Texts and contexts in the work of Tariq Ramadan

Today we use the word only in its political sense, and how unfortunate for us. For I fear that those who see freedom solely as a political concept will never fully grasp its meaning. The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale – or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments.

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar (1901-62), The Time Regulation Institute, 1962. Translated by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe.

I have been tasked with responding to Prof Tariq Ramadan’s lecture ‘Clash of values in European secular societies – liberal and conservative (illiberal) responses’ at the House of Literature on April 9 2015. First of all, I would like to thank the organizers of this event – the Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities (STL) for the invitation to address this forum, and Prof Ramadan for his introductory lecture. Since I have not had access to any prepared lecture texts from Prof Ramadan’s side, I have opted to focus on Ramadan’s oeuvre, in the hope that my trying to situate it in the current Muslim intellectual landscape will provide some orientation points enabling of a more fruitful debate about Ramadan and his work than has hitherto been the case in Norway. I would like to point out at the very outset, however, that I do so as a scholar trained in social anthropology, not theology or Islamic studies, and as a person with ethnographic experience from Muslim communities in South Africa and Norway.

Ramadan is, as many of you will know, a most prolific scholar and intellectual. Part of the fundamental problem in the media reception of Ramadan in Norway has in my view been the rather fantastical idea that it suffices to hear Ramadan lecture on one or two occasions in order to draw the most categorical conclusions about Ramadan, his work, and what it represents. One of the very first injunctions of the Qur’an is ‘iqra’ or the injunction to read. So I would at the very outset like to make the simple point that a prerequisite for anyone wanting to engage with Ramadan and his work on a serious intellectual level is to actually read his work, and to do so in a manner which demonstrates fidelity to his texts. This has hardly always been the case in Norway either: I vividly recall a senior liberal-conservative Norwegian media editor who opened a newspaper column in a mainstream Norwegian newspaper in 2010 with the admission that he had not read anything at all by Ramadan, but nevertheless felt confident in asserting on the basis of having listened in on a lecture by Ramadan here at the House of Literature that same year, that Ramadan was the proverbial ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing.’

If obtaining a doctoral degree from a Norwegian university cannot save you from the embarrassment of making such blanket assertions concerning an author whose books you have never read in the first place then there is probably little that can.

The very same editor went on to declare in the same column that Ramadan was supposedly “unclear” about the separation of religion from politics, further evidence that he had not bothered to read so much as a single paragraph of Ramadan’s actual work, in which arguments to the effect that such a separation is consonant with Islamic foundational texts and the basic tenets of Islamic history have long featured prominently.

Professor Andrew F. March at Yale University in the USA, one of the most astute interpreters of Ramadan’s work, notes in a review published in Middle East Law and Governance from 2010 that ‘whenever a question like who is the real Tariq Ramadan? is posed, it is very hard to remain on the safe side of inanity.’

And indeed it is. Post-Lutheran Christianity has since long done away with the notion of inherited sin, but that has not prevented the emergence of a virtual cottage industry dedicated to speculation about Tariq Ramadan’s “ultimate views or intentions.”  To the detriment of a serious intellectual debate and engagement with Ramadan’s actual work, it is more often than not this very cottage industry which many media commentators happen to rely on, rather than Ramadan’s own work.

So in the case of Prof Tariq Ramadan (1962 -), we are told over and over again to the point of tedious repetition and intellectual nausea that his maternal grandfather was Hassan al-Banna (1906-49), the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brothers in 1928, and that his father was Saïd Ramadan (1926-95) of Muslim World League (MWL) and other dubious Islamic connections. To which the only possible response is to note that there are quite a few Norwegians who happen to have grandparents who were Nazis or Communists, but that we would generally consider it absurd to infer from this that their descendants must be Nazis or Communists. Quite apart from that, a close reading of Ramadan’s work suggests that he on very crucial points part ways with the classical Islamism of his ancestors, as well as with contemporary Islamists such as the Qatari-based sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (1926 – ), who is if anything, a most central reference for the Muslim Brothers today.

