Friday, July 04, 2008

A rendezvous with reason

Tariq Ramadan, 45, Muslim, scholar, activist, Swiss citizen, resident of Britain, active on several continents, is a hard man to pin down. That is how the New York Times portraits the western world’s most noted Muslim thinker. Two of the world’s most influential magazines Prospect and Foreign Policy rank him at number 8 in a list of the world’s top 100 contemporary intellectuals. He is regularly called Islam’s ‘Martin Luther’. Tariq teaches theology at Oxford. I had a chance to hear his profound views last night. We had tea together, afterwards.

My first impression of the wiry Tariq Ramadan was this: God, how could someone so lean and so Egyptian-looking be so smart. For beginners, Tariq oozes humility. He is witty and has a brilliant sense of humor. His English may be just okay but his understanding of life and logic is exceptional. The comprehension is both erudite and sharp. Like a cut diamond. And Tariq Ramadan has a beautiful conviction that is simply disarming. He swiftly anatomizes the most complex argument to barebones and does so with an immaculate ease, that doesn’t come to all.

The glitter in Tariq’s eye is haunting. Beneath his soft exterior lies an uber-cool intellect. The man constantly questions which is perhaps the most endearing thing about any great intellectual. He poses tough questions and then ventures out to provide equally stirring answers. ‘Criticism, Tariq began his talk, is important’. To be able to ask questions, unflinchingly, any question, regarding faith or life or politics is essential. Without being dogmatic. It not only clears doubts, he added, it unblocks the mind to many wonders, and it dusts away cobwebs. Although I haven’t read any of Tariq’s major works [which I hope to; I’ve been through some of his brilliant essays, though] I could immediately draw parallels with the likes of modern day thinkers like Zia-u-din Sardar and Karen Armstrong.

Tariq Ramadan greatly stressed Ijtihad. That is critical reasoning. In his 60 minutes of talk, he accentuated the theme many times. It is perhaps Tariq’s idea of reconciling Islam with modernity. ‘Don’t Google Everything’, Tariq said in his characteristic manner. He continued: Superficial knowledge is often hypothetical. Literal interpretation of a religious scripture can be equally damning. Elucidating the example of one of the 7th century Islamic wars, when Prophet Muhammamad wanted to position his army near a particular fortification but his military commanders didn’t agree. Muhammad said, ’I think the position is fine.’ At this a commander leaped forth and asked, ‘Is that God’s commandment or your own opinion, Sir’. Because if it is God’s command, then we don’t have much choice but in case it is your opinion, that may not be very prudent under the present circumstances. The prophet shot back, ‘It is my opinion and if you think I’m not right, let’s change the positions‘. This, Tariq extolled, is critical reasoning.

Tariq was candid with his views on the raging debates of the time. He opined that he gets really put off by this talk of religions being outwardly peaceful. Are they really peaceful? Have major world faiths being peaceful? Has Christianity been peaceful? No. Has Islam been always peaceful? The honest answer is: No, Tariq said to a mainly Muslim crowd. The reasons aren’t always religious or ambiguous. They can be attributed to human nature. Human beings are inherently violent creatures. They can be easily provoked. ’I can just say something that makes all of you irate’. That is human psychology. All religious histories are ridden with flaws because a religion is all about humanity. Humanity is about humans -- and humans can be flawed.

There is a pressing need to understand the other point of view. Tariq said he often puts himself in the other’s shoe to be able to comprehend his stated position. He wants Muslims, the younger gen, especially to try and connect the dots. Islam is a continuation of the great monotheistic faiths. If a Christian were to acknowledge Islam, he would have to forfeit his Christian beliefs about Jesus. That would be, naturally, an impossible situation for him. So one has to develop an intellectual empathy with adherents of other faiths. Simplified it means that we must sometimes attempt to look at things from a different perspective rather than insist upon rigidity or a literalist, narrow interpretation of our own texts. That would bring about symphony and love -- something terribly needed in the modern world.

Talking about the tendency of people to glorify their own religions, Tariq pointed to the rather common religious sentiment: We are the best. Muslims often say that. The best of all Ummahs. The Jews say that too: We are the chosen people. Christians tom-tom: Jesus atoned for us, so we are a privileged bunch. So who is right, Tariq went on? Muslims. Jews. Christians. Who? Everyone thinks he is the best. The answer is not Muslims, as -- may be -- a Muslim audience would want to hear. It is not Christianity or Judiasm. The true answer, before God, is not the one whose religion is better, because all of us would tend to differ on that, but whose character is better. It is the in-born human-ness that is important. It is the redeeming features of goodness and not where you are born. It is your constant struggle to be a better human-being that counts.

And religion indeed is an important vessel. Tariq explained: There is something called spiritual communion. It is a set of values you inherit and imbibe in your formidable years. It grows inside you all along. You could be modern or western or capitalistic or un-capitalistic but somewhere hidden in you is a sense of affection, of association, of connection, of fraternity with another Muslim. Same with a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu. It is not about segregation. It is a mystical connect. A bond. A pledge, that after all your wanderings and disassociations, you can always return to. You can only experience that with your co-religionist.

Tariq Ramadan prelected about the concept of humility. Education is mandatory. And with knowledge comes humility. It is a very strange thing. The moment you think you have it, you lose it. Accusing professors and universities of elitism, Tariq underlined the need to connect universities with cities and with the common man. Without a practical understanding of humanity around you, your books and academic discourses won’t lead you anywhere, he said, looking to the Jamia vice chancellor in the eye. And arrogance never helps. Apparently the first reason, Tariq winked, why I hate Bush junior is his arrogance. He talks like a pharaoh.

In hindsight listening to Tariq was enriching. Tariq is a religious reformer par excellence. He has been lately accused, by several right-wing elements, of trying to Islamize the west. Tariq is the grandson to the legendary Hassan Al-Bana, the spiritual head of the pan-Islamic Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who was assasinated in 1949 by government agents. Named after the African military commander Tariq ibn Zaid, who conquered Spain in 711, Tariq has an illustrious pedigree but that hasn’t deterred the man. The Nietzsche quoting, French speaking, ever touring, ever debating, academic, philanthropist, Oxford professor, dialectical, charismatic, devout Muslim -- Tariq Ramadan strives to build bridges between Islam and the west.

He continuously talks about constructions, connections, intersections and the universal values that align every religion. He debates Prez Sarkozy on prime time French TV, amidst intense heartache and friction, and manages to outwit him. Tariq continues to be the universalist intellectual that he is. His views on a constellation of issues from stoning to hijab are both profound and welcome. An almost recurring theme in his conversation is love.

What was it like to be number 8 among the world’s top 100 intellectuals? That is the 100 most gifted people among 6.6 billion. And you are at number 8 in the planet, Sir ! Just how does it feel ? I asked Tariq over black tea. ‘Normal, very normal,’ the gentle giant said with a tiny smile.