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Paradise Lost, a Future Found

Ziauddin Sardar and Ehsan Masood, 16 – 05 – 2006
Ziauddin Sardar is one of the most prolific and influential Muslim writers in Britain. He tells Ehsan Masood, who has edited a new collection of his writings, about his vision of pluralist Islam, the Qur’an as guide not manual, and the future of European Muslims.
16 – 05 – 2006


Ehsan Masood: You believe Islam cannot be reduced to a single ideology, a set of rules and regulations that define everything from personal conduct to state power. At what point in your career did you discover that this is not what Islam meant for you?

Ziauddin Sardar: In the mid-1970s while living in Saudi Arabia. If you want to see the true manifestation of Islam as a one-dimensional ideology, simply look at Saudi Arabia. When I was first invited to come and work in Saudi Arabia, I felt as though I had won the lottery. It was the height of the oil-boom years, and I was going to join the newly established Hajj Research Centre at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah.

Saudi Arabia is, after all, the land of the two holiest cities of Islam. One is Mecca, the prime focus of every Muslim during daily prayers, the site of the Sacred Mosque with the Holy Kaaba (the “House of Allah”) and the Hajj (the pilgrimage that every Muslim must undertake at least once in his or her lifetime). Then there is Medina, the city where the Prophet Mohammed laid the foundations of Muslim civilisation. The emotional content of the words “Mecca” and “Medina” on a young Muslim looking for his first job cannot be measured on any human scale. I thought I was going to an Islamic paradise.

But I soon discovered that when Islam and the state are one and the same thing, and when there is only one way of interpreting Islam and of being a Muslim, you end up with self-righteous fascism. If you believe that you possess the absolute truth, you naturally want to keep it pure and exclude everything that you see as falsehood. Moreover, you are keen to impose it on others whatever the cost. When you internalise Islam as a single ideology, you cease to be, in my opinion, human. In their excessive zeal to be guardians of their brand of hyper-orthodox Islam, many Saudis have forgotten how to be human.

When I first went to Saudi Arabia I thought I would discover a new level of humanity, a new, unparalleled appreciation of the dignity of difference. Instead, I encountered a type of religious xenophobia that I could not imagine. I realised then that Islam cannot be packaged into a single ideology. Later, revolutionary Iran and the Taliban further strengthened my belief. For me, Islam is all about knowing yourself as a human being. Before you can be a “good Muslim” you must be a good human being. Simplest, monolithic interpretations of Islam undermine this.

Islam and tradition


Ehsan Masood: The majority of Muslims – especially those who follow traditional (or Sufi) schools – are among the strongest opponents of change. Many argue that the imperative for change is what gave the world the Islam you experienced in Saudi Arabia.

Ziauddin Sardar: There is some truth there, in that Wahhabism is a product of Islam’s reform movements. But that does not mean that all reform is bad or unnecessary. Consider the sharia: it is intrinsically patriarchal, some of the laws relating to crime and punishment are archaic and unjust – it is clear and beyond dispute that the sharia, or at least the jurisprudence (fiqh) part of the sharia, needs urgent reform and reformulation.

As the world changes, our understanding of Islam must change with it; we need a deeper and fresher approach to Islam with every new epoch. This is why ijtihad – sustained struggle to readjust and change – is such a crucial and integral part of Islam. Indeed, the Prophet Muhammad himself sanctioned ijtihad knowing full well that the Muslims will encounter new situations and new challenges.

Where the traditionalist stance is disingenuous is in its emphasis on the teacher or sheikh, who knows all, and whose guidance is seen as essential. This is a ploy to keep the power of interpretation limited to a few (chosen) individuals, and maintain the status quo. Traditionalist thought is authoritarian; it is tied up with lineage and secrecy. On the contrary, the duty to learn, to think about and within Islam, is not limited to certain chosen sheikhs; it is a responsibility on all.

Ehsan Masood: But at the same time you are a strong proponent of traditional knowledge as well as the rights of peoples to maintain their traditions. How do you square this with such strong opposition to Islam’s traditionalists?

