The 'Muslim Martin Luther' with faith in the hyphenated identity

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam
April 23, 2004

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 stardom., a US internet magazine, has called him "the Muslim Martin Luther". In 2000, Time named him one of the 100 great innovators of the 21st century. Ramadan, who was 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.

Moreover, his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood - the organisation that first brought Islam directly into politics in the 1920s.

But if 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 the 19th century, in opposition to the fundamental revivalism of men such 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.

Liberal Islam is as diverse as any movement spread over continents, languages and cultures. Some hold that the sharia (Islamic law) is liberal if properly interpreted, others that since it fails to address several contemporary issues, it should be taken as offering only broad principles of action. Some claim that the sharia is divine, but mediated by human interpretation.

That is the position of 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 allows Islam an extraordinary amount of freedom in its self-formulation. It allows Ramadan to reject out of hand the twin notions of dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) and dar al-harb (abode of war) - notions commonly used in the sharia, and central to the Islamists' approach to the West - since no references to these ideas exist in either the Koran or the Sunnah (or "The life of the Prophet Muhammad").

Ramadan's 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. Like his earlier work, To Be a European Muslim , this is a primer. Its ostensible audience is western Muslims seeking guidance, but non-Muslims have also been attracted to his writings, seeing in his prescriptions proof that Islam and the West are compatible. Ramadan says: "To apply the shari'a for Muslim residents in the West means explicitly to respect the legal and constitutional framework of the country of which they are citizens." The West sees a man it can do business with.

But it is the methodology that matters. Ramadan, like other liberal Islamic thinkers, allows Muslims to shatter the literalism that has petrified religious discourse thus far. 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."

The book 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.

Islam's universalism and its spiritual nature are precisely what allow Ramadan to develop the vision his book calls for: total Muslim participation in the politics and culture of the West. Ramadan decries Muslim "minoritarianism". He seeks to destroy that sense of "otherness" that informs much Muslim thinking both in the Judeo-Christian West and in the Muslim world, vis-a-vis western global superiority. In his view, that sense of otherness betrays Islam's claim to universality. Ramadan wants the Muslims of the West to integrate. He wants hyphenated, and not parallel, identities. He would have European Muslims inform their European citizenship with Muslim values.

And he goes further. Implicit in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam are two major arguments, neither fully rendered. Ramadan places great weight on the intellectual side of Islam. He sees rational argument and questioning as an integral part of the faith, even a Muslim duty. His first implicit argument for true participatory Muslim engagement in western society is that only by engaging with the full scope of modernity can Islam fulfil its promise to itself. His second is that, in his view, true participation is impossible anywhere else. He writes: "The description dar al-Islam (perceived 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 basic principle of Islam, implies 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 genuinely 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 Koranic justification to embrace the contemporary world. To westerners, he offers an alternative Muslim face to the mad mullahs and gun-toting charismatics we read so much about today.

Turi Munthe is editor, Beirut Review .

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam

Author - Tariq Ramadan
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 284
Price - £20.00
ISBN - 0 19 517111 X

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