Tariq Ramadan: Radical Reform

Tariq Ramadan: Radical Reform

In his new book “Radical Reform”, Tariq Ramadan promises his readers to find the outcome of twenty years of readings, writings and visits; the accumulating experiences in navigating the world of “Islamic sciences”, “Modernity” and “Muslim majority and minority societies”.


In Radical Reform, Ramadan sheds more light upon the sources of “Islamic sciences” and their categorization rather than the concrete tools and ways of implementation. As one of the focal points in Ramadan’s Radical Reform is how to read the “text” in its “context”, one can not discuss Ramadan’s latest contribution without putting it in the larger context; tackling some of his major statements and views.


Answering a bipolar question of being “Muslim” or “European”, Ramadan avoids simple answers and encourages Euro Muslims to find their formula. According to Ramadan, in his book “To Be a European Muslims”, he responded to the challenge of being Muslim in a secular society.


In “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” he took a step further; tackling the methodologies and paradigms, while in “Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity” he moved to the Muslim majority society discussing which vision for modernity should be adopted.


From the beginning, Ramadan was fully aware of the unique position of the European Muslims. Moreover, he declared in different occasions that this position will help a lot.  In 2002, Ramadan was interviewed by Paul Donnelly and he confidently said “In the near future, Muslims in the West are going to help Muslims in the Islamic world.

Because we are facing challenges and we can do things that are forbidden in the so-called Islamic countries. We need to think about think- tanks, platforms, councils that would share views and opinions which could be critical toward Islamic authorities”.


But it seems that there is still a long way to go before reaching this point of mutual understanding between the Muslim majority societies and the minorities leaving alone exchanging experiences. In this respect, Ramadan’s call for moratorium was a revealing example.


Ramadan’s call for moratorium: Lessons to Learn


On March 30th 2005, Ramadan issued an international call for a moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty. According to Ramadan, “these penalties are applied almost exclusively to women and the poor, the doubly victimized, never to the wealthy, the powerful, or the oppressors.”


Ramadan’s call received a lot of criticism and unwelcome reactions from some Muslim scholars. In the introduction of “Radical Reform”, Ramadan could not hide his disappointment at these reactions and at the “lack of calm critical debate” which he described as “one of the evils undermining contemporary Islamic thought”.


Strangely enough, one of the explanations why the call has been criticized was Ramadan’s position as a European Muslim intellectual; the same thing that Ramadan considers as an advantage that would help the whole Ummah to do more ijtihad.


Highlighting the impact of Ramadan’s position on producing that call, Dr. Emad Shahin, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, told IslamOnline.net, on Dec. 29, 2005, that Ramadan is trying to find a place for European Muslims inside Europe.


More importantly he added “It highlighted the dilemma facing Muslim intellectuals; they are either accused by the West of being “terrorists” or “extremists,” or accused by the Muslim masses of being “too moderate” or “westernized.” Ironically, in some cases, including Ramadan’s, they face accusations from both sides”.


Discussing the procedural, methodological and structural reasons why some scholars and researchers criticized Ramadan’s call for moratorium might prove that no kind of reform and ijtihad can be achieved without overcoming the lack of communication and exchanging experiences between the Muslim majority societies on one hand and the Muslim minority societies on the other.


A New Call, Radical but Calm


Ramadan decides to move from a heated debate over the moratorium to a calm comprehensive call in “Radical Reform”.


He engages with the dilemma of defining “Reform” and adopting certain model of it. In the introduction he differentiates between the “adaptation reform,” which requires only certain tools to keep up with the modern times, and “transformation reform,” which equips itself with the different means to master all fields of knowledge, and to anticipate the complexity of the challenges.


Ramadans’ views on Reform and contextualization are not new. These are the same old views that might encourage some observers, especially the westerns, to compare between Ramadan and Martin Luther. In 2002, Paul Donnelly titled his interview with Tariq Ramadan “The Muslim Martin Luther?”


Those observers justify the legitimacy of this comparison by claiming that “Tariq Ramadan challenges the mainstream Islamic views”. Moreover, they compare between Tariq Ramadan call of adopting contextual reading of the Qur’an to Martin Luther’s heritage.


These comparisons might raise some suspicions about the originality of Ramadans’ initiatives. Some Muslims might think that Ramadans’ initiatives, at the best case, are irrelevant.


But, subtly, Ramadan faces these suspicions in his latest book “Radical Reform”. He addresses the concerns about promoting the concept of “reform” saying that “it was perceived as dangerous because it undermined the principles of the Muslim faith or was imported from the Christian universe of reference”.


Ramadan responds to these fears drawing on the Muslim heritage itself. He emphasizes that the critical approach has been adopted from the very beginning by the Muslim scholars from the different traditions. He adds “what was debated over later on was not the legitimacy of the approach itself but the norms and limits of such contextualization”.


Interpreting the “Text”: How? Who?


