Paths to Peace: Superstition has poisoned the contemporary Muslim conscience
by Tariq Ramadan
What more can we say about the malaise of the Muslims, their crises and their shortcomings, their inability to meet the challenges of the day ? Islam today is in disrepute ; Muslims are under attack daily for the violence carried out in their name, for the discrimination against women and “non-Muslims” that some claim to justify in their teaching and preaching. From within, Muslims themselves are the sharpest critics of their deficiencies and failings : they complain about their scholars, their leaders, their internal divisions, of the sad state of Muslim majority societies where education is a disaster, social justice a mirage and political systems dens of corruption. From outside and from within, the verdict is inescapable : the crisis is deep ; doubts have undermined confidence and conscience. It has happened in silence, or accompanied by complaints, fears, suffering, frustration and tears. How can we escape the prison of pretense, of posturing, of constant whining or sterile criticism ? Is there a way for us to become constructively self-critical, to gain confidence and freedom ? What path will lead us to peace ?
We begin with a paradox. Only in the crucible of self-mastery can freedom be smelted. Far from how others see us, far from our constant complaining, we all have a deep need for silence and introspection : the silence of our conscience. We need to listen to our hearts, to recognize our needs. Islam—like all spiritual traditions—teaches that we can never fully realize ourselves, never attain our freedom by acting against others, or in relation to the judgments—founded or unfounded—of others. To be means to return to our conscience, to our intelligence and our heart, and to pledge, to the full extent of our abilities, to know and to educate ourselves. Knowledge of God, the Qur’an reminds us, lies “between man and his heart” : God invites us to know ourselves, to rely upon our conscience, to seek responsibility. But above all God summons us to understand our faith, our practice as believers and ourselves. The Unique calls upon humans to become beings of conscience, to take themselves fully in hand and to become—overcoming all obstacles—forces for good, for human well-being and peace.
We must begin by avoiding the obsession of formalism, of claims that strength of faith depends on enforcing prohibitions. Strength of faith lies instead in understanding the ultimate goal of the journey. To believe is to understand… to understand that our reason is sometimes unable to understand. Above all, it is to grasp the primary meaning of “Tawhid,” the oneness of the Divine : to recognize the presence of the Divine within us, to observe His signs in the universe and to learn to give thanks for those we love, for Nature as it is spread before us, for the beauty bestowed upon us. Faith begins with thanks, as Luqman the Wise taught his son ; but we cannot be fully thankful unless we understand exactly what has been given us. Our age has taught us to be quick to complain about what we lack, yet how rapidly we forget the richness that the Unique, and that life itself have bestowed upon us deep in the silent and invisible wellsprings of our being. For here lies another paradox : the heart knows that its richness depends upon acknowledging its failings and its poverty. Far from judging others, far from dogmatism, Muslims today must keep silent, must examine themselves : such is their journey, toward the richness of the heart, of conscience and of peace. The greatest challenge of our era is to deepen our understanding and our love. Spirituality is the light of conscience and heart that gives meaning to our lives, that illuminates our path.
At stake is freedom, nothing less. The superstition of the masses and the elitist attitudes of scholarly circles (ulama) or some mystics (Sufis) have poisoned the contemporary Muslim conscience. When the teaching of principles and rituals focuses on limits and prohibitions, we see more and more ordinary Muslims giving their hearts to dead “saints” while educated young people turn to narrow-minded, elitist scholarly or mystical groups, convinced that they alone “understand” while the “masses” follow along blindly. Both attitudes are symptoms of today’s crisis. Islam and the Muslims need the kind of guidance that respects all beings, women as well as men, poor as well as rich, Blacks as well as whites, Asians or others. Guidance which, because it respects each individual conscience, intelligence and heart, takes full account of social and historical realities, and of cultural memories. Full respect for peoples means not accepting that they descend into superstition, nor idealize “saints” or scholars, nor be consumed by blind emotion that can transform their dynamism into populism (whose religious variant is the most dangerous of all). The humility of educated citizens and scholars consists of studying—and serving. The challenges they face—Muslims or not—are those of Ego, of wealth and power.
It is time to stop lamenting if life fails to ease our suffering and our tears. Muslims must reconcile themselves with the full force of this message. Must rediscover the Divine One in intimate dialogue, and then, in confidence, find themselves. Must become responsible : such is the first freedom. Never lose hope : such is the ultimate message of Islam. To be, to know one’s self, to be thankful and to serve in the deep belief that peace lies in the intention and the meaning of all we do, and not in the visibility of the result or the sound of applause. The philosopher noticed : “What does not kill you makes you stronger”… life, which by definition does not definitely kill us, must be the way that strengthen us spiritually. Time, confidence and silence will be required ; we must learn to care for ourselves. Islam needs Muslims—women and men—who understand its teachings, who attempt to live by them and who bear witness before humanity and Nature of its simple, luminous and yet demanding message : if you believe you seek ; when you seek you love ; if you love you serve ; when you serve, you pray.
Self-reconciliation, the empowerment of autonomy and freedom, can only come about through the mediation of those around us, with their respect, and in their service. Like the signs of the universe that remind us of the signs of our deepest intimacy, like the order of the cosmos that reflects peace of heart, we must learn, understand, step outside ourselves. To love and to serve means to step outside ourselves : to step outside ourselves holds the promise of self-reconciliation. A final paradox, and such a beautiful truth.