Monday, June 11, 2007

Paul Berman on Tariq Ramadan: Part 5

(Image from Wikipedia)

One cannot choose one's ancestry, of course, but there is rather more to the Tariq Ramadan story than genetics.

As noted, Hassan al-Banna may never have met Sayyid Qutb, but al-Banna's son-in-law, Said Ramadan -- Tariq's father -- did know Qutb, for when Qutb returned to Egypt, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood and sought out Said Ramadan, the editor of Al-Muslimun.

More in a moment on the connections that followed, but first, a detour through something surprising, as Berman explains it:
Qutb, as I learn from a biography by Adnan A. Musallam called From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism, adhered to a school of Romantic poetry in Egypt, influenced by Coleridge among others, and his ideas about poetry led him to seek truth in his own heart (as opposed to following the traditions of established schools) and at the same time to yearn romantically for death. Qutb's poetry took an apocalyptic turn as well -- which, though his biographer does not make the point, could be compared stanza for stanza with some of the apocalyptic poetry of the fin-de-si├Ęcle European Symbolist poets. And all of this, the Romantic and Symbolist literary impulses, mirrored al-Banna's Islamic thinking pretty closely. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 22)
Romanticism has been blamed for many things, including revolutionary violence of both the European left and the European right, so we shouldn't, perhaps, find this connection surprising. As long ago as 1919, Irving Babbitt drew a line of connection between Romanticism and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book Rousseau and Romanticism, a highly critical depiction of both, and Rousseau himself has been blamed for everything from the anomie of radical individualism to the constrictive straitjacket of 20th-century totalitarianism, but perhaps these two developments can meet in one individual, for Qutb's totalitarian religion-of-the-heart would seem to fit the two together.

Berman tends to think something of this sort -- certainly on the influence of Romanticist individualism:
What was salafi reformism, after all, if not a belief that truth could be obtained directly from the Qur'an and the seventh century (as opposed to following the traditions of the established schools of Islamic jurisprudence)? And what was al-Banna's phrase about "the art of death" and "death is art" if not an Islamic variation on Qutb's Romantic-poetry yearning for the eternity of the tomb? ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 22)
Qutb's emerging Islamist phase thus merged Romanticism with an Islamism that was already "half in love with easeful death"? From Romantic poetry to Islamist death-wish? ... Well, stranger things have happened. Berman has merely noted parallels and suggested influence -- but in Qutb's case, he may be onto something:
[After al-Banna's assassination,] Qutb began to contribute his own monthly articles to Al-Muslimun. Some of those monthly articles were eventually gathered together in a book called Toward an Islamic Society. But Qutb's most important contributions to Al-Muslimun consisted of commentaries on the Qur'an, which were strikingly original -- commentaries written not in the spirit of traditional jurisprudential analysis but, instead, in the spirit of Romantic literary criticism, drawn from the heart instead of from the scholarly texts. These were the articles that, in book form, eventually blossomed into Qutb's gigantic masterwork, In the Shade of the Qur'an, which is widely regarded as the single greatest literary product of the worldwide Islamist movement. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 23)
Romanticist or not, Qutb's Islamist articles were published in Al-Muslimun, an Islamist journal edited by Tariq Ramadan's father, which returns us to the connections noted in my opening remarks above. On these connections, Berman observes:
Said Ramadan, the editor of Al-Muslimun, not only knew Qutb; he was, at the crucial moment, Qutb's most important supporter in the world of the Egyptian intellectuals. Said Ramadan was the editor who got Qutb started on what became his most important work. And at the worst moment of Qutb's life -- in 1965, when, having already languished in prison during most of the time since the crackdown of 1954, he was accused one last time of plotting a revolution, for which he would be hanged a year later -- his alleged conspiracy was said to include, of course, Said Ramadan, the man who avoided a similar fate only because, back in 1954, he happened to have been out of the country. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 23)
This conspiracy may have been mere fantasy concocted by the Egyptian government to rid itself of an inconvenient critic, so the supposed link of Said Ramadan to a revolutionary Islamist plot might be sheer invention. And Ian Hamel, author of The Truth About Tariq Ramadan, argues that Said Ramadan distanced himself from Qutb's legacy. Berman, however, points out:
The biographies of Said Ramadan and Sayyid Qutb are otherwise intertwined. And in this case what is past is not, in fact, past, and Tariq Ramadan's career has likewise twined itself around the Qutb legacy. Said Ramadan worked long ago with [the Islamist theocratic theorist Abul Ala] Mawdudi in Pakistan, and Mawdudi's British followers established their Islamic Foundation, and Tariq Ramadan published his first two English-language books at the Islamic Foundation and spent his year of study at its campus for reasons that were entirely natural and familial. The Islamic Foundation has been slowly bringing out a handsome edition of Mawdudi's own multi-volume Qur'anic commentary, Toward Understanding the Qur'an, translated from Urdu into English. And the foundation has also been bringing out Qutb's In the Shade of the Qur'an, likewise in a handsome edition -- some ten volumes of which, out of what is promised ultimately to be eighteen, now sit on my own bookshelves. All of this makes perfect sense, given that salafi reformism does constitute a movement broad enough to stretch from al-Banna to his son-in-law to Mawdudi and Qutb and, ultimately, to Tariq Ramadan. The Islamic Foundation, from its British campus with its Al-Banna Hall, has done nothing at all peculiar in publishing Mawdudi, Qutb, and Ramadan, these several intellectual stars in a single constellation. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 23-24)
Not at all peculiar, as Berman acknowledges, but potentially troubling ... so why not just ask Tariq Ramadan what he really thinks:
[T]he family ties between Tariq Ramadan and Sayyid Qutb offer an analytic opportunity. Ramadan's reputation for less-than-frankness raises a bit of a problem for anyone who cares to figure him out. If you wanted to know the beliefs and opinions of any number of public figures, you could go ask them, and you could publish their replies with a reasonable certainty that you were getting the real poop. Not so Ramadan. ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 24)
Less than frank, he stands as an intellectual riddle, or as Berman puts it:
He poses a difficulty -- the constant possibility of an esoteric meaning. Still, there is a way to put his doctrines into some kind of historical and intellectual perspective, and this is to stand Ramadan next to Qutb -- the father's son next to the father's author, the Islamic Foundation's book-writer next to the Islamic Foundation's book-writer, salafi reformist next to salafi reformist. Ramadan himself devotes a chapter of The Roots of the Muslim Revival to Qutb, just to show that nothing is illegitimate in proposing such a comparison. And, with Ramadan standing next to Qutb, it ought to be possible one more time to ask the question, which still has not been answered: what does he stand for, in the end? Salafi reformism -- what does it amount to, finally? ("The Islamist, the Journalist, and the Defense of Liberalism," page 24-25)
I'll continue this tomorrow, when we discover that -- according to Berman, anyway -- salafi reformism is a sort of Rousseauianism.

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At 2:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I'll continue this tomorrow, when we discover that -- according to Berman, anyway -- salafi reformism is a sort of Rousseauianism."

That is a tongue-twisting mouthful. I'll be checking for the next installment first thing tomorrow morning.

At 3:36 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I hope that the tongue-twisting aspect is the only awkward part. I don't especially like Berman's term "Rousseauianism" either, but that's what he's written.

Maybe it's the accepted term...

Jeffery Hodges

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