Friday, December 4, 2009

The Theology of Tariq Ramadan: A Catholic Perspective

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

Just as the Catholic Church had to confront the secular, liberal order of modernity, eventually accommodating itself to a large degree, so Islam now is being confronted by the same forces of individualism, secularism, and democracy. Canadian Catholic theologian Gregory Baum examines how Swiss Muslim theologian Tariq Ramadan's appeals to Western Muslims echo many of the earlier developments in Catholic theology over the same issues. Baum's argument is from a very narrow left wing Catholic perspective, so the subtitle is misleading, as he is not representative of large swaths of the Church, including those who follow Vatican teaching.

Baum notes: “Since Islam, like traditional Catholicism, sees itself as a total system, Muslim societies challenged by political modernity have defined themselves either as ideologically secular, as Turkey has done, or as religiously reactionary, as Iran or Saudi Arabia have done.”

Islamic theology has reacted to the forces of modernity with, depending on the brand, varying degrees of liberalism, fundamentalism, or traditionalist reform. Ramadan belongs to the last one.

Ramadan is no liberal revolutionary, according to Baum, but he has been equally misread as a fundamentalist, which he is not. Ramadan does not believe that the Quran should be read simply for its legalistic declarations. Theologians who follow this way, like the Taleban or Saudi Wahabbis, tend to believe that seventh-century Arabia is the normative Islamic culture, and that all cultural change is aberrant.

Ramadan, conversely, believes that it is natural for societies to change, so the laws must as well, including shariah law. While he supports Quranic law, he emphasizes its spirit rather than specific prescriptions. What is unchanging for Ramadan, however, are the truths revealed in the Quran and shariah about God and about how Muslims need to relate to God.

These unchanging laws and spiritual truths can and need to be applied in every cultural and historical circumstance. Ramadan thus seeks the spiritual and theological truths of the Quran -- the religious rather than legal truths – according to Baum.

Following the Salafi Reformist tradition of al-Afghani (1838-97), Ramadan opposes the fundamentalist belief that interpretations of the Quran were closed after the tenth century. Salafi reformists like Ramadan, Baum notes, “prefer to return to the Islam practised by the Prophet and his 'Salafi,' or companions – an Islam that was open to reason and common sense and capable of responding creatively to historical challenges.” In other words, the “doors of ijtihad,” or “interpretation,” remain open.

Since Baum himself as a liberal Canadian Catholic theologian pushed for decades for the most possible feminist-liberal interpretation of Vatican II, he sometimes builds up for readers an image of Ramadan as a kind of Islamic left-wing Vatican II theologian, someone with whom Baum and his ilk can do business.

Baum does a good though incomplete job of discussing parallels between the Catholic Church's struggles with modernity, and the struggles of Islam with modernity. As a liberal theologian, Baum seems insensitive to the damage liberalism and feminism have done to Catholicism and Islam (not to mention to the family and human ecology as a whole). A wider discussion on how liberals and feminists have for decades attacked the pro-family, pro-life traditions of Islam would go a long way to show why Islamic theologians such as Ramadan have been so intensely discussing whether Muslims should or should not adopt Western values.

The Theology of Tariq Ramadan does nonetheless take an important first step in addressing inter-religious dialogue, hopefully putting to silence the unhelpful idea of a clash of civilizations. Perhaps the book will encourage other writers to address the deep chasms that inevitably remain between Western liberalism-feminism and Islam in its Western and non-Western forms.

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