was named by Time in 2004 among the 100 most influential people in the world. Three years later, the New York Times described him as ‘an Islamic superstar’. However, not everyone sees him as an influence for good.
Anthony McRoy sat with him in a café in west London on 1 November 2006.
Photography: Andrew Firth
Can you say something about your background and heritage? How do you define your identity? What is your mother tongue?
I was born in Geneva, into an Egyptian family, and for years what I remember is that we were always talking about the Arab world. My father and my mother were in touch with all the people coming from abroad – mainly from the Middle East but also, because my father travelled a lot, with people from Asia. So, Arabic was my mother tongue, and because of the people from Asian countries my second language at home was English.
I was really helped by my parents to be involved in Swiss society. I was in the mainstream school system, practising sports and never wanting to be isolated. But we used to speak about one day going back to Egypt, to the mother country and our roots. In my mind and my heart, Egypt was idealised, really. It was somewhere where people were struggling for justice, always doing good – and where it would be easy to be a Muslim because, according to all I heard, the atmosphere was really different.
I first went to Egypt when I was 17 and saw my own larger family, living their daily lives, and it was a shock, because it was not at all the way I had pictured it. For the first time, I realised that I was not in fact an Egyptian. I had the language, the feelings, but I was not like them. Still, for the six years that followed that first trip I was saying (because we were prevented from going there), ‘One day I will go back home’ – meaning Egypt. But then around 23, 24, I realised that I was to stay in Europe.
Do you think of yourself now as a Swiss?
Now, I don’t have only one identity: I have what I call a multiple identity. I can say I am a Muslim by religion but I am a Swiss by nationality, really connected to the Swiss political and civic reality. But I also am Egyptian by heritage – and I have taken my own kids to Egypt, so they can have this memory and feel the same connection – but at the same time I say that I’m a universalist by principles. And this isn’t just a philosophical projection, it’s deep down inside me that I am building this multiple identity.
Your wife is Swiss, I think.
People are saying that everything about me is bad and are trying to shape an image which is not the reality
French by her father and Swiss by her mother. I was a very close friend of her brother when we were very young, and then she came to Islam and we married after she converted.
Whenever your name comes up, the first thing people say, even though you are a major thinker yourself, is that your grandfather was the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (and arguably the father of modern Islamism), Hassan al-Banna. What influence has he had on your life and thought?
I was always hearing about him at home, from both my parents. He was the father of my mother but he was the spiritual teacher of my father – he met my father when he was 14 and educated him, and they were very, very close. And what I heard first was the spiritual teaching of Hassan al-Banna. He started by being a Sufi, and this is how he impressed my father, by the quality of his faith and his devotion.
So, my perception of him was from the beginning mainly positive – and the first time I went to Egypt I met people who knew him and this was confirmed, as he did things that were really important for the country. He resisted colonisation and he built 2,000 schools, 1,500 social institutions and more than 80 small enterprises to help people to do business.
Then I came back to Europe and heard this other version, which demonised him and said he was a fundamentalist and everything he did was wrong – especially when the Iranian revolution began in ’79, when I was 17, 18. I started to work on his Risalatut, the text he wrote in the Thirties and Forties, and started to have not only a personal connection with him but also an intellectual understanding. I read his memoirs and his articles; and then I wrote a PhD thesis on the reformist thinkers, including 200 pages on him and his thought.
My approach to him is really the same as to any character in history: to recognise what is good and what should be put into context and what should be criticised. I will never accept his demonisation. I am experiencing this myself today: people are saying that everything about me is bad, taking some of my statements out of context and trying to shape an image which is not the reality. They are able to do this while I am alive, and I know they did it to him after he passed away.
It was started by the British, when he told them in the Forties, ‘Get out of Egypt! It’s not your country. If you will not go, the population will struggle against you.’ But he never used violence.
He did advocate military jihad in some cases, surely?
Yes, but no great scholars in the Islamic tradition would say that the only right jihad is jihad al-nafs, the spiritual struggle. But the main thing is that jihad is defensive, when you are oppressed and someone is denying your rights. Hassan al-Banna said – and this is really important – that in Egypt at that time ‘they are not oppressing us in an armed way, so our resistance is pacific.’
But he did also say (and this is why there is a problem now): ‘In Palestine, because we are dealing with armed groups, Stern and Irgun,1The Stern Gang and Irgun were Jewish terrorist organisations active in Palestine in the Thirties and Forties. armed resistance is legitimate.’ Also at one point he said: ‘I will never accept the birth of the state of Israel.’ But we have to put things into context: we are speaking about the Thirties and Forties, when the whole Arab world understood what was happening as an injustice towards the Palestinians.
