OPINION

With a Grain of Salt: Poor Tariq Ramadan

July 02, 2006
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

Tariq Ramadan is a Muslim in the west and it shows. The poor man is trying to walk a tightrope or rather he is trying to thread a red-hot needle with his bare hands through a rats' nest of secularism, western philosophy, global geopolitics, Islam, the war on terrorism, Islamist jehadis and the Muslim theological grand poo-bahs - and all that without singeing anybody.

After researching him and reading his book Western Muslim and the Future of Islam, two feelings struck me. The first was pity for Doctor Ramadan and the second was befuddlement at what exactly it is that he is trying to achieve. But he can definitely be called a reformer! Let us explore this remarkable gentleman.

Over the past few months, I have been exploring Muslim reformers (although many have quibbled with me whether those on my list are real reformers or not). My point to them was, look, they are trying to change something and deal with some of the challenges Islam faces. Obviously, there will be people who disagree, but when dealing with religious reform, it takes all kinds. Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism had their fair share of reformers, and Islam is no stranger to either reformers or their critics.

Now who is a reformer and who is not depends on where you stand. For example, here is a list of Muslim reformers found on wikipedia, the public contribution encyclopaedia. My sister snorted so hard at some of the members on that list, that I could not stop laughing. Nevertheless, Tarik Ramadan is a reformer, but he is not on the wikipedia list, which is in itself interesting. We have previously written about Amina Wadud, Asra Nomani, and Raheel Raza and now we explore Tariq Ramadan.

The barebones of his life are well known. He is the grandson of Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Al Banna's son, Said Ramadan fled Egypt after the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood and settled in Switzerland, where Tariq was born. With two doctorates in Philosophy and Islamic Sciences, he teaches in Switzerland and the UK. He was going to take up a teaching position in the USA, but his visa was revoked by the US State department. He is widely read in the francophone part of the world (although he was also forbidden to enter France at some point). Given his recent statements, for example on 9/11 and the moratorium on the hudud laws (more on this later), his views are considered to be important across the western (both muslim and non-muslim) world. Having said that, his philosophy is not accepted in the traditional Muslim world.

As and how I read more about and into his views, I kept on getting more and more puzzled and confused as it is difficult to pin him down. This confusion arises as one expects people to be consistent and Tariq Ramadan is difficult to characterise as consistent according to the generally known philosophical perspectives. Consistency depends on which frame of reference one is using. I can be consistent as a Britisher looking at the world, but I also write as a Hindu, a Bengali, or an investment banker. Many times, these various views can be inconsistent when compared to one another. Similarly with Tariq Ramadan, as broadly speaking, I could divide the frames of reference for Tariq Ramadan into four categories.

The first category is that of traditional Sunni scholarship which is grounded in the vast theological panoply emerging out of the Al Azhar, Saudi universities, the seminaries in India and Pakistan, etc. The second category is the left, which, for recent geopolitical events (such as anti imperialism), is related to the Muslim world. The third category is what I would call as the western secular state and intelligentsia, currently embroiled in a war on terror (both inside their countries and outside in Afghanistan, Iraq, etc.). The fourth category is what I would call as the western Muslims. I believe Tariq Ramadan puts himself in the last one, and this last category is where the challenge lies.

The state of western Muslims is where the inconsistencies come barrelling out. Living in secular states means an immediate disconnection with the first category of traditional Sunni scholarship. This disconnection is fundamental. This is not the place to go deep into the differences (this is for a future essay), but that a religion which considers itself to be holistic and providing a complete way of life and framework for humans - whether it be political, social, economic, civil, criminal, what have you, cannot be easily reconciled with the western secular state. This is the area where Tariq Ramadan has dared to enter and this is the reason all the other three categories viciously pounce on him.

So on what basis are they pouncing on him?

The western secular states, for example France and USA, do not like him for his support given to Islamist doctrine and soft-pedalling the role of terrorists on 9/11. The traditional Sunni clergy hates him as he asks for reopening ijtihad (debate and systematic theological interpretation of Muslim beliefs) and delves into some fundamental areas such as the hudud laws. The Left looks askance at him because he wants to bring religion into the purview of the state, and accuses him of being against women's liberation and gay/lesbian rights. The broad group of western Muslims are also divided internally, and many inside this group itself disagree violently with Ramadan's views.

