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Interpretation of Islam, Interpretation of the West

Tariq Ramadan’s book, Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity, discusses the misconceptions both of Muslims and Westerners that Islam is not compatible with modernization. While the West is generally seen as a rational bastion of human rights, the Muslim world is portrayed by the media as a backward part of the world in which women’s rights are trampled on. For Ramadan, “The question becomes then, can the Muslim world accede to modernity without denying some of the fundamentals of the Islamic religion?” (1) Ramadan will assert that modernization is indeed possible.

Contrasting the history of the West with that of the Muslim world, Ramadan shows that historical events have had a strong impact on how rationality, rights and values are understood. The West, shaped by a revolt against the authoritarian Church, has created a rational skeptical system devoid of God and religious values (5). Thus, while human rights are touted in the West, blind scientism and endless progress have isolated men from each other and from God (7). The Muslim world, in contrast, has never had such a culture of doubt and thus has not moved away from a God-centered universe. The history of colonialism has left its mark, however, and the Muslim world is continuing to fight against anything perceived of as Western. Ramadan reminded his readers that this fight against “Westernization” should not be equated with a fight against modernization (7). The West, he holds, represents only one kind of modernization.

Ramadan attempts to show that despite the lack of progress and human rights present in contemporary Muslim governments, Islam is not incompatible with modernity (12). Ramadan attempts to prove that Islam is compatible with democratic principles as well as modern progress through an appeal to a non-literal interpretation of the Quran and the Sunna, a look at ijtihad, an explanation of the original permission given by God to do all that is not prohibited (19), instructions in Medina to tolerate all religions (24), and an appeal to historical rights of non-Muslims. Ramadan stresses that this Islamic interpretation of modernity would be different than that of the West due to the centrality of communalism within Islam, for one must be united both with God and with other men.

The book highlights some of the major problems within the Islamic world that work against a healthy modern culture. Ramadan cites the lack of human rights and unaccountable dictatorships as a strong roadblock against modernization. According to Ramadan, this is particularly difficult to change due to Western interests in keeping the Muslim world stable and predictable (274), dictators’ interests in keeping their positions, and a lack of political culture in many Muslim countries. Another challenge is the identification of modernization with Westernization, which leads to either a rejection of the modern world and its human rights or an embrace of a soulless capitalism that benefits only the ruling elite. Those who do genuinely want a healthy modernization have proclaimed Islam as the solution to contemporary hardships, but fail to offer a plan or clear vision of such a system (45-46). This failure is what Ramadan attempts to remedy.

Throughout the book, Ramadan identifies misconceptions and generalizations that prevent his readers from seeing how Islam can cope with modernity, even while his own misconceptions color the work. Ramadan bases his discussion of a modern Islamic state on the belief that though Islamic countries are not currently “modern,” there is nothing in the Islamic worldview which prevents them from being so. Islam itself is not opposed to modernization. However, there are a few problems with this formulation. First, Ramadan never clearly places his interpretation of Islam against other interpretations and therefore never explains why his interpretation is the correct one. Which leads one to question: what Quranic passages is Ramadan leaving out? Why is a literal interpretation of the Quran to be rejected? The second problem with this formulation is that this principle is not applied equally. While Ramadan holds that the vision of Islam (its ideal beliefs and goals) should be examined rather than the corruptions of Islam in the world, he does not think to do this in regards to rationalism, liberalism, individualism, or capitalism. Rather, all of these Western systems are quickly proclaimed to be untenable because they do not work perfectly in today’s world. In a similar vein, Ramadan rails against the distorted Western perceptions of the Muslim world which paint the Muslim as violent and suppressing women. Ramadan then pays lip service to the opposite, stating that Muslims have a simple perception of the West as well, equating it with Christianity. However, Ramadan’s own portrayal of the West is far worse than the simple Christian vision he rejects in his contemporaries. To Ramadan, the West is devoid of all values, rational to the point of being anti-religious (246), individualistic to the point of desiring no solidarity (247), and economically driven to the point of exploiting all things with no moral or governmental regulation (246). It seems clear that Ramadan’s perception of the West is highly skewed rather than based on fact. If one thing should be clear in an examination of the West, or of anywhere for that matter, it should be that there are always multiple perspectives. There is no “Western” mindset anymore than there is one “Islamic” mindset. In this sense, Ramadan’s book, while offering a valid interpretation of how Islam can adapt to modernity, is simplistic and highly subjective.



10 thoughts on “Interpretation of Islam, Interpretation of the West

  1. Shannon, your analysis of Ramadan’s Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity, displays your grasp on some of the main issues the author repeatedly discusses in his book. Your reflection cleverly points us to the central conflict between the Muslim world and the Western concept of modernity. In your essay, the reader quickly learns about the historical aversion to religious dogma that dominates Western rationality; a resentment that is generally absent in Muslim communities. Furthermore, in the third paragraph, one clearly recognizes that Islamic principles embrace diversity, progress, and technology without worshiping the individual. In other words, Islam embraces a relationship that seeks for unity between men and God’s laws.

