Review of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam by Tariq Ramadan
Tariq Ramadan’s Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, written in 2003, is a visionary book on reconciling Islam with the West, advocating for a truly Western Islam that does not consider itself a stranger in the West, and that does not have an inferiority complex with regards to the Middle East’s Islam.
An important part of my review focuses on the way IQ affects the way Islam is interpreted, and how this goes on to lead to very different approaches to reform; a “Persian” approach the uses the intellect and conscience to renew Islam, and an “Arabian” (Salafi) approach that rejects the intellect and conscience because of its inability to handle complexity.
An adaptable Islam: The Persian versus the Arabian approach
A key effort within this book is to show that Islam must be a constantly updated derivation of the ancient texts and the modern context. Instead of trying to emulate the Prophet’s dress, we must emulate the choices that lead to him to dress that way (respecting decency, cleanliness, aesthetics and modesty).
The Shariah rests on three sources: The Quran, the Sunnah and the state of the world (the environmental context), and all three must be used as inputs to determine our practice of Islam.
Ramadan mentions that the Hanafi school acknowledges that a new consensus can be reached by jurists that cancels out an older consensus. This is something of a radical view, since it admits that our understanding and practice of Islam can improve with time. This was the view of the Hanafi jurist Abu al-Yusr al-Bazdawi in his book Usul al-Fiqh.
I have noticed that Abu Hanifah and al-Ghazali, being Persians, had a top-down approach to religion, deriving principles, then using them to reinterpret Islam. The approach of the Arabian scholars, however, has usually been to have a bottom-up approach (Salafism taking it to its logical extreme), where you gather a million individual facts about early Islam and try to follow them accurately all at the same time, even if this leads to clear philosophical contradictions.
These are different approaches to handling complexity, and I think it has a great deal to do with IQ. Persians, with their higher IQs, were comfortable with complexity and embraced it within their thinking, believing that following Islam in each age was about reviving the Islamic spirit through applying Islamic principles to new eras. The Persian approach is therefore:
The Islamic texts -> Principles derived from them -> The modern context, intellect and conscience -> Islam
The Arabian approach, however, is to avoid complexity by strictly sticking to the texts, thus their approach is (to simplify):
The Islamic texts -> Islam
Instead of dealing with complexity, it gathers individual facts from the texts and tries to apply them all, and that is Islam. If you think about, to someone who is desperate to stay true to God’s way, while being challenged from all sides by a harsh and unforgiving world, this approach makes complete sense, if you are unable to do anything more.
The Persian, multi-step approach to Islam (later adopted by Egyptians after Western colonization) requires a massive amount of intellectual work; one must first understand the literal meaning of the texts, then do pattern analysis on them to derive overarching principles, a “philosophy of Islam” that tries to find out what Islam’s mission and priorities are, and when this is achieved, this philosophy of Islam feeds back into the texts, qualifying one’s understanding of them and sometimes leading to completely new interpretations. This work is not for the faint of heart, and a lower IQ person is likely to reject it all and call it misguided, being unable to appreciate the rationale behind it.
Enabling the human intellect and conscience to have an active role in our understanding and application of Islam causes an explosion in complexity that the Arabian approach does not like and is incapable of handling. Salafism avoids this complexity by denying the intellect and conscience any role whatsoever. If Salafi Islam leads to an Islam that conflicts with one’s intellect or conscience, it is one’s intellect, or one’s conscience, that are at fault. For someone struggling to handle complexity, this allows them to live in a peaceful comfort zone; follow the texts no matter where they lead you, even if your intellect and conscience occasionally object, even if you notice glaring contradictions, it is all for the greater good, and you will be safe no matter what happens, since who can blame you for trying to strictly follow the Quran and the Prophetic traditions?
The Persian approach revolts at this way of thinking, because Persians are not desperate for a comfort zone, and they have a deep, Western-style (Indo-European?) appreciation for the human intellect and conscience. If Islam recommends something that seriously goes against one’s intellect and conscience, the Persian approach sees this as a sign for the existence of a problem within Islam; there has been a misinterpretation or a mistake made somewhere, and it must be corrected by building a better model.
