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'Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum' - National Life Stories

The British Library - National Life Stories 

[Track 1]


Could you start then by telling me when and where you were born?


Okay.  I was born in Pakistan, allegedly on October the thirty-first, 1951.  Now, I was born in a place called Dipalpur which is not too far from the Indian-Pakistani border, and during 1951 my parents had migrated just after the Partition, so they got there around 1948 and they found a place to live.  There were still uncertainties with the border so when I was born my parents were still not sure whether they were in Pakistan or India, because of the uncertainties of the time.  So my birth was not registered till about a year when things had settled down, and then my mother eventually asked my father to go and register my birth.  Now, the place where you’re supposed to register your birth, the council office, was in a city called Okara, which was like, I suspect, about a hundred miles from Dipalpur, so my father trekked off to Okara, when he got there he forgot whether I was born on the third of October or the thirtieth of October, or the thirty-first of October, but he did remember the year.  So anyway, he put thirty-first on the birth certificate and started to travel back to Dipalpur and in between he got caught in the monsoon.  The monsoons rain started and it rained very, very heavily, and the birth certificate was written in Indian ink, you know, so it got all washed off, but because it was written with Indian ink with old-fashioned pen, it left marks on the paper, so I ended up with a birth certificate which was clean, but if you actually looked very closely at it, you could discern what…  Now, this is the conventional story that my father told me, why my birth certificate is the way it is.  But my mother’s side story’s slightly different, she just says my father was very lazy and it took her one year to persuade, to go down to the registration office.  So the exact date of my birth is a slight dispute, but it says thirty-first of October 1951 on my passport.



Thank you. Could you tell me now as much as you can about the life of your father?


My father was initially an engineer.  He was born in Bhopal in India and he went to Aligarh Muslim University where he got an engineering degree.  And he was also into poetry and drama and things like that.  I have a photograph of him, which is a photograph of the cast of the play Mizeraleb which is about the great Indian poet, so I suspect that he participated in drama societies over there.  But he didn’t get a job or anything like that in India, so when he migrated to Pakistan he had difficulty finding a job and eventually he became engineer at the biscuit factory in a city called Montgomery.  The name of the city has been changed to Sahiwal, it is now called Sahiwal, but in those days it was called Montgomery.  And Montgomery is famous for two things.  One is the Montgomery jail, which basically dominates the city and two, the nice biscuit factory where my father worked.  So he got a job there in something like 1954/55 and we moved to Sahiwal, we stayed there for a couple of years, and there was a strike at the biscuit factory and my father was one of the union leaders leading the strike.  And it became quite nasty and you know in 1958 there was martial law and Ayub Khan came in power.  So before they had the martial law, it was pretty obvious that martial law will be coming, so six, eight months before that, my father was warned that it was very likely that he’d be arrested, it’s better that he get out.  So he decided that instead of kind of staying in Pakistan, he decided to actually migrate to Britain.  So just before the martial law, something like early 1958 he came to Britain.



What memories then do you have of that period before the move?


