Tariq Ramadan and the reconfiguration of Islamic authority on Web 2.0

Recent controversies and online discussions raise the question: Who has Islamic authority in the dig

Tariq Ramadan has announced he will not attend ISNA and RIS conferences in North America [AFP]

Tariq Ramadan’s recent article “Why I will not attend the ISNA and RIS conferences” has caused a considerable amount of consternation as well as self-reflection within American Muslim circles. Ramadan writes that he will not be attending the ISNA (the Islamic Society of North America) and RIS (Reviving the Islamic Spirit) conferences this year – the two largest Islamic conferences in North America – because of the silence of ISNA’s leadership before unconscionable US foreign and domestic policies, as well as because of an RIS leadership that supports dictators in the Middle East.

In his article Ramadan mentions this year’s White House iftar (July 14, 2014), where President Barack Obama spoke of “Israel’s […] right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas,” while Muslim leaders attending the iftar remained silent. Ramadan contends ISNA and RIS are run by supposedly Sufi-inspired men who say “Yes sir!” to power, whether in the US or in the Middle East. In the article, Ramadan is perhaps also referring to Habib Ali al-Jifri – an influential Islamic scholar based in Abu Dhabi, who has 3,700,000 followers on Facebook – and his recent “prayer of tawfiq” for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

I have been following the discussion on Tariq Ramadan’s piece in a few listservs and Facebook discussion groups. Discussants fall on the sides of “for” and “against”, as well as those who try to see “both sides of the argument”. It is particularly interesting to examine how Islamic authority itself is configured and reconfigured in these discussions. MEISGS (Middle East and Islamic Studies Graduate Students) is a listserv populated by Muslims academics at various levels in their careers, from full professors to graduate students. An illuminating thread of the discussion emerges from an implicit positionality whereby academics see themselves as set apart from and possessing greater intellectual tools than traditional ulema.

One of the discussants on MEISGS – Prof Mohammad Fadel describes al-Jifri’s position as a rather typical, premodern juristic position:

“Al-Habib Ali al-Jifri…is deeply ensconced in a traditionalist conception of politics which…is largely a matter of personal virtue, so that political failures are essentially no different from the personal failures of the private person. […] [H]e believes that the good order of a political community in the modern world is simply the product of the piety or good judgment of some all-powerful ruler, such that our role is simply to pray to God that He give tawfiq [ability] to our rulers to do good; that is just superstition.”

Fadel thus places al-Jifri in the position of a pre-modern subject/ivity.

In her 2011 lecture “Theorising the Web“, sociologist Saskia Sassen points out how knowledge within the digital realm is reconstituted and reassembled as another kind of knowledge: “[T]he body of knowledge gets distributed and spliced-up in different ways so that you lose the packaging, and in losing that packaging all sorts of possibilities open up.” What I want to draw attention to is the way in which al-Jifri – with his three-million-plus Facebook followers – and his authority is being reconfigured, dissected, and re-appropriated such that the discussants on MEISGS assume their own, individual domains of authority.

This is part and parcel with the formation of the modern (Muslim) self, and how that self appropriates interpretive right and authority, which is in contrast to the ijazas circulated within traditional Islamic circles. 

To return to Ramadan and the question of Palestine, Islamic authority appears to also become a concern over “authenticity” and “sincerity”. For Ramadan, being authentically Islamic entails critical voices among Muslims living in the West who are able to express their opinions in a manner, and with a freedom, that is denied Muslims in other parts of the world. For Ramadan, such critical voices call to and are guided by the highest values of Islam.

On the topic of Palestine, Mawlana Shams ad-Duha Muhammad, the director of Ebrahim College in London, posted on Facebook an article written by Nabeel Nisar Sheikh, a PhD student at Umm al-Qura University in Mecca, on the issue of boycotting Israeli goods.

There have been discussions in social media about the Islamic permissibility of boycotting Israeli products and companies that support Israel. An argument that has been put forward is that, since similar examples cannot be expressly found in the Prophet’s example, it is not permissible. Sheikh argues why is permissible to boycott Israeli goods. Commenting  on that, Mawlana Shams wrote: “[T]his brother has done the job and done it justice. It also helps that he writes from the very place that these noises emanate from, i.e. Saudi Arabia.”

What we see from the above, then, is the wonderful complexity with which the “social digital ecology” takes on its shape, formation, and growth within the interactive spaces of Web 2.0. We see that traditional authority/knowledge becomes dissected, reconfigured, and reassembled.

So what is recurring in all of these examples?

There is the issue of what is considered “correctly Islamic”. In a subsequent interview Ramadan speaks of the necessity of being courageous at the same time as being wise. Ramadan is responding to Prof Sherman Jackson and his letter urging Ramadan to reconsider his decision not to participate at ISNA, because of the damage it would do to the “unity” of the American Muslim community.

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While Jackson applauds Ramadan’s courage, he suggests that it would be wiser for Ramadan to reconsider his decision not to attend ISNA. Ramadan retorts that “his absence would certainly be the most powerful speech [he] has ever given at ISNA,” and that the importance of courage and wisdom in the face of injustices, no matter where they are suffered, is part and parcel of a correct Islamic ethos.

Incidentally, the president of the ISNA, Mohamed Magid, published a response to Ramadan’s original article in which he argues that the concerns of the American Muslim community are different from those of Muslim communities in Europe. Ramadan’s response to Magid is that his supposed lack of qualification to comment on American Muslim concerns has never stopped ISNA from inviting him as a speaker.

The “critical element” (to benefit from Sassen) that is recurring in all of the above is a reconfigured, reconstituted, and reassembled notion of Islamic authority, of knowledge, of the performativity of Islamic knowledge, and of one’s “Islamic” credentials. Sassen remarks that “in informalising knowledge [we] are also reassembling.” We have seen a number of different ways in which Islamic knowledge and authority are informalised and reassembled. I’m not arguing, however, that there is a complete levelling of all sense of authority, and that it is a free-for-all.

I’m also not suggesting that this process of “opening up” Islamic knowledge and authority is only coming about due to the internet. The genealogy of “Islamic modernity” (a phrase I coin to include various stripes of Islamic actors) is far longer than that. A suitable analogue is that of Tahrir Square, 2011. To say that the Egyptian revolution happened because of social media alone is an absurdist position we fall into when the mythologies of technology blinker us to longer historical processes.

It is noteworthy that traditional (or neo-traditional) authorities on this particular topic have been, and continue to be, silent. What needs to be done further then is to examine the politics of silence, and what role it plays today and historically for the traditional scholar. Let us recall that it was the traditional ulema’s (perceived) “silence” vis-a-vis colonial rule that prompted modern Muslim intellectuals to speak out against, and in response to encroaching European powers and it was in that context that the ulema were described as “irrelevant”.

I certainly do not think that digital media is rendering traditional Islamic authority irrelevant. But as with past historic fissures – whether as a result of colonialism, or Wahhabism, or the printing press for that matter – it is casting it anew, and Islamic authority is itself being rethought and lived differently.

Hasan Azad is a doctoral candidate specialising in Islamic Studies at Columbia University.