This is a long over due review of a lecturer given by Prof. Tariq Ramadan in memory of the great Muslim writer and revivalist thinker, the late Muhammad Asad. The lecture was part of a two-day program organised jointly by the Islamic Book Trust and the Islamic Renaissance Front, to celebrate the contributions of Muhammad Asad to modern Islamic thought and to launch the operations of the Islamic Renaissance Front.
The event consisted of two lectures, one delivered by Prof. Tan Sri Muhammad Kamal Hassan, former rector of International Islamic University Malaysia, and the other by Prof. Tariq Ramadan.
Prof. Kamal Hassan stated in his speech that the biggest contribution made by the late Muhammad Asad to the Islamic revival and reform movement was to present what he called the Islamic world view: the perspective from which Islam viewed, and dealt with, human existence. He stated that this is one of the ideas that he learned from his meeting with Mohamed Iqbal during his trip to Pakistan. This idea he developed further and passed on to the likes of Syed Abul Ala Maududi and Syed Qutub.
He illustrated this with excerpts from various writings of Muhammad Asad including his Road to Mecca, Islam at the Crossroads, and The Message of the Quran.
He read out excerpts from Islam at the Crossroads, in which the late Muhammad Asad warned Muslims against blindly following western ideas. Muhammad Asad also highlighted the unity of the physical and the spiritual, which he considered a central and integral part the Islamic world view, and illustrated it with the Muslim form of prayer, the Salat.
Prof. Kamal also read out excerpts from the Road to Mecca, a book which highlights the Islamic world view as it was seen with the eyes of Muhammad Asad before he embraced Islam; the eyes of Leopold Weiss. He read out one special excerpt, which, for me, emphasized the late Muhammad Asad's ability to differentiate between Muslims and their behavior, and Islam. It reads, '... the decline of the Muslims was not due to any shortcomings in Islam, but rather in their own failure to live up to it.'
Prof. Kamal next moved on to The Message of the Quran, a translation of the meanings of the Quran and a brief commentary on it, also authored by the late Muhammad Asad. He stated that for him Muhammad Asad's commentary is the Yin to the Yen of Abdullah Yusuf Ali's commentary on the Quran.
I found Prof. Kamal's lecture very useful and informative in the sense that he gave the audience a beginner's guide to Muhammad Asad's writings. It gave me personally a brief idea of what to expect when I read Muhammad Asad. I have already read his Roaf to Mecca and Islam at the Crossroads; but I think if I were to read them again, I would be more able to comprehend his opinions and more capable of relating to his thoughts.
The second lecture was given by Prof. Tariq Ramadan. My own introduction to Prof. Tariq Ramadan was in 2005, when he made his controversial call for an international moratorium on the implementation of Hudud. Prof. Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Imam Hasan Al-Banna, founder of the Islamic Brotherhood movement in Egypt. He is a reformist Muslim thinker who encourages debate, and who has received criticism from both within and without the Islamic thinkers' society. He is one of the most rightful people to give a speech in memory of the late Muhammad Asad, as he is a European Muslim who understood where Muhammad Asad, and his thoughts, came from, and he has had the great privilege of meeting and learning from the West's Gift to Islam.
In his lecture, Prof. Tariq pointed to the attitude many Muslims had towards open discussions and debates. He stated that this was one of the challenges faced by the late Muhammad Asad in that when other Muslims agreed with his views they would celebrate him, but when they disagreed they would say, 'Don't forget in end that he was a Jew. Beware!' He stressed that this kind of attitude of attacking a person's personage when disagreeing with his views is not one encouraged by Islam. He stated that Muhammad Asad was a Muslim who greatly opposed Zionism, and at the same time kept his Jewish roots in tact, and this was not something a Muslim cannot do: Islam does not sanction any kind of anti-Semitism.
Prof. Tariq highlighted the important role played by Muhammad Asad's chosen career before his Islam, journalism, in his discovery of Islam within the greatly deviated practices of Muslims. Muhammad Asad traveled among Muslim countries of Palestine, Syria, Iraq, etc. before he became Muslim, and he touched the seed of Islam in their acts although he knew they were a long way from its spirit.
He agreed with Prof. Kamal Hassan's statement that one of the greatest contributions of the late Muhammad Asad was his presentation of the Islamic world view. He stated, however, that the roots of this idea can be seen even earlier than the times of Iqbal, in the writings of Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani. Prof. Tariq stated that Muhammad Asad developed the Islamic world view based on two things: Going back to the text, and reshaping the terminology used in Islamic discourse.