I have a problem with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hassan al-Banna tried to shape thought through an organisation and he did it in a very structured way, with slogans. And, as you know, in political situations slogans can mobilise people but they can also be misunderstood and misused. For example, he said: ‘The Qur’an is our constitution.’ If you read his memoirs, you understand that his view was that the Qur’an is our reference but we have to have a rational approach to it. However, the slogan in itself is dangerous, because it could be interpreted to mean that in the Qur’an we have all the solutions. So, there is a gap between someone saying this as a way to mobilise people and someone taking this as the only understanding of what Islam is all about.
Your grandfather was a Sufi, and the Sufis put a big emphasis on a personal relationship with Allah. How would you describe your own relationship with him?
You know, I’m writing all these books and articles to shape the legal dimension [of Islam], but maybe the spiritual, the mystical dimension of my life is really the most important one. You know, the Sufi will never say he is a Sufi or is following in the footsteps of the Sufis, because this is something that is really personal. You cannot just define it in words, but if I have to say something about it…
I am just finishing now a book which is going to be published in February.2The Messenger: The meanings of the life of Muhammad (Allen Lane) It’s a life of the Prophet, but really it’s about his spiritual teachings. He is a guide, a model, who helps me to be closer to God. (I never use ‘Allah’ when I speak French or English: for me it is ‘God’ in English, ‘Dieu’ in French and ‘Allah’ in Arabic. It’s the same for the [Coptic Christians]: they use ‘Allah’ in Arabic.) All my personal experience is not only to believe in God but to be close to him, and at the end to love him.
I think this is what we are missing today in Islamic discourse. We are so pushed to be on the defensive – Islam is not this, Islam is not that – that we are forgetting the essence of Islam. It is really a love story. Sometimes myself I have to forget everything else and come back to this essential spiritual journey. So, this is what I’m asking him, for myself: it’s just to love him and to try to be loved by him.
Do you have a sense of the presence of God?
Yes. This is part of my spirituality, and I think that we have to nurture this. It’s a personal responsibility, to look at the signs of his presence. If you listen to my talks – this is my life, really, to say to people: ‘The Prophet (peace be upon him!) cried the whole night just because he got a verse telling him that there are signs in the creation of the universe, and the alternation of nights and days… He was crying for that, not because he was told what is right and wrong.’ This is the essential teaching: look at the universe and remember God in his creation. Remember him in your heart. This is the best way to come to him. Exile yourself from the world, come back to your heart and you will be close to him.
The first problem is that very often Muslims feel that we have to define ourselves against something – the West, Christianity. And the second is that we are indulging in something that is really dangerous, which is formalism. We are not teaching the people the meaning of prayer, we are teaching them how to pray. You know, God is love and God is beauty and God is light, and to speak about that is much more important than to speak about him as a judge.
Sometimes it happens to me that I go through a spiritual crisis; but you come back to this deep relationship with God and he says that he will forgive what no human being can forgive, that he is the forgiver of everything. So, this is a jihad, in fact: it’s a struggle against your own judgement, because the first obstacle to receiving the mercy of God is your own judgement. Because you start to judge yourself, you forget that he can be the Most Merciful, he can just accept what people do.
This is what I have learnt from my Christian friends, this stress on ‘God is love’ which Muslims forget sometimes. It has helped me a lot. You know, my first meeting with Christians was not in interfaith dialogue, it was on the ground in South America, where people spoke of love and justice. To love people is to struggle for justice, and justice should be done in the name of love. There was liberation theology, but, more than that, this was something they were practising. And I think this is the main field in which we have to work together
Do you believe that God answers the prayers of non-Muslims?
I think God listens and sends signs to everyone who is sincere in their quest for the truth
Yes. Yes. I think that he responds to anyone who is sincere, even if you are an atheist. He is close to the sincere, not only to Muslims. So, when I am asked what will be the destiny of someone who is not a Muslim, I say: ‘God knows best. I don’t know.’
There is a central concept in Islam, which is ehsan: sincerity. It means that you worship God as if you see him, because even if you don’t see him, he sees you. There are two ways of understanding this, you know: he can be the judge of your bad deeds or you can say exactly the opposite, he is your companion and your confidant wherever you are. And you have these two discourses in Islam, the spiritual one – ‘He is here’ – and the legal one – ‘Be careful!’ – and we are now stressing the second, out of fear, because there is a lack of confidence.
Did Muhammad not say: ‘He who amongst the community of Jews or Christians hears about me but does not affirm his belief in that with which I have been sent and dies in this state, he shall be but one of the denizens of hell fire’?
