Book Review: Allah's witnesses

I've recently read two books which, though there are differences between them, essentially deal with the same subject: an Islamic approach for Muslims in the West.

The first is Muslim Communities in Non-Muslim States, published in 1980 by the Islamic Council of Europe. It contains a summary of lectures about the subject from different Muslim representatives at a conference in London. The conference ended with a list of resolutions which were later accepted by the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The conference was mostly concerned with persecuted Muslim minorities, but also dealt with Western Muslims and in general with the relationship between Islam and others.

The second book is Western Muslims and the Future of Islam by Tariq Ramadan, published in 2004. It is divided into two parts, a theological study of Islam and a practical application section.

Both books were written for a Muslim audience though Ramadan's book is much more accessible by the general public.

Ramadan's book is considered revolutionary and reformist ("a Muslim Martin Luther"), while the Islamic Society book is quoted on many sites as an example of of the "Muslim plot". However, reading them both I saw quite a few similarities between them. Some ideas Ramadan brings to "reshape Islam" were already discussed 20 years ago. To take as an example, Ramadan does stress values that may not be the most common in the Muslim street. For example, loyalty to one's own state, as opposed to the Muslim umma. But this idea is also mentioned in Ismail R. Faruqi's lecture "The Rights of Non-Muslims under Islam: Social and Cultural Aspects".

One aspect that stood out for me in both books was the proselytizing aspect of Islam. There are many people who think there is a Muslim plot to "take over the world". M. Ali Kettani's lecture on "The Problems of Muslim Minorities and Their Solutions" is quoted all over the internet as an example of just such a plot. I do not generally believe in conspiracy theories, and I do not believe there is a conspiracy in this case. However, both these books emphasized for me that Islam does a very strong proselytizing aspect. In Ramadan's case, even though he was trying to prove exactly the opposite.

In his book Ramadan says that the days of dividing the world into Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam are past (but, see below). Instead, the West should be seen as Dar a-Shahada (region of testimony) or Dar al-Dawa. He explains "dawa" as the obligation to "call to Islam" or to "invite to Islam" or in his words: the idea that Muslims should bring to the West the "universal Islamic message". He spends quite a bit of time explaining that this is not proselytizing, but for me that is simply playing with vocabulary. After all, what is proselytizing if not trying to convince everybody around you of your one truth?

As Khalid M. Ishaque says in his lecture "Evolution of Human Rights in the West and its Implications for Muslims": "All Muslims, wherever they be, are under an obligation to propagate the word of God."

In fact Ramadan explains it very clearly - Muslims are "witnesses" to God's message to the world and they therefore must go out and preach it, by words or deeds. In this sense, Islam uses the word "witnesses" in much the same way that Jehovah's Witnesses see it. Unlike most branches of Christianity, they believe that every member of their group has an obligation to call people to the word of God.

Ramadan may not want to see it as conversion (conversion is between God and man, he says), but that is exactly what it entails. Furthermore, the line between "convincing people your way is the right way" and "forcing people to follow the right way", can sometimes be very thin.

Though quite hard to follow, I found Ramadan's theological part of the book quite interesting. The very essence of Islam has a problem with plurality. Take the word "Sharia" which means roughly "the way to the spring" and which stresses the oneness of the way.

For example, Ramadan brings a discussion about how different scholars can give different answers to the same question, even at different times. His answer: there is only one "right" answer, there is only one "true way". The others must be wrong. If that is how Islam deals with differing opinions within, how can Islam deal with other opinions from outside?

Another basic theological aspect of Islam mentioned in both books is fitra: the notion that everybody is born with religion (or Islam or submission to the creator). This is the basis of Muslims seeing converts as "reverts" or "coming back". Though it is brought as one of the enlightened aspects of Islam, seeing all humans as partners in Revelation, I think it also shows Islam's feeling of superiority. Everybody is part of Islam's message to the world.

Ramdan has been accused of double-speak, but in this book, written in English and available for the general public he doesn't hide his true affiliation, for those willing to read it.

He sees six major tendencies in Islam: scholastic traditionalism, Salafi literalism, Salafi reformism, political literalist Salafism, "liberal" or "rationalist" reformism, and Sufism.

It is easy to see which trend he supports: Salafi reformism, which he says keeps the text as a point of reference, but applies ijtihad and remains open to interpretation. "The aim is to protect the Muslim identity.., to recognize the Western constitutional structure, to become involved as citizen at the social level, and to live with true loyalty to the country to which one belongs". He does bring some examples of reformists who wanted to bring liberal values to Muslim countries, but he also brings al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Morocco) and the Muslim Brothers (Egypt and Syria), groups which have been outlawed by the authorities for wanting to establish an Islamist state.

