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Published in the 16-30 June 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review


Western Muslims and the Future of IslamName of the Book: Western Muslims and the Future of Islam
Author: Tariq Ramadan
Publisher: Oxford UP, New York
Year: 2004; Pages: 271
ISBN: 0-19-517111-X

The schools of classical Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh emerged and developed in a context of Muslim political rule and in regions where Muslims were a dominant majority. Hence, the relevance of medieval fiqh for Muslims living as minorities today is rather limited, particularly in matters of politics. For the medieval jurists Muslim minority-ness was not an issue that was seriously considered, being generally seen as a temporary phase to be superseded as a result of the expansion of Islam. Naturally, then, medieval fiqh prescriptions on political affairs provide little guidance for contemporary Muslim minorities. In the absence of contextually relevant rules for Muslim minorities, tenaciously clinging to medieval fiqh formulations has proved to be counter-productive for many Muslim minority groups, sometimes bringing them into conflict with non-Muslim majority communities. The armed struggles for the political independence of Muslim minorities in several countries today are a case in point. Propelled by a vision of Islam that sees it as necessarily linked to political power, many of these movements and the violent reactions that they have invited have resulted in death and destruction on a massive scale, and have made the question of the political status of Muslim minorities only more intractable. In turn, this has further strengthened the belief, so widely held among non-Muslims, of Muslim minorities being incapable of being loyal citizens.

This timely book provides a refreshing contrast to much Islamist as well as Islamophobic writing on the question of Muslim minorities. Many radical Islamist ideologues, like their Islamophobic opponents, insist that Islam and Muslim political power are inseparable, that Islam is antithetical to democracy and secularism, and that Muslims cannot lead full ‘Islamic’ lives in the absence of an ‘Islamic state’. Ramadan passionately opposes these arguments, and in the process develops new perspectives on Muslims as minorities, thereby enabling Muslim minorities to balance what are often seen as the mutually opposed demands of their status as citizens of non-Islamic states, on the one hand, and their religious commitments, on the other. Although his arguments are shaped by the particular context in which Western Muslims are located, they have a broader relevance for Muslim minorities more generally.

Ramadan’s project for developing a new Islamic perspective on Muslims living as minorities in the contemporary West entails a re-reading of much of Islamic tradition. He appeals for a contextual reading of the Qur’an, the Prophetic Sunnah and the works of the classical ‘ulama. He argues for the need for Western Muslims to develop understandings of Islam of their own and for them to be intellectually, besides politically and financially, independent. While this does not mean that they should have no contact with or benefit from Islamic scholars in the East, it does suggest that Western Muslims should think for themselves and develop theses appropriate to their own context. Approaching the sources of the faith from the particular context in which Western Muslims find themselves leads to new ways of understanding their contemporary relevance. In turn, this contextual reading of Islam points to new, and contextually grounded, forms of practical action in fields as diverse as Islamic education, spirituality, inter-faith dialogue, political participation, the struggle for social, including gender, justice and so on. 

A Western Muslim contextual approach to Islam, Ramadan writes, necessarily calls for a significant transformation in the ways in which Western Muslims understand themselves and their role in the wider society. Ramadan bitterly critiques the minority syndrome that many Muslims, as well as other marginalized communities in the West, suffer from. While he recognizes that many Western Muslims do face various forms of discrimination, including growing Islamophobia and racism, he argues that they must rid themselves of their ghetto mentality and the deeply rooted belief that all non-Muslims are necessarily anti-Muslim or that they are all engaged in a global conspiracy against Islam. Such a frighteningly Manichean worldview is actually un-Islamic, he says, besides also being counter-productive from the Muslim point of view. Equally fallacious is the argument that the contemporary West is an ‘abode of war’ (dar ul-harb) or an ‘abode of infidelity’ (dar ul-kufr), while Muslim majority countries constitute the ‘abode of Islam’ (dar ul-Islam). The concept of the dars, Ramadan reminds us, is a post-Qur’anic development, and does not have any relevance in today’s complex and closely inter-connected world. In fact, he says, because of the freedom of religion that almost all Western countries guarantee, they have a more legitimate right to be considered ‘abodes of Islam’ than many Muslim countries themselves, where practicing Muslims are sometimes subjected to stern state repression. Ramadan prefers to use the term ‘abode of invitation’ or dar ul-da‘wa for the West, exhorting Western Muslims to consider their countries as arenas of Islamic mission, which requires Muslims there to communicate Islam to others as well as to engage in practical action to promote the good for the sake of the wider, including non-Muslim, society.

‘Integrating’, as Ramadan describes this new approach in contradistinction to ‘integration’, leads to new ways of imagining Muslim cultural identity. Ramadan is critical of the tendency among many Western Muslims to conflate Islam with Arab or South Asian culture, and argues that Islam’s universality actually allows for Muslims to adopt aspects of the culture of others, provided these are not forbidden in Islam. He criticizes Muslims who see the ‘West’ as wholly ‘evil’ or unambiguously ‘anti-Islamic’. He points out that, besides its negative side, there are, in fact, many good things about the West, not just in terms of science and technology but also in the arts and culture, and in fact all that is good, just and humane, which Muslims can make their own. This recognition of the good in others, impelled by a humility born out of self-critique and introspection, would pave the way for Western Muslims to become precisely that, Western and Muslim at the same time, rather than being simply Muslims who happen to live in the West like confused aliens. Ramadan goes so far as to advocate the creation of a distinct European and American Muslim identity that is faithful to the principles of Islam but is definitively rooted in Western society.
Rather than imagining themselves as a minority community in constant need of special care and protection, a stance that only further marginalizes them while at the same time strengthens the dominant system, Western Muslims, Ramadan says, must realize their status as agents of God’s Will to all humankind. This requires them to shed a compulsive obsession with the question of communal identity, and, instead, to actively engage, in new, imaginative and creative ways, with the wider society, in order to promote the good and to combat evil. Inter-religious dialogue assumes a particularly pressing urgency in this regard. Ramadan points out that the Qur’an repeatedly exhorts Muslims to dialogue with others as equals, based on the values, moral commitments and beliefs that they share in common. This dialogue would, he says, result in mutual enrichment, genuine pluralism and respect for, though naturally not full agreement with, the beliefs of others, all of which the Qur’an itself ordains.

Although dialogue at the theological level is crucial, Ramadan stresses that this is not the only form of dialogue that Western Muslims must actively pursue. Equally important is the need for Muslims to work along with people of other faiths and even atheists who are committed to a more just, equitable and peaceful society, in order to pursue common goals. These include not just combating Islamophobia at home or Western imperialism in Muslim counties, but also resisting political and economic oppression, gender injustice, environmental degradation, the arms race and so on, no matter what the religious, national or ethnic identity of the victims. 

Just as inter-religious dialogue is both a pressing practical necessity as well as a project mandated by the Qur’an itself, so, too, is intra-Muslim dialogue. Ramadan laments the lack of any serious initiatives to promote dialogue between different Muslim ‘sectarian’ groups in the West and elsewhere, with each group claiming to represent the single ‘authentic’ Islamic tradition and branding all others as aberrant. One way out of this seemingly intractable dilemma is to make a critical distinction between the absolute word of God, as contained in the Qur’an, on the one hand, and human interpretations of it that are necessarily limited as well as variable, on the other. In this way Muslims can be guarded against the danger of sectarian absolutism. This, once again, is linked to Ramadan’s essential quest for a contextual Qur’anic hermeneutics. 

Ramadan is clear that the ambitious task of developing a contemporary Islamic theology and jurisprudence hinges on the reform of the Islamic education system. He appeals for Islamic schools to welcome the teaching of science, on the grounds that knowledge in Islam is comprehensive in scope. Madrasas must also familiarise their students with the wider Western society, he says, so that the education they provide is contextually relevant. In this way their students can contribute towards the development of the wider society, besides enabling Muslims to preserve their faith and identity without remaining ghettoized.  

Central to the project of the reform of Islamic education is the revival of the tradition of ijtihad. In this regard Ramadan opposes scripturalist literalism, blind imitation (taqlid) of the established schools of jurisprudence, and hostility to the use of reason in understanding the ‘aims of the shari‘ah’ (maqasid al-shari‘ah). Along with this, he appeals for the development of new approaches to fiqh that seriously take into consideration the ‘common good’ (maslaha al-mursala). Ramadan links this to an overarching discussion about the nature of Islamic jurisprudence, making a clear distinction between the divine shari‘ah, on the one hand, and man-made fiqh, on the other. While the former is eternal, the latter, being a product of human minds, can, and indeed, must evolve in response to changing social conditions in order to remain relevant, although Ramdaan cautions that reform must in no way violate the express commandments of the Qur’an and the authentic Prophetic traditions. This project of a dynamic fiqh has crucial implications for a range of issues. Thus, for instance, in matters of gender relations it would help facilitate the emergence of what Ramadan refers to as Islamic feminism, based on new fiqh rules that replace patriarchal structures. Likewise, it would also lead to the development of new prescriptions on matters of politics.

Quite naturally, Ramadan devotes considerable attention to the question of the political loyalties of Western Muslim minorities, a hotly debated subject today. Radical Islamists bitterly harangue the West for its ‘godless’ secularism, castigating this as unambiguously ‘anti-Islamic’. Ramadan critiques this view, pleading for the recognition of the normative constitutional order of secularism and questioning what he sees as the very tendentious and ideologically driven reading of secularism as ‘anti-Islamic’ on the part of certain Islamist extremists. Accordingly, he encourages Western Muslims to engage in democratic politics, allying with progressive, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist forces for transforming existing political structures at the state and international levels. He argues that Islam does not provide a detailed blueprint for the polity, but, instead, offers general guidelines, values and certain prohibitions to guide Muslims in their political affairs. This being the case, it is possible, he says, for Muslims living as minorities to lead fully Islamic lives even in the absence of a state ruled according to the shari‘ah. Although all Muslims are members of a global ummah, this does not mean that state boundaries have no legitimacy in Islam. Muslims are called upon to be loyal to their country provided they are allowed full freedom of religion. Ramadan insists that they must remain law-abiding citizens as long as they are not compelled by the state to violate their religion. In the event of Muslims being called upon by their states to participate in an unjust war, they should, he says, be able to resort to the ‘conscience clause’ to plead for ‘conscientious objection’, a provision that is available in several Western countries. In this way, Ramadan attempts to reconcile the faith commitments of Muslim minorities with their status as citizens of non-Islamic states. 

This book is a very welcome contribution to the growing literature on the subject of Muslim minorities. It offers refreshingly new perspectives on a range of issues that are of relevance not only to Western Muslims but also to Muslim minorities elsewhere and, indeed, to Muslim majority groups as well, as they struggle to engage with the difficult demands of modernity. «

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