A Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the Oxford University (Oriental Institute, St Antony’s College) Professor Tariq Ramadan also teaches at the Oxford Faculty of Theology. He is Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, (Qatar) and the University of Malaysia Perlis; Senior Research Fellow at Doshisha University (Kyoto, Japan) and Director of the Research Centre of Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE) (Doha, Qatar)..
He holds an MA in Philosophy and French literature and PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the University of Geneva. In Cairo, Egypt he received one-on-one intensive training in classic Islamic scholarship from Al-Azhar University scholars (ijazat in seven disciplines). Through his writings and lectures Tariq has contributed to the debate on the issues of Muslims in the West and Islamic revival in the Muslim world. He is active at academic and grassroots levels lecturing extensively throughout the world on theology, ethics, social justice, ecology and interfaith as well intercultural dialogue. He is President of the European think tank: European Muslim Network (EMN) in Brussels.
He is a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars.
His latest books are: “Islam and the Arab Awakening” OUP USA (2012); “The Arab Awakening: Islam and the New Middle East” Penguin (April 2012); “The Quest for Meaning, Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism” Penguin (2010); “What I believe” OUP USA (2009); “Radical Reform, Islamic Ethics and Liberation” OUP USA (2008),« Au péril des idées » (French) with Edgar Morin, Presses du Châtelet, March 2014.
Ramadan works primarily on Islamic theology and the position of Muslims in the West and within Muslim majority countries. Generally speaking, he prioritizes Quranic interpretation over simply reading the text, in order to understand its meaning and to practice the tenets of Islamic philosophy.
He rejects a binary division of the world into dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam) and dar al-harb (the abode of war), on the grounds that such a division is not mentioned in the Qur’an. He has been also known to cite favurably the Dar al-Da’wa (Abode of Information Dissemination).
For him the “Islamic message” to which Muslims are expected to bear witness is not primarily the particularist, socially conservative code of traditionalist jurists, but a commitment to universalism and the welfare of non-Muslims; it is also an injunction not merely to make demands on un-Islamic societies but to express solidarity with them.
Ramadan has voiced his opposition to all forms of capital punishment but believes the Muslim world should remove such laws from within, without any Western pressure, as such would only further alienate Muslims, and instead bolster the position of those who support hudud punishments (A punishment fixed in the Quran and hadith for crimes considered to be against the rights of God): “Muslim populations are convincing themselves of the Islamic character of these practices through a rejection of the west, on the basis of a simplistic reasoning that stipulates that ‘the less western, the more Islamic'”.
He has condemned suicide bombing and violence as a tactic. Additionally, he contends that terrorism is never justifiable, even though it is sometimes understandable.
in France, Ramadan maintains star status at the center of the niqab/hijab conflict, arguing famously that “Compelling a woman to wear a headscarf is against Islam, and compelling her to remove it is against human rights.” But in April of 2014, at a mosque in San Jose, California, Ramadan proclaimed to a wholly Muslim audience: “We will not give up on the head scarf.”
Ramadan wrote that the Muslim response to Pope Benedict XVI’s speech on Islam was disproportionate, and was encouraged by reactionary Islamic regimes in order to distract their populations, and that it did not improve the position of Islam in the world.
In a French television debate in 2003 with Nicolas Sarkozy, Sarkozy accused Ramadan of defending the stoning of adulterers, a punishment supposedly warranted by a section of the Islamic penal code known as hudud. Ramadan replied that Sarkozy was wrong. He said that he opposed stoning and that he favored “a moratorium” on such practices to have time to discuss the law outright. Many people, including Sarkozy, were outraged. Ramadan later defended his position arguing that, because it involved religious texts, the law would have to be properly understood and contextualized. Ramadan argued that in Muslim countries, the simple act to “condemn” won’t change anything, but with a “moratorium”, it could open the way for further debate. He thinks that such a debate can only lead to an abolition of these rules. He further engaged in similar debates on the issue, notably at the Cambridge Union with Sir Bernard Crick, among others, in 2008
Shafaqna had the great pleasure of sitting down with Professor Ramadan and discuss some of the issues which trouble the Muslim community.
SHAFAQNA – I’d like to begin with the concept of Islamic democratic secularism and the statement in your book, Arab Awakening, that, “at this precise moment Muslims will only have proven the singularity of Islam when they demonstrate its universality.” Could you explain what you mean by this, and the concept of Islamic democratic secularism?
