Dry academic debates hold as much charm for me as they do for most
readers. But when Dr Tariq Ramadan speaks, you cannot help but pay
attention. One of the sharpest minds of our times, he is
recognised as authority on contemporary Muslim societies and
challenges facing them. What distinguishes Ramadan, currently
teaching at Oxford University, from other Islamic scholars is the
fact that he grew up in the West.
His family was forced into exile after his grandfather and Muslim
Brotherhood founder Hasan Al Banna was assassinated. Ramadan was
born in Switzerland. Growing up in the West and receiving the best
of Western and Islamic education has endowed Ramadan with a rare
understanding of both worlds. He used it effectively in the
chaotic post 9/11 times to help bridge the gulf between Islam and
the West. More often than not, fellow believers have been his
audience. Holding a mirror to his own, he has repeatedly urged
introspection, moderation and openness.
In a recent article, Ramadan tackles an issue that has
increasingly troubled Muslim minds in recent times. “From Asia to
North America, the conclusion is inescapable: The contemporary
Islamic conscience is in deep crisis. How to be a Muslim today?
How to be faithful to one’s principles while remaining open to the
world? How can Muslims deal with their diversity and overcome
their multiple divisions?” asks he in his Gulf News column.
“How can Muslim societies create new models of development,
education and social justice? Can they imagine economic
alternatives? Can the 1,000-year-old Islamic civilisation make an
original contribution to the concert of cultures and
civilisations? Everywhere, Muslim individuals and societies ask
themselves the same burning questions,” notes Ramadan. And he
isn’t encouraged by the answers to his own questions: “The crisis
drags on; no answer seems in sight. The light at the end of the
tunnel seems nothing but an illusion.”
Interestingly, this comes at a time when more and more people
around the world, especially in the West, are discovering Islam.
Notwithstanding all the lies and perpetual smear campaign against
Islam and its followers, it remains the fastest growing faith on
the planet. Muslims have already outgrown Catholics as the world’s
biggest religious community. This in turn seems to fuel insecurity
in societies where Muslims are in minority. Sri Lanka and Myanmar
are the latest examples of growing Islamophobia.
At the same time, there’s no denying the fact that the Ummah has a
profound ideological crisis brewing in its midst. Of course,
Muslims’ faith in the religion as a complete way of life and its
claim to offer answers and solutions to all questions of life
remains constant and unshakable. But today more than ever they are
looking to their leaders and scholars to make sense of a world
that has dramatically changed over the past several centuries,
particularly in the past few decades. The challenges posed by
modernity and transformation that has turned our world into a
truly global village are overwhelming. And Western civilization
and its cultural and social mores rule this global village.
Where do Muslims belong in this world? What are their
responsibilities and how they ought to deal with the conundrums
thrown up by modern times? These are the burning questions, as
Ramadan calls them, that have increasingly baffled people of our
generation and those that came before and after us. But these
questions and ideological dilemmas haven’t received the attention
and seriousness they deserve from our scholars and Ulema. If they
have, we do not see much by way of results.
Look at the scourge of extremism, which has emerged as one of the
most serious challenges facing Muslim societies today. In the
absence of clear guidance and our failure to present the real
message and spirit of Islam before the world, an extremist fringe
claims to speak on behalf of the faith as its followers helplessly
At the heart of Muslims’ decay and decline is the limited nature
of their vision and inability to adapt themselves to the demands
of a fast evolving world. There was a time, for a thousand years,
when Arabs and Muslims led the global march of progress and ideas.
Who can ignore the West’s immense intellectual debt to Muslim
philosophers and scholars in every sphere of knowledge?
If Muslims had restricted themselves to a narrow vision of their
faith and what it expects of them, they wouldn’t have conquered
the distant frontiers of the known world. There was a time when
seekers of knowledge from around the world came to Muslim lands,
to universities and springs of wisdom like Dar Al Hikma in
Baghdad. Where are such centres of knowledge today? How many
universities from across the Muslim world figure in the world’s 50
or 100 best?
There is a splurge of new ideas and human advances on all fronts
today. How do Muslims relate to them? Should they all be spurned
as ‘un-Islamic influences’ to keep ourselves out and behind the
rest of the world? Why Muslim minds aren’t coming up with ideas
that could be a shared property of mankind anymore? What explains
our poverty of vision and bankruptcy of ideas?
These are the questions that demand answers from our religious and
intellectual elites and soon. One thing is certain. You cannot
blame religion for the rigidity and backwardness of its followers,
as many of Islam’s detractors do. Its message remains as
contemporary and relevant as it was when the Arabs received it
fifteen centuries ago. This is precisely why it continues to win
hearts and minds around the world.
The problem lies in our own limited interpretation of Islamic
teachings and spirit. In our literalist approach and our
preoccupation with the form, rather than the substance, we have
lost sight of our real goal--our salvation and that of humanity.
We have reduced our faith to a set of rituals and customs just
like any other dogma.
As Ramadan notes: “The most visible, the most serious signs of the
crisis of the contemporary Islamic conscience can be found in the
inversion of means and ends. The obsession with norms transforms
them into an ultimate goal; they are no longer a means to an end,
but the end itself. The essence is forgotten.”
We claim that Islam came as a blessing for all mankind and as a
source of guidance for all times to come. How can its followers
hope to guide others when they have distanced themselves from its
spirit and teachings? What is desperately needed today is
rediscovering and rekindling the original spirit of our faith and
approaching it anew to help us take on the challenges and
questions of today’s world.
Many brilliant minds in the past century and beyond have sought to
do just that. They advocated returning to original sources of
guidance and applying them to modern times. Today, this needs to
turn into a global movement. Muslims need a new roadmap and a new
sense of purpose. To quote Ramadan again, “the crisis is acute. To
resolve it there must be an awakening, a renewal, and a revolution
in our way of thinking.”
This isn’t possible without the initiative and proactive
participation of our Ulema and religious leadership. As Muhammad
Abduh, the 19th century reformer put it, in Islam man was not
created to be led by a bridle but given intelligence and reason so
he could be guided by knowledge. Faith and reason can and must go
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Middle East-based writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org