Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, as a scholar of Islam and law, offers an analysis of Islamic decline and possible reformation that is much more clearly delineated and rigorous than the cultural accounts given by authors like Bernard Lewis. An-Na'im's argument rests on the separation of "historical Shari'a" (often wrongly treated as if it were itself divine revelation) from the essence of Islam itself, as revealed by the early tenure of Mohammed in Mecca, before he moved to Medina and grappled with the difficult and immediate imperatives of political power.
Like a good lawyer, An-Na'im's case in "Toward an Islamic Reformation" unfolds like a geometrical proof, proceeding deductively from an axiom (a universal principle of reciprocity) and reasoning from there; namely, that all peoples have rights of self-determination, as long as they don't clash with others' rights of self-determination. To this norm, An-Na'im adds two sociological observations. The first is that Muslim majorities are now becoming politically assertive, exercising their right to self-determination, which is in itself a healthy thing. However, the second observation is that the hitherto weakened and disorganized condition of the Muslim community has usually been attributed to departure from "true" belief and practice, as well as to outside interference by non-Muslims. Thus, An-Na'im reasons, secular solutions to social problems will not appeal to most Muslims. Even the doctrine of necessity (darura) is not enough, although it has been used with some degree of success in the past, because only a truly Islamic solution will satisfy Muslim demands for self-determination. Thus, any proposed reforms must be seen as Islamic in origin.
However, An-Na'im here makes a strong case that the implementation of "historical Shari'a" (he calls it historical, obviously, to emphasize its man-made, temporal quality), while seen as a solution by many (due to the yearning to go back to tradition), will likely oppress others, and limit their right to self-determination, because it conflicts with modern norms of constitutionalism, human rights, international law and criminal justice. However, historical Shari'a was constructed by early jurists, written for a specific time and place, and does not come directly from revelation. So, given that secular and Shari'a solutions both are inadequate, the question becomes: how can Muslims' rights vis-à-vis others be exercised, while also being legitimately limited in accordance with universal principles (and the earlier, more tolerant words of Mohammed)?
An-Na'im acknowledges that any attempt to answer this question and "evolve" alternative principles will be difficult, due to the likely suspicion that tampering with the weight of tradition will inflame, but must be done, and can be based directly on revelation. This is the task that he sets himself to in the second half of the book, once he has demonstrated how Shari'a: 1) is man-made; 2) is non-divine; 3) originally arose for political expediency; 4) goes against the early word of Mohammed (much of which it "abrogated" under the doctrine of naskh); and 5) will likely violate the rights of non-Muslims, women, slaves, etc., and be incompatible with the very idea of the nation-state, international law, and human rights. In this, An-Na'im is clearly a modernist, in that he takes the nation-state, etc. as a given, and holds that there are benefits from secularism that would be lost (self-expression, women, religious minorities, slavery) if Shari'a were to be implemented. He also makes a very specific negative judgment about the application of Shari'a in today's "fundamentalist" states (Iran, Sudan), arguing that "it has created more problems than it has solved" (67). While an "anti-imperialist" might take issue with this statement, arguing that the worst excesses of fundamentalism are preferable to "western" institutions, An-Na'im's mission is to make Islam palatable to western institutions, and vice-versa, by "rehabilitating" the "early Mohammed" in much the same way that neo-Marxists drew upon the "Young Marx" to get away from the stale determinism of scientific socialism. Thus, the early Mohammed of the Mecca period is portrayed as a tolerant, "reasonable" leader, while the Mohammed of the Medina period, and the later rulers under whom Shari'a developed, were forced to adapt their ideas to the expediencies an extremely harsh, violent political world.
What is An-Na'im's program for rehabilitating Islam from the legacy of this world? The four main areas of law concerned are constitutionalism (how can Islam reconcile itself to self-determination, but with limits on power?), criminal justice (how can Islam democratically enforce Islamic justice without violating the rights of non-Muslims?), international law (how can Islam reconcile itself to interactions between nation-states, some of whom will be non-Muslim?), and human rights (how can Islam leave behind the legacy of subordinate status for women, slaves and non-believers, and grant universal rights to all people?).
While the program is well-argued and eloquently framed, obviously drawing much inspiration from the mentorship of the Sudanese reformist martyr, Mahmoud Taha, An-Na'im himself, though an optimist, admits that the book is not likely to receive a warm reception in the Muslim world. Though he doesn't admit it, part of the problem with this reception might be a feeling that he is engaged in sophist apologism for the West, finding parts of Islamic teaching to justify a wholesale adaptation to modern, secular developments. For those Muslims who feel their identity under attack, and thus advocate a return to tradition, the particular tradition that An-Na'im cites might seem a bit too conveniently Western. And after all, arguing that the Prophet went against his own early teachings out of expediency might seem unfathomable for one who believes that everything the Prophet did was divine!