I do wonder how he sees Hamas' rise to power in Gaza. Hamas is a Salafi reformist group allied with the Muslim Brotherhood and is the only such group currently in power. If Ramadan is right, it should be the example everybody was waiting for on how to merge an Islamic state and liberalism.

Another aspect of both books that stood out for me was the basic misunderstanding of the Jewish community. Jews have been immigrants and outsiders for millenia. They have a similar legal structure to Islam, with laws that encompass every living moment of a person's life and a moral code that one must live by. I would have thought that surely the Jewish situation would be brought up in a discussion about how an all encompassing religion can integrate in the West. However, both books show a serious lack of understanding, if not actual antipathy toward Judaism.

Ramadan mentions Jews in the following contexts: Jews only take care of themselves championing Jewish or Israeli causes, and they have a lot of money. On the religious side, God punished them for usury by giving them their laws (which to me is a paradox).

Though he calls on Muslims to be involved in social issues, he mentions Jews only in the context of political lobbying. There is no mention of the significant contribution of Jews worldwide to social betterment, equality and human rights. As just one example: in 1964 three civil rights activists were lynched in Mississippi. One was black, the other two were Jewish. There is no mention of any such Jewish activism in Ramadan's book, though he spends a significant portion of his book urging Muslims to do exactly that. Paradoxically, Ramadan is against political lobbying but supports CAIR as a positive development.

Since Ramadan talks about the importance of interreligious dialog, this makes me wonder if he's at all involved in such issues and if yes, whether they're really effective. After all, it seems as if he subscribes to the antisemitic rhetoric.

This rhetoric is repeated in Muslim Communities. Faruqi in "The Rights of Non-Muslims" brings Judaism as the worst example of hatred for the non believer saying that there is no tradition elsewhere in the world that comes close to Judaism's "severity, harshness and absoluteness" in its condemnation of non-believers. A.K. Brohi ("Problems of Minorities") says Judaism is a racial religion which does not accept converts. It is a ridiculous claim, of course, and shows basic lack of knowledge. This lack of knowledge colors how these Muslim thinkers and leaders see the world and how they place Islam within it. It also affects their ability to cooperate with Jewish communities.

Ramadan spends a significant portion of his book talking about the universal values of Islam: defend justice for all, promote good, ensure the well being of all people. He talks about the importance of faith in a world enslaved by materialistic values.

What I found problematic with this message is that he talks to the West alone. Yes, his book is directed at Western Muslims, but these are Muslims who are aware of the world and what is happening in it. There are several countries whose laws comply with the Sharia, there are other countries who have a Muslim majority and are Muslim run, but none of these countries embodies the ideals Ramadan speaks of. Ramadan wants to bring the light of Islam to the world and urges Western Muslims to fight for universal Muslim values, but he never once demands the same from the Muslim countries. He accuses the west of supporting dictatorships and of state terrorism, but he barely voices any criticism of the dictators themselves.

Muslim immigrants have, at the least, escaped countries which do not provide the basic economic needs of their people, at the worst, don't bother about human rights. How can Ramadan expect those immigrants to come to the West and demand that the West shape up?

In this context it was enlightening to read Faruqi's "The Rights of Non-Muslims". Faruqi says that non-Muslims have every right to follow their religion, as long as it doesn't affect the surrounding Muslims. If the principles he brings would be applied to Muslims in the West, there would be a cry of discrimination: Any act which leads to fragmentation and exclusion from society is not allowed, private schools (if allowed) must abide by the curricula and general principles of the public schools, clothing and art may not infringe on the moral sentiment of the public, sound pollution is not tolerated and there are restrictions on working in the judiciary or the executive (since non-Muslims may not affect the policy of an Islamic state). And this in a chapter which is supposed to emphasize how an Islamic state ensures the rights of non-Muslims.

Is Ramadan truly a liberal? After reading through most of his book, I was actually surprised when Ramadan turned to talk about the financial world order. Ramadan wants nothing less tha the overturning of the current economical order, basing it on those same "universal" Islamic values.