I have very few memories of that period.  The most vivid memory, I have two or three most vivid memories.  One is that when I was a young boy I used to wander about in the sugar cane factory, sorry, sugar cane field, which was not too far from our house.  In fact Sahiwal, or Montgomery as it was then, was very kind of arable land.  There was phenomenal kind of agriculture there, sugar cane fields and oranges.  There’s a fruit called ber, I don’t know how to translate that, they’re little berry things, round berries that you find in huge… where we used to live there were lots of ber trees, so one of my memories is picking up a stone and throwing it at the ber tree and all the bers will fall out and I’d collect them and eat them.  But I used to, with my other companions, wander about in the sugar cane factory.  And then we will of course just find a patch, cut the sugar cane and start chewing it, and eventually the farmers will find out.  And the way they will find out, they will look and they’ll see a gap, missing, they’ll come running and we’ll kind of then run off.  So that’s kind of one of my most vivid memories, I seem to have done that most of the time.  And my other memory is that one day… my father used to do something every autumn.  He will buy lots and lots of mangoes, which are very cheap, in fact truckloads of mangoes will arrive from the local farms and they’ll be raw mangoes.  So he will buy them raw, cheap, and then where we used to live, it was a kind of bungalow which was divided into two halves; one half belonged to us and the other half belonged to the migrants.  So there was, a room was set aside for my father to kind of put his mangoes, so they’ll be a cotton layer and the layer of mangoes on top, and then another cotton layer and mangoes on top.  And then when the mangoes started getting ripe then we would kind of start eating them in large quantities from the top layer onwards and we’ll just gather in the evening after dinner and, you know, a whole basketful of ripe mangoes will be brought and all of us.  So that was the kind of communal thing that we used to do regularly throughout the summer, eating mangoes was one of my favourite things.  But one memory is that my grandmother disappeared and all of us kind of wandered about looking for my grandmother and we couldn’t find her anywhere.  We looked and we looked, and then I remembered where she used to hide, so this bungalow had lots of small rooms that were connected and some rooms we didn’t go to because we thought they belonged to the neighbour, and the neighbour thought they belonged to us.  [laughs]  So they were left empty.  So I went in there, eventually opened a door and there she was, sitting there reading a huge novel called Chasma, which is in two volumes, a novel of Partition.  Chasma is the leading protagonist, she kind of migrates with her family to Pakistan.  And she was sitting there sweating like anything and a little candle and just reading this novel.  And it was one of my first kind of introduction to the literature, because when I just sat down next to her and she started reading to me as well and I got very interested in it.  In Bahawalnagar, which is where I was born, we used to go back regularly, my grandfather used to live.  In fact, he was not my real grandfather.  My real grandfather was – this is from my mother’s side – so my real grandfather died of TB at a very early age, fifty, sixty.  So the person who you used to call grandfather was actually the elder brother of my real grandfather from my mother’s side, and he was a Hakim, he was an Islamic doctor in Bahalwalnagar.  In fact nowadays it’s broadened, became a quite big city.  In those days it was a very small kind of just large village and it only had one central kind of road, it’s called Railway Bazaar.  So the train came and stopped at the station and you entered the Railway Bazaar and the Railway Bazaar then just led to the little village.  And so he had a shop called Hazik Dawakhana meaning Hazik’s medicine store, which was his kind of place.  And on the opposite side, one of his son-in-law, who was a medical doctor, had his medical thing, so they were opposite each other.  So one of my most kind of vivid memories – I have two vivid memories with my grandfather – one is that he used to love detective novels and in Pakistan we had this very famous detective writer called Ibn-e-Safi BA.  The ‘BA’ was an essential part of his name.  Ibn-e-Safi, clearly a pseudonym, but ‘BA’ was important because that suggested that, in those days very few people went to university so if you had a BA, you know, you were a postdoctoral fellow, kind of, so the BA was very, very important.  So this writer published two detective novels a month.  One was called ‘Imran series’ and the other was called ‘Hameed Faridi series’.  And when I was with my grandfather part of my job was to go and buy the latest Ibn-e-Safi, whether it was Imran series or Hameed Faridi series, and then come back and in the evening when he’s come back from his Hazik Dawakhana, will sit down and read to him, read the novels.  So I got quite used to Ibn-e-Safi.  Ibn-e-Safi was pre-Bond, he was pre-Ian Fleming.  In fact he started writing in India in ‘45/46 and then he moved to Pakistan, and they’re very James Bond-y kind of novels, you know, villains.  And the one that I liked most was the Imran series.  Now Imran series is like James Bond, except he’s a Muslim James Bond, so he doesn’t have sex and he doesn’t like to beat people up.  So although he’s expert in some Chinese martial art, that is the last… violence was the last resort.  But he was very clever and the basic thing was that he… he was more like a Danger Man – you remember the Danger Man series, where he’s got this strange kind of gadget that he’s made up himself and he essentially does a lot of his work in disguise and, you know, surreptitiously and like that.  So that, and the other memory of my grandfather is often he will take me to his kind of surgery where he made the medicines himself from, I mean when I grew up and went back and looked at some of his books, I recognised them as Ibn-e-Safis, canons of medicine, the classical kind of pharmacology text, all in Urdu, of classical Muslim.  So he was a traditional kind of Islamic doctor, I mean he had trained, trained medical person.  So sometimes I sat with him and I noticed that he seldom actually gave out any medicine and when medicine became necessary, he will ask the patient to go to the opposite side where his son-in-law’s shop was, go and consult him.  And most of his kind of consultations were very psychotherapic, if you like, you know.  He would listen carefully, he would advise people.  There were certain illnesses that he specialised in and he will give medicine on those.  But for example, he will not treat cancer patients or he will not treat, you know, people with modern diseases, as it were, but kidney stones, yes, he can get a kidney stone out of you, you know, yeah.  And if you’ve got constipation he can sort that out, right.  If you’ve got fever, he can sort it, you know what I mean?  But most of his patients came there for kind of marital problems or problems with the family, and he will listen carefully.  So he was a very popular and respected figure in the community.