It’s part of a whole discussion about ethics in my work. I focus on Islamic applied ethics in many fields, and here I am saying that coming back to the Quran and the sunnah (way of life prescribed as normative for Muslims on the basis of the teachings and practices of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and interpretations of the Quran.) as our reference point does not mean that we depend for our ethics on ‘Islam as opposed to the others’. I look to Islamic ethics to find something that can provide the basis for shared values with other traditions, and ultimately universal values. This ties into the point I made in another book, The Quest for Meaning, that the only way for values to be universal is if they are shared universal values. My main point is, in this quest for value the aim is not to express your distinctness from others, but about being able to contribute to the discussion of universal value. What I’m advocating is an intellectual revolution – it’s a different mindset concerning the ethical benchmarks by which we live.
SHAFAQNA – Back at the time of the Prophet (PBUH) a group of early Muslims travelled to Ethiopia where they sought refuge. After the King asked to know about Islam he declared that in between Christians and Muslims was but a line in the sand. Are those two religions that different? And why is it that we see so much enmities in between the two?
First of all I don’t think that we can really talk about enmities between the two religions. I think that we have to be very cautious and that we need to be careful about contextualizing things. There are tensions in some countries in between Muslim and Christian communities for political, social or economic reasons but by en large if I look at the world the great majority of Christians are living peacefully with the Muslims and vise versa. And this has been the case in Muslim majority countries, so we need to very cautious with perceptions that there is something intrinsically different in between the two religions .
Now, it’s true that if you come to the deep or the principles and lessons from those respective religions we are indeed very close. This is actually mentioned many times in the Quran. Now we need to know what are the differences to be able to know the commonalities.
There are three things which are important: of course the status of Jesus who was a prophet for the Muslim and the son of God in the Christian tradition. The second has to do with the trinity which is coming from this understanding that Jesus was divine, a concept Islam does not recognize. The last thing which I would say is also important because it has a great impact, it is the notion of the original sin, that you don’t find in the Islamic tradition.
So I think that those are the three main things.
But there is also some great differences on a religious structural level. The Catholic Church for example is built around a very strict hierarchy of priests, with at its top, the Pope. The Pope actually acts as a medium in between God and Christians.
Islam does not have this sort of structure. There is no need for an intermediary in between the people and the divine.
When we look at history we need to be very clear and very careful about contextualizing political tensions, economic and social tensions as opposed to religious tensions.
SHAFAQNA – What does it mean today to be a Muslim in an increasingly secular world?
It is important to understand that there is no real clash in between Islam and secularism. Envisioning the two as antithetical simply arises when one relies on a binary understanding of the world.
First of all we need to define what we mean by the secular world, because the secularization process was to differentiate between the state power and the church power – the power of religion. But again because the religious structure of Christianity and Islam are so different the secular and the religious mean different things.
In Islam we don’t have a clergy and we there is a clear line in between the state and the religious already set in place. For example when Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) used to share his thoughts, the companions used to ask him whether he was sharing his thoughts or whether his worlds were a revelation.
If we are talking here about the sharing of powers, Muslims don’t have a problem because it actually matches Islamic tradition where the affairs of the state and the religious are naturally separate.
Now if we reduce secularity and the process of secularization to less religion or no religion in the public sphere then it is different. The new discussion in the West on secularity is coming because of the new visibility of Muslims.
Because westerners are confronted with Muslims practicing their religion, they feel suddenly that secularism is being challenged. But can we really say that because an individual practices his or her religion he or she automatically rejects the separation of powers? No of course not. It only means that in their daily life they are practicing their faith. I can be a Muslim, pray, wear the headscarf and these things and at the same time respect the secular legal system.
There is no clash in between an individual’s religious life and civic duties and responsibilities.
Muslims don’t have a problem with this by the way, quite the opposite I would say.
It is western powers’ distorted vision and understanding of Islam which has fed this misconception and led to tensions. Muslims in the West do not have a problem with the system, they live perfectly well within the system.
We do not have a problem with the legal framework, we have a problem with inequalities, racism, sectarianism …
SHAFAQNA – In your book, “Arab Awakening” Islamic values are deployed both as a critique of western values and Arab worlds in their present state. Together they amount to a comprehensive critique of capitalism as a system, a critique which you also find reflected in the Arab Awakening which is the subject of the book. Do you think these seismic processes, these profound changes you evoke in your book will take that path and build on that critique?
Unfortunately, some of the theses I put forward in those pages have now been proved all too correct. For example, in the concerns I voiced at the beginning of the book, when I said that I was cautiously optimistic, but that there could be a polarization with secularism, and that in that polarization, Islam was avoiding the main questions. The nature of the state is one thing, but there are other major challenges – what it will take to tackle the issues of social corruption, for example, social justice, and the economic system – and what are the future challenges when it comes to equality between the citizens, in particular in the field of the job market and equal opportunity for men and for women? This is at the center of the question that is the Arab Awakening.
What I see now is that even with the Islamists, who have been portraying themselves as the alternative to corruption and dictatorship and in defense of more transparency, there is one respect in which they have now changed completely. Since the beginning of the 1920’s, Islamism was very close in positioning in some respects to ‘liberation theology’. But that is no longer the case. Now the most important example of the last fifteen years is the move from Erbakan to Erdogan, creating the Turkish model that has been highly successful in economic terms, but only in fact by buying into and succeeding in being integrated into the global economic system.
I don’t see anyone today, whether you look at the Muslim Brotherhood or Ennahda in Tunisia or people working in Libya, or even the Salafi, who have a different position on the economy. The Salafis are now very much involved in politics, having changed their strategies over the last five years. As we know, though they have their own very particular take on the whole political discussion – they are obsessed with the political structure – they don’t talk about economic dynamics either. So this is why in Saudi Arabia and Qatar they can be very very powerful at the grassroots level, by being very strict about what is lawful and unlawful in ethical and political and cultural terms. But they are not talking about the economy either.
SHAFAQNA – How would you define freedom of expression in Islam?
I think that this is something quite important as well. Once again we would say, let us talk about the liberal definition of the freedom of expression versus the Islamic definition freedom of expression. But the starting point of this discussion is actually wrong. In so philosophy, in no social organization, in no philosophical structure is there absolute freedom of expression.
Absolute freedom of expression is impossible.
In all western countries there are laws regulating freedom of expression. If I’m a racist for example there are things that I cannot do and cannot say without breaking the law. For example, In France there is a law telling you that you cannot challenge the holocaust. If an individual were to challenge the factuality of the holocaust he or she would be breaking the law in France.
And where people would agree that the holocaust was a historical fact and therefore should be open to discussion or debate, France legislated that none would ever be able to challenge the pre-set validity of the event. How can you take a law on history?
In the West there are things you can say and others that you cannot say. And to know your freedom is understanding the scope of your freedom.
It was Jean-Jacque Rousseau, a famous French philosopher who said that the freedom of everyone of use stops where that of other’s begin.
The point here is that there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech.
Now from an Islamic viewpoint we have to differentiate between the legal system and moral — the good behavior. And there are some things that are legal and some things that are ethical. And not everything which is legal will be ethical and vice versa.
And yes sometimes we hear people cry out blasphemy in relation to certain issues, but it really comes down to social sensitivities, cultural sensitivities.
When it comes to decency, when it comes to mutual respect it is not a question of law it is a question of education and ethics. It comes down to an individual’s ability to recognize that one particular attitude is socially reprehensible. We need to ask ourselves, do we want to live in a realistic society?
We live in a multi-cultural world and we need to learn to respect one another and accept one another for our differences with kindness and empathy. And though some will argue that it their inherent right to say what they want and attack however they want, is it moral to do so, is it right to do so?
We cannot talk about rights without talking about responsibilities as well. Islam teaches that rights go hand in hand with responsibilities.
And this is where we have to come together. And this is not even just an Islamic value, it is a universal value. Even the Pope said that we cannot never justify attacks on others’ faith in the name of freedom of expression.
This idea of West versus Islam is wrong, it is such a bias and flawed vision of the world.
SHAFAQNA – What do you make of extremist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda? What discussion should we really have on terrorism?
I think that, once again, some of the slogans and some of the statements coming from people like Da’ish, or the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria are using some of the controversial issues around the world and targeting journalists or targeting intellectuals and, in fact, trying to focus on some of the sensitive issues in specific countries. So this is where, as Western Muslims—as Muslims as a whole, but also as Western Muslims—we have to be quite clear on the fact that the critical discussion that is now necessary in our Western societies, be it in the States or in Europe or in France, we have to be involved. We have to make it clear that—there should be no confusion—Islamophobia is the racism.
It’s only as citizens, it’s only in the critical debate, it’s only with all the forces and all the trends within our societies that are against any type of racism, that we are going to resist and reform the minds and the hearts of our fellow citizens. And it could never be accepted, never be supported, such actions that are now exploiting and channeling some of the frustrations that we have in the West as to, you know, equal citizenship and racism, and using this to support what is in fact not acceptable and has to be condemned. So, there is here a danger for us to see some of our fellow Muslims fall prey to radicalism.