Friday, September 22, 2006

Tariq Ramadan on the Pope's Message

Arabic Script: "...and be prepared."
(Image from Wikipedia)

As I've previously noted, I'm not sure what to make of Tariq Ramadan, whose maternal grandfather, the Egyptian Hassan al Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood (1928), an Islamist movement dedicated to the following credo:

"God is our objective, the Quran is our Constitution, the Prophet is our leader, struggle is our way, and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations."

But I won't get into all of that right now, for I only wish to draw attention to Ramadan's recently printed opinion on the Pope's speech: "A struggle over Europe's religious identity," International Herald Tribune (September 20, 2006). He first warns fellow Muslims that their "mass protests ... end up providing a living proof that Muslims cannot engage in reasonable debate and that verbal aggression and violence are more the rule than the exception." After these words to the Muslim community, Ramadan turns to the Pope's message:

[T]he pope attempted to set out a European identity that would be Christian by faith and Greek by philosophical reason. Islam, which has apparently had no such relationship with reason, would thus be foreign to the European identity that has been built atop this heritage.
Here, I think that Ramadan slightly mistates the Pope's argument in a couple of ways.

The Pope argued that Christianity itself integrates reason with faith because it trusts in a rational God who acts according to reasonable principles and whose divine rational nature is reflected in both human reason and the order of the universe, whence the Pope's insistence on the "real analogy" between God and human beings.

The Pope did not argue that Muslim identity includes no element of Greek rationality. Rather, he noted that Muslim theology seems to allow for only a purely voluntarist deity, namely, God defined only by his radically free will, a will so unconstrained that it need not even be consistent with itself. Hence the Pope's reference to Ibn Hazm:
Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.
Ramadan's insistence on a rationalist strain in Islamic thought -- "the decisive contributions of rationalist Muslim thinkers like al-Farabi (10th century), Avicenna (11th century), Averroes (12th century), al-Ghazali (12th century), Ash-Shatibi (13th century) and Ibn Khaldun (14th century)" -- thus misses the Pope's central point about fundamentally differing conceptions of God's nature in Islam (willful) and Christianity (rational).

The Pope's larger theme lay in his subtle argument that Islam might have a problem with violence because it has a problem in its theology. If God's nature is defined centrally by his radically free will, then believers cannot appeal to reason in their aim to convert nonbelievers but must demand submission to an arbitrary God who cannot be rationally understood. If the force of reason cannot be used in converting nonbelievers, then the force of violence will be.

I think that the Pope was making this point, but Tariq Ramadan missed it.


At 10:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are right on target here. The voluntarist position against which Benedict was arguing is also adopted in certain strains of Catholic thinking (hence the reference to Duns Scotus) as well by the majority of Calvinist Protestants.

Ramadan seems to have a poor grasp of the history of Islamic thought when he lumps together a band of Muslim thinkers who often disagreed sharply with one another. It is possible to interpret Benedict's thoughts in a more generous manner: as an invitation for Muslims to revisit the debates of the medieval Islamic World and to open themselves to meaningful theological discussion. The choice of Ibn Hamz by Benedict as a forefather of modern Islamic theology was, I suspect, no accident: there existed a movement to dehellenize Islam before such attempts emerged in Christianity. How differently would Islamic theology have developed had the hellenic approach of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd not been rejected in favour of the literalist and anti-rationalist positions of Hamz and al-Ghazali?

At 10:58 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Innominatus, for the remarks.

I'm not especially learned on Medieval Muslim thought, but I know enough to be surprised at seeing Ramadan cite Muslim rationalists whom he surely knows were rejected by the main stream of Islamic thought.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:34 PM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

HJH, you ought to be the Vatican's spokesman, or at least the Pope's. I feel like my IQ goes up a point or two after reading your explanations. Thanks.

At 11:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're slightly off base here, as you're reading the Pope's quotation on volunatism as the Pope characterizing Islam. I'm pretty sure that 1) Islam has more diverse views of the rationality of God than that, 2) the Pope knows that, but more importantly 3) that wasn't his point. The Pope's not making a statement about the nature of Islam, he's making a statement about the nature of Christianity. He's using Ibn Hamz's position to paint Christian rationalism by contrast, and the verity of representativeness of Ibn Hamz is irrelevant.

At 1:09 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

I agree completely.

He first warns fellow Muslims that their "mass protests ... end up providing a living proof that Muslims cannot engage in reasonable debate and that verbal aggression and violence are more the rule than the exception."

Gee... ya think?

