense of affirmative obligations for the state, the implementation of this human right should include the provision of education and other public facilities to enable all segments of the population at large to create and acquire knowledge and exchange information, rather than be a passive recipient. Protection of freedom of expression and provision of education are not meaningful for those who lack shelter or are ravaged by preventable or easily treatable disease.


  It is also accepted by now that so-called individual human rights can only be achieved in the context of the family and community. This is clearly reflected in the text of the more recent UN treaties like the Women Convention of 1979, and Rights of the Child Convention of 1989, as well as in regional documents like the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights of 1981 and its subsequent development. Even for so-called traditional human rights, it is clear that respect for freedom of expression is dependent on contextually appropriate education that draws on the cultural traditions of the community. Language is critical for freedom of expression as well as education, yet it can hardly be conceived of in isolated individual terms. I am not suggesting that every claim of collective right should be accepted, but that such claims should be given serious consideration, rather than dismissed as simply inconsistent with the individual focus of human rights doctrine.


  Another relevant set of issues in the human rights field relates to a broader and more dynamic understanding of the protection of human rights as the humane side of globalization. There is growing evidence that human rights have been co-opted by powerful states to further their own foreign policy objectives, and perpetuate their hegemony over developing countries. Even if this is not true yet, it is likely to happen precisely because of the moral and political power and utility of the human rights idea. But the same dynamics of the acceleration of shrinking space, and time, economic and security interdependence commonly associated with globalization can be used to redress the drastically negative consequences of these phenomena. The global and structural nature of political oppression and economic deprivation call for global strategies of response that are facilitated by the same mechanisms and technologies of global integration.


  The preceding remarks are not meant to suggest that human rights as such must be the answer to all problems of differential power relations, whether locally or beyond. Rather, the point is that human rights need to be "owned" by different peoples around the world, instead of being perceived as simply another facet of Western hegemony. This would clearly suggest that legitimating human rights in local cultures and religious traditions is a matter of vital importance for the survival and future development of the human rights paradigm itself. Given the internal transformation indicated below, religion can also provide the moral underpinnings of dynamic development of the idea to address emerging issues in different settings. Secularism contributes to the political stability and communal security that provide the practical context for negotiating the relationship between human rights and religion in each setting.

 4.2 Religion

»I would strongly emphasize that internal transformation is critical for the very survival of religious traditions, as well as for the legitimacy of religious experience.«


  As to the religion side of the relationship, I would strongly emphasize that internal transformation is critical for the very survival of religious traditions, as well as for the legitimacy of religious experience. At a more fundamental level, every orthodox precept or view that believers take for granted today started as a heresy from the perspective of another orthodox doctrine, and may well continue to be considered as such by some believers in the same religion. In everyday life, without such human rights as freedom of belief and expression, there will be no possibility of growth and development within the existing doctrine of any religion. This same need is served by secularism as a principle of public policy for ensuring that an authoritarian religious group taking control of the state will not threaten the essential interests of any segment of the population.


  The main difficulty here is not the possibility of theoretical development of liberal or liberation theology within the framework of the major religions of the world. Rather, the problem is that issues of authority and representation often frustrate the propagation of such views for wider support among believers. If a community defines itself to the exclusion of others, it is unlikely to listen to outsiders defining or contesting its own religious doctrine, or its normative and behavioural precepts. This is, of course, a constant problem with religious communities throughout history, as critical voices always risk being de-legitimized by attacking their so-called religious credentials. For instance, Muslims are unlikely to take seriously the advocacy of Islamic reform by a non-Muslim, or a Muslim who is perceived to be a heretic or apostate for going too far in his or her critique of prevalent understandings of Islam.

»The dilemma facing religious reformers is how to retrain credibility as internal agents of change, while being critical of the beliefs and practices of their own community of believers.«


  The dilemma facing religious reformers is therefore how to retrain credibility as internal agents of change, while being critical of the beliefs and practices of their own community of believers. This dilemma is particularly sharp when such critique is believed to be serving the hegemony of external powers. The more a religious community feels threatened by internal instability or external domination, the less likely it will be tolerant of religious dissent. Questions are raised about the person's personal piety and authority to represent the authentic voice of the community in order to discredit his or her views. Moreover, the defence of dissidents by external forces is often taken as proof that they are agents of foreign powers or cultures intent on undermining the community of believers from within. This would tend to limit the utility of both human rights and secularism in protecting the rights of religious dissidents without a religious justification for these two paradigms.


