Thinking Between Islam and the West

The Thoughts of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bassam Tibi and Tariq Ramadan

by Chi-Chung (Andy) Yu (Author)
©2014 Monographs XX, 267 Pages


In this book, the author assesses the social vision of three western Muslim intellectuals, Seyyed H. Nasr, Bassam Tibi and Tariq Ramadan. He finds that the thoughts of Nasr and his students promote a kind of tradition-based society, which is in harmony with the Divine Law in Islam and a hierarchical structure of society. The thoughts of Tibi advocate the concept of Euro-Islam, which tries to rationalize Islam and renders it a personal religion in the private domain. Finally, the thoughts of Ramadan emphasize a communicative society, in which dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims on public affairs is crucial. The author tries to understand how these three social orders can complement each other. He compares and contrasts their ideas in order to show that modern Islamic thought is not monolithic but pluralistic, and that they present different social visions for Islam in the West. However, Muslims are often labelled as a minority group and so implicitly excluded from being part of the West: the thoughts of Muslim writers help reflect this problem. The author maintains that these Muslim intellectuals in the West should be fully recognized as western intellectuals.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Series Editor’s Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Chinese Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Situating Islam among Modernisms
  • Chapter 2. Seyyed H. Nasr, Traditional Islam and the Return to the Sacred
  • Chapter 3. Bassam Tibi, Civil Islam and Cross-civilizational Bridging
  • Chapter 4. Tariq Ramadan, the European Muslim and a New ‘We’
  • Chapter 5. Being an Authentic Muslim Minority in the West
  • Chapter 6. Making a Small Change for a Better Future for Islam in the West
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Publications of the series


Series Editor’s Preface

Three Western Muslim Thinkers on the Challenges of Modernity

Andy Yu’s study of the thought of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bassam Tibi and Tariq Ramadan is both original and timely. Here are three Muslims who live in the West and whose thought, to a greater or lesser extent, reflects the situation of Muslims in a minority position. This is a new context in which Muslim thinkers find themselves: almost all the great thinkers of previous generations, whether or not they sought to address challenges which Islam faced, reflected upon a situation in which Islam was the majority religion in the country concerned.

This book also addresses from a different perspective the much vaunted ‘conflict of civilizations’ between a supposedly unified ‘Islamic civilization’ and the West. In reality, given the varied responses of Muslim thinkers in the West, the idea of civilizational homogeneity is rendered illusory. The more influential clash of opinion is within civilizations, which makes a single, unified, approach unattainable. The differing responses to the Arab Spring are a case in point. A Saudi writer, Mshari al-Zaydi, writing in 2011, called the Arab Spring ‘the Muslim Brotherhood Spring’ and ‘a political Islamist tsunami’. Addressing the issue of ‘double speak’, al-Zaydi asked ‘what guarantee do we have that these religious fundamentalists will relinquish power once their failure is revealed, particularly as all the elements of power will be in their hands? Did this work out in Iran which has been ruled by Khomeneist disciples for over three decades? … The struggle is between revolutionary Islamists who want to impose a repressive Shari’a state and ← vii | viii → those Western useful idiots who help them against everyone else.’1 Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda, claims: ‘we are conscious that the practices we adopt now, of consensus-building and power-sharing between parties and between Islamists and secularists, provide a model for the future democratic governance of the whole Arab world.’ Since the Islamist party Ennahda won only 41 per cent of members in the Constituent Assembly, it was obliged to share power.2 Ghannouchi was thus making a virtue out of necessity by proclaiming consensus-building and power-sharing as the objectives of an Islamist party.

In Thinking between Islam and the West: the Thoughts of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bassam Tibi and Tariq Ramadan, Andy Yu shows that shared sacredness (Nasr), shared secularity (Tibi), and a shared platform of communication (Ramadan) between Muslims and non-Muslims represent these thinkers’ intellectual contributions to our thinking about Islam in the West. Nasr argues for an Islamic return to the sacred, a kind of religious reformation, while Bassam Tibi also intends to reform Islam, but in the opposite direction. For Tibi, such reform should involve a return to the secular, for it is the politicization of Islam that is his chief concern. For Tibi, modernization, globalization and the universalization of norms and values will be harmonized through a specific rational and secular version of Islam.

