2011-2012 Annual Lecture Series

Human Rights, Universality and Sovereignty: The Relevance and Irrelevance of Sharia

Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Nacim

September 27, 2011, 7:00pm
SFU Vancouver Campus, Joseph and Rosalie Segal Rooms 1400-1430
515 West Hastings Street, Vancouver


In this lecture I will combine a critical examination of the paradox in the theory and practice of human rights with a creative analysis of the relationship between these rights and Islam and Sharia (Islamic Law) to clarify the implications of that paradox and illustrate possibilities of its mediation.  In particular, I am examining the relationship between Sharia and human rights as a case-study of the broader paradox of universality and sovereignty in the theory and practice of human rights. The rationale of this framing is to balance two perspectives. On the one hand, the need for historical and contextual understanding of the theory and practice of human rights calls for clarification of the ways Sharia is and is not relevant in order to address real or perceived tensions between human rights and the religious/cultural tradition(s) of a quarter of humanity today.  On the other hand, it is necessary to avoid the implication that Islam and Sharia are so exceptional as to defy the possibility of mediation of paradox in the theory and practice of human rights.

In the part of the lecture on the general theory and practice of human rights, I will examine the dual paradox of universality and self-regulation by the state. I see the first paradox of universality in claims of the universality of human rights norms in the realities of permanent cultural and contextual difference among human societies. This reality of human difference is the basis and purpose of the collective human rights to self-determination, as affirmed in the first Article of the two main International Human Rights Covenants of 1966.

The part of the lecture on the Islam/Sharia case study is premised on the following perspective. Current scholarship in English about Islam (or Sharia) and human rights tends to examine the relationship between the two in general theoretical terms, or in relation to a particular subject, especially the rights of women, freedom of religion or the rights of religious minorities, without examining the specific theoretical and practical implications of the inquiry.  In other words, the importance and relevance of the inquiry is assumed or taken for granted, without considering the purpose and rationale of the relationship between Islam/Sharia and human rights. 

The basic thesis I seek to advance in this part of the lecture is that Sharia is relevant to the legitimacy and political efficacy of human rights norms among Muslims, but it is irrelevant to the legal obligations of states under international human rights law. The premise of this thesis is the distinction I make between Sharia as a religious normative system and state law as a necessarily secular legal system. As I have argued in my book Islam and the Secular State (2008), Sharia principles cannot be enforced as state law and remain religious because state law is inherently secular. In that book and other publications, however, I do emphasize the urgent need for Sharia reform for the cultural legitimacy and political efficacy of human rights norms among Muslims. I have also briefly examined the interplay between these two sets of ideas in articles and book chapters.  The proposed study will bring these two dimensions of the relationship between Islam/Sharia and human rights together in a full book for the first time.

Click here to download the event poster.


Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Nacim is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law, Director of the Center for International and Comparative Law, and Associated Professor at Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Emory University School of Law, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He is the author of Muslims and Global Justice (2011); Islam and the Secular State (2008); African Constitutionalism and the Role of Islam (2006); and Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil liberties, human rights and international law (1990).  His edited books include Human Rights under African Constitutions (2003); Islamic Family Law in a Changing World: A Global Resource Book (2002); Cultural Transformation and Human Rights in Africa (2002); and Human Rights in Cross-Cultural Perspectives: Quest for Consensus (1992).

His previous research projects include women’s access to, and control over, land in seven African countries, a global study of Islamic Family Law, and a fellowship program in Islam and Human Rights. 


Other talks and lectures by Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Nacim


Embedding Arabic/Islamic Science in the Renaissance (Illustrated talk)

Dr. George Saliba

Friday, October 28th, 2011, 7:00PM 
Fletcher Challenge Theatre - SFU Vancouver


The contacts between Arabic/Islamic Science and the Latin world during the Middle Ages are very well known to anyone who is cognizant of the massive translation movement, from Arabic into Latin, that took place during the 12th and 13th centuries, mainly in the Iberian peninsula and southern Italy, which covered a variety of scientific, philosophical, literary, and even religious texts. But fewer people know that this continuous flow of ideas from the world of Islam into Europe did not stop by the thirteenth century as is commonly believed, but extended well into the fifteenth, sixteenth and even the seventeenth centuries, but in a slightly different form. The talk will illustrate how Renaissance scientists were able to incorporate scientific ideas from the Islamic world into their Latin works without necessarily having the Arabic works in which those ideas first appeared literally translated into Latin as was done during the Middle Ages.

Click here to download the event poster.

Dr. George Saliba is a Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University in New York.  He studies the development of scientific ideas from late antiquity to early modern times, with a special focus on the transmission of astronomical and mathematical ideas from the Islamic world to Renaissance Europe.

He received the History of Astronomy Prize from the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science in 1996, and the History of Science Prize given by the Third World Academy of Science in 1993. He has also been selected as Islamic Studies Chair at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA – Paris, 2004), Distinguished Senior Scholar at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress (2005-6), and at the Carnegie Scholars Program (2009-10). He has lectured at more than a hundred international and academic conferences on five continents.

Some of his publications include: Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (2007), already translated into Turkish, Arabic and Bahasa (Indonesia), (paperback edition 2011); Rethinking the Roots of Modern Science: Arabic Scientific Manuscripts in European Libraries, Occasional Paper, Center for Contemporary Arabic Studies, Georgetown University (1999);The Origin and Development of Arabic Scientific Thought (in Arabic, 1998); A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam (1994); The Astronomical Work of Mu'ayyadal-Din al-'Urdi (d. 1266):  A Thirteenth-Century Reform of Ptolemaic Astronomy (1990); and more than 110 articles in scholarly journals including, “Greek Astronomy and the Medieval Arabic Tradition,” American Scientist, 2002, 90,4: pp. 360-367, and “Islam and Modern Science: Lessons from the Past,” Oxygen: La Scienza per Tutti, April 3/2008, pp. 101-104.

Persons, Properties and the Transmission of Goods in an Arab Diaspora

Dr. Michael Gilsenan

March 24, 2012, 7:00pm
SFU Vancouver Campus, Fletcher Challenge Theatre, Room 1900
515 West Hastings Street

Dr. Michael Gilsenan is the David B. Kriser Professor in the Humanities and Director of the Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University. A specialist on the anthropology and sociology of Islam, he is the author of Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern Middle East (rev. ed., 2000), Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in a Lebanese Society (1996), and Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt: An Essay in the Sociology of Religion (1973). He is currently researching the modern diaspora of Arab families into Southeast Asia.

Dr. Gilsenan, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, NYU


Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in a Lebanese Society. London: I. B. Tauris Press. 1996
Recognizing Islam: An Anthropologist's Introduction. London: Croom Helm; New York: Pantheon Press. March 1983.
Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt: An Essay in the Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.1973.

The Happy Traitor: Tales of a Translator from Arabic

Dr. Roger Allen

Thursday, February 23, 2012, 7:00pm
SFU Surrey Campus
250 - 13450 – 102nd Ave, Surrey

Click here to download the event poster.

Dr. Roger Allen is the Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics and Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. A renowned translator and interpreter of contemporary Arabic literature, he was elected President of the Middle East Studies Association in 2009.  Among his numerous books are An Introduction to Arabic Literature (2000), The Arabic Literary Heritage (1998), and The Arabic Novel (1995).

“In scope, documentation, analysis and argument [An Introduction to Arabic Literature] is a masterpiece.” - Journal of Arabic Literature.