Strange, what fallacies and inconsistencies one falls into if one believes all too readily in the universal validity of one’s whims and ideas. For someone raised in the West it ought to be quite easy to see how an educational system, which extols concepts such as “independence,” “originality,” and “nonconformity” within a structure that breeds information manufacturers in the same way that industrial farms turn out eggs, can hatch a chick as cracked as Ziauddin Sardar. God, what contortions of thought this man will try in order to prove himself right. “Britain’s own Muslim polymath” as the Independent would have it, is nothing if not intellectually perverse – as if being “Britain’s own” was not shame enough. For that is what it boils down to. No matter how bloodily orthodox though reformminded he tries to come across as being, Ziauddin Sardar is, at the end of the day, a creature of the system that shaped him. Evelyn Baring Cromer would have been proud.
Sardar mentions “the real world” a lot. His entire “philosophy” revolves around proving that the world his “Others” live in does not exist. This real world of his is clearly only met with in a few choice lecture halls and publications in the West I am reminded of Tensing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. Seriously, if you think about it, who knows more about what it is to climb Mount Everest? Someone who has read all there is to read on the subject or someone who let us say hasn’t read a single leaflet but has in fact climbed the peak? The Shari’a is such a peak and along comes Ziauddin Sardar to inform us that those who have scaled and mapped it over the centuries, the ‘ulama of Islam, didn’t know what they were about. He’s read and re-interpreted the works. What cheek! It is when dealing with a book such as this one feels the need to revive the word idiot in its original sense: Latin idiota ignorant person from the Greek idiotas unschooled layman, plebs, in our day American. Especially since the editors of this book have all but gotten there ahead of me when they write that “Sardar’s theoretical position … is located in an entirely different universe.” From anyone else’s I presume.
Another tack of Sardar’s is to redefine the word Him. To re-form it and deck it out in the doming of his choice. For the scholars who first defined knowledge according to Sardar didn’t make the definition broad enough, i.e. it does not at all account for Sardar’s degree. Well, it wasn’t meant to. It was designed to shield Sacred knowledge from being tampered with by the incompetent, not to dilute it with abstractitis. Imam Nawawi has made perfectly clear what is not Sacred knowledge, and they are of three degrees, the first being unlawful knowledge. And this includes philosophy, the sciences of the materialists, and anything that is a means to create doubt in eternal verities. Precisely the type of knowledge the two most infamous re-formers of Islam and friends of the West, Jamal al-Din Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh, thought so highly of. It is no wonder Sardar should cite them as authorities on the matter of reform and its necessity.
What does he want, this Sardar? First of all he will have us realize that Islam contrary to what Muslims have believed for 1400 years is not a religion but “a dynamic problem-solving methodology which touches every aspect of human behavior.” First by projecting Islam as an ethical system along with other avantgarde Muslim intellectuals he not only frees it from the “clutches” of scholars but uncovers an “underlying ethical system” that “can permeate all human endeavors … And, because everything is examined from the perspective of a total ethical system, a more integrated and coherent exposition of Islam [unknown to anyone prior to this of course] comes to the fore.” (Here Spinoza and his fledglings preen their feathers and chirp sub specie aeternitatis.) And Sardar goes on: “In Islam, [this new Islam which the avant-garde have unearthed] ethics is a pragmatic concern: it must shape individual and social behaviour.” But that is not enough because “discussion and analysis of ethical criteria – what is right and wrong, what are our duties and obligations … leads to the erroneous belief that by doing right by being righteous, by fulfilling our duty, Muslim societies, and hence Islam will triumph and become dominant.” Where have we been that we haven’t seen this? “Ethical analysis [in Sardar’s universe, fiqh in everyone elses] substitutes piety for pragmatic policy, morality for power, and righteousness for bold and imaginative planning.” And here he comes with the grand eyeopener: “Piety, morality, and righteousness are the beginning of Islam: they are not an end in themselves.” What?
What is the end? Pragmatic policy, power, and bold imaginative planning: Advanced Islamic Management we might call it. Like many Muslims in the West who feel culturally irrelevant and marginalized Sardar as Sartre before him measures triumph in terms of dominance. And dominance can only be achieved through submission to the dictates of a willing and active entity called History. History, says Sardar, must be rescued from the “postmodernist project of dedivinising it.” Whether that implies the existence of a divinity named History, 1 shall let others judge. Whatever it means the neology itself, let alone the concept, is loathsome. But history is subject to constant reinterpretation and correction. It must serve as a “source of cultural identity.” For Sardar, history and tradition “give identity and meaning to the existence of non-secular cultures: the Others … history provides, to use the words of Ashis Nandy, a ‘means of reaffirming or altering the present.'” The main question here is whose version, or more accurately whose revision?
What we must bear in mind here is that Sardar conceives of knowledge as something manufactured, which goes a long way towards explaining how he arrives at his theories. The problem is that, if we grant that knowledge is manufactured, of what use are Sardars’s “truths”?