For the sake of brevity, let me here simply note a few examples of this. In his 2004 monograph Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (Oxford University Press), Ramadan takes al-Qaradawi to task for suggesting that Western societies constitute “other societies” for Muslims: “Western Muslims are at home, and should not only say so, but feel so”, he writes (Western Muslims, page 53). The distinction between the dar al-islam and the dar al-harb (‘the abode of war’ and the ‘abode of peace’) which underlies classical Islamist thinking and al-Qaradawi’s thinking on this, is for Ramadan reflective of a “binary view of the world that is no longer at all appropriate” (Western Muslims, page 67). Whereas Muslim intellectuals in the classical Islamist mold such as al-Qaradawi prefer to refer to Western societies including Europe as a dar al-da‘wa (‘abode of proselytization’) suggestive of an instrumentalist view of Muslim presence in these societies as ultimately geared towards converting non-Muslims to Islam and extending Muslim influence in these societies, Ramadan clearly prefers the term dar as-shahada (‘abode of witness’). The differences could not be more crucial: Ramadan thereby signals that Muslims’ civic duties towards fellow human beings regardless of the latter’s faith (or non-faith) take precedence over those of the global community of Muslims or the ‘umma’ (see inter alia Western Muslims, page 169). In Ramadan’s short explanatory (or exculpatory, if we are to believe his detractors) What I Believe from 2010, the following words, which would be anathema in the mouths of most classical Islamist: “One must resist the temptation to reduce one’s identity to a single dimension that takes priority over every other” (What I Believe, page 37). And this: “Trust makes it possible to understand that true loyalty is always critical: with our government, with our fellow believers or with the “umma” (Muslim faith and spiritual community), we should never extend blind support to “our own kind” against all “others” (What I Believe, page 39). Already in To Be A European Muslim from 1999, the underlining that to defend justice never only entails defending Muslims.

In Radical Reform, a pointing to the limits of the methodology of so-called ‘minority fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence, fiqh al-aqalliyat), which is if anything closely associated with the name of al-Qaradawi and the European Islamic scholars who take guidance from him (Radical Reform, page 31). Ramadan also has harsh words for the Mawdudi-inspired Islamists of the 1970s and 80s otherwise hilariously portrayed by Prof Ziauddin Sardar in Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim  who sought to ‘Islamize’ various sciences and modernity itself (see Radical Reform, page 127, 128).

Let me also note that Ramadan in a monograph published by Oxford University Press in 2012 and written in response to the so-called ‘Arab spring’ which has since in most places turned into a bitterly cold ‘Arab winter’ takes both secularists and Islamists to task for engaging in a “time-worn debate” and “polarization” based on mutual “caricatures” (Islam and the Arab Awakening , page 80, 89) which did nothing to actualise the cross-political aspirations for human dignity and economic justice expressed in the course of the Arab uprisings of 2010 and 2011.

And so what I will advocate here is to move beyond the intellectual cul-de-sac resulting from the reductionist idea that one has to be either for or against Tariq Ramadan and towards an engagement with Prof Ramadan’s work that respects the integrity of his texts by engaging in a close reading of these, whilst at the same time retaining the right to pose critical questions concerning these very texts. This is no more and no less than we would expect from a scholarly engagement with the work of any intellectual, whether that intellectual happened to have a Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist or humanist background. For I consider the notion that one should harbour a particular suspicion for intellectuals in our time who happen to have a Muslim background and who happen to be working within an Islamic tradition to be a threat to the very advancement of knowledge and the furthering of a shared humanity on which our increasingly diverse liberal and secular societies depend in our time. It is also consonant with the values and virtues of interreligious dialogue to which the Council of Religious and Life Stance Communities (STL) hosting this seminar has long been committed. For there is in fact, as my distinguished colleague at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo, Prof Oddbjørn Leirvik, has underlined in his monograph Interreligious Studies (Bloomsbury 2014), contrary to popular perceptions of what interreligious dialogue entails, nothing in such dialogue which prevents us from tackling hard and difficult questions and effecting profound transformations from within.

Ramadan has on previous occasions had some quite stern words for scholars engaged in and committed to interreligious dialogue: In Western Muslims and the Future of Islam he writes of the “many “specialists” in interreligious dialogue, who go from conference to conference, [and] are totally disconnected from their religious community as well as from grass-roots realities” (Western Muslims, page 209). But fortunately, these are not the colleagues I know of, nor is it the case with the Norwegian Council for Religious and Life Stance Communities (STL) who are if anything grounded in their approach and practice of interreligious dialogue.

Now, I have limited time at my disposal, and so cannot possibly attempt a survey of Ramadan’s whole oeuvre here. And so in the following, I will focus on some of Ramadan’s most recent work, and especially his monograph Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation, which was published by Oxford University Press in 2009.

