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The quest for an Islamic Enlightenment

By Corinna Lotz

Ziauddin Sardar’s overarching project is to transform Islam and the west both from within and without. Sardar argues for a form of Islam and a balance of civilisations which could lead to an alternative future to that being offered by today’s leaders of the major states. The question is, however, does his critique provide a truly in-depth examination of the dogmas he is challenging?

Shortly after September 11, Ziauddin Sardar spoke for many millions of people, east and west, when he said:

“To be a Muslim nowadays is to live perpetually on the edge, to be constantly bruised and bloodied from the harsh existence at the margins, to be exhausted by the screams of pain and agony that no one seems to hear. We, the Muslims, live in a world that is not of our own making, that has systematically marginalised our physical, intellectual and psychological space, that has occupied our minds and our bodies by brute force.”

Many of the essays in this compilation* were written before September 11, but they examine aspects of thought and culture that remain extremely relevant. September 11 and what Bush and Blair describe as the “war against terror” have given a greater relevance and urgency to Sardar’s quest for a future different from that on offer in the wake of the war against Iraq. Sardar takes on what he calls western thought with a mixture of enthusiasm and anguish. His polemic embraces many aspects of contemporary thought and culture from an Islamic point of view. As so often, the most dynamic voices opposing the prevailing ideology often come from those who live within it, but who have an outsider’s perspective. “While a committed Muslim, he is totally pluralistic,” we learn from his colleagues, Gail Boxall and Sohail Inayatullah. “While orthodox himself, he is out of orthodoxy. While living in the west, he is not of the west,” they say, in the introduction to this collection of writings from 1979 to 2002. They go on to describe Sardar as “the argumentative and demanding voice from the margins, always deliberately on the periphery, that plays havoc with the centre. In this sense, Sardar has placed himself as the Other – the dialectical opposite of the dominant mode of thought and action, whether in the west or internally within Islam”. His overarching project is to transform Islam and the west both from within and without. Sardar argues for a form of Islam and a balance of civilisations which could lead to an alternative future to that being offered by today’s leaders of the major states. The question is, however, does his critique provide a truly indepth examination of the dogmas he is challenging? Does it go beyond “the criticism of weapons” and supply us with the “weapon of criticism”?

Sardar’s Islam is not simply a religion in the narrow sense of the word. For him, as indeed for many Muslims, it is a “worldview, a vision of a just and equitable society and civilisation, a holistic culture”. Sardar wants to extend Islam to make it “an invitation to thought for discovering a way out of the current crisis of modernity and postmodernism”. The Salman Rushdie affair was crucial, he believes, because Khomeini’s fatwa issued on 14 February 1989 “brought not only a death sentence for Rushdie but it also made me redundant as an intellectual for implicit in the fatwa was the declaration that Muslim thinkers are too feeble to defend their own beliefs”. He sees the challenge of being a Muslim today as “the responsibility to harness a controlled explosion, one that will clear the premises of all the detritus without damaging the foundations that would bring down the House of Islam”.

This aim sums up the bottom line. Everything can be challenged and thrown up for debate except the fundamental tenet of every religion – the existence of God. With it comes an instinctive hostility to secularism. His concept of Muslim civilisation, he writes in Reconstructing Muslim Civilisation (1984), “is no more fixed to a particular historic epoch or geographical space than the teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The Muslim civilisation is a historic continuum”. He presents a flower-shaped drawing to illustrate the challenges facing the “ummah” (body of believers). At its core is the Islamic world view. The primary task, he believes, is the “development of a contemporary theory of Islamic epistemology”. For Sardar, epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is “nothing more than an expression of a world view”.

This is a nodal point in opening the discussion for anyone seeking to challenge the ideology of the status quo. He is absolutely right to stress the importance of epistemology, or as he says, “a way of knowing”, “the major operator which transforms the vision of a worldview into a reality”. An emancipation project – liberation from the ideology of the status quo – must disrupt and break up the dogmas which entrap thought in the existing social and political structures. As Sardar writes: “epistemology and societal structures feed on each other”. Here those unfamiliar with Islamic concepts must be ready to have their preconceptions and prejudices broken up.

Sardar sees Shari’ah (or Islamic law) not as the image we have received from the media – barbaric forms of punishment carried out in the Saudi Kingdom, by the Taleban and other rulers. He actually condemns the “blind following” of Shari’ah rulings from the past which he says threatens to “suffocate the very civilisation of Islam”. Instead he believes the Shari’ah should be set free to allow it to develop as “the primary contribution of Muslim civilisation to human development” – a problem-solving methodology. What he doesn’t examine in any convincing way is how and why Shari’ah is used to justify the practices of stoning “adultresses”, cutting off limbs and executions, or indeed the oppression of women and minorities. Indeed, the connection of the “fundamentalist” interpretation of Islam with the rule of clans, tribes and cliques in places like Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan is not explored or examined. It is simply dismissed as an oversimplified view of the Shari’ah.