At 4:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, at least I'm good for something, I guess. Maybe the Vatican will give me a job for next semester.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Ben, I agree that the Pope was primarily making a statement about Christianty's conception of God's nature and noting the problem of a voluntarist understanding such as that expounded by Duns Scotus.

And you're surely correct that the Pope would know about the diversity of Islamic theology.

But my understanding is that the mainstream of Islamic theology does emphasize a voluntarist God. It seems that this sort of theology stems partly from the avoidance of "shirk" -- associating with God things that are not God and which would thus limit God's sovereignty in the minds of believers and thereby constitute a sort of idolatry.

Still, as you say, the Pope's point doesn't depend upon Islamic theology being generally voluntarist, and his talk wasn't generally about Islam but about the Christian conception of God's nature.

Indeed, his talk was more a critique of Protestantism than of Islam, given the tendency of Protestantism to dehellenize the Church -- and I think that he has a point.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 5:00 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Saur, I also agree with Tariq Ramadan's point about the inconsistency of rioting and threatening violence because of a perceived 'insult' suggesting that you are violent.

But Ramadan has been accused of double-speaking, so I remain undecided about his real views.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:27 AM, Blogger Madman of Chu said...

I think that you aren't engaging Ramadan's basic argument. He is not really taking aim at the Pope's characterization of Islam, rather he is critiquing the Pope's characterization of "Europe." In the course of the speech the Pope does, in fact, declare:

"This inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of the history of religions, but also from that of world history - it is an event which concerns us even today. Given this convergence, it is not surprising that Christianity, despite its origins and some significant developments in the East, finally took on its historically decisive character in Europe. We can also express this the other way around: this convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe and remains the foundation of what can rightly be called Europe."

I remember having the same reaction from a Jewish perspective as Ramadan on reading this- "So while Augustine and Aquinas were creating Europe, Maimonedes and Spinoza were doing what, playing dreydl?" In this sense Ramadan's arguments are very incisive, however marginal the thinkers he cites may have been in the Islamic world (and that is a disputable point), they all undeniably played a central role in the "hellenization" of medieval and early modern *European* culture.

In fairness to the Pope, there is a certain ambiguity to his words that leaves space for a "generous" interpretation. When he says that "this convergence" created Europe he is speaking more generally about the convergence between Biblical faith and hellenic reason, thus he does not perhaps have to be taken as referring exclusively to Christianity but all followers of Abrahamic faiths who have participated in this grand "rapprochement."

It is possible (though I know you may disagree) that this ambiguity was entirely planned, and that Ramadan's response is exactly the kind that Benedict hoped to evoke. Asserting claim to part of the legacy of this grand "rapprochement" is the first step toward entering the "great dialogue of cultures" that Benedict envisions at the end of the speech. Benedict's arguing against Turkey's acceptance into the EU does suggest the more hard-line reductionist stance of which Ramadan accuses the Pope. Even so, I would like to believe that Benedict had a much more inclusive agenda, and that he would be very pleased if all the criticism generated by his speech had been of Ramadan's ilk.

At 4:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Madman, Ramadan sounded reasonable, and I hope that he genuinely is. Also, I agree with you that the Pope's lecture was broader than what I focused upon -- as you might have noted from the blog entry that follows this one.

While I don't think that the Pope's central point was about European identity so much as about the proper conception of God's nature, I do recognize that there's a lot going on in the lecture, and each time that I take another look, I see more.

This richness may account for so many interpretations of what the Pope meant -- I've already had several people challenge mine, and when I look again at the Pope's words, I see why they read him as they did.

There is some ambiguity to some of what the Pope says, probably intentional, but I don't think that he was setting a trap for, say, Muslims so much as pointing to a trap that religions set for themselves when they divorce reason from faith and leave themselves with little but force alone to 'persuade' others of their 'truth.'

Well ... that's my generous reading, at any rate.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said above: "the mainstream of Islamic theology does emphasize a voluntarist God. It seems that this sort of theology stems partly from the avoidance of "shirk" "

No argument about the first point: Mainstream Islam has a voluntarist god. It's just a historical accident and could have gone the other way, too, I think. It almost did, after all, and proponents of the early rationalist school (the Mutazilites, 10th +/- century) of course addressed the "shirk" argument back then, and elegantly went around it: Something about God's attributes as manifest essence vs. revealed existence, or so.