In so doing, I will zone in on what I take to be an important and recent book by Ramadan, which, though it has arguably gone quite unnoticed in Norway, as a matter of fact represents quite a significant rupture and development in Ramadan’s own work. What my readings here will attempt to elicit, are the specific ways in which Ramadan’s work may provide grounds for a rapprochement between the always unsettled, heterogeneous and constantly developing Western European notions of liberal secularity and citizenship, and a nascent Islamic ethics which Ramadan attempts to give voice to. My interpretations of these issues depend to a great extent on the work of Prof Andrew F. March at Yale University in the USA, and not the least his seminal Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search For An Overlapping Consensus, published by Oxford University Press in 2009.

Ramadan’s method

The social anthropologist Prof Talal Asad (City University of New York) are among those who have noted that reform movements in the Muslim world historically have almost always taken on conservative traits. According to Asad, a central reason for this is that ‘reform’ in the Islamic tradition [tajdid or islah in transliterated Arabic] has sought to anchor and legitimate itself through reference to Islamic foundational texts (the Qur’an and the ahadith). “We have to be explicit about our faithfulness to the fundamentals of Islam and the classical tradition”, argues Ramadan in an essay in a volume edited by the Norwegian scholars Kari Vogt, Lena Larsen and Christian Stokke published by I. B. Tauris in 2009.

It is by no means uncommon for detractors and sympathizers alike to place Ramadan within a salafi-reformist lineage in Islam harking back to modern Muslim intellectuals such as Rashid Rida (d. 1935) and Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905).  Personally, I am more uncertain about that categorization than previously. But in order to attempt to outline what this lineage means, let me for the sake of simplicity note that these were Muslim intellectuals who like Ramadan had a thorough and extensive grounding in the study of the classical Islamic sources, a critical awareness of the contextual circumstances in which they found themselves, and who argued that the appropriate response to the Western dominance that colonialism and modernity represented in the Arab heartlands was for Muslims to return to the Islamic foundational texts. Salafism has had a very bad press in recent years, but it is if anything a heterogeneous intellectual strand in Islam, and as the Princeton professor Bernhard Haykel notes in his contribution to Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement (Hurst & Co.), the ‘enlightened Salafism’ [al-salafiyya al-tanwiriyya]  that Salafi reformists such as Rida’ and ‘Abduh represented in their time, and which Ramadan possibly represents in our time, is quite a different cup of tea than what is now generally known as Salafism. For after the authoritarian and sectarian Saudi Arabian regime with its serial violations of human rights, minorities and women’s rights, currently engaged in military warfare against the Zaidi Houthi rebels of Yemen in which hundreds of innocent civilians have already been killed with high-tech weaponry provided by Western powers, including Norway, started exporting its Wahhabi interpretations of Islam after the petroleum crisis of 1973, this reformist strand of Salafism has gradually lost power and influence to the far more literalist and intolerant Saudi variety. The latter has become practically indistinguishable from Wahhabism, especially after some very senior state ‘ulama in Saudi Arabia realised the practical advantages of assuming the mantle of Salafism, and its attendant connotations of an imagined Islamic authenticity [asala] for themselves at around the same time.

Tariq Ramadan has for those who have been paying attention to it, been quite relentlessly critical of Salafi literalism for a number of years. For Ramadan, Salafi literalists fails to distinguish between the immutable [thabit] and the changing [mutaghayyir] in the Quranic revelation; reduce faithfulness to the Islamic message to a question imitating a specific historical political structure (state or caliphate); and assimilate religious practice to its supposedly original cultural expression by means of attempting to dress, live and interact in the manner they suppose that the original inhabitants of Mecca and Medina must have done so (Radical Reform, pages 17-19, 186). For Ramadan, Salafi literalism represents an Islam for Muslims attracted by reductionist binaries and simplistic answers.


How radical is Ramadan’s reformism?