Sardar analyses the rise of what he calls “mindless fundamentalism” as a reaction to “imported and imposed European nationalism and modernity,” which, he writes, “disenfranchised a large segment of the global Muslim community – the ummah – and took it to extremes of poverty and social and cultural dislocation. Fundamentalism emerged as a gut reaction against modernity and pushed more extreme elements in Muslim communities to the other extreme”. Thus the rise of what Sardar calls “Islam-as-fundamentalism” was in response to what Sardar rightly describes as the transformations of the last decades, the largest material changes human life has ever experienced . He insists that those who suppress ethnic minorities in the name of a national majority are planting the seeds of their own destruction. He sees the answer to this, and the “Eurocentric” outlook as a reform of Islamic thought, transcending “all cultural boundaries and not limited and confined by a single parochial outlook”.

But here, as everywhere in Sardar’s body of thought, the political and cultural constructs are presented in what becomes, in the last analysis, a free-floating limbo. He summarises the different challenges that faced various national and Islamic reform movements in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and Pakistan. He condemns them all for taking “European political theory with the nation-state as its base” as the model to follow. But what were the underlying historical and social forces which gave rise to these national movements? Sardar refers to “western economics”, but he does not define what that economics is. It is of course, the capitalist economic system, but this is not stated explicitly. Instead we have the use of the word “western” and “European” to cover a multitude of sins.

And here we arrive at the nub of the problem. Just as political movements are seen largely as devoid of an economic environment, so Sardar’s view of the problems of the intelligentsia are separated from the social history of civilisation. The existence of social classes and class conflict never enters his account. His erudite description of “the making and unmaking of Islamic culture” describes the flourishing and decline of Islamic culture of its golden age from an open to a closed society, but we are never shown the social or economic reasons for its decline. Sardar freezes the opposites “Muslim and non-Muslim”, “west and nonwest” into generalised abstractions. These are pasted over complex social realities and obscure the real course of events. The idea of a total separation of culture and ideas which fall neatly into “west” and “nonwest” is simply not a real description of the course of history. Sardar actually admits as much himself when he writes about Malaysia and Singapore:

“Global capitalism…. Does not really care whether I am Muslim, Christian, secularist, Pakistani, male, black or whatever: it simply demands that I buy.”

The idea of a “pure” culture, whether Islamic or western is in any case a nonsense. Art, science and technology – civilisation in fact – invariably arise from a co-mingling of the discoveries and achievements of many cultures. The great Islamic mathematicians, between 900 and 1300 AD, for example, drew their knowledge from ancient Greek and Hindu scholars before them. They were able to do this only after the ruling caliphs and wealthy individuals paid for Arabic translations of Greek and Hindu research to be created at centres like the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. The Greek mathematicians in turn had drawn on Babylonian and Egyptian discoveries.

Sardar wants an Islamic Enlightenment but he joins with the same post-modernists he takes delight in deriding. For Sardar the Enlightenment is essentially a western rationale whose purpose is solely for the imperialist colonisation of the non-west. The achievements of the philosophers, mathematicians and theoreticians of the 17th and 18th Centuries are not associated, in this view, with any advance in the social knowledge of humanity. It is a little strange for someone as familiar as Sardar with the history of mathematics to forget that the Italian mathematicians of the early Renaissance built heavily on the discoveries of the Muslim thinkers that preceded them and whose culture is enshrined in the language of mathematics to this day in words such as algebra and algorithm. Sardar, for example, depicts “Modernity”, as the “European imperial adventure that began with Columbus and has its roots in the 17th century philosophical movement dubbed ‘the Enlightenment’.”

Even while reverting periodically to the often stale terms of “modernity” and “post-modernity” Sardar sees the world in constant movement as an interconnected and interdependent unity, a refreshingly holistic point of view. But this outlook is limited to a reformist approach. In the one paragraph where he discusses revolutionary transformation openly, he dismisses the idea as simply “replacing one tyranny with another”, as a “single act of violence”. The way that Sardar recognises the importance of thinkers like Karl Marx provides a fascinating insight into the strengths and weakness of his outlook. “There is,” he writes, “perhaps no more poignant example of how an intellectual who was influenced by other intellectuals finally reaches down even to the most remote peasant.” In this way he recognises the supreme importance of theoretical struggle but overlooks the fact that Marx didn’t only spend most of his life in libraries. Sardar’s idealised view of the intelligentsia manages to miss the historical fact that Marx was deeply engaged with others in the practical revolutionary struggle to build political movements.

