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The Reformist

Ziauddin Sardar, 57, is one of the leading contemporary Muslim intellectuals. He specialises in topics dealing with the future of Islam, as well as Islamic science and technology, and has published more than 40 books on related topics. What sets him apart from the rest is his command over the language, which he uses to such a good effect that he could be read as a fiction writer on the merit of his diction alone. For example, in his most widely-read book, entitled Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim, he calls Islamabad “an architectural eyesore”.

Sardar has an amazing ability to simplify some of the most complex debates on contemporary Islam. To a cursory reader, he might seem to be stuck amid ‘secularism’ and ‘fundamentalism’, but he is not; he just takes the followers of both to task for their various ideological misgivings. It is for this reason that while he unleashed a scathing criticism on Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses, he also opposed the Iranian fatwa against him.

Sardar’s basic contention is that each generation must “reinterpret the textual sources in the light of its own experience”. Though identifying himself as a moderate, he embraces a willingness to look at the scripture as a product of its time that must be periodically re-examined, lest it lose its relevance for those who love it. This is perhaps the greatest achievement of Sardar, who lives in London with his wife and three children, as both a writer and an intellectual. Excerpts of his recent interview with The News on Sunday follow:

Q. Do you agree that many of the problems Muslims are currently faced with have to do with the way Islam is interpreted?

A. We can only have an interpretative relationship with a text, particularly when we regard that text to be eternal. We have been relying on age-old interpretation of the Quran, one that is frozen in history. The context of this interpretation is the context of the eighth and ninth century Muslim societies, when the great commentaries on the Quran were written and Islamic law was formulated. But if the interpretative context of the text is never our context, not our own time, then its interpretation can hardly have any real meaning or significance for us as we are now. Historic interpretations constantly drag us back to history, to frozen and ossified context of long ago; worse, to perceived and romanticised contexts that have not even existed in history. This is why while Muslims have a strong emotional attachment to Islam; Islam per se, as a worldview and system of ethics, has little or no direct relevance to their daily lives apart from the obvious concerns of rituals and worship. So, yes, I do think most of our problems, the problems faced by Muslim communities today, stem from the way Islam is interpreted.


Q. Is there a fixed essence of Islam? If either case, can you please elaborate?

A. Yes and no. There are certain absolute values and conceptual categories such as tawheed, risalah, akhrah, adl that we find in the Quran but beyond that everything else is open to interpretation. The contours of Islam are well established; but what lies within these contours has to be discovered by generations to generations, epoch to epoch. There is a unity within a diversity of interpretations; and no one can claim that their interpretation is more correct than equally valid other interpretations.

One of the worst aspects of contemporary Muslim societies is the essentialising tendencies of some Muslims, the insistence of some people that they know the essence of true Islam and that their interpretation is the only true and correct one and everyone must submit to their interpretation. This is like saying that there is only one way to be a Muslim; all other way of being a Muslim are not only wrong but should be subjugated. This is a totalitarian tendency that can only lead to a totalitarian society. But this outlook is not entirely new to Islam. It has a long history going right back to the formative phase of Islam in the seventh century. It began with the Kharjites who emerged a few decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Kharjites were a puritan sect who believed that history had come to an end after the revelation to the Last Prophet. From now on, there could not be any debate or compromise on any question: the ‘decision is God’s alone’. They were prone to extremist proclamations, they denounced Hazrat Ali as well as Hazrat Usman, and pronounced everyone who did not agree with their point of view as infidel and outside the law. They also developed a rather narrow and fixed interpretation of what it means to be a Muslim. To be a Muslim, they argued, is to be in a perfect state of soul. Someone in that state cannot commit a sin and engage in any wrongdoing. Sin, therefore was a contradiction for a true Muslim — it nullified the believer and demonstrated that inwardly he was an apostate who had turned against Islam. Thus anyone who did any wrong from the particular perspective of the Kharjites was not really a Muslim. He could thus be put to death. Indeed, the Kharjites believed that all non-Kharjite Muslims were really apostates who were legitimate target for violence. Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups are the direct contemporary equivalent of the Kharjites in our time.

There are three aspects of the neo-Kharjite thought that we need to appreciate. First, this tradition is ahistoric. It abhors history; and drains it of all humanity and human content. Islam as a religion, interpreted in the lives and thought of people called Muslims, is not something that unfolded in history with all its human strengths and weaknesses, but a utopia that exists outside time. Hence it has no notion of progress, moral development or human evolution. Second, this tradition is monolithic. It does not recognise, understand or appreciate a contrary view. Those who express an alternative opinion are seen as apostates, collaborators or worse. It also means that there is only one Islam: other interpretations that differ from the neo-Kharjite variety are outlawed. The plurality and diversity of Islam that has existed for the last 1500 years is expunged. Third, this tradition is aggressively self-righteous; and insists on imposing its notion of righteousness on others. It legitimises intolerance and violence by endlessly misquoting the Quran and Hadith. It sees other Muslims as a legitimate fodder for violence and terrorism.


