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The Beginning of Knowledge


Ziauddin Sardar was born in Pakistan and brought up in Hackney, London by his Moslem parents. He’s a writer and lecturer whose fascination with the history and philosophy of his faith has taken around the world in search of a form of Islam  that will take Islam into a more consensual, reasoned future.  He has charted his search in some forty books, and early in 2004 published his autobiography, “Desparately Seeking Paradise". 

Most Muslims learn their Koran from their mothers, and if the mothers are not original Arabic speaking, they don’t take what they are teaching for granted. They themselves are learning in the process. So what my mother was doing by trying to answer my questions, was also trying to learn herself. So it was a mutual learning process.  What would happen is that she would read the words of the Koran in Arabic, and I will be asked to repeat it, so that I can memorise some of it, which most Muslims do. Then I will ask ‘What does it mean?’ So she will then look into commentaries and tell me what the particular words meant. And therefore we kind of engaged in the dialogue, which went on continuously. 

Q.   How is the Koran different from the Bible?

A.    Well it is a radically different book. Many people describe it as an epic poem, but it’s more like a symphony where each note has a specific place.  And it’s not a very big book like the Bible. It’s a comparatively short book. That’s why it is easy to memorise.  It has a rhythm and rhyme, and it’s a book that, argues with itself.  Essentially, the Koran is a book of guidance, the basic purpose of the Koran is to provide guidance humanity.  But it is interesting to note that almost one third of the Koran is devoted to extolling the virtues of reason, of thinking, of studying nature, of seeking knowledge, self reflection, inner reflection.

Q.     Is the Koran the end now of all knowledge?

A.     No. The Koran is not the end of all knowledge, the Koran is the beginning of all knowledge. Most Muslims accept that the Koran is the Word of God. That is a definition of a Muslim. If you do not accept that the Koran is the Word of God, then you are not a Muslim.  That’s where it begins. It provides  an ethical and moral perspective on life, on the universe, on everything, including of course knowledge…it’s the beginning of knowledge, it’s not the end of knowledge. 

Q.    Is it, is it capable of many interpretations?

A.     Absolutely.  You can only have an interpreted relationship with the text.  If you think the text is eternal, then that interpretative relationship goes on and on. It’s a text full of metaphors, parables, and all varieties of complex interpretation.

Q.    Does it live in your life daily? Do you find yourself returning to it and perhaps finding new insights?

A.     Absolutely. Most Muslims do that regularly the problem is that Muslims nowadays do that almost on autopilot.

Q.    But what about you?

A.    I think as, because I’m a writer I try to look at the verses in a totally different way each time. Of course I look at them in translation.  My Arabic is not very good, and it is commonly said that the language of the Koran is Arabic. But actually the language of the Koran is the language of the Koran – there are finite number of words that are used in the Koran and I struggle with these words through translation, And I think by doing that, one comes across new meanings and new insights.

Q.    It was your mother who taught you what the concept of ‘paradise’ was in the Koran. Can you explain it to me?

A.    Well I mean most people think that, paradise is…is a a fixed place of gardens, rivers, of milk and honey and beautiful women…part of it is Muslim folklore, part of it is, Orientalist interpretation.  The Muslim paradise is very, sophisticated.  I think it is important to appreciate that the Islamic concept of God is very, very different from the Christian or Jewish concept of God, and therefore our notion of paradise is also radically different.  Essentially, in Islam, God is beyond description.  He cannot be imagined by human mind at all.  Nothing we can do, can actually give us even an inkling of what the entity of God is like.  So the only way we can understand God is through his attributes.  And in Islam there are 99 attributes.  Like He is the beautiful, He is the beginning, He is the first and He is the last.  He is the merciful, He is the beneficent, and so on. So only through His attributes that we can actually appreciate God.  And similarly with paradise – only through attributes we can really appreciate what paradise is. So paradise is all about metaphor, it’s all about parable. When we talk of paradise as full of milk and honey, it’s an ontological argument.  What, what do we associate with honey: sweetness, health. We associate gardens with peace. 

Q.    Does the concept of paradise affect the prospect of dying?

A.    Well Muslims very strongly believe in accountability. They strongly believe there’s a life after death. So we have a different notion of time.  For us time does not end with death. Time is a continuous tapestry in which our present life is a part of a much greater notion of time. And so the time after death is much bigger than time in this life. Therefore, we are constantly preparing for life after death.  we’re constantly aware that we are going to  be accountable for everything we do  in this life. This is why I think it is not unusual to find Muslims who are not too concerned about death.

Q.    You are from the Sunni tradition.  Do you feel very separate from the Shia tradition? Is it a very alien thing to you?

