In the Footsteps of the Prophet
by Tariq Ramadan
A Kinder, Gentler Islam?
In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad
by Tariq Ramadan
Oxford. 256 pp. $23.00
Tariq Ramadan, who was born in 1962, is from any perspective one of the most important voices in Islam today. His views are disseminated in pamphlets and tapes throughout the Muslim diaspora, not only in his native Europe but across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. In France and elsewhere, he is revered by Muslim youth, and often lauded by the secular Left, for his facility in combining “Islamic” and “progressive” points of view in ways that at least sound plausible.
Ramadan is the grandson of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 (the group that later spawned Ayman al-Zawahiri, co-founder of al Qaeda). His father, Said Ramadan, was another leading figure in the Brotherhood and was banished from Egypt. Tariq thus came to be born and raised in Geneva, Switzerland. He completed two doctoral dissertations, one on Nietzsche and the other on his famous grandfather. He also studied Arabic and Islam at Cairo’s Al-Azhar university, but returned to Europe because he felt more comfortable there.
Ramadan’s academic career has been controversial from the start. For his hagiography of Hasan al-Banna, one of his own dissertation advisers dismissed him as a “pseudo-intellectual” and a “vain opportunist.” He was at one point banned from France on suspicion of connections with Algerian terrorists. Later and more famously, the U.S. State Department prevented him from taking up a major appointment at Notre Dame in Indiana on suspicion of connections with Hamas. He has always vigorously denied such charges, which have in any case only increased the ranks of his admirers on the academic Left. In the upshot of the fracas over his invitation from Notre Dame, he landed an even better appointment as visiting professor at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford.
In the last years, Ramadan has also been embraced by the European political establishment. In particular, he has held an important role as an adviser on religion to the European Union, and to a British government task force on the causes and consequences of the July 7, 2005 terror attacks on London.
Ramadan has been frequently accused of speaking in two voices: a radical one when addressing fellow Muslims, a moderate one to non-Muslims. Just as frequently he has denied this, and pleaded misunderstanding.
The most memorable such incident took place over an essay of his attacking several prominent secular Jewish intellectuals in France: Alexandre Adler, Alain Finkielkraut, Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann, and Bernard Kouchner. These he accused of being “communitarian intellectuals”— i.e., of sacrificing their universal ideals for the sake of the special interests of Israel. Finding in such language an unpleasant echo of the Dreyfus affair, both Le Monde and Le Figaro, France’s two leading papers, declined to publish the essay, which was posted instead on oumma.com, a French Islamic website. The incident was further clouded when Ramadan’s targets responded and he then dismissed their patently reasonable arguments by declaring he would not be drawn into “a discourse of hate” and “there are certain insults which are unworthy and which we do not have to answer.”
In a similar recent exchange, Ramadan charged the American scholar Daniel Pipes with having publicly lied about the background of Magdi Allam, an Egyptian who is now a leading anti-Islamist journalist in Italy. Ramadan asserted flatly that Allam was not a Muslim himself but a Coptic Christian. In fact, Allam’s parents were both Muslims, and he has never had anything to do with the Coptic church; once again, Ramadan would not stoop to discussing details.
Yet Ramadan has also been a problematic figure for the Left. The French feminist journalist Caroline Fourest has devoted a volume, Frère Tariq, to “unmasking” Ramadan’s “Islamist agenda.” In an exhaustive analysis of his books, interviews, pamphlets, and recordings, she warns the European secular Left that he is an enemy of all it holds dear.*
Meanwhile, for different reasons, Ramadan is also a controversial figure in the Islamic world itself. He is banned from entering Saudi Arabia, and under frequent attack elsewhere, on the suspicion of apostasy. Thus, after first refusing to commit himself on the subject of the stoning of adulterous women, he came to advocate an Islam-wide moratorium on the practice—which, to the Saudi mind, contradicts the plain commandment of shari’a law.
To date, Ramadan’s major books—To Be a European Muslim (1998), Islam, the West, and the Challenge of Modernity (2000), Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (2003)—have dealt, as their titles suggest, with the problems, paradoxes, and opportunities of Muslim immigrants in what was once called Christendom. From a close reading of these books, the British analyst Mike Whine, who has monitored statements by Ramadan for the British Community Security Trust, came away with the impression that he is “at the soft end of the extreme Islamist spectrum.”
If that is so, Ramadan’s latest book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, is his softest yet. Here he does everything he can to avoid controversy, delivering an apologetic for Islam’s messenger that is designed to appeal to those, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who are of a modern and “Enlightenment” cast of mind. In genre as well as approach, this is a departure for Ramadan. Trying to distinguish the “universal teaching” within the Qur’an from the 7th-century Arab cultural background from which it emerged, he becomes a very soothing evangelizer. Indeed, the Muhammad of Footsteps often reminds me of childhood encounters with Protestant Sunday school, and particularly of the Jesus who said, “suffer the little children to come unto me.”
While the book is presented as an academically rigorous exercise—with precise references for quotations from the Qur’an, hadiths, and other early sources—the quotations themselves serve only a decorative function within a text that is quite subjectively Ramadan’s own. Western readers are relieved of such cumbersome practices as putting the prayer formula, “may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him,” after each invocation of the prophet’s name. Instead, the book is politically correct throughout and tirelessly gender-inclusive, aimed clearly at changing the minds of those who have come to associate Islam with violence, tyranny, and the oppression of women.
In fifteen short, sermon-like chapters, Ramadan retells the prophet’s life with an emphasis not on events themselves but on the “teachings” that are said to emerge from them. Beginning with an “Encounter with the Sacred” that smoothly elides Islamic monotheism with the Judeo-Christian tradition descending from Abraham, he ends with “In History, for Eternity,” a gauzy vision of a loving and forgiving messenger from the heavens, calling us upward toward justice and equity, toward peace, faith, ethics, and hope.
