Prof. An-Na'im addresses the large public audience at his lecture. (CIGI/Lisa Malleck)
Prof. An-Na'im addresses the large public audience at his lecture. (CIGI/Lisa Malleck)

I have always believed that the beauty of religion is found in its relationship to free will: believers making daily decisions to submit themselves to extra-legal regulations as an act of worship and commitment to a deity. From the outside, a believer’s decision to submit to an extra set of rules may seem extraneous or even oppressive. However, when considered through the lens of active submission, religion can be a beautifully selfless gesture of devotion.

The trouble comes when these religious laws are transplanted from their religious context into the legal sector. This transition not only strips obedience to these laws of its original purpose and intent, but it becomes a tool to lord over the masses under the guise of religion.

At his lecture, “The Irrelevance and Relevance of Sharia to Human Rights,” Professor Abdullahi An-Na’im of Emory University expressed similar concerns with the mixture of state and religious law. In response, he offered suggestions that would not only redeem the popular understanding of Sharia, but would also uphold human rights in Islamic states, through the dissolution of the relationship between Sharia and state law.

He suggested that Sharia law is not a divine law, but a “human interpretation of divine Muslim sources.” He explained, “The Qur’an is divinely ordained and revealed to the prophet Muhammad that he conveyed to humanity at large. Sharia is a human product…there is no mention of Sharia in the Qur’an.” As a human interpretation, Sharia law has been understood and implemented in various ways. There are disagreements within the schools of thought on Sharia and diverse opinions among Sharia followers. According to human rights, this diverse body of believers must be allowed to practice their understanding of Sharia and not have their interpretation imposed upon by someone with a different interpretation. By integrating Sharia with the state legal system and enacting a centralized administration of justice, the legal implementation of Sharia supersedes alternative interpretations, making the practice of a legal Sharia a coerced practice.

As I mentioned before, I believe the beauty of religion is found in one’s freedom to choose to believe and subscribe to religious practices.  An-Na’im reiterated this in his lecture, stating, “In any performance with religious practice is the notion of the intent to comply, if there is not a free intent to comply, the practice has no [religious] value…. it has to be voluntarily accepted by believers for it to be religiously relevant and meaningful.”

Overall, An-Na’im provided persuasive evidence for the irrelevance of Sharia to human rights. That said, he also made a strong case for the relevance of Sharia to human rights, explaining that you cannot take Sharia out of the human rights equation without excluding the 1.8 billion Muslims of the world. To hear about his argument for the relevance of Sharia, and more evidence for the irrelevance of Sharia to human rights, listen to the full lecture online.

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