By Tariq Ramadan
We hear in the West of intellectuals and scholars calling for a new ijtihad (personal reasoning) or for the formulation of innovative fatwas without integrating or even connecting this demand with the more general fundamentals of Islam concerning tawheed, the concept of the human being and the Shari`ah (with the universal principles it contains). This approach, which almost naturally tries to resolve the problems of integration faced by Muslims through attempts at legal adaptation that are based on circumstance, could soon prove to have serious limitations.
First of all, because it is built on a dualistic vision of two universes that do not mingle and that make compromises at their boundaries, or in the limited area where they intersect, it assumes that it is Muslims, being in the numerical minority, who must adapt by force of circumstances.
This approach also implicitly carries the idea (even if the discourse says the complete opposite) that Muslims must think of themselves as a minority, on the margin, in their societies, which will continue to be the societies of “the Other” and in which they will live somewhat as strangers, their belonging at best being confined to symbolic “acts”: expressions of solidarity, voting, for example.
And finally, and perhaps most serious, the vision that undergirds this approach is clearly the concern only that Muslims should integrate into their new environment, and not that they should contribute.
First Steps of Adaptation
It is certainly quite normal that, during the first decades of their new presence in the West, Muslims should have sought principally to protect themselves; they had no choice, and it was as much about the survival of their religious identity as about the preservation of the richness of their culture.
This is how all the initial steps toward adaptation undergone by all immigrant populations should be understood. For Muslims, the process went from the building of mosques to the establishment of Islamic associations via the elaboration of a way of thinking, a discourse, and, little by little, a legal reference framework in the various continents and countries.
The various meetings of `ulamaa’ (religious scholars) in the West (from the 1980s in the United States to the beginning of the 1990s in Europe), which tried to address the new questions faced by Muslims in industrialized societies, were part of this trend. The institutionalization of this dynamic with the establishment of the Fiqh Council (Council of Islamic Law and Jurisprudence) in the United States and the European Council for Research and Fatwas, in 1997, made possible the formulation of a series of legal opinions in step with Western societies and available to the public.
There was then talk of a “fiqh al-aqalliyyat” (law and jurisprudence of minorities), which was to allow Muslims in the West to live their faith and religion more peacefully.
These achievements were, without a shadow of doubt, fundamental and particularly necessary; they constituted a new and important stage in the establishment of Muslims in the West. We must nevertheless be aware that it was just a stage and that we should rethink our presence in the West more comprehensively.
Indeed, our own sources come to our aid and press us to go beyond three staging posts, which are in the long term to be considered as traps: the dualist approach, minority thinking, and integration thought of only in terms of adaptation. Doubtless the coming generations will be better equipped to understand and take up these challenges, but the need to reformulate from the inside is already being felt.
To think of our belonging to Islam in the West in terms of Otherness, adaptation to limitations, and authorized compromise (rukhas) cannot be enough and gives the impression of structural adjustments that make it possible to survive in a sort of imagined borderland but that do not provide the means really to flourish, participate in, and fully engage in our societies.
There is no longer a place of origin from which Muslims are “exiled” or “distanced,” and “naturalized,” “converted” Muslims—“Western Muslims”—are at home, and should not only say so but feel so.
It will also be necessary to change the way we look at our societies. As we have been saying, our sources help us in this if we can only try hard to reappropriate for ourselves the universality of the message of Islam, along with its vast horizon.
This reappropriation should be of a depth that will enable it to produce a true “intellectual revolution” in the sense intended by Kant when he spoke of the “Copernican revolution.” Well before the tools that allow us to interact with the world, the Only One established a threefold relation with human beings—exactingness, trust, and humility.
If the use of reason is essential for the return to self and the confirmation of the original breath, it also holds the key to applying the revealed books.
With Strong Faith
We must engage with the world armed with faith, the scriptural sources, and an active intellect; in the course of the intellectual development of our universe of reference, we have learned to distinguish methodologies, grasp the religious rites (within the strict limits of its codification based on the texts), and observe the universe (with the methodology appropriate to social affairs) with assurance and confidence.
In this we know that everything a society or culture produces and accepts that is not in opposition to a clearly stipulated prohibition is in fact integrated and considered part of the Islamic universe of reference.
To be continued…
The article is an excerpt from the author’s “Western Muslims and the Future of Islam” Oxford University Press (2004).