In the past, Muslim modernists such as al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh welcomed the achievements of sciences, technology and modern institutions stemming from modernization but rejected the world-view they sprang from (i.e. cultural modernism). This means that modern institutions, including science and technology, are globalized but that the modern world-view underpinning these institutions is not universalized. This partial adoption is what Tibi calls ‘structural globalization and cultural fragmentation’ ← viii | ix → or, in a simpler term, ‘semi-modernism’. The adoption of Islamic rationalism by so-called ‘rational’ Muslims will cause them to abandon the Islamist world-view accordingly. Ramadan argues that authenticity lies in the connection between being a European Muslim practising a European Islam, the particular geographical and cultural religion, and being a member of the universal umma. What Ramadan implicitly tries to do is to play down the influence of specific Muslim communal-cultural ways of life (e.g. Algerian, Egyptian, Indian, Pakistani) by arguing for a universal Islamic way of life; as a result, the traditions and cultures of individual Muslims are explicitly excluded in his approach, which is at variance with the observed reality in European cities.

Should Muslims follow divine law or human law? Should they be loyal to the umma or to the state in which they are the citizens? These are the religious mental stumbling blocks that may impede Muslim citizens from actively engaging in society or, worse, may mean that they are radicalized by Islamists who would segregate potential converts from their non-Muslim fellows. Muslims are a minority: they may therefore the victims, the neglected or even the oppressed communities in Western society. The concept of being part of a minority introduces questions such as coexistence, pluralism, assimilation and persecution. For Ramadan, Muslims have no right to breach state laws unilaterally, and they cannot justify violent or radical actions simply because there are persecuted Muslims in the state or in Muslim countries elsewhere. Their actions in helping persecuted Muslims at home or abroad must be bound by the laws of the state.

Many Muslims have little or no ‘predicament with modernity’; but others, of a more conservative viewpoint, certainly do. It used to be thought that these were purely internal discussions within the Islamic world, which had no bearing on the host communities in Europe. The increase in the number of Muslim immigrants in the last twenty years, however, has demonstrated that this is not, and cannot be true: what the Muslim minority thinks, whether it is predominantly of a conservative or mainstream viewpoint, has a considerable bearing on how it is regarded by the rest of the population. In addition, as Andy Yu argues forcibly, the three writers discussed here should be regarded not just as Muslim authors but as Western authors too. ← ix | x →

This leads us to the question of authenticity, both within the Islamic tradition and in the world today. Tibi quotes approvingly the viewpoint of the recently deceased Moroccan Professor of Philosophy, Mohammed al-Jabri, who addressed the ‘struggle for reason and rationality’ in Islamic history and argued that ‘the survival of our philosophical tradition … can only be Averroist … the Averroist spirit is adaptable to our era, because it agrees with it on more than one point: rationalism, realism, axiomatic method and critical approach’.3 Ultimately, Tibi sees this heritage as of critical importance, because it points to a ‘virtual separation of religion and politics’.4 In contrast, the Islamist position of linking the two is akin to a ‘new variety of jihad fought against rationality’.5 The fight against western knowledge is an essential part of the jihad against unbelief (kufr). The Islamist strategy is to combine the ‘Islamization of knowledge’ with the ‘shari’atization of law’ in a fundamentalist project to de-Westernize the Islamic world and indeed the world at large.

Bassam Tibi questions both aspects of the Islamist strategy. Advances in knowledge result from cross-cultural and inter-religious fertilization, such as in the period of greatness of Islamic civilization. This, Tibi asserts, is the essence of the intellectual heritage of the whole of humanity. What Tibi calls the ‘Islami[st] dream of semi-modernity’ – the rejection of rational knowledge while adopting modernity’s techno-scientific accomplishments – is dismissed as an unrealistic splitting of modernity into two unrelated components. ← x | xi →6

Similarly, the idea that the shari’a is absolute is dismissed by Tibi, since ‘it stands in antithesis to the idea of the project of modernity, according to which all knowledge is revisable’.7 ‘The core issue today’, he argues, ‘is no longer the earlier, anti-colonial defensive-cultural ideology (jihad as a response to the imperialism of the West),8 but rather the offensive claim of a remaking of the world in accordance with divine precepts based on Islamic law’.9

