London, Asharq Al-Awsat – “As Muslims in the west and in the name of faithfulness to a universal message, we need to find a solution to the multiple crises that we are in,” argues Tariq Ramadan during a public debate entitled ‘The Future of Islam: Possible Paths,’ which featured the prominent Swiss author of Egyptian origin, one of today’s most important innovators of the 21st century according to Time magazine, and dubbed by others as the “Muslim Martin Luther.” What are these crises? Is it that Muslims are struggling to juggle the responsibility of defending Islam whilst deadly acts of terrorism are carried out in the name of this faith? Is it the complexity of leading an Islamic lifestyle in a secular society? More importantly, how should western Muslims deal with such crises and what are the solutions. Joining Dr Ramadan in discussing the future of Islam at the London School of Economics was writer, broadcaster and critic Ziauddin Sardar, who has authored a number of Islamic and cultural books and often contributes to British newspaper, the Observer.
The discussion explores the notion of Ijtihad, “the reading of the scriptural sources, when the text is not obvious, where there is latitude for interpretation or when the text has not been backed by prophetic tradition.” As part of the solution to our “multiple crises,” firstly, Ramadan addresses the issue of interpretation of scriptural sources in that what is necessary nowadays is a better interpretation of Islamic terminology. He states, “we now have people accepting that Shariaa, the set of laws, or penal code, is not something that was understood at the beginning of Islamic Sciences,” thus part of the problem is that we do not know the roots of our tradition and terminology and this is of major importance for the Muslims’ escape from the current dilemma.
Asserting the importance of context, Ramadan begins by saying, “We were told by the prophet of Islam himself that it wasn’t going to be the end with him, that every century we would have a group of people helping the Muslim community to understand the new reading of these scriptural sources.” Highlighting a key point here, Ramadan argues that a true understanding of environment to establish a renewal in the reading of the text is what is truly important. Sardar further emphasised this idea of re-understanding the scriptures according to the situation as he states, “If we believe that the Quran is an eternal text then I can only have an interpretive relationship with it that changes when a new generation comes along. Most Muslims do not have a relationship with their texts and leave it to a selected ulamaa to have this relationship. I believe that it needs to be re-understood every epoch that we need to re-think this relationship with the texts.”
Ramadan develops his argument underlining the need for scholars of the context rather than Muslim communities looking to and relying only on scholars of the text. Like many others within Muslim communities, Ramadan underlines the danger of the issuance of fatawa, that is religious rulings by scholars, (in this case, scholars of the text), who do not in Ramadan’s words, “understand the complexity of the context.” He adds that scholars will refer to their sources of the Quran, the Sunnah (the Prophetic traditions), conferences and reasoning by analogy however; context is not taken into consideration. By uniting the two variations of scholars, explicitly the scholars of text and the scholars of context, there lies the solution, and this unity somewhat represents the aim of intra-community dialogue and that “is the only way forward.”
Sardar contributes to this argument in his claim that it is somewhat insulting to the ability of learning for ordinary Muslims that the “idea of ijtihad can only be done by selected individuals.” Sardar explores the idea of Islam following a pattern of reduction. He argues that what was introduced by the Prophet of Islam, namely the concept of collective consensus, thus conventionally democratic, has now been reduced to the consensus of scholars. Furthermore, Sardar criticises what he calls the “mechanical fashion” of learning that is undertaken by many religious scholars and this itself has only come about through the reduction of knowledge. To make this point clearer, Sardar refers to history, arguing, “Conventionally, the idea of knowledge was a broad category that meant all knowledge, but the concept now has been reduced to mean religious knowledge.” He adds that “mind does not enter the concept at all”, frankly stating that what these scholars have learnt is the result of a “mechanical exercise.” Contemporary debates in both Islamic and non-Islamic communities have focused on this strongly criticised form of Islamic education. Sardar demonstrates his viewpoint by relating an experience he had in Cairo when he had inadvertently taken part in a meeting that included a blind scholar and a number of students. The scholar was questioned on a specific matter and answered the query by telling one of the students, “to get up, walk down and go up to the third floor, find the third book shelf, pull out the fifth book, open to page 152, read paragraph three and lo and behold, there was the answer to the question that was asked.”
What about the Muslims of the west? What are the responsibilities of this vast and internally diverse group? Ramadan reasons that the diversity itself that consists of so many trends needs to unite, accept the range and take part in respectable debate. Modern Islamic scholars often refer to this necessity of Islamic communities to respect not only the viewpoints and arguments of the other but also of each other within this heterogeneous group. However, this argument more often than not paradoxically takes place within an environment of denouncement and disrepute from those who hold conflicting viewpoints. Ramadan calls for the requisite of criticism towards those actions that are fulfilled in the name of Islam however contradict Islamic principles, most notably discrimination against women with domestic violence and forced marriages as examples. In addition, as European Muslims, “because we live in free society we are able to promote self-criticism,” for example addressing the issue of racism within Muslim communities and particularly “what is close to slavery in petromonarchies.”
Ramadan concludes his discussion referring to the “silent revolution of the Muslim mind, of remaining faithful to values but moving on and dealing with new challenges.” The responsibility of western Muslims is not only to be part of the dialogue process between the west and Islam but also to take part in “an interactive monologue,” that is “to be able to speak to your own self, to listen, to be critical and ask questions (about different voices).” Ramadan emphasises a key point that is the responsibility as western Muslims to build bridges between the two civilisations, for example during the Danish cartoon crisis that depicted the prophet Mohammed as a terrorist, there was “the promoting of freedom of speech, “on one side and the “promoting of sacred religious dogma” on the other without respect from either side. There is a an urgency in the tackling of new challenges for the modern Muslim and specifically the western Muslim as the latter upholds a responsibility in maintaining intrinsic values of religion whilst transforming with time and situation. This as Ramadan labels it, is “evolution in the name of faith and not against faith,” and this is the key for the future of Islam.