Do you remember – I know this is a bit of a longshot considering your age - but do you remember any of that advice, any of that sort of talking therapy that he gave?


Well, there was once or twice, when I became… when we migrated to, we came to England in 1961, almost three years after my father had already been here, and then I went back to Pakistan in 1977, so it was a long, sixteen, seventeen years.  And so he then took me to his surgery.  In fact, out of respect - when we got there it was afternoon, about three o’clock – out of respect I had to go straight to the surgery to actually basically say salaams to him.  Everybody else was at home and they said no, no, you must go and say…  So I went to see him, then he asked me to sit down with him while he was consulting his patients.  And it was very interesting that a lot of the problems were sexual, essentially basically many of them are, you know, plumbing of sex, which he could cure because the Hakims had discovered Viagra way, way before.  He had all sorts of kind of medicines for increasing the blood circulation and so on and so forth, so he will give them.  But the kind of advice was always that there are two sides to the story, so that you shouldn’t just believe what you believe, but listen to what the other side.  And he believed in accommodation, he was not a person who actually believed that conflicts were necessary, he thought that conflicts were irrelevant, it’s accommodation which was necessary.  So most of his advice was very much, you know, marriage is give and take, okay, you have physical problem, wife saying my husband isn’t satisfying me, okay, give him this, this will help, but essentially, you know, you have to have, participate, you have to listen to him as well, just as he has to listen to you and sometimes it is, in fact more often it is possible that neither of you could satisfy, you know, your wishes, so you have to synthesise, come up with a kind of negotiated settlement that pleases both sides.  So it was kind of that kind of advice which I remember.  He actually asked me to listen to one of his patients and see, because there was this dialogue between him and me about tradition and modernity, right, and he saw me as the representation of modernity, somebody who came from England, he was a traditional healer, so he would say things like, so what does your modern line tell you about this person.  So in fact I talked to a couple of his patients and I got most of the diagnoses totally wrong.  And he said, no, no, no, no, her problem is not that, you know, she’s got stomach upset.  Her problem is that her husband is beating her and that needs serious attention.  So when you have something like that, like domestic abuse, he will actually go and see the person, he will leave his surgery, go and see the person, take them aside and really kind of say that this is very serious, you’ve got to stop that, you know.  So that’s why he was respected and that’s why so many people came to him for, because they knew he could – it was not just advice – he could do practical things.  Because he was a respected figure in the community, he could actually take a man aside and say look, what you’re doing is not acceptable, you’d better change your behaviour or the community’s going to be taking action against you, or your community will ostracise you and there’ll be serious consequences for you.  And from what I could see, I mean of course I wasn’t there all the time, what I heard is that more often than not he was very successful at this.  And he lived to be a very, very old age.  Again, we had no idea.  So the estimates are he was ninety-eight when he died, or 102, so it’s between four years, because nobody registered their birth in those days.  So he died a very, very… and even in his nineties when I saw him, he was very healthy, very active, always kind of… very strict for his schedule, so he would like to read in the evening.  So when I left I think other youngsters replaced me and that was a kind of regular thing and he would wake up very early in the morning, say his prayer and go to his surgery, even though he was in his nineties and would walk and would refuse assistance, and he was using a stick.  So he had that and he lived a very healthy life and lived very long.


How exceptional was he in having as a doctor this wider sort of social role?


Well, I think he was quite exceptional in that sense, although I do believe that Islamic… that most Hakims were not just medical practitioner, but they had a social role.  It was sad that hikmat was downgraded, right, and it was regarded as irrelevant, because the Western trained doctors did not have the, you know, I mean most of the doctors in Pakistan, from what I’ve seen, right from my early age, is very much into making money, right.  They come in, what is your problem, take this pill, take this injection, go there, get this operation, and out.  There’s no kind of social connection with the patient apart from financial one.  I mean of course there are lots of people who are very concerned about the community and I’m sure many doctors are concerned about, but the general impression that I got – and maybe my impression is wrong.  The Hakims, on the other hand, were very community oriented, it was a community oriented medicine aimed at preventing. So, for example, they always advised, don’t eat too much meat, take exercise, all that kind of basic stuff.  And of course they were psychologists for the community, people actually went to them with real problems and often found solutions.  They may be problems of mental health, you know, psychological problems, domestic problems.  And in the Pakistani extended family system, there are lots of problems with the extended family, which the Hakims handled.  So it’s sad that… I mean during the seventies and eighties you could still get formally trained, because the training for a Hakim is also like seven, eight, nine years, you know, you have to be - go and live at a foundation which specialised – I think it’s still there, but I’m not sure they even have a university – but in those days they actually had a proper programme for training and certifying Hakims.  So instead of actually kind of saying that this is the essential part of community medicine and giving it a proper kind of basis, you know, certifying Hakims properly, making sure that they’re properly trained and all that, the Pakistan and Indian and I suspect in most other places, the Islamic medicine was really looked down upon, right, as regarded as inferior medicine and as such it didn’t develop, in a sense.  So most of their cures are still eighteenth, nineteenth century cures, because no research has been done and no proper… but Islamic medicine is proper medicine, I mean for god’s sake, Western medicine is based on Islamic medicine, I mean we still use the surgical instruments, you know, developed by Al-Zahrawi, you know, hundreds of years ago.  So that’s very tragic.  And me and my grandfather always had this kind of dialogue about traditional and modernity, he was very suspicious of modernity and in my opinion, rightly so.