The Persian approach comes from a genetic propensity (I believe) to have extremely high respect for the human intellect and conscience, and a very good ability among the elite to appreciate and handle complexity. Islam must fit the intellect and conscience, if it doesn’t, either it is a false religion that is not worth following, or there has been a mistake in our understanding (this latter conclusion being the choice of the scholars who follow the Persian approach).
The Arabian approach, in similar circumstances that challenge one’s intellect or conscience, is to retreat back to the texts and say that humans are fallible. If humans find something unacceptable, it is because they themselves are corrupt or misguided. The Arabian approach comes from a genetic propensity to try to manage complexity by cutting it into manageable parts. Each verse of the Quran and each hadith is its own little unit of Islam and the sum total of them make Islam. If your intellect and conscience revolt at something mentioned in a particular hadith narration, you are the problem, not the hadith narration. This approach must not be laughed at or belittled; it must be respected for what it is. It tries to solve a very difficult problem and comes up with a low-resolution solution that works well enough among many of those who practice it.
It is no surprise that the greatest advocates for orthodoxy have all been Arabs; Imam al-Shafi`i, Ibn al-Jawzi (he recommended that people not read books of Quranic exegesis written by the `ajam, i.e. Persians, probably considering their interpretations too unorthodox), Ibn Tamiyyah, Ibn al-Qayyim, Muhammad ibn Abdulwahhab (founder of “Wahhabism”), Ibn Uthaymeen, Ibn Baaz. To them relying on the texts and discarding the intellect and conscience makes complete sense, since this is necessary for keeping complexity manageable. By sticking to the texts as closely as possible, you ensure you are on the right path. If you do not stick to the texts, if you allow the intellect and conscience to take part in your interpretation of Islam, this immediately leads to an explosion in complexity that would quickly put you out of your depth (if you do not have the intellect to deal with it).
Deriving overarching principles from the Quran automatically leads to some supposedly “authentic” narrations being considered false or inapplicable. This cannot be handled by Salafism, since the entire corpus of “authentic” narrations are taken literally, since not doing so requires too much intellectual work, it gives the intellect and conscience some role, which is unacceptable. The Salafi solution is abrogation. If there is an “authentic” narration that contradicts the Quran (such as a narration recommending that atheists be killed, even though the Quran guarantees religious freedom), the hadith is given preference. The Salafi approach often has infinite scorn for the intellect and conscience and entirely relies on the texts as its only safe haven.
The hadith corpus is massive and highly specific, greatly limiting the role of the intellect and conscience, and in this way greatly reducing complexity, and therefore it is given preference by Salafis over the Quran.
The Quran, on the other hand, is often vague, makes very few rulings, and is far more concerned with moral philosophy than specific actions, therefore Salafism often ignores it, since following the Quran by itself requires much participation of the intellect and conscience, and to a Salafi this is always a hopelessly wishy-washy process that is bound to lead to dangerous corruptions. If Salafism is the Arabian approach taken to its logical conclusion, the Quran-focused school is the Persian approach taken to its logical conclusion. The Quran-focused school takes the Quran literally and uses all available tools to derive an accurate interpretation of it, then feeds back this understanding of the Quran into all of Islam. The Quran is the program, the intellect, conscience and hadith are helpers toward following the program.
The Salafi approach forces 10,000 pages of text on you, greatly limiting your ability to think and act for yourself, for your own good. The Quran-focused school asks you to follow the Quran’s 600 pages, much of which is made up of vague philosophical lessons, giving you vast freedom to think and act for yourself, and asks you to use hadith as a resource in helping you find the best thing to do in specific circumstances. These approaches are polar opposites. The Salafi approach is to use a massive text to remove your freedoms, enabling you to take the safe route instead of thinking and acting for yourself. The Quran-focused approach is to teach you a moral philosophy and respect your intellect and conscience as you try to follow it.