Prof. Tariq elaborated on how the late Muhammad Asad used critical thinking and analysis in order to free the primary texts of Islam, the Qur'an and the Sunnah, from traditional and customary additions. He stated that he did so in order to free Islamic thought, not only from the colonization by the dominant western powers, but also the colonization by the traditions and customs of the Muslims themselves. He stated that Muhammad Asad recognized the importance of having sufficient knowledge of the Arabic language in order to accomplish this task, and mastered Arabic in a way that few Arab-speakers have mastered it in our time.
He then gave a brief insight into the way Muhammad Asad reshaped Islamic discourse. He illustrated how he himself has moved along the lines of Muhammad Asad's thought and translated 'Islam' differently from the traditional translation, 'submission'. He stated that he did so because submission in the west is an act done without thinking or rationalization, without the use of logic, and this is in complete contradiction with the true meaning of Islam. He translated Islam as 'Entering God's Peace'.
Prof. Tariq spoke further of the late Muhammad Asad's views on the relationship between the West and Islam. He stated that Muhammad Asad spoke of this relationship in a psychoanalytic manner. Muhammad Asad said once, he said, that the West's relationship with Islam was shaped by a trauma it suffered some time in its history. Prof. Tariq stated that while the trauma analogy is true with regards to the West, after the period of colonization, it is equally true with regards to Muslim societies.
Prof. Tariq then spoke fondly of the last few years of Muhammad Asad's life. He emphasized the importance of the last few years of a person's life when studying his contributions. He stated that in the last years of his life, Muhammad Asad tried to look back to his life and to his work and questioned whether he took the right steps; whether he had made the wrong moves.
In the end, Prof. Tariq, stated the main contribution made by the late Muhammad Asad was a methodology with with to revive and reform Islamic discourse. It is not necessary for us to agree with his findings, but we must appreciate his contribution.
Prof. Tariq Ramadan's lecture was a personal beacon for me, as a student of Islamic studies. It was a summary - a rather brief one, given the time frame - , of the life and the work of Muhammad Asad.
After the lectures, the floor was opened to the audience to ask questions based on the lectures.
One question that was asked by a young Syrian residing in Malaysia was, what the true understanding of Ummah was.
In answer, Prof. Tariq warned against romanticizing the concept Ummah. Ummah, he explained, is not a physical community; Ummah is a spiritual concept of community baed on a principle. What binds Muslims together is Allah. The commitment to the Ummah that must be made by all Muslims should be based on the Prophets advice to aid your Muslim brother when he is the oppressor by preventing him.
Prof. Tariq stated that the concept of Ummah is now being used as a way to be 'united against'. He stated that in reality the concept of Ummah should not unite Muslims against, but rather for; it should unite Muslims for the principles on which the Ummah is based.
Another question that was posed to the speakers by a Malaysian girl was on how Muslim youth can break free from the tribal traditional thinking and move to the scientific logical thinking.
Prof. Tariq replied that the division of knowledge into logical and traditional is something the Islamic reformist movement has had to deal with. He stated that in Islam, there is no secular science. He stated that all knowledge is Islamic in essence; knowledge, in Islam, is the means towards ethical ends. Similarly, reason is a means towards an ethical end. It was one of the main beliefs of Muhammad Asad that one of the great gift Islam can give the West is the ethical perspective of the material discoveries of western scientists.
Prof. Tariq also commented on the different levels of understanding the Quranic text. He stated that the spiritual understanding gained by the Recitation of the Quran is one that is achievable to everyone. The stories that come in the Quran in the meanwhile act as mirrors in which a person can view his own reflection. On the other hand, he warned against what he called the democratization of the depriving of Ahkam from the Quranic text and Prophetic tradition.
I also got the opportunity to pose a question to the panel. I asked a question that I thought was relevant to all my friends and classmates. We're at a stage which marks the end of our journey as learners, and start another journey as contributors. When we leave our classrooms and go out to the community, we're pulled towards two extremes: one of conservative traditionalism, another of secular modernism. My question was how and where we can find the right balance and contribute towards the development of our societies without uprooting ourselves from our Islamic traditions.
This question was echoed by another member of the audience, our own beloved Prof. Arif Zakaullah of the International Islamic University Malaysia. He asked how the Islamic world view can be ingrained in the minds of the younger society.
Prof. Kamal answered this question, and stated that the concept of 'Wasatiyya' or moderation is greatly emphasized in both the Quran and the Sunnah. He stated that it is important, in the end for this concept to be institutionalized into the education system.