Western Muslims and the Future of Islam

Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. By Tariq Ramadan.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN: 0-19-517111-X (hbk). Review doi: 10.1558/CIS.v2i1.117
Book reviewed by Ron Geaves
This review is published by Equinox Publishing in 2008.

Tariq Ramadan is one of the most eloquent voices calling for an Islamic commitment that is firmly based on the sacred sources and traditions of the religion but which integrates successfully with the West. However, in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, he makes it clear that this does not mean capitulation to values and lifestyles which are not in conformity with the original revelation. The author has been a major influence on many European Muslims and has written a number of books which put forward his position, which in this work he most clearly develops and enunciates.

The first part of the book provides a reformist critique of where Muslims find themselves in the contemporary world and suggests that the Qur’an and Sunna have to be revisited in the light of the new Western context. Yet he does not suggest a diluting of religious commitment as voiced by some former modernizers, neither does he ditch tradition and the centuries of work performed by the ulema and the methodologies that they formulated for interpreting the Qur’an and Sunna as do some of the revivalist movements founded in the twentieth century. The second part of the book takes the interpretation of the classical sources and reapplies them to the practical requirements of Western Muslims.

The author cogently argues that there is enough common ground between Islamic civilization and the values of Western secular democracies and it is in that common ground that Western Muslims can seek active ways to reconcile their faith with citizenship. He calls upon Muslims to avoid a bipolar view as typified by the “Clash of Civilisations” argument expressed in phrases such as “Whatever is Western is anti-Islamic” or “Islam has nothing in common with the West” (5). In particular, he is critical of “minority discourses” currently utilized effectively by Muslims in the West and calls for its replacement by shared citizenship. However, active citizenship in a democracy, he argues, does not mean assimilation but rather maintaining a critically constructive advocacy of social justice, freedom of conscience and worship, joining with partners in committed activism.

He states that the Qur’an explicitly calls upon Muslims to side themselves with all that humanity has produced that is good, just and humane in all fields of human endeavour—the political, economic, social and cultural—and must consider the striving of societies to advance the good as their own, even when such societies are not Muslim (5). This will require a move away from isolationism and even community politics to the establishment of genuine partnerships beyond the Muslim community. The first task for Western Muslims is to return to the sources in order to ascertain what is unchangeable [thabit] and what is subject to change [mutaghayyir]. Two areas of knowledge will need to be deeply studied by Western Muslims; first the Islamic sciences and second, the history and culture of their societies in the West (10). Only in so doing will they be able to make the fundamental distinction that should be made between timeless principles and contingent models (35). There are many Muslim traditionalists who will find fault with Ramadan’s contention that the scriptural sources will need to be read with a fresh eye, and be uncomfortable with the idea that the body 118 © Equinox Publishing Ltd 2008. of the shari’a is a human construction that has evolved throughout time and recognizes cultural difference (37).

My major concern is that Ramadan has too much faith in the ability of the ulema to undertake the task at hand. He is right to comment that most of the Qur’an’s verses concerning legal judgments are open to analysis, commentary and interpretation, and the same applies to the ahadith. But the argument that the fuqawa (jurists) had, and still have (my italics), an important and essential function in the formulation of laws that may be called Islamic (44) is problematic. Partly, the crisis that the Muslim world finds itself in is in part caused by the failure of the ulema to respond creatively to rapidly changing circumstances. The author’s optimism is repeated later in the book when he states, “that the ulema struggle constantly and tirelessly to arrive at the correct judgment, or that which is closest to what is correct and true” (51). All too often, taqlid or imitation remains their prevailing attitude and methodology, and although there are signs of new young dynamic alims achieving their qualifications in the West, they were trained by an older generation who modus operandi remains deeply suspicious of innovation. Yet taqlid has one advantage for those who fear relativism. When the author suggests that “each Muslim should, after consideration and analysis, follow the opinion whose evidence and worth seem to him the clearest and most convincing” (51), he opens up a can of worms for absolutists who consider only one view to be the truth. How does one stop each Muslim from bringing their experience to the process? There will be many who will consider such a process too dangerous to embark upon.

It will take time to create a Muslim environment where taqlid does not predominate and ijtihad returns as an Islamic norm. I agree with Ramadan, that this transformation will happen in the West amongst its Muslim populations and will have repercussions for the majority Muslim world but this is will be a struggle with many setbacks, for there are obstacles and entrenched attitudes to be confronted on both sides of the existing borders between Muslims and non-Muslims. I enjoyed reading this book and would consider it essential reading for both Western Muslims and those who adhere to a pessimistic view of Islam and Muslims and their presence in the West. When one reads Tariq Ramadan, one cannot help but to wish him well and completely fail to understand why the US State Department refused him a visa to take up his appointed post in an American university. His views are moderate, significant and urgent. We need to hear him and America’s loss is Europe’s gain.