Tariq Ramadan is a controversial intellectual. Controversial because he believes that Western Muslims can successfully reconcile their faith with European ideals and identity. In essence, Ramadan believes in reconciliation and inclusion and that is why he is controversial.
He provokes ire and disgust from the European right because he has worked to counter the myth of Islamic exceptionalism. Ramadan, throughout his works, has always tried to ground concepts such as democracy, human rights and liberty into a new language of Islamic ethics and Islamic law.
This latest book from Ramadan, The Quest for Meaning: Developing a philosophy of pluralism, takes a different approach. No longer is Ramadan concerned with Islamic law or religious dogma so to speak, but turns his attention to the treacherous idea of pluralism. Discussions of pluralism in contemporary Islamic thought are present in the works of late Dr Fathi Osman or the American-Arab intellectual, Taha Jabir al-Alwani, so in this sense this new book isn’t anything new. But it is remarkable in its emphasis on mysticism and moral psychology.
There has been a certain expectation of Muslim intellectuals to confront thorny and difficult issues such as secularism, gender equality and religious discrimination, but Ramadan will not have any of that. He says he has already tackled these issues in other works and has made it clear that his conclusions are part of the reformist liberal tradition of religious thinking.
Indeed, Ramadan wrote recently that, “a (so-called) ‘Muslim thinker’ should write only about very specific subjects, and if he fails to do so his intentions are necessarily suspect. He is expected to write about secularism, the Islamic penal code, Muslim women’s rights, the headscarf or burqa, equality.’’
Given the harsh reception The Quest for Meaning had in Europe and the US, it is critical to talk about the expectations readers should have. The Quest for Meaning is not philosophical treatise or a political manifesto for reviving multiculturalism. Nor is it necessarily a mystical antidote to Hungtington’s clash of civilisation. Rather, it should be read as a mystical treatise and it is for this reason it is a fascinating read. It highlights a dimension of Islamic thinking that has been long dormant and considered too removed and abstract.
Mystical thinking within Islam has been shunted to one side due to incredible legal and political pressures, hence our fixation with concepts about democracy and human rights. Granted these concepts are crucial but should they be the reason to condemn mysticism to irrelevance?
The powerful message of The Quest for Meaning is intellectual modesty and humility. It is a meditative book, with liberal sprinklings of poetic reflection and philosophical reasoning. It is not a book of strictly analytical philosophy but an attempt to construct a new framework of Islamic mysticism. The dichotomies between the secular and the sacred are dissolved, and the quest for meaning is imagined as a quest for peace and serenity. The scope of the book is incredible with reflections on Western philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Buddhist sayings, Hindu mantras and Islamic philosophy.
The book achieves the aim it sets itself, that is, being a tapestry for pluralism. Keeping in line with this spirit of pluralism, Ramadan challenges the notion of tolerance as elaborated by the Enlightenment philosophers. The Latin root of the word “tolerate’’ means “to suffer,’’ but Ramadan argues that in a globalised world this apathetic and reluctant acceptance of the other, which more often than not leaves a vacuous field for fundamentalists to rush into, is dated. We need to go beyond tolerance, as Ramadan writes, “When it comes to relations between free and equal human beings, autonomous and independent nations, or civilisations, religions and cultures, appeals for the tolerance of others are no longer relevant.’’ Pluralism and tolerance are hence different concepts. There has been a marked shift towards accepting pluralism in Islamic thinking, for instance in the works of Abdolkarim Soroush, Seyyed Nasr Hossein and Abdulaziz Sachedina.
The most startling aspect of this book is that it doesn’t delve into politics. There is nothing in it about multiculturalism, gender equality or the separation of the mosque and the state. It is a book that calls for personal transformation, and that is what is so refreshing about it. Before we can speak about tolerance and pluralism on a political level we must try and integrate it into our conscience. We must adopt a philosophy of pluralism, so to speak, that guides our life. Indeed the Quran itself talks about this clearly, “Had God so willed, he would have made you one single community,” (5.48). This rhetorical statement seems to suggest that diversity is sanctioned by God, and that the idea of utopia is a purely dangerous and anti-religious idea. The famous Islamic saying, “There are as many paths to God as children of Adam’’ also springs to mind.
But there are problems — and even Ramadan’s transcendental mysticism, with its description of cultural accidentalism, elucidating how we as individuals are shaped by long majestic traditions and various cultural influences — cannot avoid that most perilous paradox of pluralism: if all paths lead to the heart, as Ramadan suggests, then why choose one over the other?
Much like the philosopher John Hick, there is always a tension in Ramadan’s work. If the other great religions of the world have so much to offer, and are equally virtuous in their ethical principles and equally breath-taking in their cultural production, then why choose one over the other? What is the point of holding onto just one faith? Then there is the question of faith and reason which is not given enough time or space in the book.
It seems that Ramadan has laid down the foundations of his vision of pluralism. He now has to fill in the gaps and flesh out his ideas on some of the more contentious issues. Failure to do so will mean the good work done in this book will be tragically superficial and brief. The next works should try and reconcile the tensions within the idea of pluralism and discuss in much greater depth and detail the dilemma of faith and reason. The great conundrum facing all theologians since the scientific revolution still haunts the pages of Ramadan’s work. The Quest for Meaning indeed is, as Ramadan writes, “a journey and an initiation’’. Mysticism is not enough to defuse the tensions and anxieties facing us in the modern world.
The question is, will Ramadan continue this journey beyond mere mysticism and tackle more decisively the political, metaphysical and epistemological ramifications of his radical vision? The philosophy of pluralism requires expansion to stay relevant.
The Quest for Meaning: Developing a philosophy of pluralism (RELIGION) By Tariq Ramadan Penguin Books, UK ISBN 9781846141522 224pp. £10