In his insightful review of Ramadan’s Radical Reform, Prof Andrew March asks the reader to envision what he refers to as a ‘Reformer’s Dilemma.’ According to March’s formulation of this dilemma, challenges to (1) central and constitutive abstract foundational commitments will be more costly to the reformer than (2) challenges to any given practical or applied belief. Furthermore, March contends, we must “assume that persons arguing within a certain community for innovative or unpopular applied ethical views will make risky and costly demands in the realm of method or foundations only when necessary to justify the applied, practical argument” (March, p. 255-256). And so March’s conclusion is that Ramadan’s call for a ‘radical reform’ of Islamic law and ethics and his willingness to call into question very basic principles of Islamic law and theology, could potentially alienate a conservative Muslim audience (ibid.) March, much like myself, finds however that Ramadan’s prescriptions for changes in specific Muslim practices and attitudes in the section he has entitled ‘Case Studies’, which deals with medicine, abortion, women’s rights, HIV/AIDS, the environment, culture, society, education and politics are not particularly radical or challenging to conservative Muslims. What March somehow fails to notice here is the paradox that many non-Muslim readers (or non-readers, as the case may be) will see his proposals with regard to (a) as pedestrian and (b) as way too little, too late. But what, then, is Ramadan actually proposing here, and why should it warrant March’s conclusion to the effect that Ramadan is in fact in Radical Reform “singling out the entire Islamist tradition that runs from his grandfather to Qaradawi (not to mention the more radical and violent groups) for stinging rebuke”? (March, page 268). In Radical Reform, as in many other recent works of his, Ramadan diagnoses a ‘real crisis and the approach of a turning point’ in the Muslim world – including Western Muslim communities’ (Radical Reform, page 29). This crisis, we are duly told, is both a crisis of authority and a crisis of adequacy (ibid.). Ramadan’s core argument in this volume is that the exclusive Islamic authority granted to ‘text specialists’ [usuliyyun and fuqaha] has resulted in ‘a situation of extreme discrepancy between various fields of knowledge’ even though Islam ‘is thought to need a holistic approach’ (Radical Reform, page 126). So far so good: for we have all heard the news stories about Saudi Salafi scholars who issue the most ludicrous fatawa against everything from the building of snowmen to women driving cars by now. The radicalism of Ramadan’s approach here lies in his proposal to “acknowledge that the world, its laws and areas of specialized knowledge not only shed light on scriptural sources but also constitute a source of law on their own” (Radical Reform, page 83). The variable social context [al-waqi‘] is to be considered a source of law alongside Islamic foundational texts. Fatwa councils are in the future to be made up of both text scholars [‘ulama an-nusus] and ‘context scholars’ [ulama al-waqi‘] (Radical Reform, page 130). Taking aim precisely at al-Qaradawi and his followers (though this is implied, and not openly asserted), Ramadan distinguishes between adaptation reform and transformation reform. The former, in Ramadan’s view, limits itself to “protect[ing] one’s ethics in the face of an evolution one acknowledges without going so far as to dispute the very nature of that evolution.” This, in Ramadan’s view, does not suffice, in that Muslims should “refer to an ethics with the requirement of changing the world…because that ethics precisely questions its justice” (Radical Reform, page 33). In practical terms then – al-Qaradawi’s adaptation reform fails because in the face of the ravages of neo-liberal financial capitalism, it is content to declare that very neo-liberal financial capitalism all swell, regardless of its consequences, say for the hundreds of Indian, Nepali, Bangladeshi and Pakistani migrant workers who have lost their lives constructing football stadiums for the Qatar FIFA World Cup in 2022, as long as it’s somehow mysteriously rendered ‘Islamic.’

“Transformation reform” is more exacting, in Ramadan’s view, “in that it adds as further step, and condition, to the whole process. It aims to change the order of things in the very name of the ethics it attempts to be faithful to…[…]…” (Radical Reform, page 33). Central to Ramadan’s rupture in Radical Reform is his shifting of the traditional Islamic focus on law and legal norms onto a broader focus with an Islamic ethics. This also entails a further opening up towards issues and concerns that affect us all as humans, rather than simply those of Muslims. On economic issues, Tariq Ramadan could well be declared a Norwegian social democrat of sorts, for he has for a long time been extremely concerned with questions relating to lack of economic justice and increasingly unequal distribution of wealth, both between what he refers to as ‘the Global South’ and the North, and within the South and the North. The world made by neoliberalism he has referred to as an alam al-harb (‘world of war’) (Western Muslims, page 199).

Ramadan’s conservatism

Part of Ramadan’s message and his appeal to Muslim youth in Europe consists in his emphasis on citizens of Muslim background taking pride in their own background and heritage, and to act with self-confidence in the European public spheres, instead of assuming the position of victimhood. And indeed, as I found in my work with young Norwegian Muslims who in the period between 2009 and 2014 were active participants in Norway’s mediated public spheres, a great number of these have been profoundly inspired and affected by Tariq Ramadan’s work.

Many non-Muslims no doubt see the proposition that Muslims must seek to formulate their own answers to contemporary challenges by their willing to “remain faithful to one’s religious tradition and to the ethical principles it has developed” (Radical Reform, page 145), rather than have their answers dictated to them one way or the other as extremely provocative.