I doubt Salafism can ever become the majority religion in any country with an average IQ higher than a certain point (perhaps 90). It can take charge in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, since it offers great utility for managing complexity. But once a certain percentage of the population has an IQ above 120-130 (perhaps 1-2%), these intellectual elite will revolt at Salafism and discredit it, so that it becomes impossible for it to spread. Even if higher IQ Muslim cannot point out exactly why Salafism is wrong, they will consider it unrespectable. This is the attitude of most high IQ Muslims I have met.
Salafism is totalitarian, it wants to give the religious establishment great powers to manage one’s life. I doubt there is a single Salafi in the world with an IQ of 135 or higher. High IQ people like Yasir Qadhi who are taught in the Salafi school eventually grow out of it. Yasir Qadhi abandoned Salafism saying it was not “intellectually stimulating”, if I remember correctly, and this is a very apt description. Salafism is designed to be the opposite of intellectually stimulating. It is there to make the world manageable for lower IQ Muslims struggling to live in the modern world.
We must be thankful for the existence of Salafism. “Why is Salafism not the answer?” is one of the most challenging questions of our time, forcing us to rebuild the complexity-embracing version of Islam from scratch.
Tariq Ramadan tries to make mainstream Islam even more complexity-embracing than it is now by further decreasing its reliance on texts (since this is at the expense of the intellect and conscience), in this way pushing Islam further in the Persian direction, having a top-down approach to Islam that starts with intelligently driven principles and priorities.
He does not, however, clarify what is exactly wrong with the old structure of Islam; he tries to cure various ills, carving out paths of progress here and there without overhauling the structure. His newer book Radical Reform is meant to be something of an overhaul, so I will have to read that to understand his latest thinking on reform.
Zionist detractors of Islam like Robert Spencer, Pamela Geller and Daniel Pipes all focus on the non-mainstream Arabian approach (practiced by the Salafi minority), ignoring the mainstream Persian approach and saying that the Arabian approach is the one true version of Islam. The fact that the majority of Muslims disagree doesn’t matter to them. Somehow they think they are better fitted to tell us which version of Islam is better (the version the lowest IQ Muslims prefer).
What they do is start with a conclusion: Islam is non-adaptable to the modern world, then they go on to find a non-adaptable form of Islam practiced by a low-IQ minority (Salafism) that justifies their preconceived biases, then they say this is the one true version of Islam, and that all Muslims will one day want to follow this. The fact that the vast majority of Muslims are repulsed by Salafism, the fact that the Sunni world’s most prestigious authority (Al-Azhar University) has rejected it, and that Muslim intellectuals East and West reject it, means nothing to them, since these are inconvenient facts getting in the way of putting on a good show.
To them, any Muslim who does not accept Salafism has not truly understood Islam, even if they have followed Islam all of their lives and come from a tradition that started with some of Islam’s earliest authorities (Abu Hanifa). The minority version of Islam that helps the Zionist Jewish propaganda effort against Muslims is the only true version of Islam, and Westerners must be told this again and again until the lie is accepted as truth (dehumanizing Palestinian Muslims as brainless barbarians helps make the Israeli occupation and expansion more palatable to the Western mind).
This is very much like paying a few Muslim hacks in China to put all of their focus on fundamentalist Christians from West Virginia so that they can convince the Chinese public that Christianity is a horrible and intolerant religion. And when a few Christians complain that this is inaccurate and biased, these hacks have the audacity to say it is these Christian complainers who are wrong, that they have not truly understood their religion, and that the hacks themselves are the true authorities on Christianity who are there to enlighten the Chinese public on the great dangers of allowing Christianity into their country.
He mentions that Islam rejects the nihilistic view, occasionally expressed in Western literature and media, that humans are lost and abandoned within a “tragedy of life”, that it is possible for someone to just suffer and suffer endlessly and meaninglessly for years until the day they die. Instead,
God always makes available to humankind tools and signs on the road that leads to recognizing Him.
God is present. He interacts with us. Those who seek guidance in sincerity will be guided by Him. He will not leave us alone and uncared for, controlled and thrown here and there by nature. This is not a naive optimism, it comes from accepting the Quran’s truth on its own virtues, then adopting its philosophy.
The Quran teaches that God will not abandon a person who calls out to Him. This is a very much anti-nihilistic, anti-post-modern worldview that can have world-moving consequences.
The Abodes of Islam and war
Ramadan argues that that the old juristic practice of separating the world into dar al-Islam (“Abode of Islam”) and dar al-harb (“Abode of War”) is no longer valid:
This reality has completely changed: it is becoming necessary today to go back to the Qur’an and the Sunna and, in the light of our environment, to deepen our analysis in order to develop a new vision appropriate to our new context in order to formulate suitable legal opinions. To reread, reconsider, and “revisit” our understanding of the teachings of Islam therefore appears to be a necessity.
For me, the necessity of going back to the Qur’an and the Sunnah in the light of a new environment is not something to do in exceptional circumstances, when we discover that part of our thinking is outmoded. It is something we must do as a matter of course on a daily basis. The fact that most scholars up to date have considered these concepts valid and binding is just another manifestation of the fossilization of thought that occurs as a result of the deep human desire for reducing complexity and defeating the chaos lurking everywhere.
Ramadan prefers dar al-dawa (“Abode of Calling People to God”) as a new designation to be used in Muslim-minority countries, suggested by Faysal al-Mawlawi. In my opinion even this appellation is too limiting and reactionary, because dawa suggests the calling of an “other” to Islam. I prefer the choice of certain Hanafi scholars, as mentioned by Ramadan himself, in using dar al-Islam to refer to every place where Muslims can live in safety. Muslims are not meant to be outsiders; they are meant to be full members of their societies.
Focusing on dawa turns me into a salesman that thinks of everyone as potential customers. Focusing on stewardship (embodying the Quran) turns me into a full citizen wherever I live, everyone I meet is a human, not a project to be worked on. If I carry out my stewardship properly, dawa will automatically take place. Ramadan says most of the same:
Once legitimately oversensitive and even hidden in the realms of the “abode of war” and the “abode of unbelief,” Muslims can now enter into the world of testimony, in the sense of undertaking an essential duty and a demanding responsibility—to contribute wherever they can to promoting goodness and justice in and through the human fraternity.
Ending the East-West divide
In answer to certain extremist groups that say that we Muslims cannot pay allegiance to a constitution that allows unlawful things like usury, Ramadan says that while these countries allow these things, they do not compel us to use them, therefore we can be part of such societies, respect their laws, while also following Islam.
While this is largely true, the reality is that these countries, and perhaps all countries on Earth, force Muslims to engage in certain unlawful things, therefore it is a matter of degrees, not absolutes. The taxes a Muslim pays in a country like the United States goes toward the government paying off the interest on its debt (over $200 billion USD per year in interest payments alone at the moment), therefore paying taxes does compel us to do something that goes against our conscience (paying interest).
The Salafi-style Muslim thinking deals with this matter like so many others by glossing over the complexity in order to reach a simplistic black-and-white decision. Either a Western government does not ask us to do something that is against our conscience, in which case allegiance to it is justified, or it asks us to do things that are against our conscience, and therefore allegiance to it is unjustified.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s biggest usurers, as it invests much of its oil revenue in interest-bearing US bonds. This means that the millions of Saudi citizens who benefit from Saudi’s welfare state are to some degree eating the fruits of usury. Therefore the behavior of a Saudi cleric acting as if there is something special and un-Islamic about the Western context is one of the most naive things imaginable. Eastern, Muslim-majority countries are in many ways just as “evil” as their Western counterparts in similar and different ways, and the Western focus on common law (a commonly accepted ideal of justice) is far more Islamic than the governance systems of perhaps every Middle Eastern country in existence.
I would much rather be ruled by a humanist Christian than an autocratic Saudi prince who has the support of a hundred scholars but who does not understand, is incapable of understanding or appreciating, the right of an individual to express his or her mind freely.
As Muslims, every country on Earth will ask us to do certain things that go against our conscience, the most common (and least appreciated) of which is the worldwide practice of usury by governments in the East and West, North and South. Therefore instead of deluding ourselves into thinking that some utopian Islamic government is the only government that deserves allegiance, we instead give our allegiance to the social contract of every country we exist in, the country respects our right to live in safety and to practice our religion, and the good of this far outweighs the evils the government forces us to engage in.
We must respect contracts. Those who allow us into their countries do it because they think we are entering their societies in good faith, they think that by the act of entering their societies, we have made a binding promise to act toward them with kindness and a lack of malice. Therefore it is obligatory upon us to act according to these implied or explicit promises and contracts, and a Muslim who does not acknowledge is, is incapable of acknowledging it, has no right to be in the West.
The United States is no less “Islamic” than Saudi Arabia. The United States respects my right to practice my religion and express it freely, it respects my human dignity. Saudi Arabia, with all of its capital-of-Islam hankerings has close to zero respect for a human’s dignity when the interests of its ruling class are involved. I much prefer the Anglo-Saxon love and appreciation for common law to the lip service that Saudi Arabia gives to Islamic principles.
In general, any government that to some degree believes in rule by consent, allowing its citizens to partake in governance to some degree, is going to be more Islamic than an autocratic Muslim-majority government that dehumanizes its citizens, because this democratic government is similar to the form of governance of our Prophet ﷺ, while autocratic governments are not.
We Muslims must grow up. Instead of becoming the tools of everyone who pretends to serve Islam, we must judge every nation by its adherence to the Quranic principles; justice, truth, respect for human lives and dignity. The nation whose laws and practices fit these principles the most is the most Islamic. If a Muslim feels more at home, more respected and dignified, in Iceland than in Pakistan, then Iceland is a better home for Muslims than Pakistan, and their government deserves more love and allegiance than the Pakistani government.
My allegiance is not to people who call themselves “Muslim” but betray the principles of Islam. My allegiance is to truth and justice, and if a Christian or atheist represents these ideals better, then my allegiance is to them rather than the so-called Muslim.
The minority mindset
Ramadan speaks against the “minority mindset” that afflicts many Muslims, and I fully agree with his assessment. This was in 2003 and things have gotten somewhat better, except that the influence of radical leftist ideologies are now undoing the progress among some Muslims, making them think of themselves as a political interest group rather than as citizens morally bound to contribute to their societies.
Too few Western Muslims are able unself-consciously to take an intellectual position that, in the end, acknowledges that one is speaking from home, as it were, as an accepted member of a free society, and in full awareness of that—with causes and fundamental values that must be respected.
He describes the minority mindset as belonging to an intellectual ghetto, a beautiful way of describing it.
Ramadan criticizes the way Islamic education is conducted, saying:
The school puts forward a way of life, a space, and a parallel reality that has practically no link with the society around it.
Modern education is hopelessly dysfunctional because shoving 7 or 8 topics down the throats of unwilling students, as if they are robots being programmed in an education factory, is never going to be effective.
Instead, students should be taught the basics of reading, writing and perhaps math at elementary schools for a few years, perhaps until the age of 9. After that, they should be allowed to choose what to study next. A child who wants to be a computer programmer can then go on to learn programming and everything that goes toward helping them be a better programmer (such as certain fields of mathematics). If at the age of 13 or 14 they decide to switch fields, they can do it, studying economics, or medicine, for example, or continuing toward advanced degrees in computer-related fields if they still like their field. By the age of 20, able students could easily put today’s computer science PhD’s to shame.
A benefit of this system is that it encourages advanced interdisciplinary studies. A child can be taught to be a really good computer programmer by the age of 14, only to go on to study biology, and bring his or her knowledge of programming into this new field. At the age of 20, they can then go on to study economics, and bring their advanced knowledge of these two fields into their new area of study.
Ideas about education have barely advanced beyond 300 BC in most of the world. Most educators foolishly think that force-feeding children 7 or 8 areas of study for 10 or 12 years is going to produce children who will have a very good selection of “general knowledge” embedded in their heads. In reality, the majority of students will hate everything to do with this education system and will relish the chance to forget everything they have learned once they pass the end of year exams.
Forcing children to go through this system is little short of child abuse. It has zero respect for the dignity and individuality of these children. Instead of letting a budding scientist who really loves physics actually dedicate himself or herself to physics starting from the age of 9 or 10, they are made to waste their most energetic years studying topics they have little interest in, until they can finally go to college, only to discover that they have to take yet more irrelevant nonsense designed by a bunch of short-sighted and pompous middle aged men and women.
The factory model of education is an utter failure. What is needed instead is a system of independent academies, each focusing on a specific area of study, with children going to the ones that are relevant to their areas of interest. A child who wants to major in psychology will go to their city’s Academy of Psychology at the age of 9, let’s say. The child can also go to a different academy at the same time, if they want to study another area (so that they major in two fields), or if their study of psychology requires knowledge of other fields.
Islamic education can follow the same pattern. Instead of teaching students a hodge-podge of Islamic history, hadith, the Quran and jurisprudence, students should first be given an advanced education in Arabic, in Islamic rituals, and in the manners of the Prophet (not from a book of history, but a book that focuses on his manners, such as Ramadan’s own In the Footsteps of the Prophet). Once they have learned sufficient Arabic, they can go on to learn the Quran. From then on students should be free what they study next, branching off into the various Islamic areas of study as they see fit.
As for today’s Quran schools, teaching children Quran without teaching them Arabic is little more than foolishness. I met two teenagers who could recite Surat Yaseen (chapter 36 of the Quran) from memory, but who had absolutely no idea what any of it meant. I feel that a teacher who inflicts this on children deserves to be flogged. How many hours did they have to sit and memorize random sounds that had no meaning for them whatsoever?
The system of allowing students to branch out at the age of 9 or so to go on to study at different academies would fix the problem of Islamic schools having to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars building facilities to teach things like physics, and would also solve the problem of Muslim children being isolated from the non-Muslims around them, a problem that Ramadan speaks of in detail, leading to a form of detachment from one’s wider society. A child who goes on to study Arabic or Islam at 9 will go to an Arabic Academy where non-Muslims study too. And if they want to take physics, they go to the city’s Physics Academy (or Science Academy), where Muslims and non-Muslims study together.
Ramadan expresses support for the concept of an Islamic feminism, saying that Muslim women can fight for their rights, follow Islam, and reject everything within Western thinking that is un-Islamic, in this way ensuring women’s rights within an Islamic framework.
There are different types of feminism ranging from constructive to genocidal, therefore any support for an Islamic feminism must be highly qualified. See my article Islam versus Feminism for more on this.
Ramadan criticizes the way some Muslims in the West justify holding themselves to lower standards, saying:
One hears many voices in the United States, Britain, Germany, and France legitimizing this position by insisting on the fact that Muslims are “a minority,” “in a weak (political and financial) position,” “without great means” of influence on the society at large. The universal message of Islam that should move Muslims’ civic conscience to promote justice, right, and goodness everywhere is reduced to this: “since we are a feeble minority”—a defensive, self-pitying discourse, narrowly concerned with the protection of self and “the community.”
He recommends that citizens be given some form of education so that they become better voters and partakers in the society and civilization around them:
Calls and slogans and singing the praises of “the good fortune of being a citizen” will change nothing: understanding one’s society, its history, and its institutions, developing one’s intelligence, and building an independent spirit—these are the things that will teach us, and everyone should be given the means to undergo this training.
In my opinion, even forcing people to take multiple courses on civic education is going to only make them marginally better citizens. It will give them a false sense of education while they continue to make the exact same mistakes as before. In reality, a minimum IQ is needed to properly appreciate one’s context and partake in it effectively, and judging by the extreme naivete of American college students, that minimum IQ is probably higher than 115, meaning that among Muslims, only the top 10% in intelligence and/or socioeconomic status (which are closely linked, see The Bell Curve) will benefit from such a program. The rest will not, but they will benefit from this 10%’s education, in an intellectual trickle-down process describe by Sayyid Qutb in his idea of a Muslim “vanguard” that takes responsibility for the well-being of their societies (which I extend to include non-Muslims).
Ramadan goes on to make this comment regarding reform:
Perpetual criticism of political authority or of the police is futile and meaningless when, alongside it, we as citizens do nothing to change things. Posing always as victims is a kind of cowardice. To be up in arms at every police blunder when we have become passive observers of the breakdown of the social fabric and watch silently (without showing any inclination toward concrete involvement) when young people display unspeakable violence and steal and assault and insult adults in their communities (particularly the police) does not make much sense and is, above all, unworthy.
In today’s hysterical climate, some people can be very upset by such lucid thought. It is dangerously rationalist and not sufficiently leftist, and quite possibly fatally racist, as I’m sure many would be happy to point out. So it is good to see Ramadan writing something like this, although whether he could write something similar today, I do not know, since this is from 2003.
Appreciating Western Civilization
It is said that it is necessary to develop a critical mind capable of taking account of things. The West is neither monolithic nor demonic, and its phenomenal achievements in terms of rights, knowledge, culture, and civilization are realities that it would be unreasonable to minimize or reject.
Again, Ramadan breaks from militant post-modernists to speak some sense.
The failure of the zakat system
Ramadan reiterates the Egyptian reformist idea that the Islamic zakat system is not merely about random acts of charity, it is about a way of life, a basic income system designed to eliminate poverty. The way the zakat system is implemented in the West to this day is quite a pathetic failure, as I explain in Islam, the Good Parts: A Basic Income System that Encourages Employment, Productive Investment and Automation.
Moreover, the funds are very often used to finance building projects (e.g., mosques, centers), rather than to provide direct support to people, who are then helped in a very perfunctory way, with no precise consideration and no purpose beyond alleviating a financial difficulty here and there. Ultimately, it is the social philosophy as a whole that leads to this way of acting and maintaining only the outward form of zakat, which is thus undermined and even betrayed.
I am far more radical in this regard. The “Muslim community” that so many imams talk about is little more than a feel-good myth when barely a single imam can be found who actually seeks out his constituents and talks to them to find out if they can pay rent, if they are in debt, if he can help find them better job opportunities. A community cares about you and takes care of you. Almost no “Muslim community” does that. Islamic centers provide a form of social insurance in allowing people to apply for zakat in exceptional circumstances. That is perhaps about 1% of what they should be doing.
Dialogue with non-Muslims
Ramadan thinks that dialogue with the non-Muslims around us is crucial. I am not convinced of the value of formal interfaith dialog “to get to know one another”. Individuals from the two communities can do this if they are interested. But when it comes to the actual foundations for unity and peace between people of different faiths, a meeting of hearts is far more important than a meeting of minds, and a meeting of hearts does not even require talking about religion, at all.
It is sufficient for one to have a good Muslim coworker to understand that the Islamic texts lead to this type of person, therefore not everything about these texts is necessarily evil. This Muslim’s behavior actually convinces this observer about the possibility of the existence of shared values between them and the Islamic texts, while a formal interfaith dialog will only convince a Christian observer that there are well-spoken Muslims who are good at being polite. This is a meeting of minds and I doubt lasting effects can come from it.
A meeting of hearts is what is needed, and this is done through a Muslim treating people with an open heart, looking for the goodness in other people’s hearts regardless of their religion. A kind-hearted priest and a kind-hearted imam belonging to the same geographical area can promote much goodness toward each other’s communities without ever discussing anything about theology with each other.
Discussions of theology should be done not as a way of beginning interfaith dialog, but as its final stage, when one side is curiously interested in the topic, rather than discussing it because it is on some list of topics to be talked about.
Western Muslims need to free themselves of their double inferiority complex—in relation to the West (and the domination of its rationality and technology) on the one hand and in relation to the Muslim world (which alone seems to produce the great Arabic-speaking spirits of Islam who quote the texts with such ease) on the other. We shall have to liberate ourselves from these faults by developing a rich, positive, and participatory presence in the West that must contribute from within to debates about the universality of values, globalization, ethics, and the meaning of life in modern times.
A skeptical reader may see the above paragraph as feel-good babble not meaning much of anything, but the many concrete suggestions provided by Ramadan show that he is very serious about these things. For him this is not just talk, this is his program.
Western Muslims and the Future of Islam is an important contribution and a necessary stepping-stone to getting us where we need to be in the West. You do not have to agree with everything he says to appreciate the spirit of his message.