A Pretence of Progress

Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation by Tariq Ramadan

To negotiate the vague and tangled pathways of the odd parallel universe where Tariq Ramadan – the Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford’s Faculty of Theology – holds sway is an unsettling experience. It is to find oneself in a realm where common words, such as “reform” or “ethics” or even “universe”, mean both more and less than they say, often simultaneously. His is a coded discourse. Here even solecism serves. He can write “toward He whom” but this – despite Ramadan’s often muddled English – probably isn’t the clumsy error it seems: behind “He” lurks the Arabic personal pronoun Huwa, a common designation for God in pious texts. Since there is no self-standing accusative pronoun in Arabic, English grammar must be twisted into submission.

Even the title of his new book is artfully misleading. The phrase “radical reform” raises high expectations, suggesting a bold attempt to strike at the “root” of a stubborn intransigence. But, as it turns out, Ramadan means something quite different. For the reform he proposes addresses the theoretical jurisprudence of Islam, known in Arabic as “the roots of the law” (usul al-fiqh), as opposed to “the branches” (furu’ al-fiqh) – the specific practical rulings enunciated by judges and legal experts.

Such a project would be admirable, as well as brave, if carried through. Islam – in this, like Judaism – is intensely legalistic. Its religious scholars have almost all been jurists by training, and those theoretical “roots” sustain disciplines as lofty as Koranic exegesis and as mundane as the issuance of fatwas. A fresh examination, let alone a reform, of the “roots” of Islamic law could have momentous consequences, and not only for Muslims. But in fact, Ramadan stands in a long line of Islamic reformers, beginning with the brilliant Egyptian theologian Muhammad ‘Abduh and his shadier sidekick Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in the late 19th century, who advocate “reform” less as a way of ushering Islam into the modern world than as a means of insulating it from deleterious “Western” influences. Ramadan shares this agenda but with a crucial difference. He espouses a reform that replaces “adaptation” with “transformation”. Muslims should no longer merely accommodate modernity as best they can in anxious conformity with their beliefs but strive to transform the modern world, infusing it with Islamic values.

Ramadan denies that he proposes “Islamising modernity” (to use his own unpalatable phrase), but that is the inevitable thrust of his argument. As always with Tariq Ramadan, it’s hard to say for sure. As Caroline Fourest makes plain in her scathing Brother Tariq: the Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan (Social Affairs Unit, 2008), he is a master of darting obfuscation. His boldest pronouncements are laced with reservations, afterthoughts, coded slogans and insinuating asides. And what he fails to say is often more eloquent than what he does say.

Thus, in an otherwise interesting discussion of euthanasia, he cites the Koranic prohibition of suicide (4:29): “Do not kill yourselves, for God has been most merciful to you.” He goes on to declare, on this basis, that “assisted suicide or direct active euthanasia” is forbidden. Here it might seem reasonable for Ramadan to say at least a word or two about the “ethics” of suicide bombing, a far more heinous contravention of the Koranic precept than euthanasia. No doubt he would reply that that was not germane to a discussion of medical ethics. Yet – although he is on record elsewhere as opposing suicide bombing – he here fluffs an occasion to make a strong and principled statement. In a book that presents “Islamic ethics” as a universal panacea, this is a grievous lapse. To make matters worse, more than once in Radical Reform, he respectfully cites the infamous Yusuf al-Qaradawi, not only Ken Livingstone’s favourite mufti but the same sanctimonious thug who issued the fatwa to Hamas legitimating suicide bombing. For all his emollient slogans, Ramadan remains the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the son and brother of two of that movement’s most virulent ideologues. With Ramadan, one always has the uneasy sense that “the hard men” are standing nearby, in the shadows of his suavity. If so, perhaps even he no longer knows which side of his mouth he is speaking from.

Radical Reform consists of a very superficial overview of Islamic legal theory, followed by a “new geography” of the sources of the law and concluding with a series of case studies on a wide array of contemporary issues from abortion and contraception to economics and the environment. Ramadan relies heavily on Arabic technical terminology throughout his discussion, no doubt in the hope of shoring up his scholarly credentials. Since he frequently gives the terms in incorrect transliteration – as well as quite idiosyncratic translation – the ploy misfires.

For all his gloss and polish – and his dexterity in deploying fashionable jargon – Ramadan displays a medieval mindset. This is apparent in the most “radical” of his proposals, that the classical sources of legal theory – the Koran and prophetic traditions, the practice of analogy, the consensus of the community – be expanded to include the “Universe”. Ramadan capitalises the word because he views creation as a kind of text mirroring the Koranic revelation. This is the “context” which stands in divine correlation with the “text”. If creation itself is considered a “root” of the law, it behoves Muslim scholars to include scientific and humanistic studies in their training, so that their rulings can reflect the actual complexity of the contemporary world. This isn’t a bad idea but there’s nothing new about it. It is as old as Islam itself and turns on the fact that the Arabic word ayah signifies both a Koranic “verse” and “a sign”. This led commentators, and especially mystics, to search out correspondences, sometimes of the most literal sort, between the Koran and the creation. There is a vast literature in Arabic and Persian on the “wonders of creation” which takes its inspiration from this linguistic coincidence.

What does this mean in practice? Though Ramadan denies that he wishes to “Islamise modernity”, his proposals for reform seem designed to do just that. At every stage, whether he is discussing medical ethics or scientific research or the status of women, he takes pains to give these subjects an Islamic spin. Even when he appears commendably broad-minded he insinuates little disclaimers to qualify his position. Sometimes these are comical. When he discusses the Hippocratic Oath, for example, he notes that “the framework established by Hippocrates – like its many later versions – created no problem as far as medical practice itself was concerned, but it did give rise to reservations regarding the references it included (initially, ancient gods) or those it did not include (no reference to a Creator or a religious framework)”. As an alternative, he offers the oath formulated at the first International Conference on Islamic Medicine, held in Kuwait in 1981, which among provisions enjoining physicians “to protect human life in all its stages”, includes such items as the following: “To be, all the way, an instrument of God’s mercy, extending my medical care to near and far, virtuous and sinner and friend and enemy” and “To keep people’s dignity, cover their privacies and lock up their secrets.” What is striking in this document, apart from its quaintness, is that it is at such pains to spell out what most of us take for granted. After all, what reputable physician would even pause to consider whether a patient was virtuous or sinful? As in Ramadan’s own proposals, it’s what’s left unsaid that disturbs: the implication that in an “Islamised” medicine, a pious quack might be more concerned with patients’ morals than with their health, however he may be admonished to “cover their privacies”.

Islam has a long, rich and profound tradition of ethics, drawn not only from scripture and tradition but from ancient Judaic, Greek, Persian and Indian sources. You would never guess this from Ramadan’s presentation. To judge from his arguments, Islamic ethics consists of little more than pious nudges, self-righteous disclaimers, and nagging pieties to be smuggled into scientific protocols and universal declarations. Even so, there is something appalling, something quite shameless, in Ramadan’s endeavour, however quixotic it may seem. (This shamelessness was visible to all when he appeared on French television, in 2003, to debate Nicolas Sarkozy, at that time Minister of the Interior, and declared that there should be a “moratorium” on the stoning of adulterers – a typical Ramadanian wriggle.) Islamic ethics will become credible only when its advocates have the courage to act on it, and that means not only taking a hard look at cruel immemorial practices such as stoning but denouncing and repudiating the violent and distinctly unethical elements in their midst. If the Dar al-Islam, the “house of Islam”, is in desperate need of reform, as Ramadan himself contends, the first step might be to evict the murderous ideologues who infest its premises. That would be a reform radical enough for us all.

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