I am still closeted away, finishing my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought. So, here is another of my old book reviews, this one on Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning. It was first published in the Independent in August 2010.


In an age in which public intellectuals are often highly divisive figures – think of the storms surrounding Noam Chomsky, Richard Dawkins or Bernard-Henri Lévy – few generate more controversy than Tariq Ramadan. Political activist, Muslim scholar, and professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, he is to some the ‘Muslim Martin Luther’, a courageous reformer who helps bridge the chasm between Islamic orthodoxy and secular democracy. To his critics, Ramadan is a ‘slippery’, ‘double-faced’ religious bigot, a covert member of the Muslim Brotherhood whose aim is to undermine Western liberalism. When, in 2004, Ramadan was appointed professor of religion by Notre Dame, America’s leading Catholic University, the US State Department revoked his visa for supposedly endorsing terrorist activity.

The debate about Ramadan was re-ignited earlier this year with the publication of The Flight of the Intellectuals, American writer Paul Berman’s savage attack on European thinkers such as Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash for what he regards as their appeasement of Ramadan. The Quest for Meaning, Ramadan’s first book aimed at a wider Western audience, arrives therefore at a timely moment. It is, he writes, ‘a journey and an initiation’ into the world’s faiths to discover the universal truths they hold in common and to set out ‘the contours of a philosophy of pluralism.’ Unfortunately it will do little to settle the argument about the nature of Ramadan’s beliefs. There is a willfull shallowness about this work, a refusal to think deeply or to pose difficult questions, that is truly shocking. Insofar as it is provocative, The Quest for Meaning seeks to provoke not through the excess of its rhetoric but through the banality of its reasoning.

What Ramadan has produced here is a faith-lite manual for those seeking multicultural pieties. It is a book that forces the reader to wade through sentences such as this: ‘We are heading for that realm of consciousness and mind where all wisdoms remind us that it is its shores that make the ocean one, and that it is the plurality of human journeys that shapes the common humanity of men.’ And: ‘Truth (insofar as it has a value) and meaning (for itself) are, quite logically, regarded as truth and meaning of everything.’ And: ‘We need to find, collectively, ways to celebrate the union between emotion and reasonable reason, because, ultimately, that is what it is all about.’ It’s the kind of writing that makes Deepak Chopra seem like Immanuel Kant.

Ramadan’s basic argument comprises three elements. Faith is an essential aspect of human life. All faiths embody a similar set of ideals. And given that is faith is essential and all faiths are similar, so society should respect all religious and cultural traditions. We need, in Ramadan’s words, to ‘apprehend the diversity of our points of view and the essence of their similarity’.

His starting point is the insistence that humans are limited beings and reason is an inadequate way of comprehending our world. Reason tells us in a partial manner how the world is. Only faith can inform us why it is as it is. Faith creates a framework that allows us to give life meaning and to comfort us when faced with our inadequacies.

The relationship between faith and reason is one of the key issues of our times. Ramadan is so sloppy and superficial in his argument, however, and so oblivious to any viewpoint other than his own, that he does little to help us navigate through the tricky waters. Ramadan takes it as given that it requires a spiritual quest to impute meaning to life. What about those who are not religious and yet live meaningful lives? Silence. All faiths, he suggests, embody the same fundamental truths and are simply ‘different paths up the same mountain’. So why would he not be happy if all Muslims converted to Hinduism? No answer.

quest for meaning

‘All spiritual or religious traditions’, Ramadan claims, ‘have some notion of the universal’ which is the ‘common space where several roads, several paths, several religions meet, and where reason, the heart and the senses meet’. This is a typical deep-but-meaningless formulation that litters the book. Like much else in The Quest for Meaning it is both philosophically facile – there is, after all, more to the concept of the ‘universal’ than the idea of a ‘common space’ – and historically illiterate, given that the vast majority of religious traditions have been local or tribal, with no universal pretentions, and remain so.

Ramadan’s real aim is not to explore the complexities of reason, faith and universality, but to defend the sanctity of Revealed truth. Revealed truth, he tells us, is ‘clear and immutable’ and its legitimacy cannot be challenged by reason.

The question of the relationship of reason and Revelation has been central to many of the controversies surrounding Ramadan. Most infamously, he has argued for a ‘moratorium’ on the Islamic practice of stoning women for adultery but has refused to call for an outright ban, a stance that led to a celebrated confrontation with Nicolas Sarkozy on French television.

Why will Ramadan not simply say that stoning is a barbaric punishment and should be banned? Because, as he explained when I interviewed him for a Radio 4 documentary, the Qur’anic text that demands stoning ‘comes from God’. But isn’t that the problem, I asked him. Ramadan knows rationally that certain actions are morally wrong but is not willing to say so because of his attachment to the Revealed word of God. Simply to believe in rationality, he responded, is to accept the ‘dictatorship of intelligence’. And that is ‘a dominant, arrogant posture. It’s dangerous.’

This exchange gets to the heart of the debate about faith and reason. For many of us it is the abandonment of reason in the name of Revealed authority that is truly dangerous. What is striking, however, is that there is not a whisper about this controversy in the book. He devotes an entire chapter to the question of gender relations, in which he quotes such secular thinkers as Michel Foucault and Simone de Beauvoir. But he has little to say about the difficulties of the relationship between faith and equality. There is not a mention of contemporary disputes over abortion, divorce, adultery, the veil, or female genital mutilation, that often pit religious norms against secular ones, and are central to current debates about pluralism, nor of his own deeply conservative views on these issues. It is an extraordinary silence, but typical of Ramadan’s refusal to tackle the difficult questions.

