Event Review: Religious Ethic in Post-Modern Society by Prof Tariq Ramadan
In the full-house and overflowing Singapore Islamic Hub (SIH) Auditorium (the audience spilled out the doors!), Dr Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, expounded and clarified on the necessity of an ethical framework that is contextualised in accordance to contemporary times and with guidance from the Qur’an and Sunnah. The renowned professor was invited to deliver a public lecture on the above topic – “Religious Ethic in Post-Modern Society”.
More than 400 people from various walks of society attended the public lecture co-organised by MUIS Academy and Research Center for Islamic Legislation and Ethics (CILE). Mufti Dr Mohamed Fatris Bakaram and MUIS president Haji Mohd Alami Musa were also present at the lecture.
“Muslims and other people of faith are facing critical times if we can sit in this room and blame the scholars for not doing their jobs,” began Dr Tariq Ramadan as he addressed the situation of spectator-believers who continuously fault Islamic scholars for not being efficient, relevant and effective in handling contemporary issues in the modern world.
“There is another way of looking at the situation if you are an ordinary Muslim, or if you are a believer, because you understand that at the end of the day, the leadership of a faith is very much based on the way the followers are involved in the discussion (in handling contemporary issues),” he continued. These critical discussions, frequently mentioned by Dr Tariq, require to the right questions which can come from the followers.
With the advent of science and technology, the world can seek knowledge as much as and as far as they want and can. Just like the popular saying (i.e. “knowledge is power”), he asserts that the knowledge that we now possess has the potential to cause both beneficial and destructive effects to the world.
Therefore, Dr Tariq Ramadan (and Spiderman) reminds us that with great power, comes great responsibility.
“We can go ahead and get knowledge wherever we want around the world but at the end of the day, we are personally responsible for this knowledge and to be involved in this discussion. And we need to be involved with the ulama and the scholars of the text – the people who have studied the Quran wa Sunnah to ask the Questions, share the knowledge and have something that has better involvement in the critical discussion.“
He spoke at length on the absolute need for both Islamic scholars and specialists from all fields and disciplines (such as education, psychology and bio-medicine) to come together to discuss on the challenges of the modern world.
In addition, these specialists may also include non-Muslims. People of other faiths have to be brought into the discussion so that we may learn from one another about the answers and knowledge taught by their faiths. The knowledge can be used to ask the good questions (required in a critical discussion) – to help everyone to come with the right answers in handling the challenges in a contemporary society.
“They come together to work on a better understanding of what are the challenges ahead when it comes to knowledge and to produce something which is an Islamic understanding on what are the limits,” he explained.
Dr Tariq humorously described “post-modernism” as being indefinable in terms of post-modernist view. The post-modernist view, he clarified, is founded on the principles of deconstructing labels and assuming that every fact is relative to the other. The concept of relativity can be problematic in determining morality, or ethics – what is right and wrong.
He then expounded on the three important things in our world today:
- The role of reason
Reason serves as a parameter for defining the right and the wrong, and more importantly, the truth.
According to the post-modernist world view, there is not just one truth in this world. Instead, the truth is always relative to another. The relativeness offered by this philosophical viewpoint, proposed that there are no real truths. Instead, the truth that we have accepted, and believed, is based on our human capacity to choose.
This choice, according to Dr Tariq, must be based on reason because the human reason is the only means by which humans choose and decide.
- Religious viewpoint
However, as believers, we know that “there is one truth and the first truth is God.” This religious viewpoint is a challenge to the post-modern approach which insists that everything is relative.
Addressing the concept of relativity of truth, Dr Tariq Ramadan posed the following questions:
- If everything is relative, how are we to know how we should behave?
- Then, what are the principles of behaviour if there is no truth?
Using the example of Dostoyevsky (who famously said, “If God does not exist, everything is possible”), Dr Tariq explained that if there is no God or a spiritual or transcendental meaning to life, human behaviour will be limitless. There will be no moral parameters to guide individual behaviour in life.
