An Interview with Tariq Ramadan

August 3, 2012 by Ahmad Fuad Rahmat

From early to late July of this year, leading Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan travelled across the Peninsula to lecture in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Penang and Perlis. In this interview we gather his thoughts on the environment, economics, art, philosophy, the Hudud penal code as well the current state of Malaysian politics, among other things.  

Q: The environment doesn’t feature much in current prevalent Muslim priorities. You argue that it should be. Why?

A: When I go back to the Quran I see that the context of Revelation is creation in its entirety. The universe is a Revelation and this of course includes nature, plants and animals. In other words, what is coming from the Quran as rules and objectives are set within the larger scheme of the universe and nature as part of Creation.

So if you look at how we are destroying and disrespecting Creation it is obvious that is something is not clear in our understanding. We overemphasize rules but we don’t understand the objective.

As Muslims the way we show respect to the creator is by respecting creation and this is why we have to reconcile ourselves with the objectives of the Revelation and the objective is really to honor nature as part of Creation.

We need to revisit how the Prophet dealt with water, animals, in how he talked about slaughtering, caring for plants and so forth. Respect towards nature is a part of Islam. This is essential but Muslims are not aware. The whole world is talking about global warming and respecting nature but Muslims are not doing enough of that.

Q: This, as you know, is tied to our economic system and habits of consumption. But even our reliance on basic everyday use of things depends on a certain exploration of, if not intervention in nature, from the furniture we use to the technology we depend on. Does this mean we have to rethink our notion of needs?

A: Yes, of course. In my book Radical Reform I made it clear that we cannot talk about the environment or ecology if we don’t also deal with the economy. There is a direct link between how we deal with the economy and how we deal with nature.

We cannot have a free market since it does not really set us free. It’s free for interest, speculation and consumerism to create false needs. But now nature is telling us that if you don’t respect the environment then you are living with artificial needs and a consumerism that is destroying the very conditions we need to survive.

This is where we need to deal with three things that are important: first, we need a very deep reconsideration of how we are dealing with the economy. Second, there must be a very deep reconsideration of our way of life. We cannot simply adopt American-style consumer culture. To Islamize that is to de-Islamize Islam.

Thirdly, it is important for us to understand the economy and the environment are common challenges for everyone. This is where the singularity of Islamic principles needs to join the universal values that we share with others.

But we are not doing this. We are not competing for the good when we only compete for numbers, being preoccupied with how many converts we are gaining. The true competition for good only happens when we are implementing our values of justice.

Q: How did the misdirection of values occur? The things you say about nature being a part of God’s creation, about how nature also enjoins in worship of Allah – all that is clear in the Qur’an. Why have Muslims overlooked that part of Islam’s message while being preoccupied with issues of moral policing and making hudud a priority?

A: Firstly, there is something we need to keep in mind. In Islam, rules are important, like the Prophet said innal halaala bayyinun, wa innal haraama bayyinun [“what is halal is clear, what is haram is clear”]. The goal is not to diminish the importance of rules, but to have the right priorities.

I’ve explained this in many of my books, whereby the Muslims began to be obsessed with rules when they lacked confidence with the vision and truth of the Message, and this began in the 13th and 14th centuries. There was a change in attitude towards not only rules, but also knowledge, when Muslims became scared of philosophy, the experimental sciences and the arts. These were signs that something was wrong with how Muslims perceived themselves and dealt with Revelation

This is not a particularly Muslim problem. You see this also in the West for instance, in how they deal with immigrants and Muslims. The first reaction is often to turn to the rules and call for more enforcement in a narrow minded way.

It’s okay to feel the need for protection if there is a real external threat. But to feel protective from the inside, it’s a kind of jail: you get so protective that you cannot get out of the box.

Q: A common concern that you have expressed as a Muslim intellectual is the lack of creativity among Muslims. Muslims tend to simply mimic whatever the West does or view any new changes in society through cautious legalistic perspectives. But creativity is not always compatible with rules. Creativity in many ways is contrary to rules, as it requires freedom as a condition. How ought Muslims balance the need and desire for creativity while maintaining a commitment to rules at the same time?

