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.
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.
The significance of An-Na’im’s work has already been recognized. For example, the Dutch Ethical Humanist Society gave him the 1999 Award of Dr. J.P. Praagprijs “for the widening of the international platform for the adherence to and the protection of human rights in various cultural traditions [and for making] an important contribution to the improvement of human relations worldwide and hence to the humanization of society.” But the real measure of his success is to be judged by the outcome of the actual work in Islamic and African societies. For instance, he has worked with colleagues from ISIM (a Dutch Institute based at Leiden University, the Netherlands) to implement a project called "Rights at Home", which seeks to promote human rights values from an Islamic perspective within the family and local community.
The basic idea of this project was to identify through intensive field visits some specific concerns of local communities, and train local “agents of social change” in addressing those matters from within each community. This approach, combining methodologies of Islamic reform, and internal discourse and cross-cultural dialogue, has been been applied by An-Na’im and colleagues in Yemen, Tanzania, as well as in South East Asia.
Prof. An-Na'im's current project, under the working title,The Future of Shari'a, focuses on the struggle of Islamic societies to define themselves and positively relate to the local and global conditions under which they live. A key aspect of this process is the constitutional and legal dimensions of the post-colonial experiences of Islamic societies, especially the relationship among Islam, state and society.
The fundamental concern of the project is how to ensure the institutional separation of Shari'a and the state, despite the organic and unavoidable connection between Islam and politics. The first part of this proposition sounds like 'secularism' as commonly understood today, but the second part indicates the opposite. This is a permanent paradox, which is part of the thesis, namely, that the relationship among religion, state, and society is the product of a constant and deeply contextual negotiation, rather than the subject of a fixed formula, whether a claim of total separation or total fusion of religion and the state. The project thesis proposes that the paradox of separation of Islam and the state while maintaining an organic relationship among Islam, politics and social interaction, can only be mediated through practice over time, rather than completely resolved through theoretical analysis.