Tariq Ramadan: On respect, thinking and dialogue

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altProfessor Tariq Ramadan is a European Muslim who advocates reform in Islam and promotes interfaith dialogue. Born in Switzerland and the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan Al Banna, the European academic has been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most important innovators of the century. He told ZAKIAH KOYA during his recent visit to Kuala Lumpur that Muslims must make an effort to move from mere formalism – a fixation on ritual – towards a committed spiritual and social presence.


MUSLIMS say that their religion is perfect and it is because of this many are against interfaith dialogues. What is the point they ask? So why are you promoting interfaith dialogues among religions?

We have a perfect religion, yes, but we are not perfect. Dealing with other religions means that we are challenging the very meaning of ours. When we have a dialogue, sometimes when we meet Jews, Christians, Buddhists, agnostics or atheists, the way they are helps you to better your religion as they may make you see something which you have neglected to see.

For example, when I was in South America, the priests there were talking of love. So, I learnt to also talk of the spiritual dimension of love in Islam and its importance in life. So the experience of others is helping you to have other viewpoints of your religion.


When we talk about values, when we speak about dignity and solidarity and when we talk about racism, dialogue can be very important because at the end of the day when dealing with Christians and Buddhists – why do they have to listen to me? – because together we want to change the world for the better. We want to make our world a better place.


Malaysia cannot have social cohesion if you do not have dialogue. We need this dialogue among religions. There are areas we can explore. For instance why do we believe what we believe? Is there someone who can believe that Allah is happy with the 100,000 people who are dying of starvation everyday?


Will there be someone who, when we speak of global warming, will convincingly say that God is happy with us? He is not. We know that we are not meeting the challenges and dialogue can be a meaningful exchange if we do not make it just an exchange of words.


Since Muslims say that their religion is perfect, why are you talking about the need to reform Islam?

I am not saying this. Islam does not need to be reformed and Islam has in itself tools for Muslims to have a true understanding of it. What we need to reform is the Muslim minds. The texts that the Muslims refer to – the Quran and hadith – are going to stay as text. They are not going to change. We have an immutable set of principles.

We are facing challenges. Islam is for all times and all situations but who is going to do the job? Our minds of course. And we have to evolve our minds with our rationality. It is our static rationality that is betraying the text. Active rationality is what makes the text universal.


Whose responsibility is it to bring all this about?

It’s a multiple responsibility. Of course, the first to be mentioned are the Muslim scholars, the ulama and the intellectuals. They have to come with a vision and they have to deal with the matter of authority. They deal with the text and scriptural sources. So, I would say they have a great responsibility on that.


I would also say the ordinary Muslims should understand that they are responsible too. Ordinary Muslims should understand that they cannot just blame the people at the top but understand that they too have power. As a result the ordinary Muslims are too passive, suffering from a mentality of victimisation and are always blaming others. They must understand that they have their share of responsibility in the whole process to shoulder.


Malaysia is a country with a lot of diversity. It is a plural society. How does Islam view these diversities?

This diversity is God’s will. The Quran says that if God wants it He could have made you one community. He said: We made you tribes and nations so that you may know one another.


It is God’s will. It is, therefore, not enough to tolerate others. We must respect them. As one prominent scholar said in one conference "who wants to be tolerant, we want to be respected."


In Islam the word, therefore, is respect, not tolerate. Who are we to tolerate? This is God’s will for me to be here. So it is for Muslims to understand that because Allah wanted Christianity, wanted Judaism, and Buddhism and atheists and anarchists to be here it is for them to respect God’s will. To respect means "I acknowledge the fact that you are here, I acknowledge the fact that you have to be respected – and more than that – I am asked by Allah that I have to know you, which is a two-way process of acknowledgment. Respect is to acknowledge you and know you that you are different and to know about you. My knowledge towards you is an act of respect." So, I think tolerance is not enough. We must remember that diversity is God’s will.


At the same time Muslims must stop the belief in this illusion that we have one and the same thought in Islam. There is diversity among Muslims too. It is a reality.


Never forget that this diversity is not only a challenge but also a gift. Through dialogue with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, they may make us better people.


Most Muslim societies are guided by their ulama and religious scholars. In time they have become revered people. Whatever they say is accepted without question. Thus many Muslims grow up with a fear of asking questions. It is unfortunate, don’t you think?

We have to respect the scholars but we should not fear to question them. Especially now. What is said today is not what was said fifteen years ago because the Muslims are experiencing new situations. The point here is ordinary Muslims should stop acting like blind followers and blaming the scholars for not doing their jobs when they themselves are not doing their job. What is their job? It is to come with a critical mind – there is no deep faith without a critical mind. You know there is one principle to be followed when you go to a scholar and you ask him for a fatwa. But when he gives you the fatwa, you have to ask him or her where does it come from. Give me the evidence. Not only do you get an answer but you have to understand where the answer comes from.