    Your conclusion challenges the reader to consider other potential interpretations of Quranic messages besides the ones the author recommends. Although Ramadan’s interpretation provide us with numerous scenarios that can conceivably bring serenity and equality to the Muslim world, he fails to properly recognize his recipe for harmony as another interpretation that lacks complete and accurate understanding of the Prophet’s sacred narration. I personally enjoy your second to last sentence which reminds us that “there is no ‘Western’ mindset anymore than there is one ‘Islamic’ mindset.” In other words, generalizations are always problematic since they do not address the diversity that resides within. I would further argue that although the West remains stained with a history of abuse and colonialism, the Muslim world also fails to suitably recognize that the continuous attempts to reject Western values may originate from the dysfunctional historical relationship (understandably so) between an allegedly godless society and a God centered world.

    Posted by alfredo71 | February 5, 2012, 1:34 am
    • Alfredo,

      Thank you for your comments. I think our reflections on this book strike at some of the same issues. Your point that there is no homogenized Islamic mindset (ie that Ramadan fails to address secular Muslims) dovetails with my comment that he homogenizes the West. I do understand that to a certain degree this is necessary for an author to do if he ever wishes to propose something concrete, and yet Ramadan’s simplification works to ignore some of the objections that his plan would raise.

      I agree also with your last remark here concerning the misconceptions on both sides being grounded in history. I think much of the tension between the “Muslim world” and the “West” is due to residual feelings about past encounters. Despite globalization, people from all over the world continue to harbor misconceptions about other religions and cultures, though I would venture to say these misconceptions are a little less rampant than in the distant past.

      Posted by shannonwiese | February 6, 2012, 5:13 pm
  2. I want to address your first claim about Ramadan and that he “never clearly places his interpretation of Islam against other interpretations and therefore never explains why his interpretation is the correct one.”¹ While I agree with the first point about not using it against other interpretations. In a work like this to what degree would including multiple interpretations distort and make his ideas unclear? Because multiple views can create even more problems I think his approach of not including other interpretations is a logical decision on his part and for his over all case. Of course certain elements will be left out or go unacknowledged but this is the case when writing on subjects like this, which can also be seen in “Orientalism” by Said. It is valid to keep in mind that works like this may lack certain elements.
    The second point I would like to address is that you claim Ramadan says that “the West is devoid of all values, rational to the point of being anti-religious (246), individualistic to the point of desiring no solidarity (247), and economically driven to the point of exploiting all things with no moral or governmental regulation (246).”² Since Ramadan is making the claim that capitalism, rationalism, liberalism and individualism are systems of modernity in the West that do not work for Islam. Then his expression of the West being devoid of the values you list above would be his evidence for proving why these systems and ideas do not work for Islam. So while they may not be an accurate portrayal of everyone and their views in the West. Ramadan is making the specific case that Western modernity does not and will not work for Islam. Ramadan writes, “The West has given us a particular form of modernity, it partakes of its history and points of reference. Another civilisation can, from within fix and determine the stakes in a different fashion. This is the case for Islam at the end of the twentieth century.”³ It is important to keep in mind that modernity and proving that Islam is capable of creating its own modernity is the case Ramadan is making.

    1 Shannon Wiese, Interpretation of Islam, Interpretation of the West. Posted January 30th 2012
    2 Shannon Wiese, Interpretation of Islam, Interpretation of the West. Posted January 30th 2012
    3 Tariq Ramadan, “Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity.” (The Islamic Foundation, 2004), 7-8.

    Posted by tealam12 | February 5, 2012, 2:00 pm
    • Dear Teala,

      Thank you for your comment. I think the point you make about Ramadan’s choosing not to detail other interpretations of Islam is a good one. It is certainly his choice whether or not to include such references. However, for my personal taste, I found this lack of orientation a bit misleading. While Muslims and scholars of Islam may be familiar with the various kinds of Quranic interpretation, not all Westerners would be. I think Ramadan could have not only oriented the reader better in this regard, but could have used such an opportunity to build a strong case for his method of interpretation.

      As regards Ramadan’s portrayal of the West, I continue to believe that his depiction is skewed. Because he is not depicting the West accurately, his basis for rejecting the systems used in the West is shakey, if not untenable. While I do not argue that Western modernity is the only form of modernity (for it certainly is only one of many possibilities), I think that in order for Ramadam to explain why the Western model is incompatible with Islam he must begin with an accurate account of the Western model. He did present some evidence for this incompatibility. However, he also left out any contradicting evidence, and for that I feel his presentation was not as strong as it could have been.

      Posted by shannonwiese | February 6, 2012, 5:27 pm
  3. I do not think that Ramadan necessarily has misconceptions of the West, but rather he is trying to speak to Muslims that hold those misconceptions. It is hard for everyone, everywhere, to not speak in generalizations, especially when those generalizations are about others. A good test for Westerners, like me, who are reading Ramadan’s book would be to ask ourselves how we would explain Western modernization to others. I think for the most part, I would explain it similar to the way Ramadan has, in theory, but in practice Western modernization looks somewhat different. For one, Western life is not completely secular. However, we still strive to keep religion out of government and for good reason. I was intrigued by Ramadan’s ideas but his insistance on Islam in government is where I as a Westerner object. Social justice based on religion is wonderful and powerful but why can’t we put Christian and Islamic values under another name and incorporate them into government. In today’s mixing of religions and cultures, it seems unwise to have state sponsered religion but that does not mean the values of religion cannot be used.
    I totally agree with you that Ramadan’s interpretation is just one way Islam can have modernization, just like he says that the westernization is only one way to have modernization. I think that Muslims would all come up with different answers to this question but all would incorporate the Islamic values they find most important.