There have been many intersections where there have been debates, but I will concentrate on two defining moments. The first was his reaction to 9/11, and the second was his call for a moratorium on the hudud laws.

9/11 has become almost like a litmus test for judging the loyalty of people. I believe this is wrong; as asking for a simple, "are you with me or against me?" is simplistic and ignores millions of other factors and nuances which are factored into making political or social choices. He answered the question about his views on the perpetrators of 9/11 by simply asking "who gains?" and posited that no Arab or Muslim group will gain.

As you can imagine, this went down like a lead balloon.

Daniel Pipes, a person of a rightist persuasion has enumerated a laundry list of allegations, issues, questions on why Ramadan isn't kosher. It is quite possible that this list may form part of the reason the US State Department revoked his visa to work in the USA. On the other hand, Ramadan has often spoken out publicly on his opposition of terrorism and has condemned Islamist terrorism. He has also said the resistance in Iraq is just. Therefore, the evidence is puzzling here.

The second example is even more confusing and this is to do with the Hudud laws. Hudud laws are Islamic laws, which define punishments for certain gravely sinful activities. So for example, if you steal something - your right-hand is amputated; if you commit adultery - you are stoned to death etc. etc. This is a massive simplification as there is a huge corpus of law behind these, but the result are these punishments in certain cases. As you can further imagine, this goes down like an uranium bomb in western and leftist circles. In 2004, in a debate with Nicolas Sarkozy, Ramadan refused to condemn these laws, but instead asked for a moratorium. This, in turn, sent the grand poo bahs of the Sunni theological world into a collective apoplectic fit.

"The Hudud are a part of the religion, they are Quranic, and they can be neither subject to debate nor discussion," said Mustapha ash-Shuk'a, one of the muftis on Egypt's Al-Azhar Legal Research Commission. "Whoever denies the Hudud recognized as revealed and confirmed or who demands that they be cancelled or suspended, despite final and indisputable evidence, is to be regarded as somebody who has forsaken a recognized element which forms the basis of the religion."

As you would know, Al-Azhar is the premier Sunni Islamic theological institute and its opinion carries great weight. This type of reaction was also received across the Muslim world. Not only that, but also the great and good of Western Muslims turned against him.

The respondents are very learned members, such as Dr. Muzammil H., the president of the Fiqh Council of North America, Dr.Taha Jabir Al-`Alawani, the president of the Graduate School of Islamic and Social Sciences, Dr. Ahmed Al-Rawi, the president of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, and a member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, Dr. Salah Sultan, the president of the American Center for Islamic Research, Columbus, Ohio, and member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, etc. Each and every member of this august group had issues, calling it variously as "unfounded innovation", "juristically baseless" etc. They implored him to withdraw it post-haste and the debate has carried on.

Now this example shows how the poor man gets it from all ends. The leftists and western secular states are offended because he is not supporting western values of not indulging in and abolishing of barbaric punishments. The traditional Sunni Muslim establishment is furious and almost accusing him of apostasy while his other western Muslim compatriots, people who might be expected to support him, turn on him. Now you see why I feel sorry for him?

Tariq Ramadan is at a peculiar place. He is as close as one can get to Islamic theological aristocracy by dint of his ancestry; he is as close as one can get to being on the top of the heap on Islamic jurisprudence and theology; he is the perfect person to be seen as being on the cusp of western secularism and Islamic thought; he is trying to balance a secular consumerist society with traditional Islamic thought. If a person of his intellect, genes and erudition cannot reconcile the two strands, one wonders who else could.

He is asking for this moratorium for a good reason. It is actually a good compromise. Think about it. No believing Muslim can claim that these Hudud laws are not compatible with modern life if she or he does not want to be accused of being an apostate and wanting to change Islam, being a western stooge or being in the pay of the Zionists (I did not find this accusation, but I am sure it must be out there). On the other side, currently, nobody outside the Muslim world will agree that lopping off the right-hand of a thief is good, however good the justification can be.

However, Tariq Ramadan's point is that given the supercharged nature of Islamic discourse in the world, one cannot expect a solution. The Muslims will think it is the western world trying to impose its values on them and negating Islam and so it is better the solution comes from inside Islam itself. Meanwhile, let us press the pause button on these punishments while and for as long as we debate and discuss. It sounds reasonable to me, but as we have seen above, reason seems to fly out of the window when and where religion is concerned.