A: This is an important question. You know, since the uprisings in the Middle East many scholars have come out saying that freedom comes first before the Shariah. There is also something important that we must keep in mind in our understanding the Shariah, and that is the room for what is permissible should be as wide as possible. So we should leave it open to let people be creative.

Of course, there should be ethics in all creative pursuits but we cannot force or impose ethics on creativity, for this would be contrary to creativity. So pushing the limits, to be thought provoking, pushing people to think and question the limits, it’s not always bad for the rules if you’re confident because it can even strengthen your understanding of religion in the process.

What we also need to have a discussion on the philosophy of art: so we must ask what is it that we want in the first place? Is it just about saying and doing whatever you want, or is it about something more? We should let the artist be free, but we must also question how exactly he deals with freedom. Is it arts for elevation or arts for destruction? Is there dignity in the process?

There is a claim coming from the West that says that all art must be outside any moral consideration. I can understand this as a provocation, but I also believe that we can still have very profound creativity with a moral sense. To have a moral sense is not to be dogmatic in dealing with rules. It can be an open way with dealing with questions of objectives and purpose, which is completely different.

Q: So the freedom to make mistakes should be there, but it should nonetheless be oriented towards an ethical worldview.

A: Yes. We should not fool ourselves. When the Quran says wa la qad karamna Bani Adam [“we have honored the Children of Adam”] so yes we should all be free but this should not mean that we must act against the dignity of human beings.

If you look at how great artists of the past, like Beethoven, for example dealt with art and morality, you see that there was torture and pain in their work, but there was also dignity in the way that was dealt with. So I don’t buy this contemporary notion that the only way to be artistic is to be arrogant, offensive or immoral.

Q: In your book Radical Reform you speak of the need for an ethics of liberation. What is an ethics of liberation?

A: To be more precise, it’s ethics and liberation, and as a consequence there is an ethics of liberation. We have to free the Muslim mind from the obsession with limits and rules and forgetting the path and objective. This is truly a liberating process, and for me this is Islam: liberation from the ego, and in this case liberating ourselves from the wrong understanding of the religion.

Because ethics is fundamentally about questioning the ends, the goals and aims of our actions, we must come back to the rules and ask why. So we must return to the philosophy of law, the raison d’etre and the point of what we’re asked to do. It’s not easy, it’s very demanding and it needs intellectual courage.

You know when we speak about Muslihun or Mujaddidun [reformists] the main point is to respect the text and take it seriously, and to be courageous with the world. But very often now when I see people who are perceived to be, or who call themselves progressives, sometimes I see an imbalance. Yes I understand the courage in their mind but I don’t see the spirituality in their heart, good you are questioning the limits, but what about yourself, are you also liberating yourself?

So I am dealing with people with both sides. I see people who are liberating themselves but they want to forget the world. And I see people who want to liberate the world but they forget themselves. Neither is the way I want to go.

Q: Speaking of intellectual courage, you have called for scholars of the text to be in dialogue with scholars of the context whereby findings in the modern natural and social sciences are to be taken seriously by Muslims.

What happens in the event that conclusions from studies of the context contradict what is said in the text? For example in the case of hudud: empirical studies in the social sciences can argue that there are more effective and sensible ways to counter crime than what can be found in the Quran. How would you respond?

A: I wouldn’t say that it’s more sensible. I’d say that the modern social sciences are just showing us why the conditions for implementing Hudud are so demanding, and thus Hudud should only be for the absolutely last resort.

The findings in contemporary social sciences are helping us understand that we can find other ways to educate people and act against injustice and corruption in our society. So it can deepen our understanding of what Hudud is about, but not contradict it.

Now, they can contradict the literalist dogmatic minds who understand Hudud literally but these minds are problematic because they don’t understand the in depth event of the rules in light of the objectives.

I have never, so far, in all the studies I have done, met a contradiction between what the human, experimental and natural sciences are telling us and the Islamic rules. In fact, the opposite is true: anything that is coming from the modern sciences is helping me better understand the text. It’s not a contradiction. It’s a relation.

Q: At least in conventional Sunni history, philosophy was eventually eclipsed by Sufism on one hand and legalism on the other. Do you see a role for philosophy for Muslims today?

A: Yes, in many ways. In fact there is, as As-Shatibi says, a philosophy of law. We are scared of the word, but questioning why is fundamental. Now, there are certain things that we cannot understand, like why we pray five times a day, for example. But the fact that we choose to pray is understandable.

As Al-Afghani said, when we read the fundamental texts, the scriptural sources of the Quran and Sunnah, we can find that there is a philosophy that is coming from the texts.

And then there is the philosophy embedded in the culture we are living. It is quite clear for example that Arabs have a different culture than Malaysians. Unfortunately there are some trends that are changing this but you don’t have for example as strict and narrow understanding of the relationship between men and women. And then there is the philosophy we have to extract in the relationship between text and culture.

We have to reconcile ourselves with philosophical questions in every field. Every field should be open to inquiry and knowledge. The problem, once again, as in all sciences is the attitude of the mind that is dealing with whatever field. The problem is not philosophy but the lack of intellectual humility. It is when reason becomes arrogant that we lose track. But intellectual humility with science: this is spirituality – this is the way we are with God. So we should not be scared and we must reconcile ourselves.

Q: The Muslim philosophers of Islam’s Golden Age are often accused of pursuing philosophy at the expense of the Qur’an’s message. They felt that Greek philosophy – the major philosophy of their time – was as, if not more, compelling than the Qur’an itself. Muslims today live in an age whereby Western philosophy is the dominant strand of philosophy. What attitude should Muslims have in engaging with that discourse?

A: Exactly the same attitude we should have had with Greek philosophy. Greek philosophy departs from the assumption that we can understand the world autonomously using our rational faculties. Islam is not saying this. There is a commitment to a Tawhidic paradigm. There is One God. We have an epistemic center. There is meaning.

But this is not to say that we should deny rationality either, like current strands of postmodernism. It also does not mean that we cannot engage with Western philosophy, as if we cannot read Heidegger or analytic philosophy. We can and should so long as we know our center.

Like for example in Hegel, when he understands the verb “being” as both an affirmation and negation,  as something and something else, the problem is that in Arabic you do not have the verb to be. So his German construction is problematic in other languages. This is why having a center in engaging with other discourses is important, to see the commonalities and differences. So we must re-center philosophy within our frame our reference.

This was why Al-Ghazali was concerned with the Muslim philosophers and how they tried to disconnect with the text in the name of autonomous philosophy. We don’t need this. We can deal with philosophy without being obliged to say that is connected from Revelation or our belief in God.

So we must re-center philosophy within our frame of reference which I think is the way to deal with it.

Q: This is a different approach than the Islamization of Knowledge. You accept the validity of knowledge from other cultures so long as it remains within a widely acceptable Islamic framework. You don’t see Hegel or Heidegger for example as un-Islamic or corrupting.

A: I don’t buy anything which is Islamization of knowledge. I don’t understand what it means in fact. The point for me is people who are atheists or are coming from different religious traditions; they are coming from their own sources and specific roots. We should analyze these.

We always think from where we come from. We always think from the sources that shape our understanding.  I think about the world through the lens of my Islamic tradition. I accept this but I must also have intellectual humility.

In the Quest for Meaning I gave the analogy of looking at the sea through windows, and the need to look at the sea for what it is, rather than to only see the window.

There is this Bergsonian intuition that there are many ways of knowing something. One is through the object itself and the other is through the different viewpoints around it. So we have to combine the intellectual and intuitive understanding of things.

So to Islamize doesn’t make sense to me. But to center, but to have intellectual empathy and modesty – all these dimensions are important on how we look at truth.

Q: You mention the Quest for Meaning. One thing I find interesting about it is that you mention the word “Islam” less than a dozen times in total. It’s definitely a different style than the common Muslim legalistic method of writing. What informed that style? Why did you suspend the typical Muslim academic style of writing to write philosophical prose?

A: It’s a reconciliation with philosophy and poetry at the same time. It really is who I am. It’s one of my best books in fact. It’s not really well understood by both Muslims and non-Muslims. Even the publisher was not really happy with it.