The Prophet himself accompanied a young Jew and he never asked him to become a Muslim. So, I think it’s really important not to take one hadith and say: ‘OK, he said that…’ I think some verses or hadith can be used to say anything about Islam or Judaism or Christianity, you know?
In the end, I think God listens and sends signs to everyone who is sincere in their quest for the truth. And I think this is what I am asking people: be sincere in your quest, whatever is your answer.
Do you find that you have to fight the jihad al-nafs, the struggle against your own evil tendencies?
Oh yes. Yes. It is really difficult. At first I thought it was only because I was in Europe, but I think that to remain faithful to one’s principles today is really difficult. You know that lying is bad, and yet you lie and so on. This jihad is central in my life. It’s central. Even when I am speaking about Islam, I am struggling against what I might call an automatic discourse coming from my mind and not my heart. To reconnect my mind with the light and the sincerity of my heart, this is a personal struggle.
You mentioned lying, and this is an issue for many people fearful of Islam. Muhammad said that there are three circumstances in which a Muslim can lie, and one of them is war. Some people say: If Muslims regard themselves as being engaged in a jihad against the West, how can we trust anything they say?
How can you reassure people that when you say something positive about the West or criticise some aspect of the Muslim world, you are being truthful? Didn’t the Prophet also say, ‘War is deceit’?
Some people say it is entrenched in the Islamic tradition that you can say anything you want; but this is very wrong, both in the Shia tradition and in the Sunni. That hadith exists, of course, but it was not interpreted by the scholars to mean that you can lie to non-Muslims. This is not the Islamic tradition.
Now people want to suspect everything we are saying, and this is something they are projecting onto Muslims, while we are saying something totally different. The great Islamic tradition is not to lie but to have a sincere dialogue with non-Muslims. Look at the history of Islamic civilisation: where we were dealing with Jews and with Christians, we had interfaith dialogue and positive coexistence, in Andalucia and in many Islamic-majority countries and under the Ottoman Empire.
This is what I ask from a Jew, from a Christian, from an atheist. Don’t try to convert me, just be consistent and bear testimony to your values before me
But in the same way Muslims are saying about the West we cannot trust you because in fact your only friends are your interests,3The allusion is to the famous dictum by the British statesman Lord Palmerston (1784–1865): ‘A nation has no friends, only interests.’ and this is why, for example, you are with Saudi Arabia, whatever the school of thought of Saudi Arabia is, because you are protecting your interests. But when Muslims go against your interests, you just kill them.
So, Muslims should come here with a strong discourse on the Islamic legacy on sincere dialogue. On the other side, it’s important also to ask our fellow citizens in the West, and also the governments, to maintain something that is central for all discussion in the future, and that is consistency. True dialogue can only be based on consistency on both sides. To compare the ideals of Islam with the realities of the West, or the ideals of the West with the realities of Islam, is not consistent: it’s just trying to prove that you are right and the other side is wrong.
Traditionally, Islamic jurisprudence has made a distinction between the dar al-Islam (‘the house of Islam’) and the dar al-harb, ‘the house of war’. As a Muslim who lives outside Muslim territory, what is your opinion on this?
You know, once again the spiritual dimension of Islam is really important, because something I find in the heart of the Islamic tradition is universalism. In what way can I extract from scripture principles that are universal? Love is one principle, but so are justice and equality. And I think we have to bring this [insight] back to the legal field to develop a universalist approach.
When people were looking at their reality during the Middle Ages, they said: ‘OK, there is a space where Muslims are in the majority and are safe and there are other spaces where they are in danger: so this is dar al-Islam and those are dar al-harb. This was a specific historical vision, which was legitimate at that time, maybe, but for me is outdated today. Where are Muslims most safe right now? The reality is that it’s easier to be a Pakistani Muslim in Britain than in Saudi Arabia. So, it’s much more dar al-Islam here than there!
Very often, when I am speaking to Muslims, I say: ‘In this room there are five, ten or fifteen hundred people listening to a talk. This is not possible in the great majority of Arab Islamic countries, because there is no freedom there.’ So, if we assess our situation in terms of the objectives of Shari’a, the way towards God – this is how I translate Shari’a: it is not a set of rules, it is the way to be faithful – I am much more protected here than there. We have to think not just about whether we are in the majority but about consistency with these objectives.
If we still see Europe as dar al-harb, we have literalist Salafis saying, ‘This is not our country. We are here as a minority.’ I think this is all wrong, because now we are living in a globalised world. If we come back to the universal principles of Islam, we will not indulge in a binary vision. I prefer dar ash-shahada, ‘the space of testimony’, which means that whether I’m in London or Cairo or anywhere in this world, the only thing I have to try to do is bear witness to my principles before the people around me.
