The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism

Tariq Ramadan is a feted thinker, but his argument
for the equal value of all faiths is clothed in

The noted Muslim preacher, philosopher and Oxford academic Tariq Ramadan invites us to join him on a journey. We are promised an exploration of the bottomless ocean of ancient wisdom, through various religious, mystical, spiritual and secular traditions. We are asked to put our differences aside, to rise above and move beyond our obvious "conflict of perceptions". It will be a quest to help us rediscover our humanity and it will give meaning to our lives.

The journey begins well enough. Ramadan points out that we have a rather restricted view of reality: we see through our own "window", but there are countless other windows, other ways of perceiving and understanding the world. The binary logic of the west confines one to a single window. To get a wider perspective, it is necessary to transcend the limitations of reason and rationality. We need to see not just through our minds but also through our hearts. "The science of the heart," Ramadan writes, "is not the science of reason."

The first truth we must acknowledge, Ramadan asserts, is that of intellectual modesty and humility. Our own perception of truth, scientific or otherwise, is only a single viewpoint over the horizon. Our own religion or way of life is a partial, often distorted, reflection of the Truth. We should not take our partial images as certainties and delude ourselves that we know everything, or have found ourselves. "The dogmatic spirit," he writes, "confuses its exclusive convictions with the oceans of quests and human truths."

True meaning can come only from appreciating the Whole. The ocean has countless shores, all waiting to be explored, all offering distinctly different perspectives on the cosmos. It is the plurality of perceptions that shapes our common humanity. This is the core of Ramadan's "philosophy of pluralism".

But Ramadan's pluralism requires more than simple acknowledgment of diversity. He insists that meaning can emerge only by experiencing plurality. To be fully human, we must share the truth of others. Only "by immersion in the object per se", he writes, will we "be able to meet human beings, or subjects, with their traditions, religions, their philosophies, their aesthetics and/or their psychologies". It is at this juncture that the journey becomes a little confusing. The "ocean" of wisdom seems to yield little beyond trite statements. All explorations of the truth, all varieties of religious exploration, lead to the same destination, he tells us. Stating the obvious with a sense of discovery is neither original nor philosophy. If all paths "lead to the heart", one could ask, why choose one over the other?

Ramadan is content to state that notions of equality, freedom and humanity belong to all religious traditions and all philosophies. But within each tradition these notions are understood differently and engender different consequences. Equality in Islam, which argues that all men are created from Adam, is unlike equality in Hinduism, with its beliefs in the caste system. Similarly, the idea of freedom in religious traditions, with restrictions on the behaviour of women, for example, is at odds with ideas of freedom we find in secular philosophies. And virtually all systems of belief and thought have a particular notion of what it means to be human. One cannot generate a "philosophy of pluralism" just by stating that these notions are common to all traditions.

Moreover, not all ancient wisdom is, in fact, wisdom. Many axioms that Ramadan quotes uncritically have passed their sell-by date. "The past is the future," he states with confidence. That may well have been true when change was quasi-static and we lived in isolated communities. But in a globalised, interconnected world, where change is not only rapid but accelerating, the future will look nothing like the past.

It is equally inane to state that the wise men of religion did not see a boundary between the sacred/profane and the secular. What does it mean? Are we saying that the sacred and the secular are one and the same? Or that we recognise that the sacred sometimes incorporates the profane, and the profane can lead to the sacred? Is this a synthesis that produces a new politics, or an amalgamated, totalitarian construction, as is evident in so many "Islamic states"?

“The quest for meaning," Ramadan tells us, "is a quest for peace." Not necessarily. It could be a quest for fulfilment - at the expense of others. Or an invitation to consumerism. It could easily be an expedition for war. The point is that you can find meaning in almost anything. It all depends on the meaning you are seeking.

The author never pauses to analyse the statement he is making - and in a few places seems to be completely out of his depth. A good example is the all-too-brief discussion of science, reason and faith. The goal of science, he reasons, is to discover truth and reality. It is nothing of the sort: the purpose of science is to solve problems, and to construct models that may tell us something about how the material world works. "A rational description of faith has already ceased to be faith," he says. If this is true, then faith is not amenable to any kind of rationality. Thus, almost any injustice can be justified in the name of faith.

To support his argument about faith and reason, Ramadan uses the example of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, the philosophical novel by the 12th-century Andalusian philosopher Ibn Tufayl. But the novel reaches exactly the opposite conclusion. Hayy, the hero of the novel, comes to realise that there is a God by using his reason and observing his desert island environment. Ibn Tufayl's message is simple and direct: you need thought, not miracles, or obscurantist beliefs or the perpetual deconstruction of the self, to recognise and appreciate the divine. Hence, his hero rejects mysticism - the very thing that Ramadan is propagating.

The metaphor of the ocean is overworked. The ocean represents a journey; it is a quest. The ocean is time; it has windows. Finally, we discover that the ocean is a mirror. It all boils down to the self ("the self went to the self, the 'me' to the 'me', and our mirror-voyage took us to the edge of the ocean-mirror") and numerology. The figure 7, Ramadan announces triumphantly, is a universal symbol. We find it in every tradition: the seven chakras of Hinduism, the seven vessels of the Christian God, the seven verses of the Opening to the Quran, even the seven days of the week. So that settles it. All we need is to love each other and gather around the figure 7. This is why, Ramadan says, this book has 14 chapters, representing two cycles of seven. He then insults the intelligence of his readers by asking us to ponder whether this is a coincidence or "the product of a will".

The author concludes by asking: "How can we describe this book and how can we define the mind that conceived and produced it?" One can describe the book as slightly above Paulo Coelho, whom he quotes favourably, but definitely sub-Alain de Botton. Essentially, this is philosophy as candyfloss. A "mind" described by Time magazine as belonging to "one of the most important innovators of the 21st century" could, and ought to, produce something much more profound.

The Quest for Meaning: Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism
Tariq Ramadan
Allen Lane, 224pp, £14.99

Ziauddin Sardar's most recent book is “Balti Britain: a Journey through the British Asian Experience" (Granta Books, £9.99)

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 09 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The first 100 days

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis