The universal value of Islam

القيمة العالمية للإسلام


            This open letter is specifically directed at all Muslims. However, I believe it could also be of interest to members of other religions, as well as people who are not religious. My main aim is to show that, despite all appearances to the contrary, Islam is fundamentally respectful of people, and that, under certain conditions, the expansion of Islam would even be a good thing, not only for Muslims, but for humanity as a whole. My text will be well argued and critical, with several of its arguments based on texts by contemporary Muslim thinkers including Tariq Ramadan, Rachid Benzine and Mohammed Arkoun1.

Musulman expansion

Current extension area of
(besides the diasporas)

I          A brief homage to Islam

            As my knowledge of Islam is fragmentary, the following lines should be seen simply as an expression, without agenda, of what I have understood and experienced while learning about the ideas of some of Islam’s thinkers.

At first glance, praising the Muslim religion does not seem like an obvious thing for a non-Muslim to do. First of all, we have to overcome all the prejudices toward this religion, and indeed, toward religion in general, that are often felt to be necessary. Moreover, it is true to say that in both ancient and recent history, religious beliefs, and particularly Islamic beliefs, very often appear to incite the worst violence against others. However, it seems entirely appropriate to me to highlight some of Islam’s positive qualities, and very important to do so in a socially aware manner, i.e. in a way that is respectful to others and that shows responsibility toward everyone.

The originality of Muslim social engagement

            Between 622 and 750, Islam experienced extraordinary expansion from the north-west of Arabia to India in the east, and to Spain and Portugal in the west. The Koran goes some way to explaining this, presenting Islam as bringing justice to all, and particularly to the less fortunate. In fact, the principles of Islam proved to be highly compatible with the customs of the populations, especially when those customs leaned toward allowing the greatest number of people to be well treated and respected. Such customs were therefore called « Muslim » without too much opposition. This meant that the State, politics and religion could work well together, as they were all seen as being « Muslim2. »

            In Muslim regions, there is no Church and no hierarchy. The Koran recommends dialog and consultation3. Muslims and Christians can also agree on one point: the vital importance of respect for all human beings4. However, has Islam not been intolerant of those declared as non-Muslims? History tells us that, in fact, it has been no more intolerant than Christianity has been toward non-Christians. One should always distinguish between facts and values.

The Koran insists on respect for others

A famous passage from the Koran expresses respect for other people and groups in an original way:

« But He [Allah] made you different, in order to test you, that you might know one another and vie one with another in good works » Koran 5, 48

In his message, the Prophet Muhammad says that respect for people goes hand in hand with the idea of developing and encouraging their autonomy. The message of the Koran therefore seeks to develop human beings in terms of their sense of responsibility and freedom of conscience5. An open-minded Muslim proposes the Revelation of the Koran to other people, because what he wants is their free consent6.


II          » …We have made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another… »                                                     Koran 49, 13

In his « Manifesto for a new ‘WE’, » Tariq Ramadan says that Muslims must decide to « accept full responsibility for themselves, become constructively critical, and self-critical, and respond to the creeping evolution of fear with a firmly grounded revolution of trust. » However, this « We » does not only include Muslims. Ramadan is actually addressing the West, and even humanity as a whole[7]. At the end he states: « To be and to remain the voice of the voiceless of Iraq or Palestine, of Tibet or Chechnya, of abused women and of AIDS victims (particularly in Africa, even though medication exists) […] mutual trust and global critical mind pave the road towards reconciliation between civilizations[8]. »

A controversial issue

Tariq Ramadan appears to be a controversial figure for reasons that are not easy to analyze. For example, at one time he refused to openly condemn the regimes of Sudan and Iran, which had the inevitable effect, among certain observers, of discrediting everything he said and did[9]. All indications show, however, that Tariq Ramadan does not encourage violence in any way; on the contrary, he is constantly trying to find new « educational » ways of countering it. That is another gray area that can be clarified[10].

 Tariq ramadan WeTariq Ramadanwe

Should we all be Muslims?!