This is what I am asking from a Jew, I am asking this from a Christian and I am asking this from an atheist. Don’t try to convert me, but just be consistent and bear testimony to your values before me. This is what I am trying to do as a European Muslim. This is what we need today in order to change the world. We should never go back to two spaces.
What kind of relationship do you have with Christians? Often, encounters between Muslims and evangelicals in particular are negative.
I have met many more in South America and Africa than in Geneva, in fact. And it’s not always easy. I have met some who were very open-minded and some who just thought that I’m lost and in the end it’s all about showing me the true way. But in Rio I had a very deep discussion with a group of very active evangelicals and we found that we shared many things. When it comes to practice, there are intersections where we can respect each other and work together. Here we can build bridges.
Both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions; both claim to have God’s final revelation. Doesn’t this put them in competition and ultimately make dialogue and co-operation between them difficult?
Yes. I think it’s true that in both traditions there is this perception that you have to try to convert people. In Islam, we have the concept of da’wa, spreading the message. But my understanding of this is that it is to present the message by being a witness. For me, da’wa has nothing to do with counting converts – but there are Muslims who think like that, I cannot deny it.
I recently spent two months in Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso, and on both sides there was exactly the same attitude, people saying: ‘Our work is really a mission, and the mission is to spread the message, convert’ – sometimes by any means possible. If you can just give bread and people will become Christians or Muslims, this is the right thing to do. I think this is the reality. There is already competition on the ground, and it could be confrontational.
I was speaking about interreligious dialogue and some Muslims said: ‘We don’t want this. You know why? Because they are coming here to convert us.’ Their perception was that Christians are using their poverty to convert them. I said, ‘Yes, but what about Muslims doing exactly the same thing? This is wrong.’ I think we need a very strong discourse to come from the heart of each tradition explaining that we are not trying to convert and are promoting positive coexistence. Not just peaceful coexistence: positive coexistence is proactive, to work together.
We have to acknowledge that some in our religions are doing things that do not represent us. In my book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam,4OUP USA, 2003 I put four conditions for a true interfaith dialogue, and the last one is to be self-critical. In the name of my teachings I should be able to say that it is unacceptable for Muslims to go to poor areas and trade religion for bread.
I suspect that most European Christians would not have a problem with Muslims trying to convert them but would be more concerned about human rights. For example, Muslims can build mosques in Europe, but Christians cannot build a single chapel in Saudi Arabia. Likewise, people are free to convert to Islam here, but in many Muslim countries if someone becomes a Christian they get killed.
Let us take the big picture and then come to this specific question. The big picture is that history can prove anything. You can go to some period and prove that in the name of Islam or in the name of Christianity things were done wrong, and it’s true. In some parts of the Ottoman Empire there was at the same time really positive coexistence and discrimination. Christians had to wear specific dress to show that they were different. And we have to criticise this – this is not the Islamic way. Today, we have to speak about equal citizenship. This is my perception.
But to take such situations and say, ‘Look, we have a problem with Islam’ is not right, because you are pushing Muslims to do exactly the same with the Inquisition. Look what you have done yourselves! If the only way for Christians to live with Muslims is to dominate them or Christianise them, there is no way to dialogue. Both these approaches are wrong. We have to accept that both Muslims and Christians made mistakes in our history. Then let us come to the teachings and ask: What do we want to build now?
As to the idea that we can build mosques here but you cannot build churches: in Egypt, there are more than 3,000 churches today. In Indonesia, you have churches. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s not impossible. And it may be easier to build a mosque here in Britain than in Switzerland, where they are asking the citizens to vote against having a minaret because for some it is a symbol of Muslim imperialism and we cannot have it in a Christian space.
What is the right attitude to this? My position is that everywhere people want to practise a specific religion, they must have the right to do it. It is really important not to make this an object for trade.
OK, but what offends many Christians is when they see Muslims demanding rights they deny to others.
No, they are not the same people, and this is why it’s important not to make human rights an object of trade. Here you have two main principles: freedom of worship and freedom of conscience, and people should have these rights. This is consistency. We have to stick to our principles and not say, ‘We are not going to give you your rights here because we don’t get them there.’
I am against this idea that we need to create a kind of alliance of all the religious traditions to struggle against secularism. I don’t think this is the way
At the end of the day, the great majority of the Muslims here are not responsible for what the dictatorships are doing there. They are all themselves victims of what is going on there – this is why they are here! So, I would say: I am not responsible for this [religious intolerance]. What you can expect of me is to denounce it; but you cannot just deprive me of my rights here because one government is not –
I don’t think you will find that any Christians have argued that Muslims should be denied their rights –
Oh, you have. You have.