The problem is inquisitive licence, I think: after the issue was settled in al-Ghazali's favour (not on substance, of course, but for political convenience), later thinkers such as Averroes, being more removed from the original wisdom that went with being born closer to Mohammed's time, couldn't fully re-open the issue, despite delivering a complete refutation of Ghazali's views. This "ancient wisdom first" view was then still under debate, yet effective nontheless. It became sort of instutionalized later (and in part because of al-Ghazali's bidding over precisely this issue) in the "closure of the gates of idjtihad", which basically says that early thinkers settled everything that had to be settled, and later generations are just too far removed in time from the roots of the faith to open that can of worms again. (ijtihad was strictly speaking not about philosophy or theology, but about practice and law, but effectively crippled the former nonetheless) Opposition views usually 'went Sufi', and remained without broader influence.

Al-Ghazali is, after Uthman, maybe the most influential person in Islam. Mohammed only takes Bronze, I think.

At 8:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Erdal, for the informative comment. I'd heard of the Mutazilites and figured that they'd have found a way around the Shirk problem, perhaps by a solution of the sort that Greek philosophers proposed to the Euthyphro dilemma in Platonic thought.

Just a question, though ... since Islam lacks an ecclesiastical hierarchy and is more like Protestantism in this respect than like Catholicism, what's to prevent a re-opening of the gates of idjtihad?

By the way, your excellent remarks remind me that I really need to do more reading in early Islamic debates.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Concerning the possibility of "re-opening of the gates of idjtihad" and your Protestantism analogy:

This is a confusion I frequently encounter, but I still think it's very wrong. Common sense, and analogy with a christian setting, seem to tell you (and many others) that 're-opening the gates of ijtihad' would somehow automatically lead to more "progressive" or "modern" views, and (other side of the same coin) that these gates were slammed shut back then to stem progress and preserve conservative ("true to the roots") philosopy, theology and practice. I can't say this loud enough: THIS IS WRONG!.

First: Al-Ghazali and other major thinkers who were instrumental in 'slamming shut' the doors were actually the progressives themselves, and had taken the (practical, lived and administeded) Islam of Mohammed and Uthman as far away from its roots as they dared and thought conceivable. Any possible future idjtihad they predicted to be regression toward a rawer, less refined law and practice. The fact that they stunted the growth of theological thinking and locked in this 'anti-rational' view of god is merely collateral damage... a footnote.

Second: There is this chorus from western quartes that "Islam needs a reformation". Again, no! Islam needs another reformation like a hole in the head. The latest Reformation gave them Wahhabism and Qutb. As Ghazali predicted, reform always lead to a rawer, more literal law and practice (plus the laudable anti-corruption movement that ususally kickstarts reformations christian and muslim).

It's only the big schools of fiqh (law), and the big institutions like Qom and Al-Azhar that safeguard the progressive, tolerable forms of islamic practice. Take away their thin armour of Ghazalian, classical sohistication, open the doors of ijtihad again, and what will emerge, time and again, is raw and unrefined literalism Taleban-style.

This is, I think, the main reason the reactions among top-clerics toward the pope were as viscious as they were. (apart from looking cool to the 'masses', but that's a minor benefit). These -to be continued-

At 12:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

-continued from above- guys are the bulwark against the Reformation, the very same one the pope tries to argue against. And they see all the progress in law and practice that Islam made endangered by dragging whimsical theology about 'the nature of god' into the arena, when they were reasonably expecting the pope to be on their side.

Summing up, either Qom and Al-Azhar are right, and the pope "doesn't know anything about Islam" (at least not enough), or, more worryingly, the pope is expecting them to lose out to Wahabbism et al anyway, and just doesn't consider them a useful ally any longer. I would prefer the pope to be stupid, but I rather think he's right in this diagnosis, and we are right in the middle of the biggest Islamic reformation for two hundred years, and there's nothing that can be done about it but brace yourself. I sort of agree with the Harris piece you linked to, but would put the emphasis a little differently: Rather that offering the camp of secularism-reanonism-westernism a warm welcome-back place under the umbrella of the catholic church, I think the Vatican is rather asking for a more protected place for the catholic church (and all these Christans in Muslim lands) under the wing of the secular West and their militaries. I think he expects things to turn real ugly for Christians there real quick.

At 4:17 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, like you, I've been skeptical about the positive benefits of a Protestant-style 'Reformation' in Islam. I think that Islam needs something more like a Pope whom one could deal with ... but that's not going to happen.

I expect that, instead, we're in for a long, dark night of conflict with a 'radical Protestant' type of Islam. The religious wars of the West, all but forgotten, lasted a couple of hundred years and killed a lot of people ... perhaps not as many people as the secular ideologies since the French Revolution, but a lot anyway.

About "re-opening of the gates of idjtihad," you're correct that I hadn't thought much about the negative possibilities. I don't know much about why they were closed in the first place.

As for your analysis of the Pope's unspoken aims, I'll have to think about them, for this is not a direction that I've considered.

Jeffery Hodges

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