            These days, the meaning of the word « we » can be subject to significant change. There are « we Muslims, » « we Catholics », etc.; and there are also several national « we’s » (« we Quebecers, » « we Canadians », etc.). Tariq Ramadan’s « We » can be seen as both religious and non-religious. It seems to be a Muslim « we » that is also a European (or Western) « we. » He shows that this « we » is new [11].

            This « we » will be interpreted here as a universal « we » that includes all human beings, without arbitrary limitations [12]. It is also a principle of respect—this cannot be emphasized enough—respect for all people and all groups [13].

            In other words, one can agree with the principles of a religion, for example, on an ethical level, without having to belong to that particular religious group, and be a « follower » of that religion without being a « member. » This is the idea that seems to follow from Tariq Ramadan’s arguments. In any case, this way of understanding religions involves a number of tangible and significant consequences.

            In Les banlieues de Dieu (the suburbs of God), Christian Delorme (a Catholic priest) and Rachid Benzine describe an attitude that seems to be spreading, at least in France, among Catholic priests and Muslims. They work in a sort of « partnership » where the aim is not to « convert Muslims to Christianity, but rather a proximity which aims to share human experiences and faiths to convert to the call of God in a way that they can each experience [14]. » We can call this kind of conversion convergence.

A specific example

Christian Delorme recalls the book that he wrote with Rachid Benzine; Nous avons tant de choses à nous dire… (we have so much to say to each other): it « was—and remains—a truly spiritual experience. » He admits having been tempted to say: « What is the point of one of us saying we’re Muslim and the other Christian? Are we not two people in search of the same God, who want to praise and love our fellow humans, His creatures, without distinction? » He would even have liked to bow down with Rachid and call out: « Allahu akbar! [15]« 

This is a convergence of two religious faiths and, therefore, of two traditions, where each retains its own identity. The Muslim remains Muslim and the Christian remains Christian, but their respective ideas come together sufficiently for us to be able to talk about mutual sharing of ideas and practices. The main thing is that they adopt the same ethics of respect for each other, independently and in their religious groups, seeing the differences as unimportant at that point, and as « proposals » that they are making to each other in their joint and converging search for divinity or transcendence. Therein lie the « universal principles » that Tariq Ramadan mentions and calls « Muslim. » Everyone who essentially shares these principles would therefore be « Muslim. »

Under these conditions, I might want to become « Muslim » in my status and views, without belonging to the Muslim community. One could even say that, in this sense, I am a follower of Pan-Islamism, and that everyone should do the same. Furthermore—this is what is meant by the idea of convergence—the same applies to Catholicism (from katholikós, meaning universal) insofar as it becomes the same truly universal idea of universality. And this is not a play on words, but a case of looking for a beneficial way to reach a mutual understanding. There are no « anonymous Muslims » or « anonymous Christians, » but rather a multitude of religious denominations for everyone, because anyone, without being contradictory—that is, while remaining faithful to whichever religious or other group of which he is a member—can claim to be, in principle, Muslim, Christian, as well as, for the same reasons, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.

Analogy with the idea of a global democracy

Musulman oecuménisme

The world religions

         Do Tariq Ramadan’s declarations (particularly « Manifesto for a new ‘WE' ») signal a new ecumenicalism bringing together Christians and Muslims [17]? Or a new type of « Catholicism » in the original sense of the term (from the Greek katholikós, meaning « universal »), which would therefore be a « catholic ecumenicalism » with a « comprehensive » vocation that is at once religious, cultural and sociopolitical? Whatever it is, Tariq Ramadan’s concept would need to be reconciled with the idea on which the United Nations is based. If that were to happen—and why shouldn’t it? —this type of global movement could be considered respectful of people and groups, given that it would bring together not only all human beings, but also all human groups, all treating each other equally. This would be a global democracy [18].

Yvon Provençal (2014)

Department of Philosophy

Cégep de Granby (Granby general and vocational college)


Additional explanations:

The issue of « anonymous Muslims »

Tariq Ramadan and the use of the hijab: doublespeak or educational trick?