At an early point of his career, Ramadan was declared to be something of a Muslim ‘Martin Luther.’ That cliché, as Andrew F. March pointed out in 2007,  “got it exactly wrong” for “the last thing Western liberals ought to wish for is more “Muslim Martin Luthers” on top of the countless self-appointed, iconoclastic, back-to-the-text, literal-minded zealots who have appeared in the footsteps of Ramadan’s own grandfather.” (March, page 400). “Careful what you wish for”, goes the adamen, and my colleague Prof Torkel Brekke has recently followed in March’s footsteps on this very point. But in much of the Western media, the search for the ‘Muslim Martin Luther’ continues unabated and untroubled by any sense of history, with the intellectually mediocre neo-con ideologue Ayaan Hirsi Ali – with her long and sordid history of simply making things up – now once more returning to that tired trope in order to launch yet another book.

March proposes to regard Ramadan as a Muslim John Locke or “a thinker who would use religious and scriptural arguments to formulate a doctrine of religious tolerance and secular government” (ibid.). Part of the reservation many Western secular liberals – also those who happened to have read his work, and not only relied on the dubious cottage industry dedicated to discrediting him and his intentions, have with regard to Ramadan relate to his conservatism on specific issues which has long been singled out as demarcation lines between the Muslim ‘other’ and the non-Muslim ‘us’ in Western European societies. What we need to keep in mind here, however, is that Ramadan is committed to a concept of reform anchored and legitimated through Islamic foundational texts. ‘Faithfulness’ is indeed a recurrent theme in much of his work. This also means that he has been orientated towards the (re-) construction of a broad Muslim consensus regarding gradual change, rather than radical ruptures. Part of the reason for this is that Ramadan – much like the outstanding Islamic scholar Prof Khaled Abou El Fadl (UCLA) before him – well aware of the fact that a ‘free interpretation’ of Islamic foundational texts that certain groups of self-declared ‘progressive’ and/or ‘liberal’ Muslims advocate is a double-edged sword which may equally well open the gates to the hell of extremely violent interpretations of Islam. But his gradualist strategy has sometimes failed rather spectacularly: his advocacy of a moratorium on criminal punishments (the hudud punishments) applied in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran which are if anything in flagrant violation of human rights laws and laws against torture was condemned by Islamic scholars from the Sunni al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt as being in violation of the shari‘a, and condemned by his Western detractors as way too little, and way too late.

In a sense, part of the recurrent liberal and secular ‘problem’ with Prof Tariq Ramadan stems from the current hegemony of exclusionary and illiberal varieties of both liberalism and secularism in contemporary Western Europe. Andrew F. March again makes this point rather brilliantly, in distinguishing between (a) a comprehensive liberalism as “a way of life, a theory of value and an epistemology” which may be traced back to Voltaire, Kant, Mill and Raz and (b) a political liberalism as a “doctrine of social and political cooperation” which “seeks to elaborate the most reasonable public conception of justice and citizenship for free and equal persons, given the existence of disagreement on the ultimate meaning of life and the epistemological foundation for discovering it” (March, page 401) traceable to Locke, Rawls (and I would hasten to add, Prof Charles Taylor, last year’s STL guest of honour).

Political liberalism would find in Ramadan’s work ample possibilities for convergence or Rawlsian ‘overlapping consensuses’, comprehensive liberalism certainly less so. But if we are to build bridges against the right-wing extremism and salafi-jihadist extremism which currently constitute a proverbial ‘plague on both our houses’ in many European societies, I would contend that it may be political rather than comprehensive liberalism which provides the way forward.


Prof Tariq Ramadan’s reform methodology does from the point of view of a social anthropologist meet some limits which have to do with a certain tendency towards what one might refer to as textual essentialism. For a social anthropologist it is a given that “Islam” as the eminent anthropologist of Islam Prof John R. Bowen (Washington University St. Louis) puts it “is best seen as a set of interpretive resources and practices. ”

And so, by way of example, it is extra-ordinary important that a distinguished Muslim intellectual such as Prof Tariq Ramadan tells us – and Muslims – right here, right now, that Islam does not condone violence and terror, violence against women, economic injustice, honour killings, female genital mutilation, the stoning of homosexuals and adulterers. But we also need to acknowledge the very fact that there are in Islamic foundational texts (as in the foundational texts of other religious traditions – think of certain verses in the Old Testament) verses that may lend themselves to interpretations that violate human rights, women’s rights and human dignity, and provide sanction for violence and terror.

A closer engagement on Ramadan’s part with for example recent literature from Islamic feminists, who have taken the radical step of declaring that there are certain verses of the Qur’an which are clearly discriminatory against women, and therefore may simply have to be abrogated, could be a significant next step.

Thank you for your attention.

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