You were having this dialogue, what were you saying, what were you telling him about modernity and were you able to convince him of certain aspects of its value, given what you said about him being sceptical about it?


First of all, I think being sceptical about modernity is a good thing.  Being sceptical about everything is a good thing, in a sense.  But most of the dialogue, for example, when I say look, you know, Western medicine is based on evidence, but you say yeah, so, tell me something new.  You think Islamic medicine’s not based on evidence, I mean we have volumes full of, you know, research and all that.  You can’t say things like Western medicine is based on rationality, you say well, you know, everything to do with medicine should be based on rationality [laughs], on evidence.  So there was no real way of communicating.  His problem was that why is Western medicine regarded as superior, and why hikmat is regarded as inferior, given that it has a thousand years’ history and it has served the Muslim community so well over the years, and Western civilisation has borrowed heavily from it.  That was his problem and there was no answer to that question, in a sense.  And he himself, you know, went through training, in India he went to – I can’t remember which school he went to – he went to hikmat school and trained and then he was a kind of apprentice of another Hakim for several years.  Not just that he was trained for six or seven years, but he was apprentice before he was allowed to open his own surgery.  


Thank you.  


Could you now tell me about the life of your mother?


Yeah.  My mother was born in Bijnor and she, while my father came from a relatively well-off family, she came from a very poor family and she was married early, quite early.  And when the family migrated to Pakistan, various members of the family were lost, there was a lot of trauma and I remember in, when I was in Dipalpur, that one son of my grandfather, the Hakim’s son, didn’t quite make it from India, so he arrived several years later.  So there was kind of different background, she was not very, very educated.  But she had two very passionate loves.  One was Urdu poetry and the other was Bollywood films.  [laughs]  So when she came to Britain she found it very difficult to adjust, she had a very hard time, and as a young boy growing up in Hackney, because we moved to Hackney, basically I had two main functions.  One was to go every Saturday to find some halal meat and do some halal shopping.  In those days there were hardly any, I mean nowadays you find halal shops everywhere, in those days there were no halal shops, so I had to go from Hackney to Whitechapel where there was a halal butcher’s.  So that journey I took every Saturday.  And every other Sunday I had to take her to the Indian cinema.  So we went to, I think it was called Cameo in Walthamstow where you can see two films on one ticket.  So you’d start off eleven o’clock and you finish at seven o’clock at night.  It was a pretty strenuous kind of thing.  And I mean that was her… and it’s not just that I had to take her, but it was a quite ethnically and religiously mixed kind of group of Asians who we had.  There was Mrs Mittle, I had to take her with me, and there was Mrs Hussein and she had to go, and we had to take a large box of tissues and their kebabs and they made pakoras all that to eat while they’re there.  Because a lot of these films are weepies.  So that was a kind of ritual that I kind of engaged in I think from the age of twelve to seventeen, eighteen.



What did either of your parents tell you about their childhoods?