An « intellectual revolution »

The future of Islam

Additional explanations: The issue of « anonymous Muslims »

            According to the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, human beings who lead an honest and virtuous life and who are not believers in the Christian faith can be considered « saved » as « anonymous Christians, » which means that they are Christians even if they are not aware of it and do not think about it at all [19].

Similarly, it could be said that Tariq Ramadan thinks of others as « anonymous Muslims » because he seems to consider all human beings to be Muslims, even if they are not aware of it. However, this issue disappears when Tariq Ramadan adopts an attitude of respect for all, in accordance with the previously quoted verse from the Koran:

« But He [Allah] made you different, in order to test you, that you might know one another and vie one with another in good works » (Koran 5, 48) (« you » is understood to mean different people or different groups).

An « anonymous Muslim » would be a person who thinks and acts based on the principles of respect for others, he would also be, at the same time and with no contradiction, an « anonymous Christian » and even an « anonymous Buddhist » etc., all of whom would vie with one another in good works. We must therefore consider Islam not simply as a group to which people belong, but as a description of an assembly that is, in principle, open to all groups, as the UN, in particular, could be. However, Catholicism or the World Council of Churches (a Protestant organization), for example, could also be considered to have this quality.

Additional explanations: Tariq Ramadan and the use of the hijab: doublespeak or educational trick?

Young woman wearing a hijab

Young woman wearing a hijab

According to Tariq Ramadan, wearing a hijab is an act of faith; it is the woman who decides to wear it; it is symbolic and, in the West, only a few women wear it. Tariq Ramadan addresses parents and advises them to let their children be free — « you do not compel the conscience. » The purpose of the hijab is « a form of modesty » (intellectual or physical modesty), but not wearing one is not « immodest » or insulting.

The way Tariq Ramadan expresses himself is ambiguous insofar as it is not very clear whether, by « immodest, » he means « morally reprehensible and punishable » or simply « to be avoided as far as possible. » However, he does specify that not wearing a hijab is not « an insult. » We can therefore assume that there is no moral obligation to wear one [20]. Is this an example of « doublespeak, » as some of Tariq Ramadan’s detractors claim? This would be the case if it led some people, for example in Montreal, to believe that women who do not wear a hijab are not reprehensible [21], and others, for example in Egypt, to believe that they are. There is no proof that he is using this kind of doublespeak.

However, the issue of doublespeak is complex. Given Tariq Ramadan’s « educational » intentions, it is possible that he is using language that is deliberately ambiguous, depending on the type of audience, without it being the result of any lack of respect for his audiences [22]. Based on his objective, that would seem to be the case. If he behaves in this way to establish a basis for dialog tailored to his audience, and his aim in doing so is to educate his audience, treating people in this way does not show any disrespect for them.

Additional explanations: An « intellectual revolution »

Tariq Ramadan addresses humanity as follows: « I call upon intellectuals, politicians and religious figures to observe a necessary duty of consistency and self-criticism […] Everyone needs to show humility, respect and consistency […] no individual or civilization has the monopoly on the universal and the good… […] we must be convinced that we can gain something from the wealth and experience of [others]… […] the presence of others is like a mirror that we must use to face up to our contradictions and inconsistencies in the everyday and practical application of our most noble values [23]. »

            According to the dissident Catholic theologian Hans Küng, « it seems that, for the first time in the history of the world, we are witnessing the slow emergence of a global ecumenical consciousness [24]. » Tariq Ramadan is in full agreement with this and talks of an « intellectual revolution. » He considers anything that is not fundamentally opposed to Islam to be acceptable [25]. It can therefore be expected that, given the extraordinary hospitality of Islam, and its ability to accommodate others, there will be a great deal of open-mindedness.

