Soeryo Winoto, Kurniawan Hari, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
15th October 2006

One of the world’s foremost Muslim intellectuals, Zianuddin Sardar, recently came to Indonesia to participate in the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, which he said was an important event to promote civil society.

Despite his tight schedule, he made time to sit down with The Jakarta Post for an interview, sharing his thoughts on various issues, including his latest book, Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim. “Paradise is here and now. It’s a real human place. A place where at the end of the day justice, law and morality prevail,” he told the Post’s Soeryo Winoto and Kurniawan Hari.

“If you deny the rights of men, you’re not going to fulfill the right of God. You have to begin with yourself and the people around you,” said the Pakistani-born British writer. Sardar, who has published over 40 books on various aspects of Islam, science policy, cultural studies and related subjects, and once wrote columns for two British publications, The Observer and The New Statesman, also criticized Muslim fundamentalists who, according to him, claim to know and even own the truth. “They think they don’t only believe the truth but know and own the truth. If you own the truth, then your are God. They behave like they are divine creatures who have the right to impose what they believe on others. To me, that negates everything that Islam stands for,” he said.

The following are excerpts of the interview:

Q. Do you think paradise exists?

A. The answer is yes and no. Let me explain. First of all, as a Muslim, we do believe that we are accountable for what we do in this world. And there is going to be a final judgment or a final account of how good or bad we have been in this world. And the reward is, you know, paradise or not. That paradise need not be a physical place, in my opinion. In fact, it exists. In the book itself, it is essentially used as a metaphor. Within Islamic traditions there are various descriptions of what paradise is. But in the Holy Koran, paradise is very much a metaphysical and metaphorical construction. Therefore, it is left to imagination. For me, paradise amounts to a just and equitable place. As a writer, I always look for a just and equitable place. You always seek justice and equality.

Some say that paradise is just a term for an abstract place in the hereafter.
Well, it is an abstract place in the hereafter. That is true. I agree with that. But I also think that paradise is here and now. We tend to seek paradise as a mental construction.

This is not something unique to Muslims. In Western culture, we have the idea of utopia from Thomas Moore. There is the quest for utopia. But the problem with utopia, as the word implies, is that it is no place for no people. I am looking for a real place with real people. In a sense, my paradise is not a perfect utopian place. It’s a real human place. A place where at the end of the day justice, law and morality prevail.

Q. Do you think all Muslims are aware of the existence of paradise and that they are all preparing for it?

A. Muslims are preparing for accountability. All Muslims have a very strong notion of accountability before God. But the interesting thing is Muslims have a strong notion of accountability before God but they don’t seem to have a strong notion of accountability before men. If you deny the rights of men, you’re not going to fulfill the right of God. You have to begin with yourself and the people around you. The love of God stems from the love of fellow men.

It seems to me that Muslims become too obsessed with the right of God at the expense of the right of fellow beings. We pay a great deal of attention to rituals but we pay no attention to things like the rights of women, gender equality or poverty eradication, or economic development. Why? Because we don’t think these have anything to do with Islam. We only think that the things that have something to do with Islam are going to the mosque, going for haj, fasting or giving alms.

Q. Do you think each Muslim can gauge if he or she is going to paradise or not?

No. Nobody can do that, only God decides. You may think that you are the most pious Muslim in the world and you deserve a place in paradise. But you cannot say, only God decides. You may think that somebody else is very bad and is going to hell. But God may send him to paradise. It is God’s decision. You cannot say that. There is a famous teaching in the Hadith (a compilation of Prophet Muhammad’s deeds) about a prostitute who gave water to a dying dog. She goes to paradise because of one act of kindness. It is quoted in the book. So, you don’t know. As a Muslim you have to constantly seek forgiveness. You also need constantly to seek forgiveness of fellow Muslims and other humans. We often tend to forget that.

Q. Is it right to say that paradise is the final goal for all Muslims?

A. I think the final goal for all Muslims is to seek the pleasure of Allah. If I were given a paradise which keeps me from the pleasure of Allah, I wouldn’t be very happy. For me, paradise is not just something that happens in the hereafter. Paradise is also something that happens now. I need to work out how in my daily life can I seek the pleasure of Allah.

In various ways the Koran tells us. I can seek the pleasure of Allah if, for example, I think, I reflect, I use my reason, I study nature. I can seek the pleasure of Allah if, for example, I am kind, generous and merciful toward my fellow man. I can seek Allah’s pleasure if I try to make my environment clean and healthy. To me all these activities take me close to paradise. Paradise is not just after I die. But, here and now as well. I need to do all these things.

If my Islam is reduced to nothing more than just praying and fasting then I am living in one dimension. In general, life is multidimensional. Most Muslims tend to live one dimensional lives. They don’t look at others. They try to impose one dimensional lives on others. We have fanaticism, violence and terrorism. They think they don’t only believe the truth but know and own the truth. If you own the truth, then you are God. They behave like they are divine creatures who have the right to impose what they believe on others. To me, that negates everything that Islam stands for.

Q. Do you consider yourself a moderate Muslim?

A. I think of myself as liberal or moderate. But I am also a fundamentalist. There are certain things fundamental about Islam. For example, what defines me as a Muslim is the fact that I believe the Koran is the word of God. That is very fundamental to my belief. If I don’t believe it, I am not a Muslim.

I believe that Prophet Muhammad is the messenger of God. More than that he is the ideal example for me to follow. Again, this is fundamental. By that doesn’t mean I have to live in a desert and cover my head or have a beard. What I need is that I have to capture his characteristics, his generosity and his forgiveness. He (Muhammad) believed in consultation. As a prophet he needed no consultation but he always went to the mosque and consulted with people. We have to learn the principle, not the appearance. You can have the longest beard in the world, but that does not make you the follower of the Prophet in my opinion.

Q. How do you see relations between moderate Muslims and militants in Britain and other parts of the world?

A. The militants are very few and marginal. The vast majority of Muslims in Britain are moderate and liberal — and conservative. The militants are marginal. However, the danger the tiny minority represents cannot be ignored. I think this tiny minority represents real danger. Something needs to be done by bringing them to the mainstream and having a dialog. I believe you cannot ignore these people. We need to engage these people, somehow. The more we ignore these people the more invisible they become to society. The more invisible, the more dangerous they become. The more visible we can make them, the less threatening they will be. We can make them visible by talking with them. We have to find the language to talk with them.

Q. What is the cause of the increasing Islamic militancy?

I think there are two causes. The first is the external cause that is the foreign policies of the U.S. and Britain. A number of reports from intelligence services like the CIA and various British sources said that Iraq has contributed to (increasing) militancy and terrorism. What happened in Lebanon recently is also important (in increasing terrorism).

There is also the internal reason. Puritanism has made a major return in Muslim society. Perhaps, this has not existed for a very long time. This puritanism, fanaticism, is a result of not being able to engage with modernity. Indonesian Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir has no understanding of what power is in the contemporary world or modernity. Everything is seen from a simple slogan: Islam is the answer and the Koran is the law.

This is basically a very stupid mistake. If Islam is the answer, what is the question? If you don’t understand the question, how are you going to come up with answers. The kind of fundamentalism he represents is all slogans with no programs. The only program is violence and imposing their own will because they cannot talk to people. There is no reason behind their idea.

This particular failure is very serious and Muslims need to engage with modernity. We need to understand the complexity of the world. We need to understand that power nowadays comes from a number of different sources. Contemporary power is based on knowledge and structure. Unless a society produces knowledge, it does not even understand itself. If a society cannot understand itself, how can it understand other societies and other cultures.

Knowledge is an absolutely essential requirement for any kind of power in contemporary society. Knowledge is not something that you can pursue in one day or one hour. It must be pursued perpetually. Knowledge is the notion of civil society. Without civil society, no country can have power. Look at the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a nuclear power and was supposed to be a super-power, but it had no civil society. It imploded.

You cannot have power of any kind unless you have a civil society, where individuals are respected as individual so they can pursue knowledge with total freedom, build institutions and transact business. Unless there is civil society, there won’t be the dynamism needed to build a super-power. Look at Muslim countries. The country with the most power now is Turkey. It has practiced democracy for a long time. It has a strong civil society and strong economy. It is a knowledge-producing society. It is the most powerful Muslim country in the world, not because of its military but because of its civil society.

Q. Are you saying that moderate Muslim scholars should have a dialog with militants?

A. I think dialog is essential. The first word of the Revelation of the Koran is: “Read!” When you read, you immediately ask questions and think. If you ask questions and think, you must talk to people. So dialog is a central component of Islam. If you look at the Koran, the Koran is asking questions from beginning to end — just a series of questions. Have you not done this, have you not talked about that.

The Koran consistently asks questions, so that believers can ask similar questions to each other and discuss them. Maybe they agree or disagree. Sometimes they make a consensus, or ijma. This is how we define knowledge. Ijma involves everybody. It involves Basyir, the President and everybody in between.

So, a group of Muslims cannot do things unilaterally. No matter how strong they feel. Society has consensus on their opinion then they carry on. If the society don’t make a consensus, they can agree or disagree and live with that. But I don’t understand these people who constantly talk of Islam and sharia, or Islamic law. But basically in their behavior and actions, they have no respect for Islam.

Q. Indonesia has moderate Muslims and a democracy, but at the same time corruption is rampant. How do you see this?

A. I believe Indonesia will become a great democracy. But the democratic tradition here is only a few years old. You have democracy but you don’t have civil society. Part of the goal of Muslims should be to create a civil society. To create institutions. Muslims who want to be politically engaged should really be engaged in creating civil society. They can teach citizens about democracy, elections, representation, and qualification of representatives.

Politics for Indonesia has to be the construction of civil society. Politics in Indonesia is not about building an imaginary utopian Islamic state. Politics in Indonesia is about creating civil society. All the energy and attention of Muslim politicians should be directed to this. If the fanatics are really concerned about Islam, they should be helping to create a civil society.

An Islamic state and civil society don’t go hand in hand. They are opposite. If you look at the Islamic states of Saudi Arabia, Iran or Sudan, they don’t have civil society.
They violate everything that I believe Islam stands for — human dignity, political accountability. They promote injustice and they are oppressive. They reduce Islam to one dimension. No system can exist in a single dimension. If you plant the same crops year after year, after seven years you kill the soil. Even the soil has different cultures and different crops.