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Reviewed by:
  • Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation
  • John Voll (bio)
Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation, by Tariq Ramadan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ix + 322 pages. Notes to p. 357. Gloss. to p. 364. Index to p. 372. $29.95.

Contemporary intellectuals are engaged in dynamic redefinitions of faith and religion. The debates go beyond the shallow arguments in best-selling books about whether or not "religion" is "bad." Much of the in-depth analysis of religious issues is not simply giving new answers to old questions; it is asserting that the old basic questions need to be replaced by new questions before answers effective for the contemporary age can be formulated. A number of Muslim thinkers are making important contributions to these discussions, and among the most prominent is Tariq Ramadan, who defines these new questions clearly in this book.

Ramadan argues that the longstanding [End Page 517] Islamic concepts of renewal (tajdid) and reform (islah) must be reconsidered, and that the old styles of "adaptation reform" need to be transcended by "transformation reform" (p. 3). This transformation involves a reconsideration of the methods of interpretation of the sources and fundamentals developed by Muslim scholars over the centuries. In his broad conclusion, Ramadan argues that Muslims' "relationship to the texts [revealed scriptures] and to the Universe [the physical Cosmos as divine revelation] must be revisited: we are faced with two Revelations that need to be read and understood in parallel" (p. 315).

The analysis begins with a discussion of the evolving conceptualizations of renewal (Chapters one and two), arguing that old reforms that adapted to existing contexts are now inadequate. The new reform requires the expertise of both the "text specialists" and scholars in the natural and social sciences.

In the five chapters of Part two, Ramadan presents the established approaches in the scholarship of the fundamentals of law (usul al-fiqh). This discipline developed utilizing the deductive methods of al-Shafi'i (Chapter three) and then the more inductive approaches of scholars in the Hanafi school (Chapter four). This broad tradition of scholarship later produced a new approach culminating in the scholarship of al-Shatibi (d. 1388), which emphasized the higher objectives (maqasid) of law (Chapters five and six).

In Part three, Ramadan presents his alternative "geography of the sources of law," in which he argues that the "Universe, the social and human context, has never been considered as a self-standing source of law and of its production," but the conditions of contemporary times require "acknowledging that the world, its laws, and areas of specialized knowledge not only shed light on scriptural sources but also constitute a source of law on their own" (pp. 82-83). In this framework, there are two corresponding Revelations (Chapter seven). This reality requires a holistic approach to law and ethics which does not simply adapt to the contexts of modernity but, in fact, has the capacity to transform the world (Chapters eight and nine). In Chapter ten, Ramadan presents his vision of "applied Islamic ethics" in which the effort is to create a holistic ethic to be articulated jointly by experts in the text sciences and in the "context sciences." This effort strives "to remain faithful to a religious tradition at the heart of the modern era while opening a dialogue about values … shared between civilizations" (p.146).

This book suggests "a new methodology that precisely aims to enable fuqaha' and scientists [i.e., 'text scientists' and 'context scientists'] to work together" (p. 158). In the final section of the book, Ramadan introduces six fields where his new approach can be applied. The discussion of medical sciences (Chapter eleven) sets the tone. The goal "is not to define the outline of an 'Islamic medicine';" rather, the goal is to establish "the objectives of Islamic ethics relative to the health of the heart and body" (p. 161). Other fields discussed in separate chapters are culture and the arts, gender issues, ecology and economy, society and power, and particular-universal relations. The conclusion provides a helpful synthesis of the wide-ranging analyses in this complex and important book.

Ramadan addresses one of the major challenges of the modern era, defining...


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