Additional explanations: The future of Islam

musulman futur

            When Rachid Benzine writes that « we are the heirs » of the text of the Koran, he intends for we to include everyone else as well. In doing this, he draws inspiration from those he calls the « new thinkers of Islam. » One of them, Amin al-Khûli, « calls for a constantly changing understanding of religion that will allow us to resolve new problems that arise for humanity » and « expresses a very open view of the unity of all religions [26]. »

Hans Küng agrees with Tariq Ramadan when he states that today « we are urged » to share « reciprocal information, enter into reciprocal discussion and therefore, finally, undergo reciprocal transformation [27]. »

(Made in 2015)

1.  As a teacher of philosophy in Quebec, I was responsible for making young citizens aware of the key issues in society in Quebec and in the societies of the world in general. The publication of this open letter forms part of a consistent set of educational tools made possible by the new methods of communication using the Internet. More specifically, it is an « educational tool acting on the world » (a « pédagogie agissant sur le monde » or « PAM« ; see the Agorathèque).1

2.  See Tariq Ramadan, Mon intime conviction, Paris, Presses du Châtelet, 2009, p. 65. [What I Believe] Tariq Ramadan is a renowned intellectual who is an expert on Islam.2

3.  See Tariq Ramadan, Musulmans d’Occident. Construire et contribuer (Western Muslims: constructing and contributing), Lyon, Tawhid, 2002, 2004, chapter 4: « Les cinq piliers d’une sage prudence » (the five pillars of being wisely cautious), p. 43. 3

4.  Christian Delorme and Rachid Benzine, Chrétiens et musulmans. Nous avons tant de choses à nous dire (Christians and Muslims: we have so much to say to each other), Albin Michel, 1998, p. 240. Christian Delorme is a Catholic priest. 4

5.  Here, I have based my ideas on the interpretation of Abdelmajid Charfi, one of the Muslim thinkers introduced by Rachid Benzine in his work Les nouveaux penseurs de l’islam (the new thinkers of Islam), Albin Michel, 2004; p. 237 and 240.5

6.  See Mohammed Arkoun, Penser l’islam aujourd’hui (thinking about Islam today), Alger: Laphomic ENAL, 1993 (quoted by Rachid Benzine, Les nouveaux penseurs de l’islam (the new thinkers of Islam), op. cit., p. 104). There is no doubt that Muslims can do as well as Catholics with regard to religious freedom (see Lettre ouverte aux catholiques [open letter to Catholics]). A famous verse from the Koran states that: « there is no compulsion in religion » (Koran 2/256); here we simply acknowledge that this is in line with the interpretations of Arkoun and Benzine.6

7.  « Our societies, » he says, « are awaiting the emergence of a new ‘We.’ A ‘We’ that would bring together men and women, citizens of all religions—and those without religion—who would undertake together to resolve the contradictions of their society: the right to work, to housing, to respect, against racism and all forms of discrimination, all offenses against human dignity […]. Respectful of the identities of others […] in a revolution of trust […] against shallow, emotional, even hysterical reactions they stand firm for rationality, for dialogue, for attentiveness, for a reasonable approach to complex social questions. » He states that « … this new ‘We’ anchored in citizenship… » calls on us to « combat the shocking behavior exhibited in their name, in the form of terrorism, domestic violence, forced marriage and the like » (see website: « Manifesto for a new ‘WE' » by Tariq Ramadan). ↑ 

8.  Ibidem.  

9.  See, for example, the work by Caroline Fourest, Frère Tariq. Discours, stratégie et méthode de Tariq Ramadan , Paris, Éditions Grasset, 2004. [Brother Tariq: The Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan , Encounter Books, 2008.] 

10.  Tariq Ramadan sees himself as a « mediator » between the West and Islam, and on this basis he is suspected, by both sides, of having dual loyalty: He has been successively banished from Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Libya; been banned from making speeches in France (for six months, in 1995–1996); and had his visa revoked in the United States (in 2004). He is accused, in a way, of never being sufficiently clear. He quotes the philosopher Charles Taylor, according to whom « I did not use ‘doublespeak’ […] but my views clearly fell between two worlds that were very ambiguous » (Tariq Ramadan, Mon intime conviction, op. cit., p. 31-32 [What I Believe]). See the « Additional explanations » further down the page: Tariq Ramadan and the use of the hijab: doublespeak or educational trick? and Un cas remarquable d’attitude d’aide partielle… (a remarkable case of an attitude of partial assistance) 

[11] On the subject of Muslims in Europe, Tariq Ramadan states that « we must now establish a deep and accepted sense of belonging. That is the new ‘We’ that I am hoping for » (Tariq Ramadan, Mon intime convictionop. cit., p. 20 [What I Believe]).