If earlier in his book Ramadan explained that the West is not Dar al-Harb, now he talks about the whole world as Alam al-Harb (world of war), due to the neo-liberalist capitalist economics imposed by the West, and uses fighting language to so, calling for resistance. Western economic order is terrorism: he says the West is "sanctioning a cynical, silent, global terrorism" and imposes a "world order that sows terror". He accuses the West of new colonialism and of long distance slavery.

Muslims should create a new financial word order, one which is not based on speculation. He calls to support and ally with Fair Trade organizations and with movements fighting speculation and working for land redistribution.

Though I agree with some of his points, his vehemence is frightening. More than that, it might be overlooked since he is talking about economics, but he is using the same rhetoric against which he talks throughout his book. Many "Islamophobes" accuse Islam of exactly the things Ramadan calls for when he talks about economics: changing the world order, working in stages to achieve their goal and using the system in order to change it.

Ramdan expects the West to account for its errors in the past: slavery and colonialism, for example. But he does not demands the same from Islam. In fact, both books bring Islam as an example of everything that is good. Kettani in "The Problems of Muslim Minorities" explains that blacks aren't a minority in Muslim countries since skin color is not an issue there. Ramadan mentions that Islam was the original faith of the enslaved Africans. He also brings jizya tax and the protection offered by the state to its minorities/dhimmis as advantages offered by Islam.

Ramadan does mentions "regular" terrorism but only as the excuse used by the West to limit Muslims. According to Ramadan terrorism is "international situations in which Muslims are implicated", as if Muslims in the West are just bystanders in these events. He accuses the US of stepping up actions against Muslims even before 9/11, as if there was no Islamic terrorism in the US (or elsewhere) before that. There is no self-reflection, no self-criticism.

Two last points to consider:
1. Ramadan stresses ethics and humility. However, by definition, humility stands in the way of renewal and reformation. One cannot reform if one believes he is not worthy of doing.

2. One last point, and this is one that I am not sure even Ramadan realizes he is making.

In the context of the economic world order, Ramadan accuses the West of being responsible for immigration: "Policies proposed to combat immigration are dreadful.. Northern governments, our governments, apply repressive policies against the victims of their own regulations." (p. 172)

Later, in explaining how Islam does not call to fight against the West he quotes the Koran: "God forbids you to turn in friendship towards [or take as allies] only such as.. drive you forth from your homelands.." (p. 207)

Does the West then drive Muslims forth from their homelands? According to Ramadan it does. How does this fit in with his overall view on relations between Muslims and the West?


FreeSpeech said...

Last year, Ramadan organized a conference on
"Integration of Europe into Islam", announced at the time on his home page. It has disappeared in the meantime.

manawee said...

‘Since Ramadan talks about the importance of interreligious dialog, this makes me wonder if he's at all involved in such issues and if yes, whether they're really effective. After all, it seems as if he subscribes to the antisemitic rhetoric.’

You seem to be very confused and your confusion will subside if you seek the true meaning of Islam and forget about where you belong..east or west..north or south..just remember you belong to the human race whom are blessed with the gift of reason.

I believe Ramathan is an Arab? Hence, he and all Arabs share the same grand father with the Jews that is the Prophet Ibraham, therefor he is himself Semitic and can’t be untisemitic.

‘He accuses the west of supporting dictatorships and of state terrorism, but he barely voices any criticism of the dictators themselves.

Muslim immigrants have, at the least, escaped countries which do not provide the basic economic needs of their people, at the worst, don't bother about human rights. How can Ramadan expect those immigrants to come to the West and demand that the West shape up?’

I used to live in a Muslim country under dictator’s rule. The Christians used to have State Holidays during all their festivals while Muslims carry on working. This is by Islamic tradition of living with other religions for centuries. Relationship of exchanged respect.

The Jews in Spain ran away to Morocco from the Spanish inquisition. Read history, and find out how the Jews where flourishing in Islamic Spain before that. When Muslims moved they moved with them and carried on living with them in peace for centuries. And read history of how the West used to treat the Jews at that time. Again I say..there is more than one factor that make people behave in certain way…
Also, think Dictatorships are many from all over the UK gathered in central London to prevent war on Iraq…Did the Government listen? Do Iraqies blame the people who refused that war or the governments that forced it upon them? People never want war..history prove that.

I am proud to believe in the true Islam the religion of peace, where nationality, color and race are not counted but only one thing count…that is your good deed.

Esther said...

Hi manawee,

There are quite a few Muslims who fled Muslim countries, and begged for asylum from the West. Ramadan was writing to those Muslims, not to those who love being in Muslim countries.

As for interreligious dialog - you didn't answer the question I raised.