Tariq Ramadan’s Speech on ‘Faith in Politics’

Watch Tariq Ramadan’s speech on ‘Faith in Politics’.

There are some very important topics raised. Ramadan’s points have been generally paraphrased. Sub-headings have been inserted for easy reference and our own occasional commentary has been added also.

Starting points – 3 things:

Faith, Politics and the Psychological Factor

  1. When trying to address the relationship between faith and politics, Muslims must first ‘deal with’ what he calls a “psychological problem”.

a)    A defensive attitude when we feel we have to ‘knee-jerk’ a reaction/response to ‘the West’ since (we feel) the “dominant discourse is a secular discourse” as defined by the West. Muslims (inevitably) respond in 2 ways – both responses are wrong:

b)    Either by (uncritically) accepting and parroting the dominant secular discourse, or

c)    By doing the exact opposite (i.e. reject everything in toto).

Ramadan’s advice is:

“The first liberation on this is an intellectual liberation to say we are not now responding to something which is the ‘dominant discourse’ but trying to challenge from within a tradition, from within a specific history, and from within references, a framework, telling us in which way we have to deal with our reference, our principles and our objectives.” (3.26 – 3.55)

MODWESTMUSE: Very good point. Question: why must this be the first liberation? That is to say, upon what basis must we conceive of challenging this discourse in the manner Ramadan articulates? Perhaps either response b) or c) is more appropriate. Indeed, though this may be deemed ‘defensive’ perhaps that’s because Muslims are being ‘attacked’ (intellectually as well as militarily). To neglect this is to capitulate? Perhaps a way of justifying Ramadan’s perspective is to say there is a scale of responses we may take: from acting ‘defensively’ to ‘assertively’ to ‘offensively’. I guess being ‘defensive’ and ‘offensive’ is wrong as they are (extreme) emotion-based reactions. Being ‘assertive’ is the best course, being more rationally based. Perhaps Ramadan is merely opening up a way to think assertively.

2. Returning to our own Islamic principles, can we find something from our own frames of reference? Both from the Naqq (the text, the sources) but also the Turath (the traditions – not just the legal field (Fiqh) – but also the philosophical approach – particularly from those thinking about political sciences.

Ramadan makes a side-point about how we have a tendency to label ‘Islam’ as only that which constitutes ‘fiqh’ (which he calls ‘reductive’). He says: “I think this is wrong. The tradition of Muslims dealing with politics and governments is much wider than only the fuqahah… but the relationship between the Islamic principles and power and authority are not only dealt with through the law and jurisprudence field – it’s wider than that.” (5.05)

3. The psychological factor and this ‘reductive’ approach to our legacy (conflating ‘fiqh’ as ‘only Islam’) reveal an ‘inferiority complex’ attitude as a resort to ‘answer’ the West. How? By transposing the qualifier ‘Islamic’ in front of every (currently Western-led) field of knowledge. For example: state = Islamic state; democracy = Islamic democracy; economy = Islamic economy; finance = Islamic finance…  It’s too simple. No, “we need a critical approach”. (7.27) It doesn’t mean that we don’t have Islamic principles in the field. What do we mean when we add the qualifier “Islamic”? This (reductive approach) is an innovative approach to the field (8.00).

Four Challenges:

CHALLENGE 1: To clarify the difference between Principles and Models.

When we read the scriptural sources, we have different interpretations of those sources. (I.e. the Salafi Literalist, the Reformist, the Rationalist, the Sufi…) But we don’t only read the Texts in a different way but also history is read in a different way.

(9.24) That is, when we follow the Prophet and his Makkan experience and then to his position as head of the Medinan society and state, how do we make sense of this history?

  • Some say this is the best historical experience we have and we have to imitate this experience.  [MODWESTMUSE: The Salafi (Literalist) position?]
  • Others say, yes, this is the best experience in the 7th Century but it cannot be exported to our time. [MODWESTMUSE: The Reformist acknowledges the Prophet’s epoch as an ideal moment, but the Secularist would disagree?]

So what is our reading of this period that we are able to take the principles of that period to use today? What is exportable and what is not? “Behind the way you read the history, there is a mindset.” (10.32)

Principles and Models

“In fact, if we want to deal with politics, and want to understand what are we going to extract from the first Medinan experience? You extract the Principles, but you have to think about your Models. You don’t extract the model. (10.53)

So the difference between the Literalist and the Reformist is: the Reformists are saying we take the principles and try to find the models.

The Literalists are saying: No, what you are doing is ‘innovation’ (bid’ah). Meaning, you have to stick to the principles and the right way to implement the principles is to duplicate the model…

Universal versus historical

(11.20) When dealing with politics, power and governance… what is your set of principles that are transhistorical [universal] while you understand that the models are historical? (11.36)

MODWESTMUSE: And yet we must be sympathetic to the Literalists’ intentions: knowing how explicitly and frequently the Quran warns Muslims to stay well away from bid’ah as this was the path to destruction for many generations, who carried revealed dispensations prior to the Islamic revelation. Ramadan does, however, make a valuable strong point.

The role of human interpretation

And when you declare something is historical, you are stating something very important in politics, which is to do with ‘human agency’. That you need the human intellect to… go from the principles of one time to the models of another time. So the principles implemented… during the Prophet’s life are now to be understood in a new way. Meaning… that between the ‘principles-you-extract’ and the ‘models-you-implement’ there is the human agency of the human intellect. So this is the way you have to deal with power.” (12.24)

This is the ‘heart of the deep discussions’ between the “Muslim… Islamic trends – If you listen to what is happening in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Yemen, in Syria, in Indonesia, in Malaysia… and the new visible Salafi-politicised trends; this is exactly the point: what [‘Islamic’-ness] are you talking about?” The principles or the models? (12.50)

Defensive approach versus Assertive approach

(13.12) “So if you are on the defensive, you tend to confuse principles and models, by saying the only right way to be faithful to the principles is to duplicate the models. But if you are confident with your principles, you are ready to change your models. So… it is not only the way you read [history] but the psychology through which you understand [that is important].”

This is a critical point in the discussion. He also clarifies his ‘discussion’ is not with the West so much as it is rather a discussion with ‘the self’ – the way Muslims understand their own points of reference.

MODWESTMUSE: Yes. This is another important point. But how much of our internal debates is being ‘conditioned’ by what ‘others’ perceive? Should this matter? How independent is this discussion with the self from the discussion with the West? How are we to be self-critical (but in a good/proactive way) when there is a dominant hegemony that contextualises that debate?

CHALLENGE 2: To clarify ‘Islamic’ relationship to power

How do we deal with power? Because politics is to do with governance.

No Pope in Islam = Burden of interpretation is on YOU

“When we say we don’t have a hierarchy or Pope in Islam. We don’t have someone who is talking for all the Muslims. That is all good and we are often very happy about saying there is no central authority.” But then this becomes a “burden on YOU to deal with a diversity of authorities. So the problem of authority is critical here. Who is talking? We have this [challenge] on the religious side, and we have it on the political side. How do we structure authority?” (15.05)

The value of Shura

For many decades and centuries, Muslims were talking about Shura (consultation). This ‘delegation of power’ is important. When trying to understand this we should try and extract what was done by the Prophet himself during his time.

[In reference to the defeat at Uhud:] “As a Prophet, he was ready to sit with companions, to listen to them, to be put into a minority situation and follow the majority. And the principle is: he was right by the way, as a minority. But he had to follow the majority and the quran came to tell him ‘they were wrong, they disobeyed, forgive them, and carry on consulting them’ – so the principle of consultation was confirmed after the defeat.

Principles: Starting Points or Results?

This is saying something very important: principles are not about the results, but about the starting point of the whole structure. At the end of the day, the result was a failure in Uhud… and they were beaten, but the principle… in the quran is saying you have to follow this.

Meaning: we have to be very cautious. We don’t have a central authority to deal with the way power is distributed and in which people should be involved. So the principles here are very important. And when you speak about principles…you arrive [at what]…we are trying to work with when it comes to the relationship between faith and politics.

Principles: Objectives and Ethics (Akhlaq)

At the end of the day when you have principles, what is central is… that you have to stick to your objectives. And the objectives are about human dignity, about equality, about freedom and this is what is known in the Western tradition but very much [is alive] in the Islamic tradition from the very beginning: the concept of Maqasid, but essentially, akhlaq.” (17.50) Akhlaq can be translated as ‘ethics’. “It is the way you deal with principles. And the way you deal with the structures and with power.

So when it comes to faith and politics, the main thing is to question the ethical dimension of your structures, the objectives, what you want to achieve. In which way is power representing the people?

For example, the messenger came with the last message. At the same time he listened to God and he is followed and he listened to people to be followed at the same time… When the quran was revealed, he followed God, but when the people have to work on something to do with governance or power, he is listening to the people. He is listening to people knowing that with God, he will never be wrong but with human beings he will be wrong sometimes, and they will be wrong [sometimes].” (18.53)

What are the Islamic ethical principles that can be brought to the discussion about governance? What is good governance (Hukm arRashid)?

Universally shared principles are by definition, universal: not a monopoly by one culture

“We should not be scared about universally shared principles because by definition such principles are shared. So any civilisation saying ‘my principles are universal’ – it’s monopolising the principles [which is false, illogical, hypocritical]. Shared principles are when it comes to corruption, transparency, universal suffrage, equal rights of men and women in the whole structure. All these have to do with what we can bring to the discussion about faith, religion and politics. And at the end of the day it’s about… how much ethics you put into politics. And ethics questions the ends, the purposes, the goals, and the structure, the way you deal with the structure… Islam says yes – in all the fields.

CHALLENGE 3: Defining the real centres of authority, power and politics in society

“When we talk about politics, it’s about civil society.” So if you’re interested in equal rights for men and women, let’s look at your education curriculum and let’s not talk about how people dress…  That’s why… it is a catastrophe in Muslim majority countries. The problem is not to do with the way Muslim women dress, but the way they don’t have access to education…” (23.18) The problem is about access…

Rawl’s theory on Justice and Equal Opportunities

“Refer to Rawls’ theory on justice: he’s right on this: …don’t speak about ‘equal rights’. The problem is… not what you get but from where you start. So it’s [about] ‘equal opportunities’… This has to do with governance… with policy, with power…

So if we’re serious about ethics, the discussion we’re having in Muslim majority countries between the secularist and the Islamist is very simplistic and dangerous. Because we’re not talking about the real centres of authority, power, governance and politics in society: education, job market, corruption.” (24.57)

The State versus Religion… What about the State versus the Economy?

We must talk about governance but not in a simplistic fashion. “The secular system is telling us, in the West, separate between state and religion. Do we have something today that separates state and economic interests? While transnational corporations and banks have the authority on the state, so they are taking from us authority we never gave them – and we call it democracy.

But in the economic field there is no democratic system to decide. They are deciding on a basis which has nothing to do with democracy. So in fact the religions of the past are now replaced by economic powers of the present. And we see this and when there is … an economic crisis we just hear about technocrats telling us that we are giving money to banks that are collapsing and [at the end of the year] they have so much interest that you ask yourself how [is] the states’ are… giving so much money to banks at the end of the … civil year? [That is] they have millions of interest and [yet] they are telling us that things are going well. And this is done without our say… Where does it fit in the whole ‘democratic system’? [This] is something that the West and us… have to answer.”  (27.16)

Tariq Ramadan_Faith in politics

CHALLENGE 4: Culture

“And the last centre of authority and power when it comes to politics and ethics is culture? And this is essential.

The way I’m putting it: ‘there is no religion without culture, there is no culture without religion but religion is not culture’. You can say exactly the same with politics: ‘there is no politics without culture, there is no culture without politics but politics is not culture’…

Questioning the imposition of a political system onto a culture

The point is when you have a world culture, when you have this intrusion in our daily life on the cultural side – in which way is culture playing a role in the way we deal with political authority? In which way culture has to be dealt with in order to liberate … the people and to have autonomous citizens in cultural terms? Because [pressures] are coming from [all sides] and [the local communities] need to deal with governance in cultural terms. And this is not what we have now. [Rather] we are imposing… [foreign] democratic structures and not dealing with traditional cultures in [appropriate, constructive] ways. [That is] the people are having this delegation of power and the power structure[s] [thrust upon them].”

Further Reference:

Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation (2009) by Tariq Ramadan

tariq ramadan_radical reform2


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