[12] Tariq Ramadan states that « the universal nature of our principles goes beyond the work and actions of Muslims alone and the societies where Muslims are in the majority, to the point where Islam (in the sense of respect for its fundamental principles) is sometimes « more prevalent » in places where there are fewer Muslims… »; we must, therefore, « apply the term ‘Islamic’ to any law, any institution… any process that is in line with our references » (Tariq Ramadan, Musulmans d’Occident. Construire et contribuer (Western Muslims: constructing and contributing), Lyon, Tawhid, 2002, 2004, p. 54.

[13] However, Tariq Ramadan sometimes seems to exclude at least some groups: Israelis, for example. He calls Israel an « oppressive » State: « There is an oppressor (the State of Israel) and an oppressed party (the Palestinian people). » See Tariq Ramadan’s website, « Mouvement global de résistance non violente », April 17, 2010 [Global Movement of Non-Violent Resistance]. Tariq Ramadan’s attitude toward Israel is perhaps simply a necessary effect of his attitude of helping Muslims and, in particular, Palestinians. This point remains unclear.

[14] Les banlieues de Dieu (the suburbs of God), Interviews with Luc Balbont and Rachid Benzine, Bayard Éditions, 1998, p. 157.

[15] Ibid., p. 158–159.

[16] See the additional explanations of the letter to Catholics: L’attitude de proposition (the attitude of proposal).

[17] The ecumenical movement is first and foremost represented by the Protestant Christian World Council of Churches in Geneva, whose decisions have « no authority other than that conferred by their own truth and wisdom » (Jean Baubérot, Encyclopaedia Universalis, Œcuménisme (ecumenicalism); online September 23, 2010).

[18] Indeed, the current United Nations (UN) do not yet constitute such a democracy.  See the Agorathèque: « La démocratie mondiale » (global democracy) and Référendum pour une Société de Toutes les Nations (referendum for a society of all nations) or Vers le point Oméga (toward the Omega point).

[19] See Claude Geffré o.p., La théologie des religions ou le salut d’une humanité plurielle (the theology of religions or the salvation of a plural humanity), inRaisons politiques (political reasons) n°4, 2001, p. 104 to 120.

[20] See Tariq Ramadan, 2004 conference in Montreal: Les musulmans d’Occident et l’avenir de l’islam [Western Muslims and the Future of Islam].

[21] At the same conference, Tariq Ramadan stated that « Islamic courts » are « not a priority » and that they do not protect women properly. He was very critical of traditionalists.

[22] Education is an important theme in Tariq Ramadan’s thinking. See Un cas remarquable d’attitude d’aide partielle…(a remarkable case of an attitude of partial assistance)

[23] Tariq Ramadan, Mon intime conviction, Paris, Presses du Châtelet, 2009, p. 39. [What I Believe]

[24] Le christianisme et les religions du monde. Islam, hindouisme, bouddhisme, translation from the German by Joseph Feisthauer, Seuil, 1986, p. 7. [Christianity and World Religions: Paths to Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Orbis Books]

[25] Tariq Ramadan, Musulmans d’Occident. Construire et contribuer (Western Muslims: constructing and contributing), Lyon, Tawhid, 2002, 2004, p. 53.

[26] Rachid Benzine, Les nouveaux penseurs de l’islam (the new thinkers of Islam), Albin Michel, 2004; p. 157. Benzine states that « for the new thinkers, the scientific study of the text of the Koran does not invalidate the religious approach: it complements it, clarifies it and gives it an intellectual basis […] Muslims like to say that, in Islam, there is no conflict between faith and science, or faith and reason » (p. 281–282).

[27] Hans Küng, Le christianisme et les religions du monde. Islam, hindouisme, bouddhisme, translation from the German by Joseph Feisthauer, Seuil, 1986, p. 187. [Christianity and World Religions: Paths to Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, Orbis Books.]