A.    The answer is yes and no. There are certain things in the Shia tradition that I would not subscribe to at all.  For example, they have  this notion the Imams are descendants of the Prophet. And they are supposed to be ‘masoom’ meaning ‘innocent’.  I cannot believe that a man can be totally and  utterly above sin. It’s a very fundamental difference.  However Shias are very much part of the Islamic community.  I do not feel separate from them at all. In fact I have many Shia friends, and it was only after the Iranian Revolution that I learned that they were Shia.   

Q.    what role does the Prophet have in your belief?

A.    The Prophet is the receiver of Revelation.  The Koran was revealed over a twenty three year period, and basically the Koran is commenting on the actions, the daily activites, and the struggles that the prophet is engaged in. Therefore, Koran has a context.  You cannot just take any verse as some Muslims are prone to do and interpret in any way whatsoever.  The  life of the Prophet and the Koran go together, and the life of the Prophet  is the model for us to follow.  For me the life of the Prophet is very important. I try to imbibe some of his  attributes and characteristics.  Now most Muslims want to model themselves almost exactly on him.  He had a beard – so they want to have a beard.  But you may have noticed that I do not have a beard.  But I do not regard the physical characteristics of the Prophet as something, that we have to emulate. Neither do I regard certain other aspects of the Prophet which are very contextual to the period that he actually lived in.  But there are certain characteristics of the Prophet which I think are universal.  For example his sense of generosity, which was absolute, very deep.  His notion of forgiveness.  for example he was persecuted for decades, his followers were tortured, he was driven out of Mecca.  When he returns to Mecca  he says ‘This day there’ll be no retribution – you are all forgiven.’ That is an incredible notion of generosity and forgiveness which I think is essential for Muslims to actually imbibe.

Q.    Your book  - Desparately Sekking Paradise - is about a search, and you tell how in 1972 two men knocked on your door. You were then a young man in your teens.  And they were the Talibi Jamat  a particular wing of Islam, and off you went with them. 

A.     As  a young man I was quite active in the Muslim student er community. So I, I knew a little bit about Muslim communities and various Muslim groups, but I hadn’t made up my mind which particular group to belong to. So I was quite open at that period.  So when the Talibi Jamat people came at that particular moment I did not want to go with them.  But my mother was very keen to actually push me out.  She thought she had taught me enough.  It was time for me to learn Islam from other people and she knew that there different interpretations of Islam.

Q.    What did they teach you that, that endures?

A    I think they taught me the quest for paradise is a worthy quest.  It’s not just a quest for something that is Utopian something that is beyond life. It’s also a quest that is very much real and is part of this life as well, in the sense that we need to create a paradise on this earth.

Q.    So that’s quite political.

A.    That’s very political and I think most Muslims tend to be very political.  The important thing about Islam is that it has a very strong sense of justice.  If  you go back to the Koran, it repeatingly asks the believers to do justice.  And by justice it means social justice, and distributive justice.  You need to treat people with equality, with respect, with dignity.  Their rights have to be, respected. So I have a very strong notion of justice, which makes me political, and I think that’s what makes most Muslims political.

Q.     It makes you left-wing, but it doesn’t make most Muslims left-wing, does it?

A.     Of course it makes some Muslims right-wing too.  various aspects of Islam can be interpreted in a number of different ways.  The people who are approaching and studying Islam who are trying to gain guidance from the Koran are human and and the Muslim community is a human community.  So we have left-wing and right-wing, we have secularists, we have multi-culturalists, we have Evangelical, we have revolutionaries

Q.    And in your own life, you also explored Sufism.  

A.    … Sufism is, as far as I’m concerned an integral part of Islam.  the Prophet himself used to meditate.  Now different Sufi ... as they are called , groups, will have different ways of doing ‘zica’, or remembrance of Allah.  I joined a particular group which was basically consist, consisted of white, middle class English converts. Some of them came from California, some of them came from Hampstead.  And essentially what they were looking for was a new high. In  my opinion they were genuine Sufis and they did take me into a trip.  Their way of doing ‘zica’ was actually to form a circle every night and to recite ‘Allah who’ which is just the name, name…to recite the names of God and, and dance. Now it did get me high, but I did think that there were some serious problems.  What concerns me about mysticism – and it’s not just Sufism, I think all kinds of mysticism – is this idea of relationship between the disciple and the master.  I just am not willing to enter in any relationship where I cannot question.  And I think that  is  the basic view of the Koran.  If you look at the Koran, the Koran is full of questions from beginning to end and it insisted that believers ask questions.  The Koran is not about blind faith.  It insists that the  believers keep asking questions continuously, because even if they have asked a question and received the answer, the answer may actually change, so they have to ask that question again.

