Review: Western Muslims and the Future of Islam

First published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, March 2004

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, by Tariq Ramadan
(Oxford University Press, 2004)  0-19-517111-X 

The liberal west, confounded by the religious extremism emergent in the Middle East, has, for years, desperately been seeking a partner in dialogue from the Islamic world. In the late 1990s, it found one, and propelled Tariq Ramadan to international stardom., a leading US internet magazine, has called him “the Muslim Martin Luther”, and in 2000, Time Magazine named him as one of the 100 great innovators of the 21st century. Tariq Ramadan, born in Geneva, speaks English, French, German and Arabic. His beard is trimmed, his head uncoiffed, and he is Professor of Philosophy at the College of Geneva. And he carries in his blood the most illustrious Islamist heritage, for his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood - the organization that first brought Islam directly into politics in the 1920s.

But if Tariq Ramadan is the most glamorous of the new generation of Muslim progressives, he is by no means the first, nor the only one. The ‘Liberal’ or ‘Reform’ movement in Islam began in earnest in the 19th century, in opposition to the fundamental revivalism of such men as Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of today’s strict Islamist regime in Saudi Arabia. This early Liberal Islam found proponents across the breadth of the Muslim world: from Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani in Iran, and Muhammad Abduh in Egypt, to Ismail Bey Gasprinski in Russia, Sayyid Ahmed Khan in India and Wang Haoran in China. Their intellectual heirs today spread from Rashid Ghannushi in Tunisia, through Abdolkarim Soroush in Iran, to Abdurrahman Wahid in Indonesia.

Of course, ‘Liberal Islam’ is as diverse as any movement spread over continents, languages and cultures. But if liberal Muslims are liberal in different ways, their differences all focus on their approach to the Shari’a (Islamic law). Some hold that the Shari’a itself is liberal if properly interpreted. Others hold that since the Shari’a fails to address so very many contemporary legal issues, it should only be taken as offering broad principles of action. Last, are those who claim that the Shari’a is divine, but is mediated by human interpretation (conflicting and fallible).

Such is the position of Tariq Ramadan, who writes: “the Shari’a, insofar as it is the “way to faithfulness”, deduced and constructed a posteriori, is the work of human intellect.” This final position allows Islam an extraordinary amount of freedom in its self-formulation. It allows Ramadan, pointedly, to reject out of hand the twin notions of dar al-islam (abode of Islam) and dar al-harb (abode of war) - notions which are commonly used in the Shari’a, and central to the Islamists’ approach to the West - since no reference to these ideas exist in either of the properly sacred texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah (or Life of the Prophet Muhammad).

For Ramadan’s stated project is to provide Muslims living outside the ‘Umma’ (or community of believers) with a corpus of teachings on how to be fulfilled, integral Muslims in a modern, Western, context. Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, like his earlier work, To Be a European Muslim, is a primer. Its ostensible audience is Western Muslims seeking guidance, but non-Muslims have also been attracted to his writings because they see in his prescriptions proof that Islam and the West truly are compatible. Ramadan has written that “to apply the shari’a for Muslim citizens or residents in the West means explicitly to respect the legal and constitutional framework of the country of which they are citizens.” Even on the practical level, the West sees a man they can do business with.

But it is the methodology which is of most importance. For Ramadan, like many other Liberal Islamic thinkers, allows Muslims to shatter the literalism that has petrified religious discourse in the Muslim world. He writes, “The ‘way to the source’ is never to be confused with the Source itself: the latter declares the absolute and the universal outside of time, but everything along the way must consider itself in time, in change, in imperfection, immersed in the reality of humankind - their rich humanity as well as their disturbing deceits.”

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam is premised on a quasi-mystical formulation of Islam that deserves spelling out. Ramadan writes: “Muslim identity, at its central pivot, is a faith, a practice, and a spirituality. It is essentially the dimension of intimacy and the heart.” Islam, for Ramadan, is primarily an internal space, and it is universal - since faith, in Ramadan’s view - is an absolute of the human condition. Ramadan’s exegesis places the absolute - the “Source” - in the spirit.

Islam’s universalism, and its profoundly spiritual nature, are precisely what allow Ramadan to develop the vision his book calls for: total Muslim participation, at all levels, in the politics and culture of the West. For Ramadan decries Muslim ‘minoritarianism’. He seeks to destroy that sense of ‘otherness’, which informs much Muslim thinking both in the Judeo-Christian West and in the Muslim world proper, vis-à-vis Western global superiority. Not only, in his view, does that sense of ‘Otherness’ compromise Muslim relations with the dominant West, but it also betrays Islam’s claim to universality. Ramadan, on the contrary, wants the Muslim populations of Europe and North America to integrate, and integrate fully. He doesn’t want parallel identities (Muslim on the one hand, German on the other), he wants them hyphenated. He would have European Muslims inform their European citizenship with their Muslim values.

But he goes further. Implicit in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam are two major arguments, neither fully rendered, and both heralded by his title. Ramadan places great weight on the intellective side of Islam: he sees rational argument and questioning as an integral part of the faith, even a Muslim duty. The first implicit argument of his book is that it is only in engaging with the full scope and depth of modernity that Islam can fulfil its promise to itself, can raise itself up once more to real universality. The second argument for true participatory Muslim engagement in Western society is because, in Ramadan’s view, true participation is impossible anywhere else. He writes: “the description dar al-Islam [which he perceives as being based on security and safety in religion] is applicable to almost all Western countries, while it can hardly be given to the great majority of actual Muslim countries.” Ramadan, who sees freedom as a foundational principle of Islam, would imply that the West is more Muslim than the 'Muslim' world.

Ramadan is not the only original reformist thinker in Islam today, but he is a hugely important figure. His is the Muslim call to modernity. To Muslims living in the West - who, if he is right, may be the only available engine of a future ‘Islamic Reformation’ - he provides detailed Qur’anic justification (which he phrases as an injunction) to embrace the contemporary world. And to Westerners, Tariq Ramadan offers an alternative Muslim face to the mad mullahs and gun-toting charismatics we read so much about today.

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