The Quest for Meaning reveals Ramadan as neither a bridge-builder nor a dangerous bigot, but as a shallow thinker taken far too seriously by both supporters and critics. His real strength is his ability to trade in that mixture of pseudo-intellectualism and faux-mysticism that has today become so fashionable.

At the end of the book, Ramadan informs us that the ‘architecture of the text’ reflects his spiritual journey. There are fourteen chapters which ‘represent two cycles of seven’, seven being a ‘universal symbol’ in all faiths. ‘Twice seven’, Ramadan tells us, ‘to reflect linearity, evolution and the cyclical return of the same and the different though the universality of the symbol.’ At least The Da Vinci Code did not claim to solve the problems of pluralism.


  1. Michael Fugate

    This is why religions should never write down “revelations”, but only transmit them orally. If oral, they can change and no one will be the wiser.

  2. tamimisledus

    The fact that his supporters (“supported” in turn by all too many very gullible others) take him seriously is the very reason why we must take him seriously and, at all costs, reveal the truth of the hideous ideology espoused by this man. Unfortunately, and understandably, you have done no more here than scratch the surface. What follows is but one step in the process of revelation. The real aim of this individual, and of all muslims, is to see islam imposed on the entire world by whatever means they deem necessary.

      • tamimisledus

        All muslims believe in allah which is the fundamental truth of the world and, as shown by the koran and the actions of muhammad of islam, no opposition to allah’s domination can be allowed. So will any muslim lift a finger to stop that? – No, they won’t.
        Yes, it is that extreme. islam is unlike any other ideology you could know, so be very wary of coming to conclusions without direct knowledge of its underlying nature, and the intellectual rigour to understand its implications.

    • tamimisledus – You appear to take as literal a view of religion as the fundamentalists you oppose. The Qur’an says X and therefore all Muslims believe or do X. Religion doesn’t work like that. All believers have to interpret their Holy Book, and different people interpret it differently. That’s why some Muslims (like some Christians and some Jews) think that homosexuality is a sin, others, reading the same Qur’anic or Biblical passages, believe in same-sex marriages. Some oppose secularism, some embrace it. And so on. Many Muslims, unlike Ramadan, oppose punishments such as the stoning of adulterers. Just because some fundamentalists take a literal view of the Qur’an doesn’t mean that non-believers have to do so too.

      • tamimisledus

        Thanks for taking the time to reply.
        First, the topic I discussed was not religion, but islam and its adherents.
        To be clear, islam in spite of its claims and (some) surface appearances is not a religion – it is a political ideology.
        Second, for the absence of any doubt, somebody who describes or criticises a fundamentalist system is not de facto a fundamentalist.
        Third, it doesn’t matter what many muslims do not do. What matters is what they do do [sic].
        This is what islam (VIA the koran) has this to say on the subject of adultery
        Fourth, what I stated was that muslims (de facto) take a literal view of the koran (the incontrovertible word of allah). I am not suggesting that non-believers should do so, but they must understand that fact.
        Perhaps you now need to go back reassess my previous comments, in the light of these comments.

        I realize that I will almost certainly be unable to persuade you in this type of debate of the truth of what I am saying.
        So, until I am able to present the case against islam in my own forum, I would point you in the direction of of this site, run by exMuslims. I cannot vouch for every word but what I have seen so far makes perfect sense.

        Finally, here is one of the very many reasons why we all need to understand and spread the truth of islam.
        This is the view of slavery in islam as quoted by a well known muslim commentator residing in the UK, Contrast it with this from islam-watch You may also like to consider this person’s assessment of the arguments presented.

        I hope that this helps.

      • There is no point in thanking me for taking time to reply if you don’t actually read what I write or choose simply to ignore it. You write that ‘muslims (de facto) take a literal view of the koran’. Some may claim to, but, as I pointed in my previous response, all Holy Books have to be interpreted. Fundamentalists interpret it in one way, liberals in another, and most Muslims are somewhere in between. People like you who take the literalist stance to be in some way the ‘true Islam’ (and I am intrigued as to how you are such an expert on Islam that you feel free to lecture everybody else on it) effectively do the fundamentalists’ job for them. Unfortunately, this has become an almost default position in the West. In my book, From Fatwa to Jihad, I relate a story to told me by the Danish Muslim MP Nasser Khader who defended the right of Jyllands-Posten to publish the Muhammad cartoons. He tells of a conversation with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of Politiken, a left-wing newspaper highly critical of the cartoons. ‘He said to me that cartoons insulted all Muslims’, Khader recalls. ‘I said I was not insulted. He said, “But you’re not a real Muslim”.’ Too many people see only those who opposed the cartoons, or believe that adulterers should be stoned, as the ‘real Muslims’. All other Muslim voices come to be ignored. The result, as I said, is that people like you, and Toger Seidenfaden, come to do the fundamentalists’ job for them.

      • tamimisledus

        reply to your comment of March 21st at 00:59.
        And how many people do NOT know that the words of a politician, especially a muslim politician, are totally and absolutely true and reliable. Do you believe that the supermarkets’ “buy one, throw away” offer is purely motivated by their altruistic concern for the interests of their customers, and the world at large?
        Your misconceptions about the true nature of islam are helping to bring about the destruction of Western democracy. But then, how much do you really care about the survival of the values of Western democracy?

      • tamimisledus

        but you have seem to have been determined from the beginning to show that you don’t know what a rational debate is.

  3. Your interview with Mr. Ramadan was illuminating. I used to think that his call for a “moratorium” rather than abolition of stoning, flogging et cetera reflected his view that other clerics would be unwilling to contemplate the latter but this was clearly overgenerous.

    I am fascinated by his choice of adjectives. Your position is “arrogant”, he said, without explaining how it was mistaken. It was “dangerous”, he asserted, without explaining its risks. He has that modern talent for using language in a manner that evokes emotion without conveying substance.

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