Q.    You spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia.  And the form of Islam there is Wahabism. What was your experience of Wahabism?

A.     When you actually arrive in Jedda, what you notice is that everybody is wearing white, right?  It’s very, very hot.   The walls are whitewashed the people are wearing white, white tops.  Everywhere there’s white.  There is no shade of grey of any kind.  They only  other colour you saw was that women had to wear black veils by law.  Now the moment this hits you, you know there’s something very peculiar about this society.  First of all there are no shades of grey in terms of colour, and then the only colour is an unjust imposition on women.  Black is the worst thing to actually wear in that kind of climate, because  black absorbs all the heat, it traps all the heat.  So you have men wandering about wearing white with loose  clothing so air is circulating.  They are nice and cool – and the women are basically trapped ,  women exist in a heat trap. Immediately you see there’s some notion of injustice that is deeply ingrained in this society.

Q.    Is that part of their faith, though?

A .   That’s more or less become part of their faith, that women have to be covered up and not just covered up, but have to cover up in black, by law. It raises the whole relationship of Islam and its attitude to women…All the ideas of relationship between men and women are essentially based on a single verse of the Koran, which is a very famous verse, known as the ‘modesty verse’.  The Koran asked the believers,  believing men and believing women to lower their gazes and guard their modesty.  Now the way this, this has been interpreted, as many feminist Muslim scholars have pointed out  so modesty only applies, to women.  And the idea that women should lower their gaze and guard their modesty has been transformed that they should be covered, in a veil, and locked up inside the house.  

Q.    What’s your view of this in your life?

A.     My wife doesn’t cover her hair, my daughter doesn’t wear a veil either.  Both of them work. There are certain Muslims who will argue that, this is not the best way for Muslim women to be. But there are other interpretations as well, a huge number of interpretations. 

Q.     What disenchanted you about Wahabism?

A.     What  disenchanted me was the notion of time. You asked earlier does knowledge end with the Koran, and I said ‘No, knowledge begins with the Koran. Now as far as the Wahabis are concerned, in fact knowledge ends with the Koran and also morality ends in 8th century Arabia.  So they have adapted  all the contextual things in the life of the Prophet. There’s no notion of time, that in fact morality can evolve with time.  There’s notion of multiple interpretation – there’s only one Puritan faith, and only one notion of truth.

Q.    And this is the, the faith that Osama Bin Laden follows?

A.    Not just Osama Bin Laden, but many people who basically claim to be fighting for Islam and are engaging in terrorism – most of them tend to be Wahabis.

Q.    Now you, you continue your pursuit and in 1979 you rejoice in the Iranian Revolution because you say it ‘crystallised the 

A .   Well, this takes me back to my kind of strong feeling for justice.  And I thought the Iranian Revolution will actually be  a socialist revolution in a sense –will distribute wealth, it will provide equal opportunity for men and women, and most important, it will be a knowledge-based revolution in that there will be mass education available to all, there’ll be progress in science and technology and research and so on. 

Q.   What did you find when you got there?

A.    Well I found it was totally the opposite!  Most  of my kind of my idealistic notions of revolution were stopped in their tracks. Now what am I seeking constantly?  I am seeking an interpretation of Islam that is at once relevant and contemporary and true to the teachings of Islam. And that to me is ultimately  paradise.  It is not a fixed paradise – it’s a paradise that we constantly struggle to shape.  Because what we are trying to understand is to implement the notion of justice, the notion of beauty, the notion of thought and learning, the notion of dissent that we learn from Islamic ethics.

A.    And that, and that requires constant struggle.

Q.    Let’s stay with the Iranian Revolution for the time being, because that instituted the Shariah – the Shariah which is the codified law of Islam, as the law of the State.  Now this is a crucial development in the modern world, that there are now increasingly Islamic countries who follow the Shariah.  

Q.    What is, problem does that present for you?

A.    Well, again the idea of the Shariah is frozen in history.  Shariah is not just Islamic law – it is also ethics and morality. Now if you freeze law in history, then you have also frozen your ethics and morality in history.  And it was also de-humanised. Most Muslims believe that the Shariah is divine, but in fact a great deal of the Shariah – I would say something like ninety-five percent of it – is socially constructed in history.  In other words, we had these believers who were struggling to implement their own notions of paradise.  And for them it was a dynamic exercise, and for us it has become a very ossified and a fixed and a static exercise. And that’s why I think it’s so problematic

Q.    … Can the Shariah be updated?

A.    Absolutely. It’s not a question of Shariah being updated, It’s a question of Shariah being re-interpreted, for us to kind of come up with new ideas of what the relevance of Islam in contemporary life and hence shape a law that is more up to date and more contemporary

Q.    In your search, you’ve come to admire the form of Islam practised in Malaysia…

A.     South East Asian Islam, it seems to me is much more open, much more liberal. The idea of plurality is central to it, so you have multiple interpretations. But even there the Wahabi influence is very, strong.  There is a struggle going on between open multi-interpretative Islam and a fixed notion of Islam.