But it’s an important book for me because it’s translating my own journey and my own understanding. It’s my philosophy of pluralism, how I think about the Other.

I’m working on different fields. One of my next books Insha’Allah will be a novel because it’s important to explore the heart and imagination, the spiritual side. I’ve been working for twenty five years in the legal field and now I’m reaching what I want, which is an Islamic applied ethics and I’m also dealing with Muslims in the West.

But there are other dimensions that are also important. And then having traveled a lot and met people from different horizons it makes you more humble and ready to listen.

Q: As a European Muslim the question of pluralism is one that is deeply relevant for you. For this I must ask a question that I think gets to the heart of the matter: should Muslims rethink the nation state? Isn’t that the fundamental problem? Ultimately regardless of how egalitarian we claim to be, having a nation state means that we must eventually exclude others for very shallow reasons.

A: In my last book, the Arab Awakening, I talk about the fact that we have to move from this. All the contemporary ideologies of political Islam have been based on the nation state. The nation state is very problematic but I’m not sure if we have an alternative political model.

Destroying the nation state are mainly three things: the global economy, global communication technology and global culture. And this is where we are lost in the process. What could be something that can provide us a transversal political sense of belonging? At the end of the day, without an alternative we end up with populism in the name of very narrow identities.

We can think of solutions in various theoretical ways, but it’s not so on the ground. If they don’t have a reference that helps them to belong, then they will end up excluding, and through that they get to feel that they belong on the basis of some narrow identity, language or color.

Q: It seems that Islam can be a resource to think through this. As you said so yourself in Radical Reform, diversity is an integral part of Creation.

A: Yes, it is in fact a condition of humanity. There can be no humanity if there is no diversity because the absolute power of human being is destruction.

Wa lau la daf’ullahi’l nasa ba’dahum bi ba’din la fasadat al ard. “If we had not created a set of people against another the world would have been corrupt”, and “against” here means two things: Against in the fact that they are challenging you with their diversity, challenging your intelligence and to challenge is not negative, it can be very positive depending on how you are challenged.

When I came here [to Malaysia] I heard that there is a problem with the concept of pluralism whereby pluralism is understood in a very narrow way, which I think is wrong. This is not to diminish your sense of truth in what you believe but to acknowledge the fact that we live in a world where we need to deal with pluralism. It’s a fact.

It’s not so much about the right to tolerate but the duty to respect, to go beyond toleration where there is no power relationship with the Other. This is where a deep understanding of Islamic principles would help us.

Q: You’ve traveled up and down the Peninsula over the past three weeks. You’ve spoken to figures in the opposition in the government. Plus, given that you’ve been here several times before you’ve gathered an accurate sense of this country over time. What do you make of Malaysia’s potential as a Muslim country?

A: Very often we talk about India and China, but not really Malaysia and Indonesia. The potential in the shift to the East is going to be great and very important for this country.

One of my next books is going to be called Our West: Towards a New Narrative. I challenge the norm there [with regards to the dominant attitude towards immigrants] and saying that you are playing with us. You tell us to respect the state but you have a problem with your nation. But the problem is that we can respect your state but we are not within your understanding of nation.

It’s exactly the same for the non-Malays and non-Muslims in this country. The common narrative is not there so they are excluded by the way “us” is defined by the majority.

So there is great potential and deep fragility [in Malaysia] that can be used by any group that stresses on religion, pushing towards Islam, rejecting people and alienating migrants – anything can be used to win the next elections. So these are the signs of fragility that is very much there.

Now no one can deny the fact that whatever is the state of the affairs in the country, you did not have the army controlling the country and you have a pluralistic society anyway. So the people who are going to be important in this country are people who are going to question sectarianism through emphasizing common values and understanding.

For me I made it clear that I wanted to meet with both sides of the political spectrum.  I wanted to understand. I’m not here to support one, but I am here to criticize all, on a principled position. I very much value the position of counter power. I think this is where ethics should be, in front of power as I said in Radical Reform. The power of counter-power is very important.

So I see great potential here, but risks everywhere.