Ziauddin Sardar: Now, it is important to realise that tradition itself can be totally contrary. I am against traditionalists, but I am for tradition. Tradition can be life-enhancing and dynamic – it often leads to a goal-orientated existence where goals are deeply embedded in the worldview of the tradition and have real meaning for those who imbibe the tradition. It is enriched by intimate relationships, by a sense of community, leading to a host of duties and responsibilities that give orientation and meaning to individual and collective lives.
In that sense tradition can be life-enhancing. But a tradition that gets fossilised and trapped in history can be quite destructive. This is why it is necessary for traditions to reinvent and rejuvenate themselves from time to time. I am for critical tradition – tradition that is self-reflexive, that can reinvent itself, that can change while maintaining that which gives it continuity and a sense of history.

Islam and Europe


Ehsan Masood: You believe, as does Tariq Ramadan, that there is such a thing as ‘European Islam’. What might the contours of a European Islam look like?

Ziauddin Sardar: I think the first thing we need to appreciate is that Islam is not a monolithic entity. We can interpret it according to the situation we find ourselves in. The basic contours of Islam – what we believe, they way we do our worship, the basic injunctions of the Qur’an and sunna – are immutable; but the rest is open to interpretation. And, I think, that it is the duty of European Muslims to shape a European Islam based on their experience and understanding of both – Islam and the contemporary European societies.

So, I see the development of a dynamic European Islam, underpinning European Muslim identities, as an urgent social and cultural project. I think such a project would have to struggle with the notions of responsible and accountable governance – democracy if you like – and the relationship between Islam and secularism. Moreover, it requires a contemporary notion of Islamic humanism; and an understanding what it means to be simultaneously Muslim and European.

But, above all, I think such a project must work to make Islam an integral and essential part of European history. As far as I am concerned, there would be no Europe – as we know it – without Islam and all the learning, philosophy and humanism of classical Islam.

Ehsan Masood: But if I were a Muslim living in, say Iran or Pakistan, would you understand if I didn’t instantly jump for joy at news of the emergence of western or European Islam. It might at best be seen as an attempt to divert attention from controversial foreign policies, and at worst a form of soft-, or neo-colonialism?

Ziauddin Sardar: I would understand it; but I would also argue that European Muslims need to build trust and confidence in relation to the rest of the world. We are part of the umma – the international brotherhood and sisterhood of Islam. We are concerned about Muslims in the Muslim world. We have their as well as our interests in mind. And we need to communicate this – by engaging and involving Muslims from everywhere.
It is also worth pointing out that there is nothing unusual about trying to shape a European Islam. After all, other regional interpretations of Islam also exist and have existed for centuries. Indonesian Islam, for example, has always been seen as different from Islam in the middle east – it is seen as more eclectic, tolerant and pluralistic. Similarly, south-Asian Islam has it own particular flavour. So the emergence of European Islam is hardly news. The problematic bit is Europe’s colonial past. We need to work at overcoming this history – both internally within Europe as well as externally in the Muslim world.

Islam and the Qur’an


Ehsan Masood: Elsewhere in your writings you say that the Qur’an should not be read as a manual of do’s and don’ts.

Ziauddin Sardar: I do not think that the Qur’an is a manual of do’s and don’ts. Neither is the Qur’an, as some Muslims think, a book of science. It is, in the Qur’an’s own terms, a book of guidance. We can only seek this guidance by interpreting it – indeed, the only relationship we can have with the Qur’an is that of interpretation. Now, it is important to realise that the interpretation itself is not the Qur’an – it is a human understanding of the divine book. So whatever we derive from the Qur’an is not absolute – only the Qur’an is absolute. Moreover, since we believe that the Qur’an is eternal, there cannot be a single, totally correct interpretation – indeed, there could be countless interpretations all equally valid for their particular time.
I am loath to interpreting the Qur’an atomistically. Muslims have got into the bad habit of taking a verse from the Qur’an and putting a spin on it. You can prove anything by this method – and people usually do. No. Every verse in the Qur’an has a context, and is connected to other verses, and any viable interpretation must reflect the context and what the Qur’an says elsewhere on the same subject. We must not forget that the Qur’an was revealed over twenty-three years. That is, as a text it was revealed over a period of twenty-three years, the period during which the Prophet Mohammed received the revelation, and has to be seen in the context of those years. It is basically a commentary on the prophet’s life. So, the interpretation of its verses, many of which address the prophet directly, has to be based and seen in the context of what was happening to the prophet.