Very little, to be quite honest.  Because in both cases, the childhoods were quite traumatic because they… my mother was born in 1936, my father was born in I think 1929 or something, I can’t remember the exact date of my father, and that period was quite dramatic in India, you know, with the Raj and the independence movement also.   So all sorts of things going on.  So they, essentially, there was a kind of, maybe a conscious attempt on their part to forget their pre-Partition life, because Partition was so traumatic itself that they…  My mother will talk about her life, it will actually begin with Dipalpur where I was born and similarly, my father.  There was a kind of silence on my father’s part, not just of his time in India, but also about his own father.  Now, his own father was a medical doctor in the British army, so the story goes that my great grandmother asked him to go to do some shopping or buy some vegetables, and so he left home to buy some vegetables but never returned, because he wanted to become a doctor and he figured that the fastest route to become a doctor was to join the British army, which he did, and he actually became a medical doctor, yeah.  And then proceeded to fight in the British army for the armed rebellion, in the Boxer Rebellion, etc, etc.  So he was regarded as a traitor.  Now, this is very interesting.  My father’s family’s surname is Durrani, which suggests they are from the Durrani clan in Afghanistan.  But my father himself doesn’t have the surname of Durrani.  My two aunties have the surname of Durrani, his elder brother has the surname of Durrani, but my father doesn’t have the surname.  My brother uses the surname Sardar, which is my surname.  And that was a mystery for a very long time and my father seldom talked about it, but towards the end of his life he started talking about it and amongst other things he, I discovered a photograph of my grandfather.  Now the photograph is he is standing in front of what looks like a tent with a sword of honour and lots of badges here, right, and my father said that this was your grandfather was given the sword of honour and given the title of ‘Sardar’ by the British, because that was 1932, 1932/1933, and there was an Indian category of imperial orders.  So you got the Indian Member of the Empire, that sort of stuff.  And you were not, the ‘Sir’ was not allowed.  The ‘Sir’ was only allowed in, I think, 1934, so we have Sir Muhammad Iqbal, Iqbal got a knighthood so he became a Sir.  But my grandfather was before him, so he didn’t get a Sir, but they gave him the title of Sardar, which has a similar connotation.  So my father was closer to my grandfather, so he ended up with the surname of Sardar and dropped Durrani, and that’s how we came to be called Sardar.  Now, I didn’t believe all this story, I thought it’s just a story.  But then I actually looked at the photograph very carefully and I started analysing it, in fact I spent three or four months analysing the photograph.  I looked at each medal very, very carefully and I went to the India House library and they all recognised all those medals and the dates and the sword of honour, so he did get the sword of honour in 1932 or ‘33 Delhi Durbar.  And in that time, when the ceremony was going on, there was a fire and the Delhi Durbar got more or less burned down, so they had to put up a tent quickly outside to finish the ceremony, so that’s why he’s standing outside a tent.  But I’ve got the photograph and all the medals and everything, because they are all kind of authentic.  If you just blow up the photograph you can see the details, confirmed with India House library with considerable research.  So that’s where my surname Sardar actually comes from.



And before your childhood starts in the UK, what memories do you have of time spent specifically with your mother and your father?


You mean in Pakistan?




I think, my mother was always at home, but she was only one mother amongst many, because we were always part of the extended family.  So when we lived in Dipalpur it was not a very big house but Hakim Sahib was there, he had several children, they were there, some of them were married, so there were lots of women and, you know, and lots of men around.  So it was not kind of one relationship, it was a kind of collective.  And when we moved to Sahiwal, there were also one or two other families with us, so there was always a kind of collective and my father always worked so he came in in the evening.  But in Sahiwal we had this ritual that especially, virtually all during summer, of collectively eating mangoes.  And my grandmother then also lived with us and my father’s mother also lived with us there and one of my aunts was also in the house.  So I grew up with lots of women around me and my mother was just one of them, if you see, in that sense.  


I wonder whether there were things perhaps at the weekend that you did with your mother and your father, perhaps in this larger group?


What we did, we didn’t have any sense of weekend as such, to be quite honest.  We did, I mean like in Dipalpur, Friday evenings were normally given to poetry recitals, so everybody will gather together and there’d be lots of poetry going on.  We call it mushaira and there was a kind of mini mushaira.  So everybody, if you’re in Pakistan, everybody, in one street you’ll find a dozen poets.  Not many of them are very good, but they all have aspirations to be poets, so poetry kind of lives in the kind of veins of the country, the Urdu poetry.  I remember once asking a peasant who is his favourite poet, and to my surprise, not just he – and I thought the guy is illiterate, thinking he was illiterate, never been to school or anything else and I thought, you know, he’s going to struggle – but not just that, he just gave me the name of his favourite poet immediately, proceeded to explain why he likes him and not others, and then he started reciting, you know, from his dewan.  So it’s very common, because of very old culture in a sense.  So our common kind of activities were around… so normally what would happen is that somebody, maybe the eldest, Hakim Sahib, or one of his elder sons, or my father, would recite a couplet.  Now, this could be something they had written themselves or it could be a couplet from a Bollywood film or it could even be a classical couplet.  And then the next person had to recite another couplet that began with the last word of the couplet that was recited.  So it was like a challenge, and then you did that.  So that’s, I mean it could become quite heated.  People saying, no, no, no, that’s not the right word, you know, this word ends like that, this is how it should be, etc.  So that was our most common kind of activity in a sense.  We didn’t kind of go on holiday or anything like that, there’s no such thing, or we had a weekend off.  I mean in a Pakistani village, even in a city like Sahiwal, there are no cinemas there, I don’t remember going to a cinema as a young person.  Sometimes the cinema came to you and they put a tent up and they would be screening films and things and you can occasionally go.  But there was no structured things like that, I mean entertainment was what the family produced itself.  And there was no fixed, as such, apart from Friday, there was no fixed time.  I mean we will have mushaira any time, I mean when people feel like it and they have nothing better to do.  And lots of people kind of spent time, I mean I remember, in fact I remember as an irritation that my mother and lots of aunts and all that, they would not just read a novel, but they read it loud so that everybody can hear it and, you know, everybody will be kind of listening to it and I’ll be the only one who was saying, no, I don’t do this.


