Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im was born in a village on the Nile in Sudan. As a law student in the 1960s at the University of Khartoum, An-Na’im joined a movement led by the Muslim Sufi reformer Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. Taha argued that Islam embraced the equal treatment of women and religious minorities, a view that clashed with strict interpretations of Islamic religious law known as sharia. Taha’s teachings helped An-Na’im reconcile his Islamic beliefs with his commitment to defend human rights, and put him on a lifelong path examining the relationship between the two.
An-Na’im excelled in his studies, winning a scholarship from the University of Khartoum to pursue his postgraduate studies abroad. He went to Scotland and received a PhD in law from the University of Edinburgh. After graduating, An-Na’im returned to the University of Khartoum, where he served as a lecturer and associate professor of law, eventually heading the Department of Public Law.
When Jaafar Nimeiry, then the president of Sudan, began to institute sharia law in the 1980s, Taha and his adherents became targets for persecution. An-Na’im was detained from May 1983 to December 1984 without charge. After Taha was executed in 1985 for sedition and apostacy, An-Na’im fled the country.
At first, An-Na’im held a number of visiting positions, including at the University of California; Los Angeles School of Law; the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; and Uppsala University in Sweden. Although Nimeiry was overthrown shortly after Taha’s execution, a new Islamist regime made An-Na’im’s return impossible. In 1993, An-Na’im became the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Africa Watch (which later became part of Human Rights Watch).
An-Na’im joined the faculty of Emory University School of Law in 1995, where he is currently the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law. An-Na’im is a leading expert on Islam and human rights, Islam and the secular state, constitutionalism in the Arab world, and human rights from a cross-cultural perspective. At Emory, he launched a project on human rights in Africa, a study of how Islamic family law is applied globally, and a fellowship in Islam and human rights.
One of An-Na’im’s central arguments is that human rights should be people-centric rather than state-centric. He maintains that human rights are often used by states to attack each other instead of being universal principles, and that they should be seen as a work in progress, accessible to everyone whose rights are at risk.
An-Na’im is the author of, among others, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law (1990), African Constitutionalism and the Role of Islam (2006), Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a (2008), Muslims and Global Justice (2010), and What Is an American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizenship (2014). His work has been translated to Arabic, Bengali, Indonesian, Persian, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. An-Na’im’s latest project is the Future of Shari’a, which investigates secularism from an Islamic perspective.
His views are controversial. "If I'm not resisted, I'm not relevant," An-Na’im told the Unesco Courier. “In my view, human rights should be defined by the people who accept and live by them on the ground, and not imposed by former colonial powers on their former colonies or by delegates of post-colonial states, and international bureaucrats.… We need to go beyond bureaucratic, formulistic ideas — to inspire the imagination of people, and to drive change.”