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Tariq Ramadan, The Times

“I am too much a Westerner for Muslims, and too much a Muslim for Westerners.”

If the author, academic and polemicist Tariq Ramadan is the subversive some claim, he does not live deep under cover. His home is an amiable semi on a suburban street with a green and pleasant hillock at one end.

He was refused entry to France in 1995 (later rescinded) and to the US in 2004 (still in place) for alleged links to Islam’s dangerous fringe. Ramadan denies those links but as the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, he has a radical heritage. And the allegations did not deter Tony Blair, who consulted him after 7/7, or Time magazine, which listed him as one of its 100 innovators of the new century for advocating an integrated, Europeanised Islam.

Tall, slim and welcoming in a grey suit and furry white Radisson SAS slippers, Ramadan leads me into his rug-plotted sitting room. We sit, a bowl of mini rolls and cookies before us on a brass oriental table.

To a curious non-Muslim, his new book, The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad, is fascinating. Punctuated by spiritual reflections, it tells Muhammad’s life from orphaned childhood through the Revelation of the Koranic verses – which, Muslims believe, Muhammad were given by the Archangel Gabriel – to his death, aged 63, with Islam dominant across Arabia.

What are Ramadan’s sources for the Hadith (sayings and stories of Muhammad)?

Ramadan sits back, his mild voice accented by French and Arabic: “During the first years the Prophet was saying, ‘Keep the Hadith by heart but write the Koran on anything to hand’. Then, at the end of a few years, people were starting to write the Hadith. Checking the authenticity came later, after 50, 60 or 100 years.”

In one cheering Hadith, Muhammad chastises followers for copying his demanding prayer routine. “Woe to those who exaggerate [who are too strict],” he said. As only the Prophet’s wives had to wear the niqab, do niqab-wearers in the West, free of cultural pressure, “exaggerate”?

“Some scholars say, ‘His wives are your example, so you have to follow them’. But for the majority of scholars the prescription is not for [covering] the face. So yes, they are exaggerating, they are taking something which is not the rule as a prescription.”

Perhaps for some it is just a form of adolescent rebellion?

“It happens, that is for sure. When you are dealing with this you have to be careful. If you are coming with a strict ‘No’ it’s exactly what they want. So don’t be harsh at the beginning, because you can push them to isolate themselves.”

Ramadan’s book raises awkward issues, such as Muhammad marrying Aishah when she was six. The marriage was not consummated for “several years”. Ramadan feels this means when she reached puberty. “These are facts to be taken into account in the context of the Arabian Peninsula. At that time it was normal. Muslims should not deny this.”

The book also describes the battles of Muhammad’s followers against neighbouring tribes. What about the perception that Islam’s spread was conversion at sword-point? Ramadan argues that before Muhammad’s death, the fighting was always defensive (including the protection of a Jewish and a Christian tribe). But not so after it.

“This idea that everything was done by peace or everything was done by sword is wrong. In some situations you had Muslims saying, ‘You don’t want to listen to the message? We are coming to fight’. ”

The Messenger lays out Muhammad’s strict rules of war, including the protection of civilians. What are people like the 7/7 terrorists thinking of?

“Two things. The first is they have a very superficial knowledge of the ethics of war and conflict in Islam. And the second, the mindset, which is Us versus Them. Like this guy Mohammad [Sidique Khan, one of the 7/7 bombers] in the video saying, ‘You are killing us there, so we are killing you here’. Umma [the totality of Muslims] is a spiritual community based on principle, not a blind support of my people against your people.”

Is The Messenger the case against extremism? “It is not only against the extremists, it is also against the literalist reading, the cultural reading. Let us come to the essentials, and out of this let us come up with contemporary spiritual lessons.”

Ramadan calls himself a Salafi reformist. What is that? “People who are coming back to the sources, to the first generation [of Islam] are Salafi. There is the literalist Salafi, what we call the Wahhabi. My aim as a Salafi reformist is to come back to the source, to find the spirit, the objectives [of Muhammad’s teaching]. I don’t want the literalists to hijack the concept of Salafism. For example, you have literalists saying music is haram [forbidden]. And I say that’s wrong, look at the Prophet, what he says.”

His stance gets him into trouble. “I was in Mauritius last year and the mufti said, ‘Tariq Ramadan is a kafir’. He means an infidel, apostate.” He finds himself, “too much a Westerner for Muslims and too much a Muslim for Westerners”.

Ramadan certainly has a problem with Western “neoliberal economics”, which he considers opposed to Islamic values. But when some of my questions lead him into politics, the crisp, illuminating language of The Messenger is replaced by woollier phrases about “structural discrimination” and claims about “official discourse”, which suggest that all politicians and media speak as one. Of today’s political-religious Muslim Brotherhood he says: “I disagree with them but . . . as long as they are respecting the rule of law, let them speak.”

Perhaps his critics suspect that, like Wahhabis, he wants an all-Islamic world, but is more subtle and patient about it? He laughs, lists Christian friends and says, “They are just projecting their own fears. I don’t have this passion for conversion. Whatever you believe, you have values. Just be the witness of your values in your life.”

We have run over time. He inscribes my copy of The Messenger: “May the light be always with you and protect you” – the English words styled with the flourishes of Arabic calligraphy.

5 May 2007

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