What the Muslims are doing is that they just want answers and very often they are having a "touristic" attitude towards fatwa. They are looking at scholars and they choose the scholar that they want that gives them the fatwa that they want. In the end they get the fatwa they are looking for. This is not Islamic – an attitude which is lacking in sincerity. We need more sincerity from the Muslims and more critical minds – and carry out deeper challenges and deeper questions – not only how do I enter the mosque and such.


The scholars must listen to the community and know what is happening. By definition, a scholar is serving the community – not to be served by the community – his power or authority is coming from the community he is serving. What we have now is the other way round. We are idolising some of the scholars and in the process giving them authority over us.


We have to revive the questioning mind. During the time of the Prophet, when he gave an opinion or a ruling his companions questioned him, "Is this coming from God or is this coming from you?" When he said, "This is my opinion", they said then we challenge you. They were challenging his authority to find out how he came up with his opinion. If it is coming from God, no problem.


You must have heard that there is a request by a Catholic publication, the Herald, to use the word "Allah" when referring to God in its articles in Bahasa Malaysia. The government has objected to this. What is your view on this?

If you travel around the world, in the Arab world, Allah is used by all Christians – Coptics and others. To us, Allah is the one God who sent us the prophets Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. When we use Arabic, we say "Allah", when speak in English, we say "God" and when we speak French, we say "Deus".


The point is the substance and the substance is one God. We are using the language to say it. Some of the scholars coming from the literalist trend, the Salafiya-al Harfiyat, say that Allah is a very specific name.


The majority of the Muslims are using the word "God" when they speak English and the other words in other languages. Allah is not the God of the Arabs but Allah is the only God of all human beings. This is what we are saying.


When we speak other languages, you change by knowing what you are talking about and we understand that He is like nothing we can imagine Him to be. Therefore we cannot describe Him. So when I speak English, I do not have a problem saying "God" and in French I say "Deus" and that’s it.


When the Christian Arabs speak Arabic, in their Bible, they use "Allah" to speak about God. So, you cannot deprive them using this as this has been the case for centuries and in Arabic, God is Allah.


The Roman Catholics among them do not use "Allah" to describe Jesus. There is no problem there. And my understanding of their general hypothesis is that the Trinity is Three in One but they are not confusing the three dimensions of One God. If that is not a problem for them neither is it for us.


But we must also be aware that the Christians, depending on traditions that they are following, are promoting the concept of the Trinity. Each group has its own truth or understanding of it.


Would you describe yourself as a moderate Muslim?

I am not using this vocabulary. This qualification is coming from the colonisers who always had a binary view of the colonised – the good and the bad, the moderate and the fundamentalist.


All the people who resisted colonisation were bad and fundamentalists and all those with them were the good and the moderate. I think it is silly.


You are aware, of course, there are too many literalists and formalists among Muslims in Malaysia and many parts of the world. Are you saying that it is wrong for Muslims to be like that and that there is a need for them to be more than that?

The literalists are looking at the Islamic text, the Quran and the hadith, in a very literal way. I am not saying that they are less Muslim, but they are followers. Maybe in their literal faithfulness, they become less faithful to the objectives of being a Muslim.


I want be very faithful to the meaning of the text but I also want answers for my time. So, the reformist trend here is what we have with the first companions of the Prophet saw – some of them were looking at the objectives, not only at the literal meaning of the verses. I am following that one.


There are texts – I respect them and there are objectives – I have to reach them. So I am between the objectives I want to reach and the text I have to understand. Between that, there is the critical thinking – the dialectic process – which is exactly the reformist trend.

We need to go back to the origins to find out what is the creativity and the confidence of the first companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Today what we lack is confidence when we deal with the text, and we do not have confidence to face the world. Is the text for us to strictly just read and not change the world? We read whole night and don’t change the world throughout the day.

To change the world we need our critical thinking – the rationality, the understanding. We need to have our heart not sleeping during the night and the mind never sleeping during the day. This is what we need, this awakening process. It is important.


You are Hasan al Banna’s grandson and because of that many Europeans and Americans do not think you are what you say you are. To them he was a fundamentalist and an extremist and that what you are doing is to present a friendly face to what they think he was. How do you handle people like them?

 I think that a variety of the people who talk of my grandfather never read about him, never knew him. I would never let people judge my grandfather with superficial perceptions. Only 5% of what he wrote is translated into English. Just try to understand what he did and said. Someone who said no to colonisation and who created 2,000 schools, half for girls in a time where this was not the trend is just unbelievable.


People questioned my grandparents on how they could send their daughter to school and the daughter in question was my mother. This is the way my grandfather was. When he was, for example, promoting a kind of Sufi trend –which is spirituality – which sprouted into 1,500 such organisations, shouldn’t I respect him for this?


So, to all the people today judging him while he was dealing with the world in the 1930s and 1940s, I would say this is unfair. And when you don’t read someone fully, don’t judge that someone especially based on the words of his enemies (the British colonisers).


I don’t have a problem with people referring to my grandfather wherever I am because this is a fact. But I am trying to present my own thoughts and I am asking the people to assess my view by reading what I have written.