Monday, February 8, 2010

Tariq Ramadan: What I Believe

I suspect, although of course there is no way of knowing, that one of the reasons Tariq Ramadan published his small book "What I Believe" towards the end of 2009 was to get his visa refusal to the United States overturned. If so, he was spectacularly successful; on January 20, 2010, Secretary of State Clinton exercised her "exemption authority" to allow him to re-enter the country for the first time since his visa was revoked in 2004 only a few days before he was scheduled to begin teaching at the University of Notre Dame.

In his new book, Tariq says about the initial refusal, "After I waited for two years and initiated a lawsuit to find out the reason my visa had been revoked, the Department of Homeland Security claimed that I had given money to a Palestinian organization while I "should reasonably have known" that this organization "had links with the terrorist movement Hamas". Yet, not only is this organization not blacklisted - to this day - anywhere in Europe (where I live), but I gave about 700 euros to this organization between 1998 and 2002, a year before it was blacklisted in the United States. Thus I "should reasonably have known" a year before the Department of Homeland Security itself that it was going to be suspected! This is all the more ludicrous when one learns that such ridiculous and arbitrary decisions are retroactive! It should be added that 80 percent of the questions I had to answer during my two interviews at the U.S. embassy in Switzerland were about my positions over the war in Iraq and the Palestinian resistance. I repeated that such resistance is legitimate even though I disagree with the means used (killing innocents cannot be justified)."

As with everthing Tariq says and writes, his words need to be weighed carefully. Did he know the organization had links to Hamas? We don't know. Did he give money to this organization because he wanted it to go to Hamas? We don't know that either. Even if he answered "No" to both of these questions, would he be telling the truth? Again, we don't know.

If Tariq's rendition of the incident is true (there is always a second side to the story), it is possible that the revoking of his visa was an overreaction by the DHS during the tumultous years following 9/11, and that the lifting of the ban by Secretary Clinton was justified. To be honest, I don't have more of a problem with Tariq Ramadan teaching at an American university than I do with hundreds of other professors who are much like him. The only difference between him and them is that he is perhaps more charasmatic, more articulate, better known, and more polished in his presentation. My problem is with the propagandized view they present of Islam, and the fact that non-Muslim Americans are unwilling to study Islam objectively and seriously enough to know when scholars like Tariq are giving an dishonest analysis of Islam.

As I read Tariq's "What I Believe", as well as his "In The Footsteps of the Prophet - Lessons from the Life of Muhammad", it took me back 30 years when I was sitting in the classrooms of Dr. Ismail al-Faruqi and Dr. Sayyid Husayn Nasr. I am now more aware of things that escaped me then when I was a student at Temple University. I realize now that Tariq, as well as my Muslim professors then and many others, are born into a social and religious environment that sees Muhammad as not only the best of all Prophets but also the best person who has ever lived, the Quran as the best of all books, and Islam as the best of all religions.

As I read the life of Muhammad in the original sources, I see him as someone who cannot be defended as a Prophet of God. Tariq Ramadan and other writers read those same texts through an entirely different prism. Because they begin with the presupposition that their Prophet is exemplary in every way, they interpret the events in his life to fit the model they already hold of him. The result is that as I read their presentation of these events, I am astonished at what is to me duplicity and manipulation but to them is...well, I'm not sure. It's a question they need to answer.

"In the Footsteps of the Prophet" is a devotional biography of Muhammad. The only way to read it critically is with the book in one hand and the English translation of the same book Tariq used for his source material in the other, Guillaume's translation of the life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq. Actually there is an alternative to Guillaume's 800 page classic; here you can purchase a highly readable 160 summary of Guillaume's translation entitled Muhammad and the Unbelievers.

I noted here that Tariq's account of Abu Bakr's "buying slaves and setting them free in the name of Islam's principles stressing the equality of all human beings" is quite different from the source material where Abu Bakr merely exchanged his own non-Muslim slaves for the Muslim slaves of others.

"In the Footsteps of the Prophet" continues with strategic changes of vocabulary and omissions of details to present a better image of Muhammad than the much more realistic presentation of his original biography. In discussing Muhammad's "night journey" Tariq assumes that the Prophet was miraculously taken to "The Farthest Mosque" in Jerusalem, even though the Quran never mentions Jerusalem, there was no mosque there at the time, and there is historical evidence that Muhammad's night journey was in fact to a mosque located a few miles outside of Mecca.

While writing of Muhammad's marriage with Aishah, Tariq notes that she "officially became Muhammad's second wife" when she was six years old, "though the union would not be consummated for several years." "Several years" sounds a lot better than "three" - Aishah was a child of nine when Muhammad first had sex with her.

It is when recounting Muhammad's relationship with the three major Jewish tribes of Medina that Tariq is the most careful to present a rendering of events much different than they are given in the original sources. Following Muhamad's unexpected victory over his Quraysh enemies from Mecca at the battle of Badr, Tariq says Muhammad visited the first tribe, the Banu Qaynuqa who were the only tribe to actually live inside the city, "and invited them to ponder the Quraysh's defeat".

Ibn Ishaq describes the same visit a little differently. The actual text is, "The apostle assembled the Banu Qaynaqa in their market and addressed them as follows: O Jews, beware lest God bring upon you the vengeance that he brought upon Quraysh and become Muslims. You know that I am a prophet who has been sent - you will find that in your scriptures and God's covenant with you."

Ibn Ishaq adds that Quran 3:10-13, a passage claiming that the victory of the Muslims over the Quraysh was a sign for the Jews that their property and their families would not avail them from Allah's wrath and the Fires of Hell if they did not accept Muhammad as their Prophet, was given at this time.

Muhammad's banishment of this tribe, as well as the expulsion of the second and the beheading of the third, is again presented by Tariq in vocabulary much different than the original texts. Concerning the fate of the Beni Qaynuqa, Ibn Ishaq writes, "The apostle went out to the market of Medina and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for the Jewish males (from the age of puberty onward) and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out ot him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah, Huyay (whose daughter Muhammad later "married") and Kab ibn Asad their chief. As they were being taken out in batches to the apostle, they asked Kab what he thought would be done with them. He replied, "Don't you understand? Don't you see that the summoner never stops and those who are taken away do not return. By Allah, it will be death!" This went on until the apostle made an end to them.

How does Tariq recount the same story? After describing how Muhammad's previous "mercy" to his Jewish captives in allowing them to merely be banished was sending a message of weakness to his opponents, Tariq notes that Muhammad's associate Ibn Muadh judged that the men "were to be executed while the women and children were to be considered as war captives. Muhammad accepted the sentence, which was carried out during the following days". There is no mention of hundreds beheaded, and certainly no acknowledgement that the fate of these three formerly prosperous Jewish tribes who had lived in Medina for hundreds of years was determined simply by their refusal to accept Muhammad for the prophet he claimed to be.

As I commented earlier, I don't really have a problem with Tariq Ramadan being allowed back into the United States and potentially being granted a professorship at one of our leading universities. His message will be the same as hundreds of other professors already there. My problem is with the rest of us - Americans who are unwilling to take the time to read, study, and recognize when Tariq and others like him are not quite giving us the straight bill of goods.


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