Q. Is there a need to reform the Shariah? Moreover, is it possible considering there are so many sects and schools of thought within Islam?

A. Most Muslims consider the Shariah to be divine. But the only thing that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Quran. The Shariah is a human construction; an attempt to understand the divine will in a particular context. It is juristic law based on the interpretation of the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah at a particular time in history. It was formulated during the Abbassid period and reflects the concerns, the morality and the social circumstances of the period. This is why the bulk of the Shariah actually consists of fiqh or jurisprudence, which is nothing more than legal opinion of classical jurists. The very term fiqh was not in vogue before the Abbasid period but when fiqh assumed its systematic legal form, it incorporated three vital aspects of Muslim society of the Abbasid period.

At that juncture, Muslim history was in its expansionist phase, and fiqh incorporated the logic of Muslim imperialism of that time. The fiqh rulings on apostasy, for example, derive not from the Quran but from this logic. Moreover, the world was simple and could easily be divided in black and white: hence, the division of the world into Daral Islam and Daral Harb. Furthermore, because the framers of law were not by this stage the managers of society, the law became merely theory that could not be modified — the framers of the law were unable to see where the faults lay and what aspect of the law needed fresh thinking and reformulation. Thus fiqh, as we know it today, evolved on the basis of a division between those who were governing and set themselves apart from society and those who were framing the law. When we describe the Shariah as divine, we actually provide divine sanctions for the rulings of bygone fiqh.
What this means in reality is that when Muslim countries apply or impose the Shariah, it simply reproduces the conditions of ninth century Arabia. Muslim societies acquire a medieval feel. We can see that in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban. When narrow adherence to fiqh, to the dictates of this or that school of thought, whether it has any relevance to real world or not, becomes the norm, ossification sets in. The Shariah will solve all our problems becomes the common sentiment; and it becomes necessary for a group with vested interest in this notion of the Shariah to preserve its territory, the source of its power and prestige, at all costs. An outmoded body of law is thus equated with the Shariah, and criticism is shunned and outlawed by appealing to its divine nature.

I would argue that one of the most pressing needs of contemporary Muslim societies, bar none, is the reformulation of the Shariah. And this reformulation is already happening. In Morocco, for example, the personal aspects of the Shariah has been totally reformulated, and a new family law, called Moudouana, came onto the statue books on October 10, 2003. It is a product of decades of agitation by women, activists and progressive Muslim scholars. Most importantly, it was produced with the full cooperation of the religious scholars as well as active participation of women. The changes it introduced are noteworthy.

The traditional notion of the husband as head of the family has gone. The family has become the joint responsibility of both spouses. The degrading and debasing language previously used in reference to women has been replaced with gender-sensitive terminology. Women’s marriageable age has been raised from 15 to 18, bringing it on par with that of men. Women and men now have the right to contract their own marriage without the legal approval of a guardian. Women have the right to divorce; and a man’s right to unilateral divorce has been ditched. Verbal divorce has been outlawed. Men now require prior authorisation from a court before they can obtain a divorce. Moreover, husbands are required to pay all monies owed to the wife and children in full before a divorce can be registered. Polygamy has been all but abolished. Men can take second wives only with the full consent of the first wife and only if they can prove, in a court of law, that they can treat them both with absolute justice — an impossible condition.

Moreover, women can claim alimony and can be granted custody of their children even if they remarry. Indeed, a woman can even regain custody of her children if the courts initially ruled in favour of the husband but the husband failed to fulfil his responsibilities. There is also provision for the child to get suitable accommodation consistent with his or her living conditions prior to the parents’ divorce. This requirement is separate from the other alimony obligations, which conventionally consisted of a paltry lump sum. The new law also protects the child’s right to acknowledgement of paternity in cases where the marriage has not been officially registered or the child was born outside wedlock. The new law also requires that husbands and wives share the property acquired during marriage. Husbands and wives can have separate estates but the law makes it possible for the couple to agree, in a document other than the marriage contract, on how to manage and develop assets acquired during marriage.

The traditional tribal custom of favouring male heirs in the sharing of inherited land has also been dropped making it possible for grandchildren on the daughter’s side to inherit from their grandfather, just as the grandchildren on the son’s side. The new Shariah also assigns a key role to the judiciary. Public prosecutors must now be involved in every legal action involving family affairs. New family courts have been set up and a family mutual assistance fund has been established to ensure that the new code is effectively enforced. The reformulated Shariah enshrines the principle that minorities should be allowed to follow their own laws. So Moroccan Jews can be governed by the provisions of the Hebraic Moroccan Family Law. Where Morocco leads, I think, other Muslim countries will follow. Similar attempts are being made in Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey.


Q. You are against secularism and freedom of expression beyond a certain extent. Isn’t it a contradiction considering that you have yourself been the major beneficiary?

