Dr Tariq Ramadan
By Aijaz Zaka Syed
April 26, 2013
Dry academic debates hold as much charm for me as they do for most readers. But when Dr Tariq Ramadan speaks, you cannot help but pay attention. One of the sharpest minds of our times, he is recognised as an authority on contemporary Muslim societies and challenges facing them. What distinguishes Ramadan, currently teaching at Oxford University, from other Islamic scholars is the fact that he grew up in the west.
His family was forced into exile after his grandfather and Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan Al Banna was assassinated. Ramadan was born in Switzerland. Growing up in the west and receiving the best of western and Islamic education has endowed Ramadan with a rare understanding of both worlds. He used it effectively in the chaotic post 9/11 times to help bridge the gulf between Islam and the west. More often than not, fellow believers have been his audience. Holding a mirror to his own, he has repeatedly urged introspection, moderation and openness.
In a recent article, Ramadan tackles an issue that has increasingly troubled Muslim minds in recent times. “From Asia to North America, the conclusion is inescapable: The contemporary Islamic conscience is in deep crisis. How to be a Muslim today? How to be faithful to one’s principles while remaining open to the world? How can Muslims deal with their diversity and overcome their multiple divisions?” asks he in his Gulf News column.
“How can Muslim societies create new models of development, education and social justice? Can they imagine economic alternatives? Can the 1,000-year-old Islamic civilisation make an original contribution to the concert of cultures and civilisations? Everywhere, Muslim individuals and societies ask themselves the same burning questions,” notes Ramadan. And he isn’t encouraged by the answers to his own questions: “The crisis drags on; no answer seems in sight. The light at the end of the tunnel seems nothing but an illusion.”
Interestingly, this comes at a time when more and more people around the world, especially in the west, are discovering Islam. Notwithstanding all the lies and perpetual smear campaign against Islam and its followers, it remains the fastest growing faith on the planet. Muslims have already outgrown Catholics as the world’s biggest religious community. This in turn seems to fuel insecurity in societies where Muslims are in minority. Sri Lanka and Myanmar are the latest examples of growing Islamophobia.
At the same time, there’s no denying the fact that the Ummah has a profound ideological crisis brewing in its midst. Of course, Muslims’ faith in the religion as a complete way of life and its claim to offer answers and solutions to all questions of life remains constant and unshakable. But today more than ever they are looking to their leaders and scholars to make sense of a world that has dramatically changed over the past several centuries, particularly in the past few decades. The challenges posed by modernity and transformation that has turned our world into a truly global village are overwhelming. And western civilisation and its cultural and social mores rule this global village.
Where do Muslims belong in this world? What are their responsibilities and how they ought to deal with the conundrums thrown up by modern times? These are the burning questions – as Ramadan calls them – that have increasingly baffled people of our generation and those that came before and after us. But these questions and ideological dilemmas haven’t received the attention and seriousness they deserve from our scholars and Ulema. If they have, we do not see much by way of results.
Look at the scourge of extremism, which has emerged as one of the most serious challenges facing Muslim societies today. In the absence of clear guidance and our failure to present the real message and spirit of Islam before the world, an extremist fringe claims to speak on behalf of the faith as its followers helplessly watch.
At the heart of Muslims’ decay and decline is the limited nature of their vision and inability to adapt themselves to the demands of a fast evolving world. There was a time, for a thousand years, when Arabs and Muslims led the global march of progress and ideas. Who can ignore the west’s immense intellectual debt to Muslim philosophers and scholars in every sphere of knowledge?
If Muslims had restricted themselves to a narrow vision of their faith and what it expects of them, they wouldn’t have conquered the distant frontiers of the known world. There was a time when seekers of knowledge from around the world came to Muslim lands, to universities and springs of wisdom like Dar Al-Hikma in Baghdad. Where are such centres of knowledge today? How many universities from across the Muslim world figure in the world’s 50 or 100 best?
There is a splurge of new ideas and human advances on all fronts today. How do Muslims relate to them? Should they all be spurned as ‘un-Islamic influences’ to keep ourselves out and behind the rest of the world? Why Muslim minds aren’t coming up with ideas that could be a shared property of mankind anymore? What explains our poverty of vision and bankruptcy of ideas?
These are the questions that demand answers from our religious and intellectual elites and soon. One thing is certain. You cannot blame religion for the rigidity and backwardness of its followers, as many of Islam’s detractors do. Its message remains as contemporary and relevant as it was when the Arabs received it fifteen centuries ago. This is precisely why it continues to win hearts and minds around the world.
The problem lies in our own limited interpretation of Islamic teachings and spirit. In our literalist approach and our preoccupation with the form, rather than the substance, we have lost sight of our real goal – our salvation and that of humanity. We have reduced our faith to a set of rituals and customs just like any other dogma.
As Ramadan notes: “The most visible, the most serious signs of the crisis of the contemporary Islamic conscience can be found in the inversion of means and ends the obsession with norms transforms them into an ultimate goal; they are no longer a means to an end, but the end itself. The essence is forgotten.”
We claim that Islam came as a blessing for all mankind and as a source of guidance for all times to come. How can its followers hope to guide others when they have distanced themselves from its spirit and teachings? What is desperately needed today is rediscovering and rekindling the original spirit of our faith and approaching it anew to help us take on the challenges and questions of today’s world.
Many brilliant minds in the past century and beyond have sought to do just that. They advocated returning to original sources of guidance and applying them to modern times. Today, this needs to turn into a global movement. Muslims need a new road map and a new sense of purpose. To quote Ramadan again, “the crisis is acute. To resolve it there must be an awakening, a renewal, and a revolution in our way of thinking.”
This isn’t possible without the initiative and proactive participation of our Ulema and religious leadership. As Muhammad Abduh, the 19 th century reformer put it, in Islam man was not created to be led by a bridle but given intelligence and reason so he could be guided by knowledge. Faith and reason can and must go together.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs.