Radical Reform: Tariq Ramadan’s Latest Book

With much anticipation, I awaited the arrival of Tariq Ramadan’s new book, “Radical Reform”, in the mail. A few weeks ago, it finally got here. It is difficult to hide my obvious appreciation for the book, but I will attempt objectivity.

The cover of Ramadan's new book.

The cover of Ramadan's new book.

Ramadan is known in the Muslim world, as a revolutionary, tolerant and forward-thinking scholar by some, and by others he is thought of as too liberal and “westernized”. In the non-Muslim world, Ramadan is also a well known figure, both as a reformist, and surprisingly, an extremist. To his credit, he did make Time’s list of 100 most influential people. He de-mystifies all these contradictions about himself, in this new book, by writing exactly what he stands for, when it comes to Islam and Islamic law.

Radical Reform addresses Muslim societies and communities everywhere, with a bold call for transformation. It challenges those who argue defensively that reform is a dangerous and foreign deviation, and a betrayal of the faith. Authentic reform, Ramadan says, has always been grounded in Islam’s textual sources, spiritual objectives, and intellectual traditions. He goes on, to prove this, through sound argument, using classical texts and historical examples. Nowhere better did he achieve success than in the chapter relating to women – which is not to say women are not addressed elsewhere, as Ramadan speaks to men and women, equally, throughout the book – but that he dedicated an extensive part of the book to women exclusively, is tell-tale of the dilemma’s facing Muslimahs today.

This article will focus primarily on Chapter 13 – Women: Traditions and Liberation.

The title of the chapter is misleading, suggesting a contradiction between “tradition” and “liberation”. This actually belies its content, which elaborates on exactly the opposite. The chapter opens with admittance that the subject matter is touchy, and “upsets some preconceptions and questions certain boundaries of religious legitimacy and power.” I was hooked.

Ramadan maintains firmly that misogyny has to do with, “age old cultural and social heritages that remain deeply ingrained”, not Islam.  I am usually apprehensive about Muslim men addressing women’s issues, but I must admit that this time, Ramadan displays a keen sensitivity towards and understanding of women, without sounding the least bit condescending.

A large part of the chapter explains how to go about approaching and reforming the inequalities facing Muslim women. A wealth of suggestions is provided, but I was disappointed that Ramadan provided no real examples of the implementation of such ideas, which there surely must be. His approach is solely theoretical, which sometimes paints too rosy a picture of Muslim women. That said, he does masterfully deconstruct the myths and stereotypes surrounding Muslim women.

Ramadan writes that in seeking justice, we must look both to scripture, and studies carried out later on, by Muslims and non-Muslims, western feminists included, to get a clear perspective of the underlying causes of sexism. It would be appropriate to mention that Ramadan has previously come under attack by some Muslim women who scoffed at his idea of “Islamic feminism”, which he defended as “Islamic feminism is to struggle for the rights of women in the name of Islam against two kinds of discrimination: cultural discrimination, and the literalist approach to the text.”

After the lengthy introduction, the chapter moves on to discussing “Early Readings, Early Interpreters”.  The role and status of women are analyzed in the light of the Qur’an, and early Islamic history. Muslim women have come to represent only their “functions in society, as daughters, wives and mothers”, according to Ramadan, who does sound a tad defensive of early scholars, whom he says “could not but read the text in the light of their own situation, viewpoint, and context.” Women must be viewed primarily as just that, women, insists Ramadan, by themselves and others, by shedding the different roles ascribed to them. This, I feel, is easier said, than done, in a world where most women must shoulder the responsibilities of the household, even if they pursue other interests. He also calls strongly for contextualization of all texts which speak about women, and boldly states that:

Islamic legal thinking about women is certainly the field that has suffered most from the two phenomena already mentioned: literalist reduction and cultural projection.

This is no new realization: Muslim women have been trying to rid their religion of cultural practices and customs prescribed to it for years. For me, what was important was just to read a prominent Islamic scholar proclaiming it, regardless of his gender. Something else that struck a chord, is:

…it is women who must, from within, refuse to accept that religious discourse about them should be merely legal, and in effect, curtailed, since it deals with interpersonal relations without elaborating anything about womanhood.”

This, the voicing of the pertinence of us women, to map out our own paths, is something which I think we all here at Muslimah Media Watch, contributors and readers alike, are attempting to do.

Now, no discussion about Muslim women is complete without the “H word.” Ramadan’s approach is refreshing, calling for neither strict adherence to, nor abolishment of, hijab, but rather,  he looks at the spirit of modesty:

Much has been said in the West about Muslim women’s dress… Often in reaction, Muslim institutions or scholars have been seen to offer dress as the ultimate expression of faith, or as an act of resistance against Western cultural imperialism. In all cases, the debates have reduced the meaning of modesty itself in the order of means and ends. In the spiritual order, in reflection about being and freedom, understanding the meaning of modesty (whether for men or for women) cannot be limited to the issue of visible modesty in dress.

The chapter continues, at length, to prescribe reform for women in the family and in society, particularly in the masjid. This is, unfortunately, the only reference to practically implementing justice, made by Ramadan:

Mosques today are essentially men’s places, and this does not correspond to the higher objectives of Islam’s message… the bulk of Islam’s message as well as the Prophetic practice suffice to show that the mosques space must be absolutely open to women… This is not so today; not only do some mosques simply have no facilities for women, but when these are available; their state of upkeep is often shocking… so that women are almost being discouraged from attending… this is simply not acceptable! Women must be integrated into mosque management committees in the same way their presence is necessary in reflection and fatawa councils.

I found Ramadan’s take on Muslim women in the media to be quite in tune with the aspirations of MMW:

…the temptation to transform the cause of women into a contemporary media struggle can turn out to be dangerous and counterproductive, quite profoundly and on several levels: first, because we are the heart of a Universe of imposed representations that must be cast aside, but also because the risk is great – and so often verified – of producing a perverse media presence of women subjects who have been transformed into objects of representation.

It is also very tempting for me to re-type the entire chapter here, because I so agree with almost everything said, but let me end with a passage that is extremely poignant, and which I actually found to quite humble Ramadan:

Because some existing texts are sometimes read and interpreted without considering chronology and context, it becomes impossible for some “ulama” to dare express clear, legal opinions in the light of higher objectives. They should, for instance, speak out on the fact that keeping women illiterate and forbidding them to work, reach financial autonomy, or play a social and economic role, as well as such practices as female genital mutilation, forced marriages, the denial of divorce, or restraint against domestic violence, are absolutely contrary to Islam’s message as shown through its evolution (over 23 years) and the Prophet’s own attitude.

Tariq Ramadan does not introduce any new ideas about  Muslim women, but rather, removes the layers of misrepresentation surrounding them, through the errors of Islamic history, and the imposition of Western values. As I mentioned, a lot of his suggestions are easier said than done, but I am optimistic that their being voiced, is a good start.

I am not sure if my praise for the book stems from my own cultural and religious socialization, of the worth of a male scholar’s word, or from the true merit of this work, but I am very hopeful for Muslim women, in the light of everything said in the book.

Review: In the Skin of a Jihadist
Muslim Female Superheroes
Pick Up Artists: Veiling Misogyny with Islam
Review of Snow in Amman: An Anthology of Short Stories