A. It is wrong to say that I am against freedom of expression. Indeed, as a Muslim I believe in total freedom of expression. But I do believe it should be exercised with responsibility and respect towards all others. Moreover, I am not against secularism — I believe that the state should be fair and just to all and neutral in matters of religion. But I am against secularism as an ideology — quite a different thing. As an organised philosophy, secularism has been privileged and has claimed the centre ground, because it has persuaded many of its superior ability to serve the real needs of society. Allegedly, it is the neutral, dispassionate and disinterested outlook which alone is capable of maintaining a peaceful conversation between all the competing voices, factions, interest groups, ideas and ideologies contending in the public space of an increasingly complex and heterogeneous society.

What fits secularism for a dominant role is its trademark: doubt, perpetual doubt that debunks, overturns and interrogates all grand narratives claiming to explain the human condition. The clear implication of secularism is that conviction, convincement of almost any kind, is the product of a closed, unreasoning and potentially irrational, not to say fanatical, mind and hence by implication bad and most certainly a limited and inferior outlook. I do not buy this. And I am against privileging all forms of ideologies. I also believe that religion has an important part to play in the public sphere — in shaping civic society, in debating issues of ethics and morality, in promoting social justice and in holding corrupt politicians and decision-makers accountable.

Q. In your view, what could be the broad contours of an ideal Muslim society in the modern times?

A.  Any society that claims to be Muslim must be based on two cardinal concepts of Islam: adl and ilm. It will be a society where social justice is clearly evident in all its manifestations from distribution of wealth to the care and support of the needy, the marginalised and those on the periphery. It will be a knowledge-based society where science and learning, arts and creativity, are openly thriving. It will also be a society where ijma (consensus) and shura (consultation) are highly valued — which to me means it would be a thriving democracy, where there is no place for authoritarianism of any kind. And it will be a society where criticism and self-criticism are the driving forces of progress. For me, this much seems pretty obvious.

Q. How can Muslims contribute to peace in the modern day world?

A. Charity begins at home. By becoming peaceful societies themselves! How can we seek peace elsewhere when peace is so conspicuously absent from our own societies. To become peaceful, Muslim societies have to implement the concepts I have mentioned above.


Q. Contrary to what you seem to believe and project in your writings, isn’t Sufism the only ray of hope in these dark times, especially if we take into account the Indian subcontinent’s history?

A. No. I do not believe that a single way of being Muslim can be a ray of light for all Muslims. As a human community, Muslims have all shades of opinions and views, numerous different ways of being, doing and knowing. I believe in diversity and different and diverse ways of being Muslim, according to the desires, visions and spiritual and material needs of a people. There is immense goodness in Sufism; but it is also an authoritarian system. The very fact that you submit to a Master or a Shaikh means it is hierarchal and patriarchal. Moreover, while mysticism has contributed to thought, philosophy and spirituality, it has never, in history, created a material civilisation. We can’t live by spirituality alone! I have no problem with those who chose the Sufi way. But others should be allowed to follow their own way.


Q. Is The Satanic Verses really an outcome of secularism as you seem to believe? Salman Rushdie criticises the Iranian ‘revolution’ in his own style, while you do that in your own, especially in Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim. Then why such an opposition to Rushdie, especially if we take into account the fact that there are many books criticising Islam much more explicitly, ranging from Ibn Warraq’s Why I am not a Muslim to Robert Spencer’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam?

A. Yes, The Satanic Verses is a product of secularism based on perpetual doubt. I think doubt, as Al-Ghazaali pointed out, is essential for those who believe — it ensures you do not transcend the human and humane boundaries. But when doubt becomes all there is, then it becomes an oppressive, all-encompassing ideology. There are different ways to criticise. I criticise to reform and change Muslim behaviour and understanding of Islam. Rushdie criticises Islam to destroy it. The Satanic Verses has deliberately rewritten the seerah in a denigrating and abusive way to demonstrate that the life of the Prophet is only a myth; and like all myths it is dispensable. I cannot believe any believing Muslim would not object to this. But there are also other differences in our criticism. You can criticise Desperately Seeking Paradise any way you like: I may or may not accept your criticism, but I will not suggest that, because you are critical of my book, you are somehow an irrational barbarian.

The Rushdie affair had no place for reasoned Muslim opinion. It was structured on the assumption that those who question or criticise Rushdie’s right to say what he said are by definition barbarians. Thus, the only valid Muslim opinion was the extremist one; and only Muslim voices that could be heard were of those who supported the fatwa. This dynamic justified the perception that Islam represented, in Rushdie’s words, “the darkness of religion”. To add insult to injury, we were told that Muslims knew nothing about art, and even less about fiction. Ibn Warraq and Robert Spencer are entitled tho their views but I seem them as Islamophobes. They, like Rushdie, have another agenda: to promote the supremacy of western civilisation. My criticism seeks internal reform of Islam – there is a world of difference between them and me.

By Mustafa Nazir Ahmad,

The News on Sunday, Karachi, 23th November 2008