"Faith's School," a Commentary by Mona Siddiqui

March 10, 2007

Author: Mona Siddiqui

Source: The Scotsman/The Messenger


WITH AN INCREASING FOCUS ON Islam and the Muslim world, it has become fashionable to talk about a "Muslim reformation". Indeed, the western world in particular is quite rightly eager to discover who are the voices of reformative Islam, who are the scholars and thinkers calling for the Muslim world to reflect on the challenges posed by modernity and globalisation. In this context, Tariq Ramadan, hailed by the Washington Post as "Islam's Martin Luther", has become known internationally as a key Muslim thinker. His books on European Islam have called for a rethinking of Muslim identity and the imperative of forging a European Muslim role. In his latest book, Ramadan departs from the European theme and writes a biography of Muhammad himself - for Muslims, the prophet of Islam and God's final messenger.

Biographies of the Prophet have been, for the most part, modelled on classical Muslim sources and Ramadan continues this tradition. The most obvious question to ask is one which Ramadan poses himself: "Why do we need another biography?" His answer lies in his introduction - that the selection of events is "determined by the wish to draw out teachings that speak to our lives and our times ... the reader will notice constant movements between the Prophet's life, the Qur'an and the teachings relevant to spirituality and the present day situation that can be drawn from the various historical situations".

So one might have expected more discussion and less description. Sadly not. Ramadan states consistently that the Prophet's life was one of manifest justice and mercy, but while he cites evidence to support this, he fails to give bolder views on how these concepts can be translated into situations facing Muslims today. Using the Prophetic life and era as a conceptual framework is a discourse popular with many Muslims but it fails to address the urgent thinking required on various critical issues which have arisen from political, social and moral changes in the Muslim world.

For example, Ramadan talks about jihad as a form of resistance, not attack, and the necessity of keeping any fighting in check, citing the Qur'anic verse, "had God not checked one set of people by means of another, monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which the name of God is commemorated ... would surely have been destroyed". Absolute power in people or empire leads to the annihilation of the diversity of people, and the places of worship mentioned here, Ramadan argues, "symbolises the pluralism of religions determined and willed by God". Well, "diversity is God's will" has become a bit of a mantra among many Muslim liberal thinkers. The real question is: how do Muslims understand diversity? Is diversity confined simply to religious diversity and what does that mean today, not just in the period of Islam's early expansion? Does it mean allowing others the right to practise their own faiths on Muslim territory, accepting other monotheistic faiths as alternative and equal visions to salvation?