Taking a further step, Ramadan touches upon a sensitive area when he tackles the relationship between the revealed Text and the perception of the reader; “the status of the text can indeed influence the modalities of reading, but in the end, it is the mind and psyche of the reader interpreting it that projects its categories and the modalities of its interpretation onto the book”.


Ramadan believes in the dynamics of the interpretation through place and time, on the other hand he draws some boundaries clarifying that “the central issue was to determine the nature and limits of interpretation in front of the revealed Text”.


Ramadan looks for a balanced methodology while raising such debatable causes; he assures that “only within this frame of reference can the concrete implementation of tajdîd and al-islâh be efficient and fruitful.”


In Radical Reform, Ramadan does not discuss only the way of interpretation that should be adopted, but he also suggests who is legitimate to make this kind of interpretation and ijtihad; he revisits the issue of the so called “authority of interpretation”.


Ramadan has addressed the issue of authority on different occasions; he told Donnelly “the fact that there is no church in Islam, in our minds, was an asset. It was something that was positive. But if we don”t know how to deal with it, it would become a weakness”.


In “Radical Reform”, he suggests reconsidering the higher spiritual and ethical objectives (al-maqâsid) of Islam and creating room for the authority of scholars of the social sciences.


Not New, More Debatable


Actually, the call for integrating the role of the social scientists and the experts, in the different fields, into the process of ijtihad is not new. Many Muslim scholars from both the Muslim majority and the Muslim minority societies have promoted the same message before. But there are two factors that may add to the importance of Tariq Ramadan’s “Radical Reform”.


First, in this book, Ramadan emphasizes that both Text scholars (‘ulamâ’ an-nusûs) and context scholars (‘ulamâ’ al-wâqi’) should equally tackle the center of gravity of authority in the Islamic universe of reference.


Second is Ramadan’s audience, his wide audience base is in Europe (including both Muslims and non-Muslims). On the other hand, some of the Muslims, especially in the Muslim majority societies, might not feel comfortable in discussing technical sensitive topics (e.g. the interpretation of the revealed text, the text and the context, the nature of the religious authority…) openly in a non-Muslim European society.


They think that those Europeans might include anti-Islam propagandists who could move to attack Islam.


Contrarily, Ramadan believes that the non-Muslim experts could help a lot in forming the Muslim critical mind “by questioning the contemporary Muslim conscience about a number of issues or by contributing with their skills to the possible resolution of some scientific and/or ethical issues (in the experimental or human sciences)”.


In the same context, Ramadan regularly faces what he describes as a simplistic reasoning “the less western, the more Islamic”. According to Ramadan, through this reasoning, Muslim populations are convincing themselves of the Islamic character of certain practices through a rejection of the west. Ramadan believes that since the 13th century, the Muslims have taken more defensive reactions to fight the Western hegemony.


He thinks that what we need now more than ever is using Islamic tools to make ijtihad which he defined as “reasoning effort of creativity according to our Quran and Sunnah sources”


Geography of Knowledge… Geography of People


In Radical Islam, Ramadan tries to redefine the geography of the Islamic sources, but in my opinion, he needs also to define the geography of his target audiences and categorize them.


For example, If Ramadan and other scholars had tried first to build bridges between the Muslim majority and minority societies as well as between the experts and the masses, the “call for the moratorium” would have been introduced and received differently,  “radical Reform” book would have been discussed widely through the Muslim world.


As mentioned above, Tariq Ramadan thinks that Muslims in the West can help the Islamic World. But this kind of assumption will not work if the Muslims both in European societies and in the Islamic world do not really know each other properly.


Most probably the Muslim majority society do not know much about the European Muslims except during the time of crisis such as the Salman Rushidie’ cause , the hijab ban in France, the Danish Cartoon …, etc.


This partial perception of victimizing the European Muslims, in the Muslim world, may deepen the defensive reactions against the West without creating adequate constructive solutions.


On the other side, for the most of Euro Muslims the Muslim majority societies may be associated with questionable issues such as belonging and loyalty, importing terrorism, interference in the European Muslim affairs using financial support … etc


Want to Reform, Let’s Network


In short, In the Muslim majority societies, we need to know more about both the challenges and the opportunities of the Euro Muslims and how their unique position should help the whole Ummah in reevaluating different positions.


European Muslims need to be more familiar with the points of strength and weakness in the Muslim World. Without losing their independency, Euro Muslims can make use of the experiences and the heritage of the Muslim world.


Certain tools are required to bridge the gap between the Euro Muslims and Muslim world, the European Council for Fatwa and Research is a good example here but it is not enough.


Basically, we need information; to identify causes and set priorities. Moreover, and as Ramadan has suggested, we need networks, platforms, think tanks, conferences …etc.


The more we communicate, the more we activate collective initiatives for reform and change.


Dalia Yusuf is IslamOnline.net’s European Muslims managing editor. She is a graduate of English and Comparative Literature from Cairo University, where she also received her postgraduate diploma in journalism. You can reach her at [email protected]


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