The modern Muslim
Controversial scholar Tariq Ramadan explains why Mohammed had progressive views of women, why the Quran is a prescription for peace — and why he is banned from Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
By Steve Paulson
Why are there so few moderate Muslims speaking out against Islamic terrorism? That’s a common complaint heard in the West, but in truth, plenty of Muslims are critical of suicide bombers. What’s harder to find are Muslim leaders who condemn terrorism while also maintaining credibility among disaffected Muslims, and intellectuals who can appeal to both secular Europeans and Middle Eastern imams. That’s why the Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan is such a compelling figure.
Ramadan has been called the Muslim Martin Luther King, and he’s often described as Europe’s most important Muslim intellectual. He has no shortage of charisma — a quality that serves him well as he reaches out to various constituencies. There’s no doubt that Ramadan commands a large following. Hundreds of young Muslims turn up at his public talks, and tapes of his lectures are widely circulated. He travels frequently throughout the Islamic world, trying to build bridges between European Muslims and conservative clerics.
But there are some countries Ramadan can’t visit. The United States, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have all banned him — each for different reasons. In 2004 Ramadan was all set to move his family to Indiana, where he’d accepted a teaching position at Notre Dame. But the U.S. State Department revoked his visa — though exactly why remains a mystery. Ramadan says it’s because he’s an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy. His critics say he has ties to Muslim terrorists. No evidence of a direct link to terrorism has ever surfaced, though plenty of people have looked for one. Yet his most vocal critics are in France, where Ramadan is a prominent public intellectual. The French journalist Caroline Fourest even wrote a book-length attack on Ramadan, titled “Brother Tariq.”
One reason Ramadan garners such close scrutiny is his distinguished — some would say notorious — family background. In 1928 his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — the group that later spawned al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Banna was murdered in 1949. Ramadan’s parents fled Egypt and settled in Switzerland, where his father, Said Ramadan, emerged as a major Islamic thinker. Tariq Ramadan resists simple labels. He’s a devout Muslim, but one who wants to loosen the strict interpretations of Islamic law. He embraces the Western values of pluralism and democracy, while also retaining the anti-colonial mantle of his grandfather. Ramadan is often accused of being two-faced, making nice with Western journalists while giving fiery speeches to young Muslims. Ramadan says his tone may change, but he insists that his message is consistent.
I had the chance to see Ramadan last summer in Cambridge, England, where he spoke to a small group of journalists. (After his job at Notre Dame fell through, he took an academic position at Oxford University.) In person, Ramadan was elegantly dressed and quite dashing. Now, at the age of 44, he’s just come out with a book about the life of Mohammed, “In the Footsteps of the Prophet.” Ramadan recently went into the BBC studios in London, where he spoke to me about his efforts to reconcile Islamic values with Western secularism, his difficulties with the U.S. government, and his new reading of the life of Mohammed.
There have been many books about Mohammed. Do you see your book as a corrective to what other scholars have written about the Prophet?
No. The purpose of the book was not to correct or to come with new revelations about his life. It’s really a rereading of his life, stressing two dimensions. The first one is spiritual. We can extract from his life the spiritual lessons for now and forever. And the second dimension is about contemporary lessons as to our relationships with our neighbor, with nature, with people from other religions. So it’s really to come back to the teachings, the lessons and the meditations.
What do you think non-Muslims need to know about Mohammed? What are some of the most common misunderstandings?
The perception they have is all about violence, it’s all about otherness, it’s all about discrimination toward women. And I think all this is wrong. He was promoting peace. And the way he was with women was far ahead of what we sometimes find in Islamic-majority countries today. You know, the Prophet’s life is really an introduction to Islam.
The picture you present of Mohammed is someone who had a very forward-looking attitude about the status of women. What lessons can Muslim women take away from Mohammed’s life?
First, he was really treating women as women — and not only as mothers, or sisters or daughters in Islam. Women are equal before God and have the same rights and duties. More than that, he was so respectful. He taught people the way they have to deal with women. When his daughter came to him, he stood up and welcomed her, talked to her, respected her, kissed her in front of the people. At that time, to have a daughter in this Arab tribe was quite a dishonor. It was not valued in society. And he was welcoming women in the mosque, letting them enter and talk in the mosque. Today, in the 21st century, people don’t even let women come into the mosque and practice their religion. He was promoting knowledge. His own wife, Aishah, was a scholar. This is something that we cannot forget about his life.
So if you look at Mohammed’s own life, you’re saying the rules prohibiting women from entering the mosque are just wrong.
Yes, exactly. This is wrong. This is coming from two main mistakes. The first one is the literal reading of some of the verses. We are forgetting to put things into context. More important than one verse is understanding the overall message of Islam. This is one mistake. We are also confusing Arab cultures, which are historical, with the universal principles of Islam. I really think we have to come back to the Prophet’s example to understand the way he was promoting the status of women. He wanted them to be involved at the social level, the political level, the scholarly level, but also within the mosque. Today, we need to come back to this and say, it is not Islamic to prevent Muslim women from entering mosques. Preventing them from getting knowledge is not Islamic. Forced marriages are not Islamic. And even domestic violence: You can’t just quote one part of a verse in the Quran, forgetting that the Prophet himself never beat a woman. He was so respectful. So if he is our example, we cannot accept domestic violence. This is not Islamic.
There are also verses in the Quran that call on the wives of Mohammed to cover up. Do you read these as prescriptions for how women should dress? For instance, is there a commandment for Muslim women to wear the head scarf?
The head scarf is an Islamic prescription but it cannot be imposed. So it’s an act of faith. We never had one woman forced to wear the head scarf during the Prophet’s life. It’s a choice. This is why I’m always saying it’s against Islamic teaching to force a woman to wear a head scarf. But it’s also against human rights to force her to take it off. It should be a free choice. Now, the discussion we have in some Muslim countries is not about the head scarf; it’s really about what we call the “niqab” — veiling the face of the woman. This is something which was specific to the Prophet’s wives and not to all women. And this is why we must have an intra-community debate about veiling the face — to say this is not Islamic. There is no compulsion in these matters. We really have to respect the choice of the woman.
In your book, you say Mohammed was not divine. He was a man chosen by God to receive the final revelation. This raises some interesting comparisons to the status of Jesus within Christian theology, since traditional Christian accounts do describe Jesus as the son of God. I’m wondering what, if any, implications this has for people today. Do you think Mohammed has the same status for Muslims as Jesus does for Christians?
No, not exactly. We recognize Jesus as a prophet but not as the son of God. For us, there is nothing divine in Jesus and nothing divine in Mohammed. They have one dimension coming from God. We are dealing with revelations, with texts coming to the prophets that they are transmitting to humanity. But at the same time, they have a human dimension. Even the Quran is saying to Mohammed that what he did in some instances is wrong. For example, once he was so obsessed with the protection of his community that as he was talking to some rich people, he neglected a poor old man who came to him asking a question about the Quran. And the Quran said, what you did in this situation was wrong. So God is speaking to a man who is a prophet — the best among humankind — but still a human being. The status is quite different from what we have in the Christian tradition. And more than that, he’s not a mediator. So if you want to speak to God, you don’t need the Prophet. You can talk to God straight away. It’s an intimate dialogue between you and Him.