  The obvious benefit of human rights and secularism in this context is that they ensure the "space" for human agency of minority voices to compete for achieving authority and acceptance on their own merits, instead of being suppressed simply because they disagree with the prevailing view. But the space thereby created or secured should also be conducive to overcoming the problematic dichotomy of insider/outside to the religious tradition in question. Since this dichotomy remains real for most people, and may indeed have some justification in some settings, human rights and secularism are needed as viable structural means for securing the right of dissent within any community, rather that simply appealing for toleration of dissent.


  An apparent problem here is how can the normative guidance of the religion in question be useful when the community of believers rejects its own reformers as heretics for support of human rights and secularism within their own community? The way out of this paradox, I suggest, is in the synergy between these three concepts and their dynamic interaction in practice. For instance, Muslim advocates of human rights and secularism can draw on the moral guidance of Islam, regardless of strong opposition by the proponents of orthodoxy, as that would be possible because of the application of those principles. In doing so, they can gradually "win over" more Muslims to their position, thereby enhancing their credibility among the community, which would in turn be conducive to persuading other Muslims. This process would be facilitated, I believe, by mounting appreciation of the practical benefits of human rights and secularism in the modern context of Islamic communities.

 4.3. Secularism

»Sustained secularism needs a religious justification for believers. This is not as difficult as it may seem because secularism and religion are in fact fundamentally overlapping and interacting.«


  As noted earlier, however, the ability of secularism to protect the "space" for human agency to operate more freely in religious discourse is dependent on its minimal normative content. On the positive side, this means that secularism would preclude a specific understanding of religious doctrine from being enforced as official state policy. This is conducive for internal religious transformation because it defines the outcome in more acceptable terms. Believers are less threatened by unorthodox views that are not forced on them through the organs of the state, while the population at large is reassured that public policy is determined through a more inclusive political process.


  But to play this constructive role in national politics, secularism needs the normative guidance of human rights and moral justification of religion. The importance of human rights standards is obvious because secularism by itself may not be enough for safeguarding individual freedoms and social justice, as illustrated by recent experiences with totalitarian secular regimes, from Nazi Germany to the Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union and beyond. What is not sufficiently appreciated, in my view, is the importance of a religious justification and rationale for secularism. While the material conditions of co-existence may force a level of religious tolerance and diversity, this is likely to be seen as temporary political expediency by believers unless they are also able to accept that as at least consistent with their religious doctrine. Thus, as noted earlier, sustained secularism needs a religious justification for believers. This is not as difficult as it may seem because secularism and religion are in fact fundamentally overlapping and interacting. I will now focus on this particular dimension of synergy and interdependence in relation to the supposedly "hard-case" of Islam in the next section, while insisting that similar analysis need to be applied to other religious as well as secular ideologies.

 5. In the Islamic Context



  To illustrate the application of the above analysis in the Islamic context, I will focus on two main aspects of the possibility of religious transformation, namely, a theological argument for change, and the political and social context within which that change may be realized in practice. On the theological side, it is necessary to first recognized and understand the role of human agency through an exegesis of the Qur'an and Sunna (traditions of the Prophet) in historical context. Regarding the political and social context of that transformation, secularism secures the space for that debate to happen in a peaceful and orderly manner, while human rights provides a frame of reference for the organization of public and private life within the now universal model of the nation-state. But for either of the two to play its role, secularism and human rights themselves must be open to their own internal transformations in response to various challenges in different contexts, as outlined earlier.

 5.1 Islam and Muslims

Ronald A. Lukens-Bull:
"Between Text and Practice: Considerations in the Anthropological Study of Islam".
In: Marburg Journal of Religion 4.2 (1999).
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Yasin Ceylan:
Islam and Global Dialogue.
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  To begin with, I wish to emphasize two caveats about the role of religion in Islamic communities today. First, while many Muslims may claim that Islam is definitive in their private and communal lives, it is not the sole determinant of the behaviour of Muslims or the basis of social and political organizations, even in purportedly Islamic states like Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. In fact, some Islamic communities may have more in common with non-Islamic communities that share their ethnic and cultural affiliations, historical experiences, economic resources, political and security concerns, and so forth, than with other Islamic communities in a drastically different context. In other words, Muslims' understanding and practice of Islam is conditioned by those factors, rather than simply reflecting an abstract, purely divine conception of the religion.