Muhammad, it turns out, was also a pioneering environmentalist, and indeed almost an animal-rights activist, whose lieutenants ordered the soldiers on their expeditions not to destroy palm trees, or burn corn fields, or cut down orchards, or slaughter livestock unless these were truly needed for food. Similarly, Ramadan shows them observing the strictest principles of the Geneva Convention, fighting only against enemy combatants and taking great care to avoid harm to women, children, and slaves. Although the prophet was also a general at the head of an army conquering Arabia (and then, after his death, everything from North Africa to India), this comes up only in the background of the middle chapters, and in any case Ramadan is loath to dwell on the merely military aspect. Instead, rather as the British were said to have captured India in a fit of gentlemanly absent-mindedness, and after long and patient hesitation, Arabia appears to have been taken by the Muslims in one continuous, purely defensive action.
From every turn we get a new glimpse of the almost incredible forbearance and compassion and gentleness of Muhammad. For instance, when Mecca is conquered after the bloody suppression of the clan of Quraysh (who had it coming to them if anyone ever did), we are told that the usual rules of plunder were amended and a portion of the booty was reserved “for those whose hearts are to be reconciled” (i.e., who agreed to convert to Islam). Similarly, the elimination of the three Jewish tribes settled around Medina occurred only after Muhammad had endured report after report of their plots and treacheries.
And yet, Ramadan assures us, none of these unavoidable actions altered in any way the pacific principles behind Muslim rule: the recognition of a common God, complete religious toleration, and the need to settle all inter-communal differences peacefully, “according to the principles of the justice and honor codes.” There may have been no Jews left in Arabia at the end, but in principle they enjoyed perfect toleration.
There are many points in the book at which the reader is arrested by Ramadan’s failure or refusal to grapple seriously with paradoxes or contradictions like these. And that is to say nothing of the relentlessly pious and elegiac tone, which subverts any possibility of confidence in his candor. Ramadan’s Muhammad was, finally,
beloved by God and an example among humans. He prayed, he contemplated. He loved, he gave. He served, he transformed. The Prophet was the light that leads to Light, and in learning from his life, believers return to the Source of Life and find His Light, His warmth, and His love.
And so on. Yet, for all that, I do not think Ramadan is insincere. As a religious person myself, I was sometimes moved by what feels like the earnestness of a fellow-believer—albeit not a believer in the same things. While, to a more hardened reader, the constant emphasis on the love and gentleness and mercifulness behind Muhammad’s “life lessons” may appear mawkish, it is at least possible that, through prayer, Ramadan is beginning to flirt with humility.
This is something that should not be overlooked. Ramadan is hardly presenting himself here as the “Muslim Martin Luther” (a meaningless notion about him propagated by writers at the online magazine Slate). But his dwelling on the kinder, gentler side of Islam is a welcome departure that could well have a no less welcome effect on some Muslim readers. I have never been able to grasp what a “moderate Muslim” might be, there being no coherent analogy between this concept and the concept of a moderate Christian or Jew; nevertheless, the contrast could not be greater between Ramadan’s account of what it means to be a Muslim and that of a figure like, for instance, Dyab Abu Jahjah, the radical leader of the Arab European League.
The latter, a Lebanese settled in Antwerp, demands strict separation for the Muslim community in Europe and denounces every attempt at assimilation as “cultural rape.” In this book, Ramadan is at pains to proclaim that “just because something is Western does not mean it is anti-Muslim.” Although he has done this intermittently in his previous books as well, In the Footsteps of the Prophet moves the argument into a new dimension. Delving directly into Islamic tradition, Ramadan is seeking common or universal religious themes, and doing so with a sensibility that is ultimately more Western than Eastern, emphasizing the need to distinguish between a religion and a culture, and between the duties of religious affiliation and the duties of citizenship.
All this stands in contradiction to the teaching of most other Muslim spokesmen. Ramadan expressly rejects the traditional “binary” opposition between dar al-Islam and dar al-harb (the abodes of Islam and of war, respectively), claiming it is not Qur’anic. He imagines the emergence of a distinctive European Islam, just as there are already distinctive Asian and African variations of Islam. In principle, if not always in practice, he is allergic to the binary opposition of “us and them.”
Is Ramadan using, against his “conservative” critics in Islam, the same slippery tactics he has employed against his “conservative” critics in the West? (Two very different conservatisms, of course.) That is harder to say. He does play cat-and-mouse with the more puritanical imams by questioning the Qur’anic basis of the harshest requirements in shari’a law, and much else. But Islamic tradition never pretended to base everything on the Qur’an, and could never hope to do so.
The Islamic tradition depends crucially on the early commentaries, the hadith collections or early “lives of the prophet,” without which the Qur’an alone would be too sibylline and oracular to interpret. Compared with the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, a veritable library of books in varied genres, written over many centuries against a succession of cultural backgrounds, the Qur’an is one book from 7th-century Mecca, and all its supplementary sources of authority are likewise exclusively Arabic. That is a problem for Ramadan, just as it has been for all other modernizers within Islam, both East and West.
The ambitious attempt to extract “universal principles” from the Qur’an, apart from the Arab culture out of which Islam arose, would have been regarded as specious and illegitimate by almost any Islamic commentator over the last thirteen centuries. To detach Islam from that context is to detach it from all context. In other words, much as we might like Ramadan’s universalizing project to succeed, and a “Europeanized Islam” to arise on its basis, we must acknowledge that he is attempting something that, so far, is quite impossible.
* Fourest’s book is scheduled to be published in English translation early next year by Encounter Books.