How do you remember was the move to the UK presented to you as a sort of ten year old, I suppose?


Yeah.  I was turning eleven, I think, yeah, yeah, yeah.  As a kind of great, positive transition.  My father had a great love for England which he must have acquired from his father, and my grandfather was very close to a person called Lord Burwood.  Lord Burwood was his commanding officer in the Afghan Rebellion, in the Afghanistan Rebellion fought in Afghanistan.  So when we came here, the person that my, the first person that my father contacted was a woman called Lady Burwood who was the wife of Lord Burwood, because Lord Burwood was by then dead.  And Lady Burwood took my father into kind of, you know, under her wings, but within – and one other thing was that when he was here, he wanted me to come here speaking English and all that, so every month he will send a package of books to me, Sleeping Beauty, Wind in the Willows, that kind of stuff, you know.  So books will arrive for me to read, which I tried to read.  I was obsessed with reading anyway, so that was something good and we all kind of expected.  But it was pretty obvious, I mean the letters came along, I remember the first letter he was writing that the British policemen are the most wonderful people in the world and all that.  I remember that very well, my mother reading it out.  And then it quite, I mean he became more and more disillusioned, so by the time we arrived here three years after he had already been here, he was quite disillusioned because he faced a great deal of racism, he found it very difficult to rent a flat for us.  Eventually we rented a flat with a West Indian woman.  So there was this kind of disillusionment already set in.  So when we came here one of the first persons we met was Lady Burwood, and Lady Burwood would come to visit us regularly every fortnight with her dog and, you know, we were quite fond of her, we didn’t know any better, we were quite fond of her.  Then we moved from there, the rented place that we had in, I think in Evering Street [Road], E9 or something, to 9 Hilsea Street, which was the other side of Clapton Pond.  We had a whole house that we… no, the bottom part of the house that we rented.  In Evering Road we only had one room, I think.  So in Hilsea Street, Lady Burwood was a regular visitor, right.  Then one of the causes of disillusionment for my father was the fact that he couldn’t get a job as an engineer, his degree wasn’t recognised, so he ended up working at Ford’s in Dagenham.  He had to get up really early to go all the way to Dagenham, so it was quite a hard life, he couldn’t make ends meet, so my mother had to go out and work, so she got a job in the Matchbox, you know, the small cars, the Matchbox cars factory, so she started working there.  So both of them will leave early and come back.  In fact so I had to go and enrol myself in the school. The first year, my first year was very, very bad because I still thought that London was like Sahiwal, like people go and run around, you know, half naked in, working in fields, and I just didn’t like wearing clothes, apparently, especially sweaters, which made my skin come out, rash, etc.  So within six months I got rheumatic fever and I was in Hackney Hospital for about six, eight months, and then after that was sent to Broadstairs for a convalescence, and I was in Broadstairs for three, four months.  The only thing I could do in those days is to play cricket.  I was a very good batsman and in Broadstairs, because I was not allowed to run, we were allowed to play cricket but I was not allowed to run, so I just batted and batted and some other people had to run for me and they all hated me because once I got in I wouldn’t get out.  Mind you, I couldn’t play my strokes, but I had a phenomenal defence, so nobody could get me out, I didn’t make many runs.  But the only thing I could really do was to play cricket, which I also did in the streets in Sahiwal in Bahawalnagar.  So during all that period Lady Burwood was a regular visitor to our house.  When I came back from Broadstairs after convalescing, I felt a bit better and then got myself into Brooke House Secondary School, which later I discovered was the second worst school in all of England, a report in the Evening Standard pointed out.  [laughs]  And I discovered that Lady Burwood was a very funny woman because she had some very funny ideas.   One of them was that white people are superior to everybody else, which I found strange.  And then she kept on giving me books to read and one of them was The Elders of Zion, that kind of stuff.  There was all sorts of… she gave us a magazine called New Times that she used to bring every…   And then within a year of kind of going to Brooke House School, just kind of getting my bearings and consciousness, I came to the conclusion – and in fact she wanted me to go and sell that magazine for her, which because my father had a relationship with her, I would have had no objection to – that she was a fascist.  In fact she was the main leader of the, one of the main kind of lynchpins of the British National Party, as it was called in those days.  So matters came to a halt one day and both myself and my sister really confronted her to get out and I remember my sister kicking her dog and saying ‘Take your dog with you’.  [laughs]  And after that we didn’t hear about… from Lady Burwood.   Later on, when I was researching the photograph of my grandfather at India House library, I decided to look up Lord Burwood, and eventually I found a biography published by Lord Burwood.  And in the biography it says that when we were fighting in Afghanistan there was a black guy – coolie, he uses the word ‘coolie – there was a coolie doctor, some of our brave chaps were shot and he went out and rescued two people, putting himself in danger.  So there are about two paragraphs on my grandfather, which I realised because the description and the name.  So he describes him as a coolie and he also said that as a result he was given the sword of honour, so it was that act that got him the sword of honour, kind of totally dismissed.  And yet, my grandfather and my father had so much love for these buggers.  [laughs]  So it’s very strange.  And some of the stuff I have written in my book, Balti Britain, that background on how I researched the book, all the research and the stuff is described in there.