  Second, there has always been significant diversity of theology, jurisprudential views and political opinion and practice within and between Islamic communities. Profound political and theological differences have divided Muslims from the beginning in the Arabia of the seventh century, resulting in a series of civil wars within a few decades of the Prophet's death in 632 CE. This diversity of views and practice is likely to become more intensified and widespread under modern conditions of education and communication. As more Muslim men and women are educated enough to know and consider the Qur'an, Sunna and Islamic history for themselves, and communicate with others in different parts of the world about theological and political issues of common concern, there are more opportunities for disagreement as well as agreement. Muslim scholars and communities at large routinely cite this diversity of opinions and beliefs as a positive feature of their faith.


  Indeed, disagreement is logically integral to the legitimacy and validity of religious experience itself because human beings cannot truly and honestly believe unless they are also able to disbelieve, and/or change their view of the meaning and implications of their beliefs. This proposition may sound like a modern liberal notion, but it is in fact directly emphasized in 114 verses of the Qur'an, and rooted in Islamic theological and philosophical discourse since the eighth century CE. Verse 18 of Chapter 29, for example, read: »Tell them that Truth is revealed from God, and let those who wish, believe, and those who wish, disbelieve.« But the real issue is the "framework of interpretation", and not simply the availability of texts of Qur'an and Sunna that can understood one way or another. In other words, it is human agency that determines which texts are relevant to the issue at hand, and how they should be interpreted. Appreciating that whatever role Islam may play in the life of a Muslim community today is necessarily based on a specific understanding of the religion, in contrast to other understandings, supports the religious legitimacy of articulating competing interpretations.

 5.2 Theology and Politics

Mohammed Arkoun:
Democracy: A Challenge to Islamic Thought.
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Louay M. Safi:
Human Rights and Islamic Legal Reform.
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Nasr Abu Zayd:
Islam and Human Rights.
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In this issue:
The Qur'anic Concept of "Justice".


  In light of these two caveats, Islamic communities need to examine the relationship between their understandings and practice of Islam, on the one hand, and human rights and secularism, on the other. As already indicated, there is a theological and a political dimension to internal debates about these relationships. On the theological side, while such debates need to occur within an internal frame of reference (Qur'an and Sunna), human agency has always been central to Muslims' understanding and practice of Islam. Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the literal and final word of God, and Sunna is the second divinely inspired source of Islam. But the Qur'an and Sunna have no meaning and relevance in the daily life of individual believers and their communities except through human understanding and behaviour. The Qur'an was revealed in Arabic, which is a human language that evolved in its own specific historical context, and many normative parts of the Qur'an were addressing specific situations in Mecca and Medina when they were conveyed by the Prophet. Sunna had to respond to the immediate issues and concerns that emerged in that context, in addition to any broader implications it may have. It is therefore clear that human agency was integral to the process of revelation, interpretation and practice from the very beginning of Islam in the seventh century.


  From this perspective, a sharp distinction between the religious and secular is misleading. Religious precepts necessarily respond to the secular concerns of human beings, and have practical relevance only because those responses are believed to be practically useful by the people they are addressing and useful for their secular concerns. In other words, religious doctrine is necessarily implicated in the secular, and the secular is perceived by believers to be "governed" by religious doctrine. Muslims who find this proposition disturbing tend to think that it undermines the "divinity" of the sources of Islam. But that apprehension fails to appreciate that the Qur'an and Sunna are intended for human imperfection, and not simply as manifestations of the Divine in the abstract. This point is critical for the theological basis of the relationship between Islam and both human rights and secularism.


  The political side of internal discourses about this relationship relates to the historical context in which a people can understand and appreciate what is proposed about the meaning and relevance of their faith. A reformer's ability to gain the confidence of a constituency, and authority among its members, depends on his or her understanding of all the complexity of their history and immediate context, concerns and aspirations. Relevant questions include whose interests are undermined or promoted by one interpretation or another? What personal or psychological, as well as broader political, economic, sociological factors influence people's understanding (or willingness or ability to understand) the Qur'an? What is the influence of broader geo-political or security concerns on a community's ability or willingness to be open to challenge to its basic moral and metaphysical precepts?