It is an interesting if theologically based debate for the future, namely how Islam and the world will see each other. Dr. Ahmed Al-Rawi, chairman of the Islamic Organizations in Europe considered this call an innovation following the "woman leading men in Prayer in the United States and the opening of a women-only mosque in Holland, and now we have the Hudud moratorium call from Switzerland."

When somebody like Dr. Rawi says things like that, it just goes to show how far we still have to go in terms of aligning Islam and the world. But may a thousand flowers bloom and may these differences disappear. Let us remember the objective is for us to be good human beings at peace with our fellow human beings and in love with all our different gods.

Dr. Ramadan, the very best of luck to you.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

Dr. Bhaskar Dasgupta works in the city of London in various capacities in the financial sector. He has worked and travelled widely around the world. The articles in here relate to his current studies and are strictly his opinion and do not reflect the position of his past or current employer(s). If you do want to blame somebody, then blame my sister and editor, she is responsible for everything, the ideas, the writing, the quotes, the drive, the israeli-palestinian crisis, global warming, the ozone layer depletion and the argentinian debt crisis.
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With a Grain of Salt: Poor Tariq Ramadan

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Author: Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta

 

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#1
temporal
URL
July 2, 2006
01:20 PM

beady:

this is a detailed piece and a fuller comment perhaps later....treat this as perfunctory...

when i came to the link for the "list" i clicked and went through the list...then returned to your article and read this: My sister snorted so hard at some of the members on that list, that I could not stop laughing.

give her my regards...my respect for her intuitive hunches went up a notch

We have previously written about Amina Wadud, Asra Nomani, and Raheel Raza and now we explore Tariq Ramadan.

man o man!...sheesh yaar...did not realise the paucity...the paucity must be sahara-wide in your search for "reformers';) -- btw this remark is aimed at the latter two names ... amina for now is honourably excluded from my comments until i study her also fully;)

(looking forward to your next 'satire' or 'humour' on the remaining few -- irshad manji, tasleema nasreen, wafa sultan, and yes ibn warraq too;)


this "The Hudud .... can be neither subject to debate nor discussion," said Mustapha ash-Shuk'a, one of the muftis on Egypt's Al-Azhar Legal Research Commission. "Whoever ....demands that they be cancelled or suspended.....has forsaken a recognized element which forms the basis of the religion."

there is truth in above...but also a lot of hogwash there is a very interesting debate raging over this in pakistan under the slogan zara souchiye kicked by geo TV...if interested follow the links in the article i wrote...

briefly, the limits are set by Allah, and there can be no fiddling with it...but the implementation is by the state...and there is room for manoeuvre there...(law implementation in darul islam vs, darul har'b etc etc)

incidentally, dr. ramadan did address over a thousand youth in TO yesterday evening by video from england...by video because canada succumbed to local pressure groups and denied him a visa...his topic? backbiting and good behaviour

#2
the sister
July 5, 2006
05:14 AM

temporal,

thank you for your regards and respects :) - I hope one day big brother will do the same ;) - one lives in hope etc

paucity of reformers you say and I couldn't agree more, because "real" reformers are scarce indeed, unfortunately everyone who has any weird idea about anything at all, even totally unrelated to the religion but mixing traditions in generously as well as politics and personal agendas and personal cravings for 15 min of fame, claims to be a reformer, and calls him/herself as such, making use of the ignorance of others about the religion, which is at par with his/her own ignorance and uses/exploits the fear of fatwa as a popularity ploy (see Asra, Irshad, Tasleema, Rushdie, Sultan, Hirsi Ali ...)

