Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na’im – Sudan

Linked with our presentation of the Speech by Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na’im.

He is a Sudanese academic and human rights activist – A native of northern Sudan, Professor Abdullahi An-Na’im holds an LLB (Honours) from the University of Khartoum, Sudan (1970), an LLB (Honours) and Diploma in Criminology from the University of Cambridge, England (1973) and a PhD in Law from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (1976).

Abdullahi Ahmed an-Na’im – Sudan

His identity as an African and a Muslim has guided his academic and professional interests as he has strived to reconcile his Islamic faith with his commitment to the universal acceptance of and respect for human rights. An-Na’im is now widely known for his search for a cultural legitimisation of human rights within both African and Islamic contexts and his works on the modernisation of Sharia. This latter interest stems from 1968 when he joined the Islamic reform movement of Ustadh Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, The Republican Brothers, whilst a student at the University of Khartoum, Sudan. By joining the movement An-Na’im demonstrated his commitment to a Sufi reformist doctrine.

In the early 1980s when Islamisation was expanding its grip on the country, the movement and other opposition groups became targets for persecution. In December 1984, the movement was suppressed and Taha executed soon after, leading An – Na’im to leave the country in April 1985. Like many immigrants or exiles, he left hoping that he would be able to return sooner rather than later.

Immediately after his departure, he took up a variety of short term positions: Visiting Professor at UCLA School of Law (1985-87); Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington DC (1987-88); Ariel F. Sallows Professor of Human Rights at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada (1988-89); Olof Palme Visiting Professor at Uppsala University, Sweden (1991-1992); and Scholar-in-Residence, The Ford Foundation Office for the Middle East and North Africa (1992-93).

By 1990 it was clear that the rise of the political Islam he had left behind in Sudan was consolidating its hold on society, forcing him to realise that his desire to return home would not be a reality in the near future. Subsequently he began to look for longer-term opportunities and in 1993 he accepted the position of Executive Director at Africa Watch, which is now the African Division of Human Rights Watch based in Washington DC where he remained till 1995.

In 1995 An-Na’im joined the School of Law at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and began implementing three major projects, some of which reflect his continuing commitment to Taha’s philosophy:

- A research project on cultural transformation and human rights in Africa, which seeks to challenge the cultural and religious obstacles to women’s access to land in seven countries (Cameroon, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, Rwanda and Mozambique);

- A global study of the application of Islamic family law;

- A Fellowship in Islam and human rights, which consists of 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.

The project on women’s access to land is particularly interesting. Researchers, led by An-Na’im, found that in each of the countries investigated, ‘legal and customary limitations on women … are universal. Women work the land, but they don’t control it. They are the primary producers of food, but there is no way for them to get funds, or to decide on [which] crops to plant’.

Furthermore, the predicament of women in these countries is exacerbated by, what An-Na’im calls, ‘the very nature of the post-colonial state’. Constitutions and laws may grant women equality on paper, but in practice customary law, which can be adverse to women’s conditions, prevails, especially on the community level where the State may have less legal influence.

For women in these countries, he argues, economic and social rights are linked to political and civil rights. ‘The ability of women to act politically will determine their success economically’. In addition to this, he is also undertakes research on crimes of honour against women.

Although greatly influenced by Taha’s teachings, An-Na’im expanded this vision to explore other aspects of the challenge of cultural and contextual relativity to the universality of human rights. Thus, 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.

His basic argument is as follows: efforts to promote respect for international human rights standards are often likely to remain superficial and ineffectual until such time as they relate directly to, and where possible are promoted through, local cultural, religious and other traditional communities. In his attempt to advance his perspective he has written and edited a large number of in-depth studies, many of which are outlined above.

In addition he has published some 50 articles and book chapters on human rights, constitutionalism, Islamic law and politics. In 1999 he became the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University and he is currently the Director of the Religion and Human Rights programme.

Although An-Na’im has been accused of extreme secularism and heresy (by even mainstream Muslim scholars), his work has been recognised internationally. In 1999 he was awarded the Dr J.P. Praagprijs award by the Dutch Ethical Society 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’ (http://people.law.emory.edu/~aannaim/).

A second example of the significance of his work – this time in practical terms, is provided by his work with ISIM (an institute based at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands). In collaboration with colleagues at ISIM he is implementing 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 is 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, is presently being applied by An-Na’im and his colleagues in Yemen, Tanzania and in the very near future in South East Asia (http://people.law.emory.edu/~aannaim/). (Read more on this page of the people Africa database).

The annual Valerie Gordon Human Rights Lecture brings international leaders to the School of Law each year. Past Gordon lecturers include Abdullahi An-Na’im, author of Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law;


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