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The Quest for Meaning: A journey in search of serenity and peace

Friday March 18, 2011 12:12:29 PM, Nigar Ataulla,

How different do our various religions, philosophies and traditions of thought make us? And can we see past what divides us to discover what we have in common?

In The Quest for Meaning, Tariq Ramadan, philosopher and scholar sets out on a journey to answer these questions and find the universal truths we hold in common, no matter how we arrive at them. Attempting to diffuse flashpoints between societies, Ramadan attempts a bold synthesis of religion, from Christianity to Buddhism, between secularists and believers and argues that we urgently need a new philosophy of pluralism in order to coexist peacefully.

Exploring themes of love, respect, tolerance and reason, alongside fundamental issues such as relationships between men and women and the use of the term ‘civilization’, Ramadan argues that there are universally shared beliefs that are arrived at in many traditions of thought.

After having read and reviewed Tariq Ramadan’s The Messenger, A Spiritual Biography of Muhammad, which was simple in language and style, The Quest for Meaning took me quite a long time to read and understand. In this book, the author has set out travelling the paths of the heart, mind and the imaginary.

There has never been more talk of diversity and plurarity than in this era of globalization and modernization and yet, more so than ever before, we seem to be trapped into our identities and differences. The global world is a village, they say… a village of villagers who know nothing of each other. In more senses than one, they do not know who they are and they do not know who they are living with. This situation can only lead to half-hearted, fearful and dormant conflicts rather than a confident celebration of our riches. Edward Said suggested it would lead to ‘the clash of ignorance.’ Tariq Ramadan says it will lead to a ‘conflict of perceptions’.

The quest for meaning is a journey through time and across the world, but it always ends by bringing us back to ourselves. All paths lead us back to ourselves. In his Muqaddimah, which is aptly subtitled An Introduction to History, the mystic and philosopher Ibn Khaldun concludes from his study of history that the evolution and demise of civilizations are cyclical. Human beings, be they believers or atheists, idealists or rationalists, philosophers or scientists are on what Ibn Qayyim called ‘the seekers’ way and it leads us back to ourselves.

Very aptly, Tariq Ramadan says that our emotions imprison us, but spirituality is both an inspiration and a quest for freedom. The lived experience of spirituality demands of the human subject three things that are implicit in all the traditions: the autonomy of the subject (as opposed to dependency on that which affects the subject), the conscious acceptance of responsibility (as opposed to the victim mentality) and a hopeful and constructive attitude (as opposed to despair or defeatism that does not believe in the possibility of change). Spirituality liberates and gives things meaning. It is based upon an initiation into and education in self-awareness, maturation, the acceptance of responsibility and gradual transformations. Jewish, Christian and Muslim mysticisms constantly remind us of the arche-typal stages of this spiritual awakening.

In the quest for meaning, the author has not left out the importance of education. According to the traditional distribution of roles, parents transmit meaning, values and good behaviour, whilst schools and teachers transmit learning and skills. The same disaffection can be observed in the realm of teaching and parenting: school teachers and educationalists seem to have lost their former prestige. He makes a thoughtful point that obsession with reforming educational methods and structures must be resisted as a matter of urgency. Modern times challenge us to redefine the content of what is taught in our schools and the priorities of what children learn within the family. Education “under pressure” and “ efficient” teaching will

“produce” money making machines and not human beings with a propensity to share.

Going on to tradition and modernity, Ramadan discusses the meaning of modernity and says that it does no more to set us free than tradition, whilst mass culture traps individuals into a relationship of stimulus and response that is anything, but rational. The culture of mass consumerism is killing cultures and their diversity: the former caters to the instincts while the latter cultivates tastes. Both the excesses of modernity and the prisons of tradition are bringing about a crisis in the quest for a balance.

Ramadan suggests that the “universal man” can no longer be a single individual or a single mind with a global vision. Groups of intellectuals, scholars and scientists should pool their knowledge, resist the majority trend to divide and fragment knowledge and establish critical, but profound links between different domains of human activity.

All the chapters in this book require intense concentration while reading, as Tariq Ramadan himself always writes with deep intensity and emotion. But the last two chapters on Love and Forgiveness are extremely light to read and seems like a grand finale to his idea of developing a philosophy of pluralism.

The sacred texts, the ancient traditions and all philosophies of all ages tell us to look at and learn from nature, its beauty and its cycles. We know that we love naturally, but they still teach us to love better, to love consciously and spiritually and to learn to apprehend meaning in detachment. The author’s classic statement is something we all have to ponder upon at all times…” to love is to receive and to learn to let beings go. To love is to give and to learn to go. And vice versa”!

Tariq Ramadan is Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University. He also teaches at Oxford’s Faculty of Theology and is a Senior Research Fellow at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

Written in a direct and meditative style, with resonance for all, this important and timely book will direct and shape debate around the important questions of our time.


Name of the book: The Quest for Meaning
Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism

Author: Tariq Ramadan
Published by: Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London, England
Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11,Community Centre, Panchsheel Park
New Delhi-110017

Price: Rs 499

Reviewed by: Nigar Ataulla






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Picture of the Day

President of India Mrs. Pratibha Devisingh Patil addressing at the inauguration of the National Festival of Tribal Dances, ‘PRAKRITI’, in New Delhi on March 16, 2011. Union Minister for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation and Culture, Kum. Selja, Union Minister for Tribal Affairs Kantilal Bhuria and Minister of State for Tribal Affairs Mahadev S. Khandela are also seen.

(Photo: Mukesh Kumar)



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