As for Hudud, I am pleased that a discussion has finally started, and in Pakistan of all places, because the way I see it is that those famous Hudud do exceed even the limits prescribed/set by Allah in his book (which will soon hopefully be the subject of my thesis - if my supervisor doesn't chicken out) and I do not intend to hide behind the fear of a fatwa, grins, as you correctly defined the implementation is by the state and the room to manoeuvre is even wider than the Sahara, suffice to say that the ordained Hudud are 7, while in Pakistan lo and behold they are suddenly 8, blasphemy was added there, a very convenient crime to shut anyone up who doesn't "say" what is wanted to be heard if you ask me, not to forget that they were set by the ulema and fuqaha in the first place way back based on qiyas and ijma rather than the original and main sources and all of them were men from a patriarchial societies which didn't really warm up to the new changes in gender balances which is why hudud is so much tougher on women but they missed their total controls and wanting to take them back they did that and then even closed the doors of ijtihad firmly shut behind them

as for darul islam vs darul harb, grins, this no longer applies, hasn't for centuries even, but conveniently the mullahs have omitted to stick to the definition of it because it is so very convenient

I think that in the lists Tariq Ramadan comes closest to being a reformer, for the simple reason that at least he knows what he is talking about and he has enough knowledge aand passion bout the topic he is out to "reform" unlike others who want to make the haram halal, in my point of view very much like the mullahs in reverse who want to make the halal haram, just 2 sides of the same coin with the very same characteristics of unreasonable close-minded foaming and frothing, just 2 opposites sides of the sectrum

Let's hope the lists expands soon with some other people who dare to speak out and at the same time know what they are talking about, and we again get some decent knowledgeable and committed reformers of the likes of Muhammad Abdou, Sir Syed, al Afghani etc

have a nice weekend :)

#3
temporal
URL
July 5, 2006
07:57 PM

ts:

could not have said it better:)

paucity of reformers you say and I couldn't agree more, because "real" reformers are scarce indeed, unfortunately everyone who has any weird idea about anything at all, even totally unrelated to the religion but mixing traditions in generously as well as politics and personal agendas and personal cravings for 15 min of fame, claims to be a reformer, and calls him/herself as such, making use of the ignorance of others about the religion, which is at par with his/her own ignorance and uses/exploits the fear of fatwa as a popularity ploy (see Asra, Irshad, Tasleema, Rushdie, Sultan, Hirsi Ali ...)

from memory i think there is a slight correction needed here:

... not to forget that they were set by the ulema and fuqaha in the first place way back based on qiyas and ijma rather than the original and main sources

ijma and qiyaas came after qur'an and sunnah were considered as sources....not 'in the first place'

and one more here, though have to admit it is a much wider misconception:

...then even closed the doors of ijtihad firmly shut behind them..

the doors to ijtihaad were never closed per se...what the imaams said were misreported and misinterpreted...if memory serves it started with bu hanifa...and some how got perpetuated down to mythical proportions

my reckoning over this business is simple...if qur'an allows for deliberations and reckoning and meditations (over issues - both personal and those affecting the ummah) then no imaam or mujtahid can alter that permission

one more?

as for darul islam vs darul harb, grins, this no longer applies, hasn't for centuries even,...

i think it does and should be applied...imagine the fun when darul har'b is applied to say pakistan or libya because the leadership there is "unislamic"...heheh:)

you probably know more about tariq and maybe right in your opinion of him as a reformer...but there is another name I would throw in the ring....what do you think of prince karim aga khan as a reformer? (yes, am serious)

digression: what another doc in the family?...or is it masters?...why this subject?

khair

rgds for the lazy one;)

#4
the sister
July 6, 2006
02:09 AM

temporal :)

... not to forget that they were set by the ulema and fuqaha in the first place way back based on qiyas and ijma rather than the original and main sources

my mistake for not having phrased it better, because this is what I meant by "original main sources" they should have followed the quran and sunnah and they didn't, but based it on qiyas and ijma instead, whereas the quran clearly says something else

You say - the doors to ijtihaad were never closed per se... you are correct, and that is what I meant too, the doors are open till judgment day as per the Prophet, but it is the mullahs, ulemas, imams and other uhmmm nice guys who decided to close it so nobody can touch, criticise, judge the rulings they set

so you think darul islam vs darul harb should be applied .. laughs and laughs, yes, I can very well see the fun in applying it to even Saudi lol

prince karim aga khan as a reformer? I can see why you say this and I agree, he is DOING a great deal more for the "cause" than others who just talk the talk, the only problem with prince karim is whether you will have all the Muslims agreeing on him being a Muslim in the first place, I am sure you know exactly what I mean.