Well, most wouldn’t. But what message does it send, for example, when the Saudi ambassador is invited to open a mosque in east London?
I accept that my fellow citizens should ask Muslims, ‘OK, what is your position on Saudi Arabia?’ And we have to speak out, and we have to be critical. I am not talking about Mecca – it would be difficult to get a church in Mecca, because it is considered as a sanctuary, a sacred place. But when Saudi Arabia invites Christians to come to work and then denies them any visibility in the name of one hadith that says there should be no church there, I think it is wrong. It is hypocritical. (This is exactly what we hear in some areas in Zurich, you know? ‘Be Swiss and Muslim, but invisible.’)
My position on apostasy I set out 15 years ago: it is that someone who changes their religion in sincerity should be free, accepted and respected. In the Prophet’s life, there were three situations in which people changed religion sincerely and he never killed them. Otherwise, at that time people who changed religion were traitors in time of war: they were joining the Muslims to gather information and then going back to the enemy. It had nothing to do with a sincere change of religion.
Do you think that Christianity still has any relevance in postmodern society?
Yes. People promoting the Enlightenment say that Christianity has lost in Europe and is no longer in the game. I think this is totally wrong. At the same time, I totally reject the Islamic discourse that agrees that Christianity has lost in Europe and says this is why there is this kind of reaction to Islam and we cannot rely on Christian values. But I am also against this idea that we need now to create a kind of alliance of all the religious traditions to struggle against secularism. I don’t think this is the way.
What is really needed in Europe is a reconciliation between people and their religious memories. There is something here I call ‘religious illiteracy’ – and not only amongst Christians: I think Muslims very often have a knowledge of their religion that is superficial. But (and this is really important) I think that the Christian tradition should be strong, in ethics and spirituality. And Christians too have to ask: What is our response to the new challenges?
Also, my perception is that the fear of the Muslim presence in Europe is greater because Europeans don’t know who they are and they find it scary when they are facing people who, so they perceive, know who they are and have a strong sense of identity and belonging. In fact, the Islamic community is going through a deep identity crisis as well. This encounter of mutual ignorance, and self-ignorance, is very dangerous.
What do you think is your principal contribution to Muslim thought?
For the last 20 years I have been trying to return to the principles, and so maybe it’s to remind Muslims of the essential teachings: the spiritual dimension and the universal dimension. And now in the legal dimension, to push towards what I call ‘the double understanding’, of both the text and the context. But this is not new, in fact: it’s going back to an old tradition, to give it life again, and creativity to deal with new realities and new challenges.
This edit was originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||The Stern Gang and Irgun were Jewish terrorist organisations active in Palestine in the Thirties and Forties.|
|⇑2||The Messenger: The meanings of the life of Muhammad (Allen Lane)|
|⇑3||The allusion is to the famous dictum by the British statesman Lord Palmerston (1784–1865): ‘A nation has no friends, only interests.’|
|⇑4||OUP USA, 2003|
Tariq Ramadan was born in 1962, the son of a prominent figure in the Muslim Brotherhood who had been expelled from Egypt. He studied philosophy and French literature at Geneva University, before completing two doctorates there in philosophy (with a dissertation on Friedrich Nietzsche) and Arabic and Islamic studies. He subsequently received intensive tuition in classic Islamic scholarship at al-Azhar University in Cairo.
For some years, he taught philosophy at the Collège de Saussure, Geneva and was professor of Islamic studies at Fribourg University.
In 2004, he was appointed professor of Islamic studies and Henry R Luce Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the Joan B Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at Notre Dame University in the United States, but resigned after his visa to that country was revoked.
Since 2005, he has been a senior research fellow at the Lokahi Foundation in London. He was a visiting fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford in 2005/6 and was then elected to a two-year research fellowship in its European Studies Centre and Middle East Centre. He lectures extensively around the world.
He is president of the Brussels-based thinktank the European Muslim Network and has contributed to the Deutsche Orient-Institut, the Vienna Peace Summit, the 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona and the French Educational League’s commission on secularism and Islam. He also sits on a British government taskforce on Islam and Britain.
He is the author of many books, including To Be a European Muslim (1998), Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity (2000), Jihad, Violence, War and Peace in Islam (2002), Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (2003), Globalisation: Muslim resistances and Muslims in France: The way towards coexistence (both 2004) and The Messenger (2007).
He has contributed over 850 articles, reviews and chapters to various magazines and books, and tens of thousands of cassettes of his sermons and lectures are sold each year in France alone.
He has two sons and two daughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 December 2006