    Posted by cassidylp | February 5, 2012, 7:01 pm
    • Dear Cassidy,

      Thank you for your comments. I think Ramadan certainly is trying to call attention to the misconceptions that Muslim have of the West (and that the West has of Muslims), but I believe that his own view of the West does not quite escape all of the misconceptions either. Your point that the West is comprised of people with religious values is one that I find lacking in Ramadan’s work. I would agree with you, however, that it is difficult to write about such broad topics without using some generalizations.

      Posted by shannonwiese | February 6, 2012, 5:32 pm
  4. I really enjoyed this post. It is a solid piece of work and points out aspects of Tariq Ramadan’s presentation of the West that I had not considered in this book. I can find no suitable basis on which to write a critique of this piece, so I will instead offer something of a defense. While some of our colleagues seem to be raising issues with your argument that Ramadan’s presentation of the West and Western forms of modernization have been colored by his own political position, it seems to me that much of these objections are based on the fact that Ramadan did spend a certain portion of his book arguing against some essentialist views of the West. However, the fact that he argues against some of these more extreme forms of essentialism does not mean that he himself is not guilty of more subtle misrepresentations of the Western modernist system. He certainly does take a strong, almost polemical, tone against certain practices in the West, especially in his presentation of scientism as the prevailing paradigm for the West, or of the dominance of the free market capitalist system, both of which he characterizes as somewhat destructive on varying levels. A strong piece of evidence for this argument would be that while he reprimands the Muslim world for identifying the West with Christianity, he himself identifies the West with a rebellious hubris against the gods and a nearly anti-religious secularist attitude. To state that his stance towards western systems is based solely in his view that these systems would not work for in the Muslim world does little to justify the bias and essentialist overtones throughout. This is no better than it would be to judge his model of an Islamic modernist system from a Western modernist perspective.

    Posted by woolmanjc | February 6, 2012, 1:07 pm
    • Dear Josh,

      Thank you for your comments. I think you summarized the argument better than I did:) This is exactly what I was trying to get at.

      Posted by shannonwiese | February 6, 2012, 5:35 pm
  5. It is important to remember that Tariq Ramadan is first and foremost a Muslim theologian. His goal is not to explain the ways in which Muslims can be reconciled with the modernist perspective. Rather, his aim is to find ways to reconcile modernity with a Muslim system of values. Further, Ramadan is not attempting a polemic piece against “the West” or “Western values.” He is arguing, in Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity, as he similarly does in Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, for the revival (tajdīd) of the Islamic intellectual tradition. This is key, in his estimation, for allowing everyday Muslims to operate in the modern world, and perhaps indeed for the continued survival of the modern world as well. He argues a very Platonist worldview, but again he can: he is a theologian. Islamic theology and cosmology tends toward a Platonist worldview. He perceives that if there is no higher authority than a ruler who does not rule by divine right, then there is no checking of the authority of that ruler. The Arab/Islamicate world is also not following this principle.

    This observation is quite adept:

    To Ramadan, the West is devoid of all values, rational to the point of being anti-religious, individualistic to the point of desiring no solidarity, and economically driven to the point of exploiting all things with no moral or governmental regulation.

    However, it is regarded as unrealistic. We live in a world in which religion does not have a quotidian presence for the first time in recorded human history. One could argue that this is simply a feature of modernity, or an aspect of social and intellectual evolution, or the debasement of morality to wan, ineffectual secular aphorism. Regardless of which point of view is utilized in assessing the state of modern morality, it seems quite clear that the modern world is not necessarily all it is cracked up to be. While it would be silly to argue that the medieval world was any better (because “better” is a scalar attribute) it is equally silly to argue that everything is just fine in the modern “West.” This is the point that Ramadan is making, not that there is already an “Islamic Modernity” sitting in some exemplary context. Instead, he argues that there could and should be, and that it might be better than the alternatives, particularly for Muslims.

    Posted by johndmartin | February 6, 2012, 2:58 pm
    • Dear John,

      Thank you for your comments. Your reminder that Ramadan writes as a theologian and that he is asserting a cosmology grounded in man’s relationship with God is an apt one. From this position his argument for an Islamic society based on such a cosmology is logical. Further, your assertion that religion today does not permiate society to the extent that it has in the past is also astute. Ramadan is correct about these things. Ramandan’s argument for Islamic alternatives to Western systems of modernization are valid. I simply believe his depiction of the West as well as his depiction of the varying opinions within the Muslim world could be more complete. I think his arguments could be strengthed if he provided a more accurate and detailed account of such positions and explained how his views differ (particularly in regards to other Muslim interpetations of Islam) and why his plans would provide the best God-centered system.

      Posted by shannonwiese | February 6, 2012, 6:00 pm

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