Jonathan Laurence is Assistant Professor of Political
Science at Boston College and an Affiliated Scholar at the Brookings Institution's
Center on the United States and Europe. He is a co-author, with Justin Vaisse, of
Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France.
Most Westerners have a pretty clear idea of what comes to the mind of a Danish cartoonist when he imagines the Prophet Muhammad. They also have a good idea of what comes to the mind of a cave-dwelling Taliban fighter or an al Qaeda operative. Tariq Ramadan, however, is mortified by the caricatures that have shaped public perceptions of the man to whom Allah revealed the Koran in 610. Accordingly, the prolific Swiss-born theologian, who has become both a media star and a lightning rod for controversy, has made it his mission to change the way both Muslims and non-Muslims view Islam.
In the Footsteps of the Prophet is Ramadan's loving portrait of Muhammad, but it is also a biography written with the instincts of a savvy publicist. Beneath the book's somewhat dull exterior -- essentially a highlight reel of the Prophet's sayings and doings over 23 years of revelation -- lies a pointed agenda: to reappropriate and redefine Islam's message and messenger for Muslim minorities and the Western societies in which they live. Muhammad could have hoped for no more sympathetic an advocate than Ramadan to counter all the bad press.
Ramadan aims to weaken the distinction between the Muslim world (dar al-Islam) and everywhere else -- "the lands of war" (dar al-harb). That is, he wants Muslims in the West to see themselves not as an aggrieved minority in hostile territory but as equal members of Western society, with full rights and full responsibilities. To understand the role Ramadan hopes to play, it helps to read In the Footsteps of the Prophet on three levels. First, it is a thoughtful retort to the humanist newspaper editors -- and those "ex-Muslims" whom Timothy Garton Ash has called "fundamentalists of the enlightenment" -- who malign Islam through unfair caricature. Second, it is a theological housecleaning aimed at literalists from Muhammad ibn Abd-al-Wahhab (founder of the Saudi-based Wahhabi movement) to Ayman al-Zawahiri (al Qaeda's chief theologian). And finally, it is a cautious demonstration to
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