The Theology of Tariq Ramadan:
A Catholic Perspective
by Gregory Baum
University of Notre Dame Press, 178 pages, $25
In 2004 the Swiss Muslim scholar and activist Tariq Ramadan accepted a prestigious position at the University of Notre Dame. The State Department, however, revoked Ramadan’s visa (citing his donations to charities linked with Hamas) and prevented him from joining the university. Ramadan went instead to Oxford, where he became a fellow at St. Antony’s College. Through all of this, Ramadan has continued to be one of the most visible Muslim figures in Europe (and, by the looks of tariqramadan.com, he does not mind the attention).
Already before the Notre Dame incident, Ramadan was popular among the left in Europe for his polemics against capitalism, American imperialism, and Zionism. Others looked to Ramadan—the author of a number of books on Islam and the West (most notably the 1998 Aux Sources de Renouveau Musulman and the 1999 To Be a European Muslim)—as a man who could reconcile European Muslims to Western society. After the terrorist attacks of July 7, 2005, Tony Blair made Ramadan a special advisor on Muslim affairs.
Yet Ramadan’s religious views have also caused no little anxiety in Europe. In 2003, when Nicolas Sarkozy accused Ramadan of supporting the stoning of adulterous women, Ramadan responded that, on the contrary, he favors a moratorium on such practices. Earlier this year, a Dutch magazine drew attention to recordings of Ramadan condemning homosexuality and insisting that women remain modest in public (leading to an investigation of his position as Rotterdam’s consultant on multicultural dialogue). To some skeptical observers (such as Caroline Fourest, author of Frère Tariq) such incidents suggest that Ramadan is fundamentally duplicitous. He placates naive Westerners while pursuing an aggressive Islamic agenda. These observers rarely fail to mention that Ramadan is the grandson of Hasan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But Ramadan has his defenders as well, and among them is the Catholic theologian Gregory Baum in his work The Theology of Tariq Ramadan. Baum’s work is published by Notre Dame Press, yet Baum shows little concern for the Notre Dame controversy, to which he refers only briefly in the final chapter (where he suggests that it was the Zionist lobby in America that cost Ramadan his visa). Instead, Baum is concerned with a defense of Ramadan’s thought. He means to show that Ramadan, far from being a “terrorist in disguise,” is a “brilliant and fascinating” scholar with whom Catholics especially should sympathize.
Baum, a professor emeritus at McGill University, draws from his interest in Islamic thought and his concern with the manner in which “the mass media in North America diffused caricatures of Islam and prejudices against Muslims” after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Yet his interest in this topic is only one part of his longer offensive against the forces of conservatism and bigotry in the West. For example, Baum remembers with no little nostalgia how, as a young theologian, he “wrestled against the anti-Jewish prejudice mediated by the Christian Church,” worked for the passage of Dignitatis Humanae at the Second Vatican Council (“against the vehement opposition to religious liberty on the part of a significant sector of the council”), and later, in Commonweal magazine, “disagreed with the papal teaching and defended the moral legitimacy of homosexual love with Catholic arguments.” Baum now hopes with this book to do his “part to protect the Muslim population against prejudice and discrimination.”
At the same time, Baum feels a certain kinship with Ramadan: “There is a certain family likeness between the Catholic and the Muslim theological effort to react creatively to the challenge of modernity. This affinity allows me to read Ramadan’s work rather differently than do his secular commentators.” Thus Baum sees himself as uniquely sensitive to Ramadan’s efforts to articulate his religious tradition in a secular context. Accordingly, in The Theology of Tariq Ramadan he describes with great sympathy Ramadan’s place as a reformist Muslim who opposes literalists on one side and liberals on the other.
Baum’s solidarity with Ramadan is benevolent, and the unusual initiative he has taken, after a long scholarly career, to engage current trends in Islamic thought is admirable. His book, however, has problems. After all, this is the sort of project that calls for expertise on Islam.
By his own admission Baum is no specialist. To him this makes his project “a bold undertaking” (it’s no surprise when we discover that Ramadan is likewise “bold”), but at times the reader is left thinking of other adjectives. Indeed, The Theology of Tariq Ramadan is marked not only by transliteration and translation errors but also by basic errors about Islam.
Baum reports, for example, that the caliph Mu‘awiya killed Muhammad’s grandson Husayn, leading to the schism between Sunnis and Shi’is. In fact, it was Mu‘awiya’s son, Yazid, who killed Husayn; Mu‘awiya opposed (but did not kill) Husayn’s father ’Ali. Elsewhere, Baum insists that “the entire Muslim tradition” holds that humans are “free agents,” when in fact the great part of Muslim tradition does not. More unnerving is Baum’s presentation—and here he is following Ramadan—of the nahda, the Arab cultural awakening at the turn of the twentieth century led in large part by Christians, as an exclusively Islamic movement of religious renewal.
