To negotiate the vague and tangled pathways of the odd parallel universe where Tariq Ramadan - the Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford's Faculty of Theology - holds sway is an unsettling experience. It is to find oneself in a realm where common words, such as "reform" or "ethics" or even "universe", mean both more and less than they say, often simultaneously. His is a coded discourse. Here even solecism serves. He can write "toward He whom" but this - despite Ramadan's often muddled English - probably isn't the clumsy error it seems: behind "He" lurks the Arabic personal pronoun Huwa, a common designation for God in pious texts. Since there is no self-standing accusative pronoun in Arabic, English grammar must be twisted into submission.
Even the title of his new book is artfully misleading. The phrase "radical reform" raises high expectations, suggesting a bold attempt to strike at the "root" of a stubborn intransigence. But, as it turns out, Ramadan means something quite different. For the reform he proposes addresses the theoretical jurisprudence of Islam, known in Arabic as "the roots of the law" (usul al-fiqh), as opposed to "the branches" (furu' al-fiqh) - the specific practical rulings enunciated by judges and legal experts.
Such a project would be admirable, as well as brave, if carried through. Islam - in this, like Judaism - is intensely legalistic. Its religious scholars have almost all been jurists by training, and those theoretical "roots" sustain disciplines as lofty as Koranic exegesis and as mundane as the issuance of fatwas. A fresh examination, let alone a reform, of the "roots" of Islamic law could have momentous consequences, and not only for Muslims. But in fact, Ramadan stands in a long line of Islamic reformers, beginning with the brilliant Egyptian theologian Muhammad ‘Abduh and his shadier sidekick Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in the late 19th century, who advocate "reform" less as a way of ushering Islam into the modern world than as a means of insulating it from deleterious "Western" influences. Ramadan shares this agenda but with a crucial difference. He espouses a reform that replaces "adaptation" with "transformation". Muslims should no longer merely accommodate modernity as best they can in anxious conformity with their beliefs but strive to transform the modern world, infusing it with Islamic values.