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Professor discusses Quran and sharia

Madeline Inglis | Monday, October 1, 2012

In the first talk of The Quran Seminar, a project dedicated to studying passages from the Quran, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, professor of law at Emory University, gave a compelling talk about the relationship between the Quran and Islamic state law.

An-Na’im said in the talk last night at the Notre Dame Law School he strongly believes sharia law and the Quran should be kept separate and not directly influence state law.

“I find the term ‘Islamic law’ profoundly misleading,” he said. “Sharia has nothing to do with state law and should be kept separate.”  

 An-Na’im noted the difference in attitudes of Islamic countries before and after the colonization of their nations by other countries. He said before they were colonized, Muslim states had no formal, central bureaucracy as we know today.

“The state never exercised the function of enforcing criminal justice or criminal law,” he said.

However, after Victorian-era governments colonized Muslim countries, they were influenced by the style of governance of their rulers. This persisted even after they became independent, he said.

“[The colonized Muslim countries] continued the same kinds of practices of colonial governments administrations, and that is where we now come to the conclusion that sharia is supposed to be a natural state law and enforced by the state,” An-Na’im said.

He said this implementation of sharia law as state law is improper. Muslim society is made up of many different viewpoints and interpretations of the text, which is encouraged, he said. However, when a state implements sharia law, this variety of opinion on the interpretation of the Quran is not present.

“[State implementation of sharia law] diminishes the space for diversity of opinion, but it is arbitrary,” he said. “It depends on the leaders controlling the state, who decide what is to be enacted as the state law and what is not.”

An-Na’im said the implementation of sharia law as state law takes away the ambiguity and mystery of the Quran’s text. He said throughout his talk the Quran’s meaning is too mysterious to ever fully understand.

“It is the more profound intention of the Quran as a transformative text or language, where language itself is just simply a hint at what it might be or what it might lead to,” he said.

An-Na’im ultimately said the implementation of sharia law as state law is impairing the Quran and the mystery the text is supposed to have.

“It demystifies the Quran to its own detriment,” he said. “Not that the Quran becomes simplistic but that our simplistic meaning of it, because we need to derive a specific so called legal outcome, is what is destroying the sanctity and integrity of the Quran’s text.”

Contact Madeline Inglis at
minglis@nd.edu