- Ethics/Morality – what is good and what is bad
Academics have long debated on the source of morality – if there is a natural moral standard that is inner to our being. They are split into two camps: nature and nurture. The former contends that morality or ethics is inherent in human beings while the latter believes that morality is the result of socialisation.
In the discussion on the source of morality, Dr Tariq used the example of the philosopher Nietzsche who once said that god is dead. In reference to the issue about the source of morality, Nietzsche had asked, “Why is it not right to say that lying is good?”
- What is the source of your behaviour
Dr Tariq Ramadan outlined 3 possible sources of behaviour:
- God: He is expecting this behaviour from me
- Nature: the intrinsic human nature to want to know the meaning of life – religion
- Reason: produce our reason and rationalisation for our behaviour
As Muslims, we, of course, take God as our first source of behaviour by using the Qur’an and the Sunnah.
- Rationality (our mind)
All of mankind is created with fitrah: a natural yearning for the truth. We are all created with a direction already given by Allah SWT. By studying and analysing the situation in front of us, our mind can produce the appropriate behaviour for the situation.
These three things aid us in seeking the answer to the one important question in life – “Why this life?” By asking about the meaning of life, we are challenging the approaches of post-modernism.
Ethics, however does not deal with this big “Why” in life. Instead, it deals with the smaller “why” – the how.
- How does my body work?
- How do plants breathe?
Ethics questions the objectives and motives behind the need to know the how. We are able to seek knowledge to such a level that we have become obsessed about wanting to know. We need to ask ourselves, “What is our objective for achieving that level of knowledge? Why do we want to know what we want to know?”
In Islamic tradition, we are encouraged from Sunnah to make supplication before studying or learning:
“اللَّهُمَّ إنِّي أَسْأَلُكَ عِلْماً نَافِعاً، وَرِزقاً طَيِّباً، وَعَمَلاً مُتَقَبَّلاً”
O Allah, I ask You for knowledge that is of benefit, a good provision, and deeds that will be accepted. (Ibn Majah)
A knowledge’s usefulness is based on these three things:
- It encourages and aids us in loving the Creator and respecting the creator;
- It encourages respect of His Creation
- It allows us to remain dignified
These are the three basic principles in determining the usefulness of the knowledge obtained.
“Islam VS Science” Does Not Exist
Dr Tariq also discussed the non-existent resistance between Islam and the Sciences as oppose to the post-modern supposed dichotomy of religion and reason. Islam has never resisted the Sciences. In fact, Allah encourages seeking knowledge in the world. As in the Quran, “(Yes, the same that) has made for you the earth (like a carpet) spread out, and has made for you roads (and channels) therein, in order that you may find guidance (on the way)” (43:10).
The separation of the sciences and religion has led to the misunderstanding that the Sciences have to be void of religious elements. This leads to the evident lack of religious ethics in the application of the sciences.
To illustrate this, Dr Tariq briefly touched upon the act of euthanasia. Euthanasia is offered as an option to patients, their doctors and family members as way to ease or end the patients’ suffering. Already, there are human rights and religious debates with regards to the matter. For Islamic scholars who are to issue a fatwa on euthanasia, they require the definition of life and death, which can be obtained from bio-medical specialists.
Ethical answers have to be found so that the world does not destroy itself in the quest for knowledge.
There are four principles in the secular framework for formulating ethics.
- Deal with an autonomous human being
- No maleficence
- Looking for beneficence
These four principles already come from the human intellect. However, it neglects to address the issue of motives behind an individual’s involvement
In the changing times of society, Islamic scholars should avoid giving simplistic answers to complex question. We ought to move away from old parameters of society because they may be no longer relevant.
Dr Tariq Ramadan urges Islamic scholars to come together with specialists coming from other fields to issue ethical answers for contemporary challenges in the world. These ethical answers are very much needed so that we do not destroy the world and instead do good on it and for it.
If we refer back to the Qur’an, with regards to the creation of Man on earth:
“Behold, your Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Will You place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- while we do celebrate Your praises and glorify Your holy (name)?” He said: “I know what you know not.” (2:30)
Islam and the sciences cannot be separated. According to Dr Tariq, Muslims should continue reading and learning from the Quran and Sunnah, and from individuals of other fields. We must continue to grow and apply our minds and not remain in isolation, away from the realities of societies.
Question & Answer
There were many gems among the question and answer session that followed. Here are some of the answers that I managed to capture.
The first questioner asked how discussion between Islamic scholars and experts in other fields should be held. She also asked about the objectivity of the scholar when he consults and work together with a secular expert.
Dr Tariq Ramadan used the CILE, where he is director, as an example of a possible discussion between Islamic scholars and specialists. Scholars of the text and specialists will come together for 3 days in closed seminars to answer 2 very specific questions. The purpose of the collaboration is to have them thinking about these issues critically with the knowledge they possess.
For instance, a non-Muslim specialist may introduce and explain the principles of the secular frame of reference for a particular field of study. There is nary a framework from the Islamic viewpoint. Therefore, it is hoped that such discussions can produce a result that will provide a direction from which we can work with or from.
The second questioner asked about Muslim community’s take and his personal opinion on family planning.
The professor answered that just as in Christian community; there is a polarisation of viewpoints on family planning. For mainstream Muslims, there is no issue at all with family planning. The fatwas or legal opinions made on the matter, are made in context of the society itself. It is made according to the needs of the society so that it will not self-destruct.
However, he pointed out that some governments in some parts of the world have taken to using family planning as a form of dominion and control. In one case, the poor, who were given welfare by the state, was asked to have fewer children. The objective of this directive was to prevent the spread of wealth and preserving the status and privilege of the rich.
As he had mentioned earlier, we must always assess our objectives and motives for acquiring knowledge and applying it in order to ascertain whether it is ethical or otherwise.
Another asked about the relevance of philosophy in Muslim learning.
Dr Tariq asserted that Muslim world will have to reconcile with philosophy because it starts with asking the right questions about life. An Islamic scholar should not only talk about the Qur’an and the Sunnah. As Muslims, we should have confidence in our faith to speak about everything and not shy away from ‘secular’ subjects.
Philosophy can be a means of thinking critically so as to achieve a deeper faith with a sharper mind.
Quoting Abu Hamid al-Ghazali,“The intellect is an inward revelation.” It is not wrong to critically think about the world. Our rationality will not act against our belief if we act with the sharpness of mind. If we have confidence in our faith, our rationality will bring us to the conclusion that will be supported by our faith. However, there are limits to rational thinking. To ignore it is to show arrogance and to accept it is to show intellectual humility.
Methods to Achieving the Freedom of Mind
Finally, someone asked on how we can free ourselves from our current situation and mindset.
Dr Tariq asserted that we have to start with ourselves on our own accord immediately. Our state of freedom is very much linked to the autonomy of our minds. Quoting from the Seerah, the Prophet SAW taught his followers not to think like him. Instead, he taught them to think without him. After his passing, the Sahabahs were able to continue and advance Muslim progress by being able to think critically.
He then put forth the method to achieving the freedom of mind.
- Reconcile yourself with reading.
There is no freedom without reading books. Internet sites such as Facebook and Youtube are virtual jails for minds – inhibiting critical thinking.
- Have discussions around books.
Through book discussions, you will be able to see how in-depth you have gone into your reading of the knowledge and arguments presented in the book. Such discussions promote critical thinking, which will eventually lead to the autonomy of your mind.
However, when studying the book, you should not attempt to discuss more than five points before fully understanding them. In the time of the Prophet, when the revelation was revealed, the Sahabahs were not allowed to learn more than 5 verses of the Qur’an until they have learnt them by heart.
Aishah is a fourth year Sociology undergraduate at Nanyang Technological University who enjoys reading, and letting her mind wander. She talks to herself a lot… allegedly.