Gregory Baum, professor emeritus at McGill University and one of the foremost pioneers in ecumenism and interreligious dialogue at the Second Vatican Council, offers both practical and theological reasons for the present volume. As a student of Christian prejudice and anti-Semitism, Baum writes out of solidarity with the Muslim community and concern that one of its most articulate spokespersons—the Swiss theologian Tariq Ramadan—rarely gets the thorough, fair and properly theological reading he deserves, even from sympathetic interpreters. As a Christian theologian, Baum also writes as fellow believer in God and fellow member of a religious community that only recently managed to attain that “critical openness to modernity” that lies, at least on Baum’s reading, at the center of Ramadan’s theological project (17).
Given this motive, it makes sense that Baum begins his enquiry in chapter 1, not with Ramadan himself, but with a brief recounting of changing Catholic attitudes toward modernity in the 19th and 20th centuries. This transformation stemmed from two key moves, exemplified in the work of Jacques Maritain: 1) a turn “to the universal dimension of the Church’s teaching”; 2) recognition of “the contextual character of the Church’s social doctrine” (31). In building a parallel from Catholic reformers like Maritain, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II to Ramadan, Baum goes on to locate Ramadan on the “Islamic spectrum” as neither traditionalist nor liberal modernist, but precisely reformist (ch. 2), and then to highlight Ramadan’s distinction between Islam’s universal message of monotheism and surrender to God (ch. 3) and the constant need to reinterpret the more particularist legal tradition, Sharia, according to the various social contexts in which Muslims find themselves (ch. 4). In chapter 5—arguably the core of the book—Baum offers a sympathetic and substantive account of how Ramadan gives these principles flesh for Muslims living in Europe and North America, giving special attention to the claim that Muslims worldwide can no longer think of the world as divided into two realms, the “abode of Islam” (dar al-Islam) and the “abode of war” (dar al-harb). Instead, Ramadan insists, all contemporary Muslims exist in one shared realm, the “abode of witness” (dar al-shahada; see 107-11, 142, 155). To offer effective witness in the Western world, moreover, requires that they become full, active citizens of the societies in which they live, zealous advocates for religious liberty and social justice, and willing collaborators in pursuit of the common good. Baum concludes his study by addressing criticisms that have been made against Ramadan, first by Muslim liberals (ch. 6) and then by the Christian and secular press, especially in France (ch. 7).
As Baum develops this sympathetic and highly readable account of Ramadan’s theology, he draws critical comparisons with Christian tradition and with Catholic teaching in particular. He notes points of serious doctrinal difference on such questions as original sin (70-72, 164-65), the redemptive power of suffering (165-66) and the ambivalence of the law (166-68), while ably demonstrating how, beneath these differences, Ramadan and Catholics in particular share a fundamentally similar attitude toward modernity and the human condition. He notes a few places where he shares the views of some critics—about questions of homosexuality and sexual morality (149-50), for example, or Ramadan’s overly generous interpretation of his grandfather and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna (158)—while defending him vigorously against accusations of separatism, sexism and anti-Semitism. Above and beyond these individual points, Baum illustrates a clear and helpful approach comparative theology and interreligious dialogue. Given the “internal pluralism present in every religion,” he argues, the most productive strategy will be “to focus on currents in different religions that enjoy an affinity or share a perspective” (73). This is precisely what Baum has attempted in this study, and he reports coming away from it not only more fully enlightened about Islam and the particular affinities of a Muslim thinker like Ramadan, but also empowered to appropriate his own Catholic tradition “in a new way” (164).
The Theology of Tariq Ramadan may be, alongside such emerging classics as Diana Eck’s Encountering God and Francis X. Clooney’s Hindu Wisdom for All God’s Children, among the finest entrees into Christian comparative theology I have yet had the pleasure to read. It is highly accessible, almost to a fault; at points, I found myself annoyed that some comparisons were not developed further and some criticisms not taken more seriously. But it nevertheless represents a worthy beginning to such deeper enquiry, of obvious contemporary relevance, compact, and extremely well-suited for the undergraduate classroom. In its pages, readers receive a triple reward, engaging the thought of a very prominent Catholic theologian, the controversial proposals of a no less prominent Muslim peer, and a handful of critical issues with the power to draw both of them, and their respective traditions, into fruitful collaboration.