The post-modernist Muslim is worryingly short on ideas and tailors his message to different audiences, says Andrew Anthony
Plenty know who Ramadan is, but few know what he actually stands for
The grandson of Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan is a senior research fellow at St Anthony’s College, Oxford, and president of the think tank European Muslim Network.
As such, he is often spoken of as a leading Muslim intellectual, a reformist who is able to move between the academic circuit, the clerical establishment (he’s been an ardent defender of the reactionary Sunni scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi) and the wider Muslim population with equal felicity.
But so far the size of his reputation comfortably outstrips the strength of his ideas. There are plenty of people who know who Ramadan is, but far fewer who know what he actually stands for.
And of those that do think they know, some believe that Ramadan tailors his message to different audiences – secular and Muslim – to such an extent that it amounts to deception.
In one case he argues for a modernised Islam, in the other for an Islamised modernity. The French journalist Caroline Fourest set out to expose these alleged inconsistencies and wrote a book entitled Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan.
Reading Ramadan’s latest book, Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation (OUP, £16.99), does little to clear up the issue. In essence it’s an argument for a less literalist approach to Islamic texts, but also for upholding the primacy of these texts.
This, in many ways, is the job that’s confronted Christian theologians since the Enlightenment, and one need only look at the moral contortions that the Church of England regularly performs to see the problems of reconciling the ‘word of God’ with modern-day reality.
But better the muddle that anti-literalism entails than the inflexible certainties of religious doctrine. That is also Islam’s best hope, and Ramadan may have a role to play in realising it – he certainly has a gift for muddled thought.
One of Ramadan’s chapter headings is ‘The Growing Complexity of the Real’, and it serves the dual purpose of not only alerting the reader to an ontological challenge, but also to the more daunting challenge of Ramadan’s writing style.
A sample: “In the Universe, then, one can find definitive elements beyond the changing (natural laws and physical principles – as-sunan al-kawniyyah) as well as definitive elements at the core of the changing (the constants of history – sunan Allah), exactly in the same as there exist definitive transhistorical rules within the revealed text (belief and practice)…”
If you say so, Tariq.
Perhaps Ramadan’s most famous, or infamous, statement was his call for a ‘moratorium‘ on stoning adulterers and the like to death. He refused to denounce the practice (his brother even wrote a defence of the punishment) because it was sharia law, but instead argued that a moratorium would allow for more reasoned debate.
… To his liberal critics, it showed an unwillingness to confront barbarity. What it really pointed to was Ramadan’s determination to do just enough to stay in with both Islamic traditionalists and secular sympathisers. But to what end, however, it remains worryingly hard to say.