In fact, Sardar believes that what he calls “the grand narrative of secularism” has also been a failure. He makes an urgent call for a united front between Muslims and Christians against what he calls “the fire of secularism”. He views postmodernism as a dangerous form of secularism which undermines religion. He believes that the religious outlook is in deep crisis – believers are “on the verge of extinction”, he told an audience in 1990. But while Sardar dislikes the secular aspect of postmodernism, he joins enthusiastically with many postmodernists in rejecting what they both refer to as “metanarratives” – the materialist and historical explanations provided by a Marxist approach. Just as he uses “west” as another word for globalised corporate capitalism when it is convenient, he identifies postmodernism with corporate capitalism, but only when it suits his particular argument! For example, he writes:

“After consigning living history to archaeological sites, satirising it into ‘magical realism’, postmodernism transforms tradition into a commodity and markets it as such...The search for Roots often ends up as a television series: as a series of images or pastiche, of some romantic past.”

He then goes on to deconstruct this process in witty comments on consumer capitalist marketing and image making.

One of the most important areas of Sardar’s thought is his investigation of futures studies. He sees the future as already colonised, “an occupied territory whose liberation is the most pressing challenge for the peoples of the non-west if they are to inherit a future made in their own likeness”. He denounces the new industry of futures studies for simply looking forward to a time when “corporations will continue to dominate and they will have new theories and tools to maintain their domination”. But then the same lumping together that characterises Sardar’s method takes over:

“The future is being colonised by yet another force. Conventionally this force was called ‘westernisation’, but now it goes under the rubric of ‘globalisation’. It may be naïve to equate the former with the latter – but the end product is the same.”

He identifies globalisation with liberal democracy and a “total embrace of western culture”. But surely we are experiencing the universalising process of global capitalism rather than “western civilisation and culture” here. The corporations have no trouble absorbing and digesting many “traditional” lifestyles and traditions. Indeed in the frenzied need to seduce consumers, they need to incorporate and reflect them in their products, as we have seen in the music industry and advertising using “ethnic and streetwise culture”. Muslim women may chose to wear veils with Nike logos, drink Coca Cola and eat McDonalds burgers and other products made by global corporations, “western” and “non-western” owned ones.

If we want an alternative future to the rule of the global corporations, we need to identify things clearly. Otherwise we could succumb to the gloomy scenario which Sardar conjures up, of a “new kind of colonisation that goes beyond physical and mental occupation to the seizure of our being and hence total absorption”. He is right to demand that “futures studies must be openly incomplete and unpredictable, and must thus function as an intellectual movement rather than a closed discipline, working in opposition to the dominant politics and culture of our time. But, in Sardar’s eclectic mix, there follows a demand to “resist and critique science and technology (the most powerful agents of change and thought), globalisation (the most powerful process of change and thought) and linear, deterministic projections (the official orthodoxy) of the future itself”.

As so often, a strong thought lies side by side with a hopelessly retrograde one. He calls for only “resistance” to the very forces which we must capture and liberate from the control of the global corporations. Science and globalisation are, it is true, largely at the service of and under the control of corporations. But they are created and sustained by ordinary mortals, workers and professional people, who all suffer from the extreme alienation which Sardar describes so well. Sardar rejects the idea that “culture is what people do”, saying it is a “a mental outlook, a world view”. But in reality, culture is both what people do and how they see things. The mental and physical are brought together in the social practice of millions of human beings to create cultures.

Contrary to Sardar – it is not simply “the west versus the Muslim world” – Muslims are not the only Other. Knowledge and society are actually bigger than notions of west and non-west. Sardar’s idea of The Other tends to be defined and constrained by the very postmodern notions that he criticises. In other words, the Other is seen as permanently oppressed, on the margins, never to be transformed into the Other of itself. We need to develop a view of the Other which is the Other of global capitalism. The corporate-led globalisation process shows the potential is there is to look after the planet and its inhabitants. Human history is not simply the result of the quest for profit. Our individual and social existence provides evidence of this, with or without the belief in God or an afterlife. It is possible to understand and modify the world in which we live along other lines.

“Religious suffering” Marx wrote, “is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. The idea that we cannot alter this “heartless world” in a fundamental way is itself a dogma which could imprison us. The biggest challenge is to unite the vast majority of people who are alienated by the forces of global capitalism and appropriate what should be ours in any case. Sardar is absolutely right to stress the key role of a “world view”. This means being ready to question our own assumptions, extending our knowledge and being aware of what we do – in other words, understanding the role of theory as a transforming agent. We must search for the answers to the questions he asks if we are to challenge and change the status quo. Sardar’s writings are an excellent contribution to this discussion.

* Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures, A Ziauddin Sardar Reader, Pluto Press £14.99 paperback

This article was first published in Socialist Future Review Summer 2003

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