Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Theology of Tariq Ramadan: A Catholic Perspective

By Gregory Baum, 178 pages, $21.95, Novalis, ISBN 978-2896-460-793.

“Because the Catholic Church first rejected modernity and then wrestled to find a theological approach that allowed a critical openness to modernity, I have great sympathy for a similar wrestling in Islam.... There is a certain family likeness between the Catholic and the Muslim theological effort to react creatively to the challenge of modernity.”

Baum's above words reflect his attempt to reduce the estrangement or sense of mystery that many Catholics feel towards Islam. The mainstream media caricatures of the religion and the sense of a clash of civilizations have been accepted uncritically by most people, almost subconsciously.

The Theology of Tariq Ramadan relates Catholicism to Islam, and shows how the latter can become a more stable, authentic part of Western Civilization. Many Anglo-American multiculturalists have already imagined how this integration can come about, but they do so with a healthy dose of condescension and belief that the only good Islam is a neutered Islam. This echoes their understanding of Christianity and religion in general – which naturally angers or scares Muslims and invites antagonism.

Baum, a Canadian Catholic theologian, writes as a friend of Islam, paralleling John Paul II's outreach to the Jews. He clearly respects what he believes Ramadan to be saying about European Muslims. When Baum disagrees with the Muslim scholar, he does so in a careful, discrete, and humble manner, showing that the point in hand is his interpretation of Ramadan's thinking.

Ramadan wishes to establish an Islamic theology that distinguishes between the universal and the particular. The universal injunctions of Islam usually revolve around God and human duties to God, whereas cultural issues relate more to the particular, and can change. Baum explains Ramadan's belief that individual Muslims not be allowed to interpret the Quran themselves, in contrast to Protestants, who have always been invited to read and interpret the Bible for themselves.

The Islamic theologian, now based partly at Oxford University, believes that Islamic scholars alone must interpret the Quran, as he follows the footsteps of the nineteenth-century Islamic reformer al-Afghani. Baum is equally clear and patient in explaining how and why Ramadan desires to respect and keep sharia law as the basis of Islamic society. This is not the harsh law the media portrays; Ramadan calls for an Islamic law that reflects God's desire to help people live good, holy lives.

Baum unearths the basic reading that Ramadan and similar Islamic reformers do of the Quran, showing how it parallels the reading of the Bible by some Christian Churches, including Catholics: “The reformist approach, he [Ramadan] explains, reads the Quran by taking into account the context of the verses and the intention implicit in them.”

Ramadan and the reform tradition he follows is actually a conservative movement because it demands that Muslims follow the interpretations of Islamic scholars. Again, Baum walks a theological tightrope to show that it is not fundamentalist interpretation because it seeks the living force of God that created the Quran and the human quest for God. It does not take a fundamentalist legal view of the Quran, in the style of the Taliban or Saudi Wahabi theologians, but believes that Muslims must follow the divine spirit of the Quran and Islam. Baum notes: “Ramadan as a Salafi reformist wants Muslims to transcend the regulations of the Islamic schools of law 'to rediscover the pristine energy of an unmediated reading of the Quran.'”

Muslims must closely follow the core inspiration of Islam, but because it is a universal religion for people of all times and places, cultural and other aspects of the religion can and sometimes must change, including shariah's calls for corporal and capital punishment. This allows his co-religionists to remain fully Muslim yet fully Western; in Ramadan's view, Western Muslims must be full citizens who participate in the political and cultural life of their societies. Rather than isolating themselves, they must use their civic participation as a means to witness their faith to the non-Muslim cultures.

Throughout these discussions, according to Baum, Ramadan remains steadfast in his desire that people follow the Quran. Muslims can reach out to secular, Western societies because Muhammad had relations “of trust and competence” with polytheists and other non-Muslims. Western Muslims should, like Catholics and Jews in these societies, have a dialogical relationship with these societies, avoiding assimilation while participating in civic and cultural life.

The Theology of Tariq Ramadan offers an important step forwards in inter-religious dialogue, an imperative because of the loud voices describing a clash of civilization. Baum hardly sees such a clash, and finds much in common between Ramadan's style of conservative, traditionalist Muslim reform, and the Catholic Church's long, often contentious and painful dialogue with modern, secular liberal societies.

Baum writes from the left-wing, feminist side of the Church that came out swinging from Vatican II, calling for revolutionary sexual moral change, married priests, female ordination, and liberation- and feminist-theology. In The Theology of Tariq Ramadan, at times he risks turning Ramadan into a Muslim version of himself and the Vatican II left-wing. Even with this weakness, the wide-ranging discussion, which refers to many other important Muslim thinkers such as Fethullah Gulen, is well worth the read, and can serve as a Catholic introduction to some currents of contemporary Islamic theology, and their relationship to Catholic thinking.

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