To what extent did your father discover these things about Lady Burwood?


My father was very uncomfortable with her, there is absolutely no doubt of that, he was very uncomfortable with her ideas, but he had this kind of strange love and respect for her.  And he was sad when she stopped coming, he was upset with us that we were rude to her and told her to get out of the house and we don’t buy her ideas, in a sense.  I think – this is the… my father was a very complex figure, clearly there’s a lot going on there and he seldom openly talked about it and to actually get anything out of him is like getting blood out of stone, you really had to kind of, you know.  And then I wasn’t quite sure how much of that is… because our house is full of stories, so how much of that is a story and how much is it reality.  I mean I never believed that our surname was Sardar because my grandfather was given it, you know, honoured by the British.  It’s only when I researched it through a photograph, I had a physical evidence, that I came to believe yes, that is true, in a sense.  So I mean I still do not know whether the birth certificate story is true or not, although there was a birth certificate with nothing on it.  [laughs]  So, because of the oral culture in a sense, it’s a very rich kind of culture, so you need to…   And I’ve actually become myself like that, I notice that with my children I tell them a lot of stories.  [laughs]  And my younger son who is just doing philosophy, he just now says, dad, you embellish everything, I don’t know whether to believe your stories.  Which is exactly how I felt with my own father in that sense, so there is that kind of tradition within the family.


You mentioned your sister, was she your only sibling?


No, no.  I have a brother, I’m the eldest, I have a sister who is younger than me and then I have a brother who is younger than her.  And I also had a younger sister who was born in Sahiwal, but died one year after birth.  And I remember going to bury her with my parents and my mother crying.  And then my mother screaming at me.  At that moment I couldn’t understand, but then we looked at it, there was a snake wandering about through my feet, so she obviously observed that and she was screaming at me to move away from… this is why that moment has been etched, because of her screaming, which was not just that she was crying she has lost a daughter, but she was also kind of seeing her son in danger through a snake that was slithering through my leg.  In fact it didn’t bite me, it just kind of went through.


So we are three.  And my sister basically, she lost… my mother’s goal, well, both of my parents’ goal was that whatever happens we must educate our children.  And for them education means we must go to university.  Now, I was the eldest, so that was a lot of pressure on me, there was no question that you have to.  So I had more or less accepted that.  My sister was not very academic, she wanted to do other things, and the problem with the Asian families is that they don’t really recognise a broad spectrum of disciplines, you know.  Either you’re a lawyer or an engineer or a doctor, full stop.  If you’re not a doctor, what’s wrong with you, if you’re not a… in that sense.  So some of the things that she wanted to do, my parents probably didn’t encourage her.  So she did her A levels and kind of lost interest and soon afterwards she got married.  My younger brother went to university, he went to the same university as I did, City University, he did economics there, he got a good degree in economics.  And then he worked in the Post Office as an economist for a number of years and then he joined a Sufi, basically – I was going to say a Sufi group – but almost a Sufi cult.  Shaykh Nazim was a very well-known Sufi, Turkish Sufi in Britain.  They have a big kind of place, mosque, in Hackney, in Stoke Newington and I think also in Shoreditch.  And basically he kind of lost his way in a sense.  His Shaykh told him that the best thing for him was to work with his hands, so he left the Post Office and became a carpenter and I think to this day he is a carpenter, that’s what he does.