Ehsan Masood: Can you give an example in which verses of the Qur’an are used to justify actions for which they were never intended?

Ziauddin Sardar: Take the extremists’ favourite verse: “We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom no sanction has been revealed. Hell shall be their home” (chapter 3, verse 149). Yet, the apparent meaning attributed to this verse could not be further from the true spirit of the Qur’an.
Here, the Qur’an is addressing Prophet Mohammed himself. The verse was revealed during the battle of Uhad, when the small and ill-equipped army of the prophet faced a much larger and well-equipped enemy. He was concerned about the outcome of the battle. The Qur’an reassures him and promises the enemy will be terrified with the Prophet’s unprofessional army.

Seen in its context, it is not a general instruction to all Muslims; but a commentary on what was happening at that time. It cannot be generalised and made into a universal principle. This is why we cannot take the verses of the Qur’an out of context. Classical Muslim scholars have insisted that the Qur’an should be interpreted by examining the context of each verse. They even laid down rules of interpretation emphasising context. But the emergence of the literalist tendency has changed all that. Currently, I think, there is a battle going on within the Muslim World between the fire-and-brimstone “atomistic” interpretation, backed by fundamentalists, and the synthesisers who emphasise context and the overall spirit of the Qur’an.

Islam and conversion


Ehsan Masood: You have upset a good number of people with your thoughts on conversion to Islam. On the whole, you do not think this is a good idea. Why?

Ziauddin Sardar: I am not against converts per se. But I am concerned that many of them have extremist or very narrow views on Islam; and many impose themselves as self-appointed leaders of the Muslim community. In my experience, many converts come to Islam to seek certainty and simplicity, and perhaps a recognition that they need authoritarianism – the three things I believe Islam is not about.

Ehsan Masood: Yet in history, would you agree that the majority of conversions to Islam have happened because people found in Islam a sense of certainty, simplicity and authority that may otherwise be lacking in their lives?

Ziauddin Sardar: No, I would not agree. I think, on the whole, conversion has something to do with a quest for truth and fulfilment. In a sense, most Muslims in history were converts. But they did not necessarily seek absolute certainty or banal simplicity. No matter how good a Muslim you are, there is always room for doubt. Even al-Ghazali, the greatest of Muslim scholars, had doubts. I think doubt is an integral part of faith – I am perpetually inflicted with doubt. I think the kind of absolute, simplistic certainty that we see nowadays is a new, modern phenomenon.

Ehsan Masood: Your closest collaborator and co-author Merryl Wyn Davies is a convert from Wales…

Ziauddin Sardar: Those converts who retain a balance, take their newly-adopted religion in their stride, make tremendous contributions all around. Consider the achievements, for example, of Mohammad Asad or Marmaduke Pickthall, both of whom translated the Qur’an. Converts can be a boon to Muslim society – particularly those that do not wear their Islam on their sleeves, or those who do not suffer from some kind of identity crisis. Unfortunately, such people are few and far between. Merryl is one of them. She is so confident of her Welsh identity that she did not even bother to change her name. That says something!

Ehsan Masood: Some of your critics have suggested that sometimes you are too self-mocking and not serious enough.

Ziauddin Sardar: I am very serious; but I do not take myself seriously.

Ehsan Masood: What do you see yourself doing in fifteen years’ time, when you are 70?

Ziauddin Sardar: Reading, writing, thinking, loving, regretting, and as usual, planting seeds that I hope would grow and prosper and turn the world into a garden.