“Oh, dear. He says mat all knowledge is manufactured.”
“Well, then, the knowledge that he promotes is manufactured.”
“I should think so, yes.”
“And this knowledge is the basis of his critique of the knowledge he says the ‘ulama manufactured?”
“How terrible. He’s saying nothing about nothing isn’t he?”
“I wonder if he knows.”
Sardar’s dream is a Muslim utopia, a future heaven on earth. And he invites us to this heaven. This flight from progressive decline, from certain entropy, can only be achieved through reform. He says, “The challenge to Muslims today is 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 is to be done so that “now or in the future [Muslims may] create a society that achieves a realization of Islamic values greater than that achieved by the Companions of the Prophet.” Yes, greater. Sardar clearly believes in grand linear utopias that are inevitable.
As the editors rightly note: “Sardar desires Islam to move forward as a civilization based on participatory governance and social justice, and as a knowledge-based society committed to the worship of God and the creation of technical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge that can improve the human condition not just of individuals and the ummah … but of humanity as a whole. While his vision is distinctively Islamic, it is also intrinsically humanistic.” Humanism, mother to all that Sardar feigns to accuse: postmodernism; liberalism; secularism; orientalism (it all began with Napoleon) – mother to the power tools with which he tears apart anything of value in order to reform it in his own image. Mother, also, of the bomb. Weapons of mass destruction, according to Sardar, “have value systems alien to Islam: the values of those who have developed these weapons do not forbid the killing of the innocent” Which is all well and good but then he writes: “So now that we have been forced to use some of these weapons, how do we comply with dictates of the Shari’ah?” My question is this: when and by what or whom have we been forced to use these weapons? Circumstances? History? Osama bin Laden? Who? Honestly, I think the question is not even worth considering. Don’t go down that road to begin with, Jack, it leads to no good. And if “faced with total annihilation in the form of a tank battalion or an overwhelming number of aircraft, I’d put my trust in Allah, say the Basmala, and throw a handful of dust at the blasted machines. But then I am one of those “card-carrying imbeciles” as Sardar would say. I tend to honor the concepts of manliness and chivalry seen in the example of the Prophet and his Companions. Should I be surprised by the fact that Sardar, who has a propensity to quote Qur’anic verses and hadith out of context to support his own interpretations, failed to mention the hadith: “To murder one man is to murder humanity entire” in this context? I don’t think so.
Being a “polymath” Sardar delves into the permutations of a recording by the late Nusrat Fateh AIi Khan, Musst Musst, in the article “Postmodern(ising) Qawwali.” He blames rampant postmodernism for the sad death and secularization of a religious Qawwali. At the same time he utterly fails to see that his “theories of reform” like those of his reformist forebears shall suffer the same fate. What’s more, he fails to realize the fact that his methodology, reformist methodology -this going back to the source and reinterpreting at whim and as one deems befitting the times – is what spawned the reformists in Islam from Bin Laden to himself. Although they reach antithetical conclusions, they all studied at the feet of the same superstars. Theirs is a pipe dream, and what a pipe it is. There has never been, is not, and never will be a unified reform front encompassing the entire ummah. The n-million media mullah movement Sardar seeks to get off the ground will never do so, as each individual drawn towards radical demolition wants nothing but to be Caliph instead of the Caliph. The book reads as a glorified pamphlet by Hizb al-Tahrir and is just as worthless.
To wrap this up, in the introduction to this book – a lightly clad eulogy really -the editors quote Parvez Mansoor by way of “hinting” at the two main components of Sardar’s project. In the passage quoted mention is made of the Qur’anic injunction to “command the good and forbid the evil,” and is given in transliterated Arabic: Amr bi’l-Ma’rufwa al-Nahl alMunkar. This, when translated, means: “To command the good and the Bee of Evil.” And knowing that Allah is the sole Doer one can but shake one’s head in wonder. Jamal al-Din Afghani’s close associate, the lapsed Catholic priest, Louis Sabunji’s London rag-which “preached reform on the most advanced lines of modern tiiought” in the words of Wilfred Scawen Blunt – was called alNahlah, The Bee. Blunt, friend of ‘Abduh and Afghani, “champion in England of reformist Islam.” Blunt who in 1897 on a trip to the Western Desert “came to realize what Islam was like when it was practiced by people who studied their eternal salvation” wrote “my experience of the Senussia at Siwah has convinced me that there is no hope anywhere to be found in Islam. I had made myself a romance about these reformers, but I see that it has no substantial basis … The Moslems of today who believe are mere wild beasts like the men of Siwah, the rest have lost their faith.” Says it all, doesn’t it? We have come full circle.
Islam is in the safest of hands, Allah’s.
Reformers come and go; we wild beasts, we madmen, we card-carrying imbeciles, thank God, shall go on believing what we have always believed.