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Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet

May 26, 2009

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Front_Cover_PreviewTariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad is a perfect model for what scholarship in the disciplines of religion or history should not be.

It is passed off as a scholarly biography of Muhammad, and it is lent credibility by the fact that it is published by Oxford University Press. Unfortunately, however, it has all the sophistication of the lowest level of propaganda and employs innumerable anacrhonisms.

Here are just a few concerns I had with the book:

First, the book achieves zero critical distance. The author does not hesitate to use language like “God spoke to Muhammad, saying ….” Such claims have no place in academic work.

Second, the author suggests over and over again that Muslims worship the same god as Jews in Christians. How would he know? How does he know that there aren’t three different gods? Or one god and two idols? Or no gods at all.

Third, the previous point is enlisted in support of some sort of implicit argument for religious tolerance among “religions of the book,” as if that was what Muhammad (or Allah) wanted all along. Another part of this implicit argument are claims about how “God alone has the power to guide hearts”—apparently meaning that forced conversion is impossible. Ramadan writes, “when it comes to conversion, the heart’s dispositions, faith, and love, there is no logic.” This is an anachronistic projection of modern liberal enlightenment ways of thinking back into the 7th century.

Fourth, the author also uses the vague language of “spirituality” in ways that make sense in a modern liberal enlightenment way of thinking, but which is anachronistic when used to understand the thoughts of people in the 7th century.

Last, the purpose of every section is, apparently, to have some sort of superficial, Aesop’s fables type of moral of the story. For example, while we can no longer participate in the original hijrah from Mecca to Medina,

what remains, and is open to everyone through the ages and for eternity, is the experience of spiritual exile, which brings the individual back to him- or herself and frees him or her from the illusions of self and of the world. Exile for the sake of God is in essence a series of questions that God asks each individual being: Who are you? What is the meaning of your life? Where are you going? Accepting the risk of such an exile, trusting the One, is to answer: Through You, I return to myself and I am free.

Any first-year master’s student with a single historiography course under her belt could tell you what is wrong with this. But since I can’t help myself, I’ll say what I think is wrong with it:

  • the language of “spirituality” is anachronistic
  • the language of “illusions of self” is anachronistic
  • the language of the “meaning of life” is anachronistic
  • the author says that turning to his god is the answer to all existentialist questions

This book is propaganda, not scholarship. Oxford University Press should be ashamed of itself.

If you want a scholarly biography of Muhammad, look elsewhere. I’m still looking, so feel free to make suggestions in the comments.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2009 4:04 am

    I think it’s the right argument, but the wrong target. The book is evidently not within the genre of scholarly biography, but religious instruction and apologetic. It is subtitled Lessons from the Life of Muhammad, after all. The key point is how those lessons can be applied today which, of course, is going to require a degree of what would appear as anachronism if read as something else.

    It would have merits in the classroom as an example of liberal Islam – or what I call Euroislam, cos I’m a sucker for European revisionism – but obviously not as a historical study.

    You know, if you were teaching Marx you’d have a very similar issue.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 27, 2009 9:17 am

    Yes, I hesitated to post it because the book is pitched as a popular book with spiritual lessons. But on the publisher’s website the first thing they establish is Ramadan’s street cred as a “leading Muslim scholar,” and they do identify it as a “biography” rather than as religious instruction. But, yea, it may be the wrong target.

    Euroislam, eh? Is that a term you invented? By the way, you’ve given away hints here and there that you’re an academic. Am I right?

  3. May 28, 2009 5:43 am

    Everything’s “merely academic” for & about me, dude. Except class hatred and Jesus. Actually I’m a PhD student in sociology. I didn’t invent Euroislam, it’s a term that’s applied to liberals like Ramadan looking to develop Islamic thought – especially Islamic jurisprudence – to a European context. But I think I’m the only one who’s connected it to Eurocommunism. In both cases, it seems to me, the ideological cover is the “European” culture bit, the guts of it is that you’re trying to reshape an ideological practice for life as a perpetual minority. No wonder Poulantzas shot himself…

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    May 28, 2009 9:20 am

    Perpetual minority … good phrase. Sounds like Wendy Brown was on about in States of Injury.

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