The Islamists’ ‘politicization of shari’a (civil law) and its advancement to the status of a constitutional law (dustur) results in a totalitarian state’, Tibi asserts.10 It ‘legitimates totalitarian rule in the name of religion’.11 In his view, ‘there can be no democratic, shari’a-based rule of law’,12 while ‘shari’a and democracy are incompatible’.13

Tibi goes on to infer that ‘there is a lack of religious pluralism in Islam, which claims superiority for itself’ and reduces non-Muslim monotheists to an inferior status of dhimmitude.14 The notions of the ‘house of war’ or the ‘house of unbelievers’ (dar al-harb, or dar-al kuffar) – under which the non-Muslim ‘other’ is an enemy to be subdued by jihad – are ‘offensive and aggressive and they should be abandoned by Muslims altogether’.15 The apostasy (riddah) doctrine ‘clearly indicates [a] lack of freedom of faith in Islam, because it forbids conversion, under penalty’, the penal code of hudud.16 Shari’a allows ‘great room for arbitrary law making in the guise of an interpretation of God’s revelation’. Moreover, whereas ‘a secular legal rule can be altered by any parliament in a legislative act … sacral law cannot be changed’. ← xi | xii →

The Muslim Brothers are a totalitarian movement, Tibi contends;17 they have adopted the Shi’i concept of dissimulation (taqiyya,18 which the Brothers call iham) to act as cover for their activities. Whereas Tariq Ramadan described the coup against President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood on 30 June 2013 as orchestrated by a US-Zionist conspiracy,19 Tibi calls such a view ‘Islamized antisemitism’.20 ‘Many Western experts fail to grasp this new taqiyya and therefore take the pro-democracy pronouncements of Islamists at face value, without noticing the act of deception that is involved’, he pronounces.21

‘Without doubt’, Tibi contends, ‘the elevation of jihad in a new interpretation of jihad as jihadism (i.e. terrorism) is an accomplishment of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers.’ Tibi sees al-Banna, and particularly Qutb, with his concept of ‘jihad as a permanent Islamic world revolution’,22 as the progenitors of violent jihadism. Tibi argues that ‘the Islamist attempt to impose [a] monolithic shari’a in the form of a rigid code that will be implemented as an integral system has no basis in history. The claim that such a shari’a existed in the past is the epitome of an invented tradition.’ 23 ← xii | xiii → ‘The Islamization of law’, he contends, ‘violates the rights of non-Muslims, or women, or intellectuals, of Sunnis in Shi’ite areas and Shi’a in Sunni areas, of Muslim followers of other sects such as Baha’i or Ahmadiyya – and ultimately of everyone outside the ruling elite.’24

Where Andy Yu is cautious is in relation to the heated debate between two of his three Western Muslim authors: Tibi is dismissive of Tariq Ramadan’s espousal of a version of ‘Euro-Islam’ and his credentials as a Muslim reformer. Al-Afghani (1838/9–1896) and Hassan al-Banna (1906–49), Ramadan’s own grandfather, presented radically different directions in Islam although Ramadan tries to suggest linkages between them.25 In interview with Alain Gresh, Tariq Ramadan stated in 2000: ‘I have studied Hassan al-Banna’s ideas with great care and there is nothing in this heritage that I reject.’ Since he mentioned specifically al-Banna’s views on ‘law, politics, society and pluralism’ this acceptance must have included his espousal of jihad.26 Therefore, when Ramadan presents Orthodox Islam as Euro-Islam, for Bassam Tibi it must ‘presumably [be] with the intent to deceive’.27 Europe cannot be called Dar al-Shahada, as Ramadan calls it, without effectively regarding it as part of the House of Islam (Dar al-Islam) ← xiii | xiv → and thus an expansion of the Islamic world.28 True Euro-Islam ‘seeks to make Islam part of Europe and share its identity, and not the other way round.’29

Tibi argues that ‘Islam is changeable, not essentialist’ and that Muslim jurists need an ‘Islamic Reformation’ to come to terms with cultural modernity. Here he could reinforce his argument by reference to what Iqbal called the ‘principle of movement in the structure of Islam’,30 or ijtihad, the power of independent reasoning.31 It was this, Iqbal contended, that made change possible in Turkey at the time of the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Attatürk.32 Tariq Ramadan does discuss ijtihad in some detail, but unfortunately in the ← xiv | xv → analysis of the prospects for a contemporary ijtihad, he quotes the views of the Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi.33 Qaradawi is denounced by Tibi as one of guardians of Hassan al-Banna’s heritage and as the man who calls shari’a not just a code of morality revealed in the Qur’an but a ‘law’ legislated by Allah and therefore binding on all Muslims. He also considers that dissidents have no place but are ‘disbelievers … wrongdoers and truly wicked’.34 There is therefore a danger at present that the prospects for a contemporary ijtihad, or ‘Islamic Reformation’ have been hijacked by the hardline Islamists, who wish to interpret it in their own terms.