Baum also follows Ramadan in his description of the Qur’an, Muhammad, and early Islamic history. He reports that the Qur’an “honors the biblical tradition of Jews and Christians” and “is much less dismissive of Judaism than is the New Testament.” These are peculiar statements about a book that suggests someone else died on the Cross in the place of Jesus, calls on God to fight the Jews and the Christians because of their heretical beliefs, reports that God cursed the Jews and made their hearts hard, and insists that the burdensome law of the Jews is God’s punishment for their disobedience. Baum also relies on Ramadan’s insistence that Muhammad fought merely in self-defense or in defense of the weak. This sentiment is nowhere to be found in the classical Islamic sources, which present Muhammad’s military triumphs as clear signs of divine favor.
So too Baum follows Ramadan’s description of Islamic history. He delights in Islam’s “spiritual creativity,” in “the cultural flourishing of the Muslim community,” and in the “intelligent application of the quranic wisdom.” He does not, however, ask any questions of Islamic history that emerge from Christian concerns. In fact, Baum seems unaware or unconcerned that in the course of this history Christians frequently suffered as second-class citizens or worse, that the patriarchal sees of Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch fell under Muslim occupation, and that Christianity was violently purged from the Arabian Peninsula.
In general, Baum, who describes reading Ramadan’s work as a “spiritual” and “religious” experience, exhibits a profound trust in his subject. Baum follows without questioning, for example, Ramadan’s flowery redefinition of Shari’a (Islamic law) as “divine guidance.” He follows Ramadan’s apologetical argument that anything unseemly in the laws Muhammad instituted were positive modifications of the vile customs of pre-Islamic Arabs. And while Baum is an outspoken critic of the Church for her failure to be more progressive on issues of gender and sex, he defends Ramadan’s ambiguous stance on the stoning of adulterous women, polygamy, and homosexuality, concluding here that “Ramadan has a more sympathetic understanding of the dilemma experienced by homosexual believers than any pope or bishop does.”
On these issues Baum even jumps into the ring to defend Ramadan against liberal Muslims who hold the same positions that Baum demands from his own church. He explains, “Since Ramadan promotes so many new attitudes within Islam, it would be foolish of him to challenge the traditional sexual teaching and, in doing so, hinder the spread of the renewal movement.”
This is a charitable and not unreasonable explanation, but it should be noted that Baum shows none of this charity when he refers to his own church. He consistently portrays the Church as a stubborn institution whose merits lie principally in the changes wrought by “thinking Catholics” like John XXIII and Gregory Baum. It is true that Baum is at times willing to defend Christianity against implicit critiques in Ramadan’s thought: the doctrine of original sin or dualism, for example. Yet in this defense it is Baum’s particular theology, not the Church’s, that is at stake.
There is a more important point here than Baum’s sympathies, and it is the place of Christianity in Ramadan’s theology. Indeed, this is precisely the point that one would expect to find in a Catholic perspective on that theology. The traditional Islamic claim is clear: Jesus was a Muslim. Christianity is a falsified religion created by those who suppressed the message of Jesus. Jesus brought an Islamic scripture called the Injil. The Bible is a corrupt book devised by those who meant (deviously) to replace it. For its part, the Qur’an repeatedly chastises Christians for their excessive beliefs and labels them infidels. It suggests they worship God, Jesus, and Mary in a Trinity and worship their clerics instead of God. It has Jesus himself disavow the Christians.
So where does Ramadan stand on Christianity? Baum never asks this question, but it is not hard to answer. Ramadan writes that the Qur’an “completes and corrects the messages that preceded it,” and he explains that “to believe in a book that comes later necessarily assumes that one considers that there is a deficiency or distortion in the former.” In other words, he simply maintains the traditional Islamic claim that the Bible (and by extension Christianity) is falsified.
There is nothing unusual about this, and Baum is certainly not obliged to feel any sort of offense or outrage about it. Still, he might have spared a sentence or two for Ramadan’s view of Christianity in a book on a Catholic perspective of a Muslim scholar’s theology. It is Baum’s silence on this point that is peculiar. But, then again, Baum is equally silent on Ramadan’s view of the rights of Christians under Islam. While showing concern for the rights of Muslims in the West, Baum never bothers to challenge Ramadan, for example, on the rights of Christians to proselytize in the Islamic world, a right that Ramadan, whose wife is a convert from Christianity, enjoys and exercises in Europe. Is Baum aware that preaching the gospel to Muslims can be deadly in much of the Islamic world?
Instead, Baum seems to proceed as though Islam were a religion with no particular connection to Christianity. In passing, he endorses the Christological notion—entertained by Jacques Dupuis and Roger Haight, among others—that the Word of God is historically active in Islam as well as in Christianity. (Baum insists that this is official Church teaching, although “it has not yet been assimilated by all church-going Catholics.”)
In the context of Muslim–Christian relations, however, this sort of speculation necessarily implies an acceptance of Muhammad’s prophethood. Is this sort of speculation necessary or felicitous in the Muslim–Christian context? Would a Christian expect Jews to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ for the sake of dialogue?
Ultimately, Baum should be admired for his well-meaning effort to enter into conversation with Ramadan. Christians generally should indeed be exhorted to study Islam with sympathy. But they should also be exhorted to develop a profound awareness of the well-developed—and hardly irenic—Islamic understanding of their own Christian faith.
Gabriel Said Reynolds is assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.