Tariq Ramadan's audiences are famously diverse. Those who hang on the Swiss Islamic reformer's every word include college-going Muslim men and women; policymakers and think-tankers in cities such as London and Washington, even the very authoritarian governments in the middle east from where Ramadan is mostly banned.Ehsan Masood is a writer and journalist based in London. He writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and teaches international science policy at Imperial College London on BBC Radio 4 based on the book. For details, click here
His most recent book is Science and Islam: A History ( Icon, 2009). He presented a three-part series
He is the editor of Dry: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press, 2006) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press, 2006). He is the author of British Muslims: Media Guide (British Council / Association of Muslim Social Scientists, (2007)
Also by Ehsan Masood in openDemocracy:
"The Hizb-ut-Tahrir equation" (11 August 2005)
"British Muslims must stop the war" (30 August 2005)
"The globalisation of Islamic Relief" (29 November 2005)
"Why the poorest countries need a WTO" (13 December 2005)
"The aid business: phantoms and realities" (5 July 2006)
"Africans and climate change" (7 February 2007)
"Muslims and multiculturalism: lessons from Canada" (7 March 2007)
"A German vision: greening globalisation" (28 March 2007)
"Pakistan: the army as the state" (12 April 2007)
"The wages of punditry" (30 April 2007)
Each of these constituencies will be delving into Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation,a long awaited volume and Ramadan's first scholarly-focused book since his move to St Antony's College, Oxford University. It is ambitious and broad in what it wants to achieve. At times it is highly accessible and at other times technical.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part takes the reader through the history of reform in Islam's first few centuries. Reform is often seen as a post-colonial project. But the early chapters in his book demonstrate that calls for change within Islam have a much older history. In the later chapters Ramadan sets out his own thinking on how an Islamic ethics could apply to modern innovation.
He recognises that the majority of Islamic scholars have little or no training in science or in areas such as bioethics or environmental affairs. He wants them to brush up on advances in modern biology. And he wants them to knock on the doors of ethics committees and make their voices heard alongside other faiths in public debates on science and the environment. He is particularly angry that the states and citizens of Islamic countries have done so little on climate change. Until relatively recently, for example, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were solidly behind the United States in questioning a human fingerprint in global warming.
More surprisingly, however, Ramadan comes down hard on the global Islamic finance industry. This is unexpected because Islamic finance is widely regarded as a rare successful example of the application of Islamic innovation to modern life. Ramadan, however, thinks the industry is not radical enough: he challenges its architects to be bolder and think about whether Islamic ethics in finance has a role, not just to provide interest-free home loans, but in shaping the world's financial architecture.
A space for influence
Tariq Ramadan often tells his many audiences not to lose sight of context when interpreting religious texts. But more context is the one thing that this book could have benefited from - especially in the later chapters.
Cutting-edge innovation in Islamic societies may not be on the scale found in developed societies, and it may not always be inspired by the practice of Islam. It is often an organic, demand-led, bottom-up process. And once in a while, it is world-class. But reading Radical Reform, you get no sense of this. Nor do you get a sense of the multidimensional nature of the practice and study of ethics in Islamic societies today.
It is correct to say that bioethics is a relatively weak field of study and practice in the Islamic world, when compared with more developed countries. But in many countries, universities, government ministries, councils of Islamic scholars and teaching hospitals are alive with debate and discussion. This will increase as spending on science goes up and as governance and regulatory systems become more sophisticated.
At the same time Ramadan ought to have given some credit to the immense activity in the Islamic world - including scholarly literature and policy-thinking - on how to alleviate poverty. The scale of activity on the ground makes sense because countries with large Muslim populations are also among the world's poorest. And a few ideas have truly been world-changing. Microfinance schemes, such as the Grameen Bank, as well as the Human Development Index, which measures quality of life, were developed by individuals (Muhammad Yunus and Mahbub ul Haq respectively) with roots in the Islamic world.
That said, Radical Reform is all set to become an influential text - even if the ideas it contains do not contain any huge leaps of the imagination, nor great shifting paradigms. It is a book of instruction intended at audiences who are looking for a scholarly steer in their lives.
Early Islamic history has no shortage of truly radical reformers. The problem is that their work is largely forgotten. By contrast, reformers who adopted a more incrementalist approach have had a longer shelf-life and more of an impact on mainstream communities. That is the space Tariq Ramadan wants to occupy.