The danger is that Tibi requires Muslims in Europe to make more concessions, and to make them more rapidly, than they feel capable of, with the result that there is mass rejection of his approach rather than constructive dialogue. Commenting on Bassam Tibi’s work, Michael Wolffsohn argues that ‘Enlightened Islam is a necessity for the survival of Western democracy. It would form a new polity, society, and theology. Never has Islam as a minority developed theological and political tools to be just part and partner of a non-Muslim majority instead of ruling it. Enlightened Islam would be an Islamic revolution – something totally new.’ A ‘focus on “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” of the Islamic individual and soul rather than on death, repression, and unhappiness of Islamic and non-Islamic collectives … Dichotomies such as black or white, friend or foe, believer or non-believer, and right religion or wrong religion, must be eradicated.’35

Yes, we may agree: this would be a fine and worthy outcome. The danger, however, is that the debate with conservative Muslims never begins. Instead, the less demanding self-proclaimed ‘reformer’, Tariq Ramadan, is likely to be more successful in convincing Muslims of change along the lines he suggests – not necessarily because he is right; not necessarily because he advocates dialogue (though he does: a difference with Tibi that is correctly ← xv | xvi → stressed by Andy Yu); but simply because he deploys his arguments in traditionalist terminology that they can understand.36

In his conclusion, Andy Yu observes: ‘it is not unusual to find a basic introduction to the thought of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) or Ibn Rushd (Averroes) as examples of Islamic philosophy in the Middle Ages. To a certain extent, they are part of the history of Western philosophy. In my view, contemporary Muslim thinkers should be presented as part of the modern history of both Western philosophy and Western religious thought in the same way. I believe … that this reflects, in fact, another hidden prejudice (or unconscious ideology) of academics (and book publishers) regarding Western Muslim thinkers, one which views them as the “Other” of the West even though they actually are Western thinkers.’ By placing Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bassam Tibi and Tariq Ramadan each within their intellectual background and inherited worldview, he succeeds admirably in demonstrating his case. ← xvi | xvii →


  1.  Barry Rubin, ‘A Muslim writer explains the “Muslim Brotherhood Spring”’ (16 Nov. 2011): http://pjmedia.com/barryrubin/2011/11/16/a-saudi-writer-explains-the-%E2%80%9Cmuslim-brotherhood-spring%E2%80%9D/

  2.  Rachid Ghannouchi, ‘A new Society beckons. Tunisia will be a beacon for the Arab world if we resist attempts to derail the democratic transition’, Guardian (29 October 2013): http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/28/tunisians-ballots-not-bullets-secure-revolution.

  3.  Mohammed al-Jabri, Arab Islamic Philosophy (University of Texas Press: 1999), 124, 128, quoted at Tibi, Islam’s Predicament, 52 and Islamism and Islam, 236. In contrast, Tariq Ramadan, who is criticized by Tibi, argues that Averroës ‘is mentioned obsessively while several dozen scientists, thinkers, philosophers, and artists are neglected although they not only lived in Europe but deeply influenced European mind-sets as well as scientific, philosophical and even legal and political practices’. Tariq Ramadan, What I believe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 81.

  4.  Tibi, Islam’s Predicament, 100.

  5.  Ibid., 79.

  6.  Ibid., 75.


XX, 267
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (February)
social vision dialogue minority group public affairs
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 287 pp., 6 b/w fig., 1 table

Biographical notes

Chi-Chung (Andy) Yu (Author)

Chi-Chung (Andy) Yu lectures at the General Education Foundation Programme in the Office of University General Education, the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He studied for his MA (with Distinction) in Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham and PhD in Arab and Islamic Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, the University of Exeter.


Title: Thinking Between Islam and the West
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