Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim

Ziauddin Sardar. London, Granta, 2004. 354 pp., hb. £16.99, ISBN 1862076502.

This is less an autobiography than a memoir of the international Islamic scene of the last thirty-five years by Britain’s best-known Muslim intellectual. Yet if it describes a circumscribed arena, Sardar’s tale also describes the most intimate search of all: the quest for Paradise. But how is one to get there: through pious devotion, mystical experience, the struggle for social justice and a utopian politics, or the pursuit of knowledge? Sardar tries all these avenues and remains fundamentally dissatisfied with them, but between bouts of despondency, particularly about what he sees as the dire condition of the umma, he manages to rekindle his interest and begin his quest for Paradise anew. Scepticism only provokes Sardar to continue with his search, which is, he implies, what really matters.

Sardar has been an active participant in debates on post-colonialism, cultural studies and science, both in academia and the media, but the book hardly refers to these, which may give the false impression that his scepticism applies only to conservative Islamic orthodoxy. His approach is such that it is hard to ascertain whether or not the reader is being purposefully drawn to the conclusion that Sardar’s flippant pugnacity is best explained by his stated fondness for the irreverent Mulla Nasruddin — the popular and beloved scourge of foolish imams and vain tyrants. Revealingly, Sardar’s only mystical experience occurs during a visit to the Mulla’s mausoleum in Turkey.

Sardar recalls the naïve optimism of the 1960s when young Muslims felt themselves to be in the vanguard of an Islamic civilizational renaissance. But the polyglot eclecticism of the Muslim student scene in 1960s London gave way to the dead weight of Saudi funding which allowed conservative Islamist elements to stifle this nascent intellectual dynamism at birth. Sardar’s tale of the next thirty years is one of a long struggle to define an independent space for a rigorous and committed Islamic engagement with modernity, although his account of the 1990s is frustratingly thin. Bosnia, which had a significant impact on the self-perception of British Muslims, goes unmentioned.

This is an honest, witty account, peppered with unexpurgated portraits of the greater and lesser-known personalities of international Islam (with an excursus into 1970s counter-cultural Sufism), which is bound to ruffle the feathers of friends and foes alike. In particular, Sardar does not spare Ismail Raji al-Faruqi (d. 1986) or Kalim Siddiqui (d. 1996), both erstwhile gurus-turned-rivals. He also reveals the inside story of the Ijmalis, a loose collection of Muslim intellectuals who acted as gadflies to the rigidities of the Islamic movement, enjoying their greatest influence through the 1980s magazine Afkar. But beyond the intense competition for funding and recognition, we should recognize that matters of principle were at issue, not least a struggle between authoritarianism and freedom of thought. And on big issues like this, Sardar has clearly been on the side of the angels.

It is clear that even in Muslim London there was precious little intellectual space because of the Saudi–Iranian contest for Islamic leadership, the expectation of propagandistic lip service for funding, the natural conservatism of Muslim religious leadership, and the painful Islamophobic counter-reactions to pivotal events like the Rushdie affair and the Iranian revolution. Sardar dissects with much humour the aridity of the international Islamist conference circuit of the 1970s and 1980s when there was so much misplaced hope in the ‘Islamization of knowledge’ project. This account also confirms the impression that Islamic modernism is still a marginalized endeavour that is all-too-dependent upon the support of capricious, half-hearted paymasters in much of the Muslim world; but, with ups and downs, two genuine exceptions appear to be Turkey and Malaysia.

Jonathan Birt
Islamic Foundation, Leicester, UK

[This review has been reproduced with the permission of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and the online PDF can be accessed here.]