 5.3 Islam and Secularism

Sadik J. al-Azm:
Is Islam Secularizable?
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Ghassan F. Abdullah: New Secularism in the Arab World.
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Yusuf al-Qaradawi:
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Ja'far Sheikh Idris:
Secularism and Moral Values.
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Zaid Shakir:
The Changing Face of Secularism and the Islamic Response.
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  It may be helpful at this stage to briefly question the alleged incompatibility of Islam and secularism. As indicated above, there are a theological and a political/contextual dimensions to this issue. But it should first be emphasized that the confusion is definitional and terminological as well as substantive. The main problem on the definition side, in my view, is the tendency to limit secularism to the experiences of west European and North American countries with Christianity since the 18th century. Whether viewed as "separation of church and state" or "dis-establishment of religion", such definitions are obviously specific to certain situations, and do not address the continuing social and political role of religion in public life.


  It is also problematic to equate secularism with the diminishing of the influence of religion in general. Since that could not possibly mean that religion has no influence whatever in any society, as that is obviously false, the question becomes what sort of influence does religion have on politics. From this perspective, I suggest that secularism should be understood in terms of the type of relationship between religion and the state, rather than a specific way in which that relationship has evolved in one society or another. I would also emphasize that the form that relationship should take in any society has to be the product of organic development over time, and be accepted as legitimate by the population at large, instead of expecting it to drastically change immediately by constitutional enactment or political rhetoric.


  As a matter of terminology that is relevant to this deeply contextual approach, it should be noted that the term "secularism" in its west European and North American sense has come to Africa and Asia in the suspect company of colonialism. For the Islamic societies in particular, this term is commonly associated with militantly anti-religious attitudes of the French Revolution, in relation to Christianity in particular. Nevertheless, this term can be used in relation to experiences of African and Asian societies, provided it is understood and applied in the specific context of each society, rather than a feature of liberal political or constitutional transplant. This view of secularism, I believe, will redress much of the apprehension about the concept as a tool of western imperialism, thereby facilitating possibilities of internal transformation to promote the proposed synergy and interdependence with human rights and religion.


  Regarding the substantive issue, the most compelling argument for an Islamic rationale for secularism is its necessity for pluralistic nations-states, and legitimacy of individual and communal religious experience, as well as the possibilities of internal transformation, as explained earlier. It is commonly claimed that Islam mandates the establishment of an "Islamic state" which will implement and enforce Shari'a (the normative system of Islam) as the law of the land. But in my view, the notion of an Islamic state is a contradiction in terms because Shari'a ceases to be the normative system of Islam by the very act of enacting it as the law to be enforced by the state. Since there is so much diversity of opinion among Islamic schools of thought and scholars, as noted earlier, any enactment of Shari'a principles as law would have to select some opinions over others, thereby denying believers their freedom of choice among equally legitimate competing opinions. Moreover, there is neither a historical precedent of an Islamic state to be followed, nor is such a state practically viable today. As the most avowed advocate of an Islamic state today would concede, there has never been such a state throughout Muslim history, since that of the Prophet in Medina was too exceptional to be practically useful as a model to be applied today. The implementation of Shari'a as the official state law is also untenable in economic and political terms for the modern nation-state in its global economic and political context.

 6. Final Remark

Abdullahi A. An-Na'im
is Professor of Law at Emory University in Atlanta.


  I opened this essay by proposing that there should be synergy and interdependence between human rights, religion and secularism, instead of a choice between them. But there is a choice in another sense after all, namely, whether or not to pursue the possibilities of mediating the tension between these three paradigms. In other words, I am urging scholars and policy makers to opt for synergy and interdependence, rather than dichotomy and incompatibility between these paradigms because both choices are theoretically possible and practically available. However plausible an approach to mediation may be, whether the one I have outlined above or any other, it is ultimately a human choice whether or not to adopt and implement it in practice.


Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (1990): Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (ed.) (1992): Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: Quest for Consensus. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im (1995): "Toward an Islamic Hermeneutics for Human Rights". In: Abdullahi A. An-Na'im et al. (eds.): Human Rights and Religious Values. Grand Rapids/Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 229-242.

Tamara Sonn (1990): Between Qur'an and Crown. Boulder – San Francisco – Oxford: Westview Press.

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