PS, it's only a masters but who knows, maybe (if I survive that one) I will take another step forward. And why this topic? well I feel strongly about it, I did a lot of reading and so far have found 3 out of the 7 hudud crimes that transgress the limits of the quran, which should be regarded as the MAIN source and cannot be abrogated by 'lesser' sources, supplemented yes but not changed, if the quran says 100 lashes for both men and women in a certain crime then by no means can one justify stoning to death, specially that the uran specifies half the measure of punishment for a certain group of people, so how can someone be stoned half to death?, and excuse me but even those lashes have a certain prerequisite before being administered, and that procedure isn't even applied before the stoning, so why shouldn't someone speak up? My supervisor said to me that if I could prove/defend my points one of 2 things will happen to me they will either suggest I become the first "sheikha" of al azhar or I will be stoned to death in public in a main square, grins, then big brother will have his peace :D

the lazy one is away on business and will jump right in when he gets back (if I know him at all ... :P)

#5
temporal
URL
July 6, 2006
05:09 PM

ts:

ok:)

so we're on the same page...

btw you should write too (don't think there is any UK law limiting writers in one family;)

(desicritics welcomes everyone)

#6
the sister
July 7, 2006
01:55 AM

thanks temporal, but I just edit, so big brother can moan and complain and be all querulous etc, he wouldnt want the competition :P

#7
bd
July 10, 2006
03:26 PM

Hey T

gosh, you two have been active!, and yes, there is a paucity of "reformers" but in my book, if a person says s/he is a muslim, then s/he is. Also, if they are saying that they want to reform islam, then they are reformers. So from that perspective, I wouldnt call wafa or ibn warraq as muslim reformers, since both of them are self confessed lapsed or non-believing muslims. Rest, yep.

cheers

bd

#8
bd
July 10, 2006
03:26 PM

also, apologies, was travelling, hence couldnt reply promptly, and am again off on my travels! :(

#9
Andrew Morris
URL
November 9, 2006
12:17 AM

Just heard of TR for the first time, via a radio interview. Coming to what he says unencumbered by any previous baggage, I found myself quite impressed: certainly more by him than by his interviewer. (And I speak as an atheist with Buddhist leanings...)


On a similar note, thought you might like to see this email I wrote to John Humphrys today. Humphrys is one of Britain's toughest and best radio interviewers, and is doing a series of three programmes with religious leaders in which he invites them to convert him. Last week's with the Archbishop of Canterbury (Head of the Anglican Church) was a very gentle, cosy affair. With Tareq Ramadan, the story was quite different.

Wonder whether JH will respond...

------- Forwarded message -------
From: AJ International
Date: 08-Nov-2006 12:27
Subject: Interview with Tareq Ramadan
To: john.humphrys

Dear John Humphrys

Having immensely enjoyed your programme with Dr Rowan Williams last week, i have to admit to being a little disappointed with the way you
began with Tareq Ramadan.

He seemed to treat your queries with great calm and tolerance, but your stated purpose of seeking God seemed to take second place to a
challenge to Islam itself, rather than a genuinely open search for what it might say about itself. Your opening salvoes on intolerance, violence, radicalism etc suggested you were out to disprove or even
attack Islam rather than listen to its voice.

In the same spirit, perhaps you should have begun your Christian interview by asking RW what he had to say about the Christian Right in
the States, or, (post-Jerry Springer), in the UK. Or by holding up Creationism as an example of Christian doctrine and berating him with
that. By asking him how he enjoyed being a co-religionist with Ian Paisley. Or perhaps by exploring how he felt about Tony Blair and
George Bush explicitly invoking a Christian God as they lay waste to vast areas of the globe.

You could have mentioned on several occasions to RW that this was 'just his interpretation', as you did to TR. RW speaks of a Christianity after all, which relates very much to a minority church compared to the great mass of Christians throughout the world, and he is furthermore often in conflict with his own church. But you chose to accept his word as representative, a choice you denied to TR who seemed perfectly scholarly to me.

The language about 'giving up your life' to the religion also seemed loaded. My grandmother, as a Methodist in Wales, very much saw her
life as entirely devoted to religion. Is that such an odd thing? What's the point of a religion which doesn't govern your whole life?

Similarly with the death penalty. America carries out a great many executions each year as you well know, and none more than in Dubbya's
own state. Did you ask RW to condemn that?

A shame: perhaps an opportunity missed. And credit to Tareq Ramadan for his forbearance.

Andrew Morris
Dhaka


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