Ziauddin Sardar and the quest for Paradise
Ziauddin Sardar's autobiographical Desperately Seeking Paradise : Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim is delightful reading. Sardar is described as a gross liberal distortion of Islam, and a grave threat to real understanding by much of the mainstream Muslim opinion and blogosphere. However his work is refreshing and he represents a very broad and existent Muslim opinion. I will attempt to offer my own thoughts on the subject and highly recommend the book. I am not a literary critic and this is not an academic review. As my views on Art in this paradigm follow those of the South African poet Willie Kgositsile, I am more interested in the issues than the language.
Sardar traces his relationship and understanding of many of the Islamic and Muslim movements, from the tablighis, to the Ikhwan, the Kemalist secularists and the Neo-Salafi. With his brilliant pen and British wit, he spares none. More interestingly, his criticism on many counts is representative of how many Muslims (even those sympathetic to the movements) feel.
The critical writing however, is not polemical and I felt that it is rather a necessary part of a process of review and judgement. Sardar had been part of the UK Muslim youth group FOSIS, which gave him the chance to interact with many of the defining personalities and thoughts. He describes dining with Malcolm X, and discussions with Ikhwan ideologues. His thoughts are those of a Muslim searching for real world answers, broadly devoted to the cause, but very critical. The "Paradise" being a metaphor for the goals of a socio-political Islamic ideal.
His personal encounters give deliciously simple details from a souk in Fez, a dream on Hodja Nasruddin's tomb, a street in Dubai, or a basement khanqah in London. The only issue that I will publicly take with his stories is his description of a proposal by a Chinese Muslim academic. I think it was in bad taste for Sardar to write about that episode and harm the privacy of a Muslim lady, or anyone else for that matter.
Broadly, his is a defence and championing argument for the pluralist and liberal faction of the Islamic movement. Towards the end of the book, you can smell the blood and the feel the crush as this faction is thrown out of its last trenches, and still see a new beginning as it settles down again, may be wiser and more determined. On one count however, I challenge Sardar's thesis, or at least one implication. In reviewing Imam Ghazali's work, Sardar offers his thoughts on the Mutazila, almost showing the Mutazila movement as a lost answer. The themes of Paradise, peace, and the Muslim sub-conscious memory of Andalus as a lost Paradise do play to favour the Mutazila symbols in Sardars book. However, I think that the Ash'ari phiosophy has been widely accepted by Muslims today, and I feel that theologically it is where I feel comfortable. I do not mean to say that Sardar writes a Mutazilite propaganda material, it is better if you read and find out for yourself. From within the secure and theologically sound fortress of mainstream Muslim, Ash'ari thought should arise a moderate, humane and liberal Islamic movement. Overall however, it is a song of justice, love, and revolution that I hear in Sardar's book, immensely enjoy.
ps. Another good work is his co-authored Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair.