Any book that has the word "radical" in its title promises much. In his latest work, Tariq Ramadan sets out both his vision and its limits in the introduction. Following on from his earlier books, which focused to some extent on the ethical challenges of modernity for Muslims, Ramadan's fundamental consideration in this work is the very nature and scope of reform.
Thus, the book is an expansive, although rather anecdotal, trawl through the history of the sources and content of Islamic law, a theoretical framework that aims to "suggest a new geography of the fundamentals of law and jurisprudence", and which looks at various Muslim thinkers who have argued the case for change. The book's final section analyses case studies for reform, ranging from culture and arts to medical ethics and, of course, the perennial question of women.
Ramadan treats the Islamic legal heritage as presenting principles and content that were concerned only with revealing divine will. He does not explore their other dimension, which is that they were also literary texts that often had a life of their own, both in terms of technical structure and casuistical reasoning.
He therefore works within an established understanding of the tradition, while all the time positing a rethink of the scope and nature of legal thinking.
However, Ramadan acknowledges that he doesn't "put forward concrete solutions to the various issues raised", because he wants specialists from the sciences, philosophy and the arts to come forward and work with traditional scholars to lead the radical reform much needed in contemporary Muslim thinking.
Those who have some knowledge of the evolution and nature of Islamic law will recognise many of the names and arguments in the first part of the book.
Comparisons between the greats of Islamic law and theology, such as al-Shafi and Abu Hanifa, al-Shatibi and al-Ghazali, are made for the purpose of reflecting different methodologies and approaches to Islamic law during the development of Islamic legal thinking; thus, the chapters rely on prior knowledge of the necessary technical vocabulary.
While it makes interesting reading to see how Ramadan analyses these major figures and their contribution to the "higher objectives of law", the reader is given only a couple of cursory examples of how the literal implementation of law ran against its "higher objective".
As an ethical framework, Ramadan is keen to emphasise the acknowledgement that the higher objectives of Islamic law recognise the social and human environment in which law is continually elaborated.
But a few examples of historical practice rooted in the dialectic between the literal and the higher objective would have shown whether and how this really worked or could work.
Ramadan points out at the beginning that the reader can skip the technical chapters and go straight to the case studies in the final section of the book.
This could have been the most exciting part of the text, but instead we are subjected to a moral steering that is familiar Ramadan territory: women should have access to the mosque; marriages should be based on love; and female education is essential to the desired social and moral framework.
The arguments made in his discussion about medical ethics deal with abortion and contraception, but also Aids and the spread of HIV.
No Muslim today who is interested in critical reform and has a global appreciation of contemporary moral and medical dilemmas would disagree with Ramadan's view that as individuals, groups and institutions, Muslim societies generally need more holistic approaches to issues of human life, dignity and suffering.
Perhaps his more interesting comments emerge in relation to the arts and culture, when Ramadan calls for a return to the imagination. Quite rightly, he states that the selective use of Islamic references has stifled artistic expression, whereas we must appreciate that "literature, painting, music and movies ... are very powerful instruments, both necessary to human beings' development and potentially destructive to their ethical references".
In this section, one feels most acutely the gap between the Western world view of art in all its forms as a mode of human expression, and the current Muslim desire to simplify art as legitimate only when it is "Islamic".
Contemporary Muslim thinkers and scholars don't really do systematic theology, which is what I suspect Ramadan is earnestly trying to do in this book. However, the problem as always is how reformers can liberate themselves from the shackles of the law when their goals, albeit being higher objectives, are still conceptualised within medieval legal frameworks.
To return to the law as a tool for providing another ideal has its limits, however intellectually enlightening. Like many reformers, Ramadan calls for change but largely in abstract terms.
He wants the whole of Muslim civil society to come on board to find solutions to social and moral problems, without committing himself to various concrete positions. His is a pertinent voice, but in the end, it is just not bold enough.
Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation
By Tariq Ramadan
Oxford University Press 384pp, £16.99
Published 5 February 2009
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