Q.     And where within that picture does the tolerance of non-Islamic religions come?

A.    Well in a sense, Islam is very ecumenical.  First of all, Islam recognises that it doesn’t have a monopoly of truth. Truth has been revealed to other faiths as well, so specifically Jews and Christians  are people of the book, the Bible.  And if you look at the life of the Prophet the respect and reverence he has shown to Judaism and  Christianity  is clearly evident. It’s not just Christians and Jews, but Muslims believe that every nation, every community has heard the Prophet and has some notion of truth.

Q.     You came up against a variety of intolerances when Salman Rushdie published ‘The Satanic Verses’. You yourself were appalled by the book, but then you were ac…appalled by everyone’s reaction to it.   

A.      Well I read ‘The Satanic Verses on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London. A  thirteen, fourteen hour flight. So I started reading it, quite innocently and as I carried on reading in fact, I kind of started shaking and then eventually when I got to the sacrilegious bits I became quite frozen.  It had an absolutely stunning impact on me.  I felt as though I was kind of raped.  My inner sanctum was violated. Everything I hold dear was systematically abused, and . and described in an horrific way.  Take  the scenes where he’s talking about the Prophet’ wives.  Now he gives them exactly the same physical descriptions, the same physical  attributes, the names are the same – almost everything’s the same.  But of course they are prostitutes and they’re described in derogatory terms. It is impossible for a believing Muslim not to be affected by it.  

Q.    Did you feel he had the right to write it?

A.    That is a very interesting question. I’m willing to forgive him for actually writing it. I’m strongly in favour of writing as an exercise and reading. I mean the first word that was revealed to the Prophet is ‘read’. So reading and writing are very important for Muslims as a whole. And in Islamic history, books are fought with books. In fact my response was that  it is a book that has attacked us, and we therefore must attack it back with a book. So which is in fact what I tried to do. 

Q.    But you didn’t want to see it burned?

A.    No, no.  

Q.    Or the fatwa?

A .   Most certainly I did not want the fatwa. I think after Rushdie I was the second person to be most upset by the fatwa. Because what the fatwa did was tell me as a Muslim intellectual that I was not capable of defending the Islamic position. Indeed I was not even capable of performing my social right of standing up on behalf of the Muslim and saying ‘No, we can fight this book with another book.’  So I felt that made me redundant. I was very upset by the fatwa as well.

Q.    And did you feel that the whole incident crystallised something about the ongoing tensions that have evolved recently?

A.    Yeah. Absolutely, absolutely. What we are getting are two different kinds of extremes. It’s become very much a battle of extremes. , On one side we have this liberal secularist  form of fundamentalism and extremism which can only paint religion in general and Muslims in particular with the colours of evil.  

Q.    Well where do we find that?

A .   Where do we find that?  Well I mean if you look at the, case of a Dutch film maker who made the film Submission.  the film is saying, that all Muslim women are systematically abused and degraded by their husbands, by their uncles, by their fathers and Islam is evil.  And this is what Islam, this is how Islam treats women.’ It’s  a very extremist representation of Islam and therefore it generated an extremist response. He got a knife. My reaction is ‘A plague on both your houses.’ I want to move away from extremism of all kinds.  And to do that one needs a cultured liberalist space where these things can be discussed openly.  Nobody will say that the plight of the Muslim women does not need attention, or  that Islamic law regarding women needs to be reformed, there is no question about it. But it has to be done within the parameters of Islam.

Q.    Do you see it being possible to evolve an enlightened, reformed form of Islam?  

A.    Oh very much, very much.  I see, many signs which are already happening.  For example the personal aspect of Islamic law has been totally transformed in Morocco. There’s a new law that came on the statute book in February 2004, and in my opinion,  it’s probably every bit as advanced as some of the things we have in Britain.

Q.    Are your ideas evolving?

A.    Oh, my ideas are constantly evolving. I think as, I think as a believer, you can’t be static.  I must confess openly that I am constantly on the boundaries of doubt. I think believers who say that their faith is so strong that they cannot doubt there’s something wrong.  My understanding of Islam is certainly transformed in the last 30 years and, and each step in the journey, I’ve learned something new. In fact, I’m changing all the time.

From Joan Bakewell, editor, BBC: Belief, Duckworth Overlook, London, 2005