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Voice of reason

Print edition : Jul 04, 2008 T+T-

Ziauddin Sardar’s voice comes as a ray of hope for Muslims who feel that there is a need for reform in the manner in which Islam operates.

Calls for reform in the praxis and conceptual understanding of Islam are not new. Not long after the formation of an Islamic community in the mid-7th century, the first major schism occurred with the partisans of Ali (Shias) breaking away and establishing a separate identity for themselves within Islam. Between the 8th and 12th centuries, when science flourished in the Islamic world, the Mutazalites argued for a rational understanding of faith and differed from their more conservative brethren. Even after the supposed gates of ijtihad (independent interpretation of the Quran) were closed in the 12th and 13th centuries, many Muslims, including Syed Ahmed Khan, argued for reforms that included allowing ijtihad.

However, in the 20th century, the space for reform within Islam gradually shrank owing to two factors. The first was the increasing influence of three Muslim thinkers – Hasan Al Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; Syed Qutb, another leading theoretician of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Syed Abul Ala Maudoodi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami – on the ummah (global Muslim community). The second was the spread of Saudi Wahhabism riding on the wave of oil money.

There have been a few voices in recent times, like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji and Ibn Warraq, who argue for the radical reform of Islam, even though the majority of Muslims are critical of their efforts because of the reliance of these polemicists on systems of knowledge external to Islam. In such a situation, Ziauddin Sardar’s voice is a ray of hope for many Muslims who are believers in the fundamentals of Islam but who would argue that there need to be some serious introspection and reform in the manner in which Islam operates. Sardar writes, “What annoys me about Islam as a whole is the fact that in its current, dominant form, it has way passed its ‘sell by’ date. It has been kept refrigerated for too long. And I say this as a believer!”

Breaking the Monolith is a compilation of his writings published over the past few years. The geography of his intellectual commentary extends across a broad expanse, and rightly so for someone who describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. Sardar, who is Visiting Professor at the School of Arts, City University, London, has won wide appreciation for his prolific writings on Islam and culture. A steadfast critic of American foreign policy and cultural imperialism, he won well-deserved acclaim for his recent work, Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim, where he travels through several Muslim countries and examines contemporary Islam closely.

In Breaking the Monolith, Sardar excels in his thesis that changes within Islam have to be sought by recognising the traditions of humanism and rationality that are two of the defining features of Islam. He writes that Muslims need to rethink Islam from its first principles “...and rebuild Muslim civilisation brick by brick”. The loss of humanity within Islam is a constant grouse in this collection of his writings.

Even extremist Muslims, he writes, must be recognised as being part of the faith and an effort made to recognise the traditions from which they draw sustenance (the Kharijites and Syed Qutb in this case). From this recognition a solution must be sought that conforms to Islam’s rationalist and humanistic traditions. He is disgusted with the form of Islam followed by the Saudis and argues that they have “lost their humanity”, which is the most important part of being Muslim. Sardar identifies himself as a modern-day rational Mutazalite and emphasises that a new synthesis between Islam and secularism needs to be forged.

On Islam and science, Sardar argues that much of the construction of Islamic knowledge has been flawed by the colonial project, which sought to wipe out the notion that Islamic science contributed to the Enlightenment in Europe. Making an epistemological argument, he writes that since Islam claims to be a world system, a weltanschauung by itself, it should develop an autonomous knowledge system rather than seeing the Islamic discipline to be an offshoot of the main discipline. This is a slightly untenable thesis as Sardar uses the example of ‘Islamic economics’ to argue his case. Instead of having ‘Islamic economics’, he argues, Muslims must develop a discipline of economics that is global in outlook but he does not clearly says how this can be done. Describing himself as a Muslim intellectual, he writes that the ummah needs people who can be critical polymaths with a wide understanding across disciplines.

A second distinct theme of Sardar’s writings in this collection is his commentaries on various aspects of culture. He is at his best here when he deconstructs globalisation for the reader. Simply calling it a synonym for Americanisation, he is thoroughly disappointed that India, which was the last bulwark against America’s globalisation with its myriad diversity, has fallen prey to it.

His understanding of various aspects of culture is remarkable as demonstrated by several of his writings in this collection. He argues against globalisation by using the example of Singapore. He also argues that tradition is constantly reinterpreted by using the example of Indian restaurants in the United Kingdom. He coins the word ‘Blitcons’ to define British literary conservatives (Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan) and argues that they are using their public space to endorse American neoconservative strategy. In another place he traces the qawwali and in particular Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Dum musst qualander to argue for the plurality of popular cultures.

Muslims need a voice like Sardar because he does not shy away from accepting some of the serious problems within the religion. Unlike many, he does not seek salvation from outside Islam but argues that the reasons for reform must be sought from within. Sardar accomplishes this because of his deep understanding of the history of Islam and its denouement into our modern and postmodern worlds.

But readers must keep in mind that several of the pieces in the collection of Sardar’s articles and essays are several hundred or a few thousand words in length and though he presents several theses, the space in which they have been argued out is rather limited. So while this collection is a useful primer for a serious scholar interested in understanding the many nuances of contemporary Islam, a discerning academic might well go ahead and read one of Sardar’s books for a thorough and detailed explication of his arguments.