Contesting the “secular” via the judiciary: exploring Muslim criticism of the national politico-legal order in Africa

This article by Jon Abbink looks at some cases of legal contestation in three African countries (Mali, Senegal, and Nigeria) where Muslim religious authorities/institutions brought challenges to constitutional-legislative proposals in the national arena, seen by religious leaders as unacceptable due to lack of resonance with religious values. These are cases where laws/directives aiming to regulate social/religious life vs. the state are contested on grounds of religious conviction: with objections put forward in the name of an entire faith community despite internal differences within it, and despite the fact that in all countries the religious pluriformity necessitates bridging laws. The article makes the argument that there are limits on the religious contestation of secular state laws, to a point that the effort tends to become counter-productive in securing religious freedom or influencing politics in a positive sense, and instead might endanger a pragmatic modus vivendi of the religious and the political spheres in nominally secularist orders. Some conclusions are drawn on the resulting phenomenon of growing tensions between particularist narratives and state narratives in Africa.
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This article has appeared in Anthropos 118.2023/2, pp 349–363.

Author(s) / editor(s)

Jon Abbink

About the author(s) / editor(s)

Jon Abbink is an anthropologist-historian and carries out research on the history and cultures of the Horn of Africa (Northeast Africa), particularly Ethiopia. He is Professor Emeritus of Politics and Governance in Africa at Leiden University.