You say you think to this…


What do I think of?


You said that you think to this day he’s a carpenter.  Do you know?


I know he’s a carpenter, but I say it, I think he’s a carpenter, because I don’t think his mind is into carpentry.  [laughs] If you see what I mean.  Because he’s a very clever, very talented person, and I think he’s lost all of his talent.  And he now knows that that was a very major mistake.  So he’s a carpenter, yes, he does all that.  Puts in kitchens and things and he has a little business, he contracts, so he’ll put kitchens in, say, in a block of flats that are being made, so he’ll put a hundred kitchens or something like that.  But I think he just does it as a job, it’s not a passion for him, in a sense.  But what I do is a passion for me, I write because I really want to write, in that sense.  You know, whatever I did on my science journalism was a passion in that sense, it was not just, you know, just something I wanted to do, I really wanted to do science, full stop.  



Could you tell me more about your experience of Brooke House Secondary School now?


Now, Brooke House Secondary School was a very interesting place.  So when I actually get in, because my English was awful and I didn’t know anything else, I got into, I mean it was a comprehensive so it was streamed, so there were six classes in each year.  So when I got in, I got into the right bottom, 1.6, which was kind of, I don’t suppose you could go down… you know, they gave me some sort of test which I totally utterly must have failed, so I was put in 1.6.  There were two or three things at Brooke House that I really liked very much.  First of all we had a wonderful headmaster, Mr Harris – I can’t remember his second name, but Mr Harris was a wonderful man.  And he was not so much like a headmaster, he was more like a kind of a priest of a parish, you know, he was like nursing his flock, as it were, and I think that’s what made the school, for me it made the school, I wouldn’t say a pleasant place, but I was able to endure it, if you like.  Because just going to school was a major problem, because you walked from 9 Hilsea Street to Clapton Pond where Brooke House School was.  It’s about ten, twelve minutes’ walk, fifteen minutes’ walk, but in between you had, you know, blackshirts, skinheads, right.  I mean it’s a pretty kind of nasty environment, so you had to dodge all them to get there and then get from there back home.  And I also went home for lunch, because my mother would make lunch and leave it there, so I also went home for lunch.  It was quite a kind of hurdle.  And there were of course lots of skinheads, lots of bullying, I was constantly bullied, especially in my early years.  So Mr Harris was very good and my first teacher, Mr Pallister was a wonderful man.  He was not a brilliant mathematician, but he was a very, very good teacher.  And the thing about Mr Pallister was that he – now, I may be confusing, Mr Pallister was my chemistry teacher and we had Mr Searle, the second maths teacher, what was the name of my first maths teacher?  Forgetting his name.  Maybe it’ll come to me.  He was absolutely a wonderful man and one of the good things about him was that when he was wrong he would immediately admit it.  So in 1-6, you know, I say I could do, I played cricket but I could also do some maths.  So it was pretty obvious to Mr Pallister that I was very good at maths.  And one of the ways, I mean I would quite often solve some equations and things before him and he would often get them wrong.  [laughs]  So we had this kind of bond and so Mr… so he kind of looked after me.  So the next year I was put in 2.2 and in 2.2 we had a physics teacher, Mr Clark and I think a chemistry teacher, Mr Pallister.  Now, Mr Clark was unique at Brooke House Secondary School up to that point, because he was the only one who had a degree from Oxford, and he really did regard himself as a kind of complete and utter genius and above, head and shoulders above.  So he hardly, I don’t think he actually taught, I mean he taught physics, but I’m not really sure whether he taught anything, I mean he just thought everybody was beneath him, in a sense.  And Mr Clark was also the kind of head of chess club.  I think every Tuesday or Wednesday or something there was a chess club and so in one of the rooms there’d be about six or seven tables with chessboards on them and Mr Clark will be playing six people simultaneously and all the other teachers would be standing there admiring and occasionally some of his opponents will be teachers as well and he will beat them all, and everybody will be in great awe.  So one day I went in and I said can I join in.  Come on lad.  So after seven moves I beat him.  Seven moves, Mr Clark beaten.  And there was absolute commotion in the whole school that this fellow Sardar beat Mr Clark.  So Mr Clark, essentially the best way of putting it, I mean you know, he was upset but he did then kind of started respecting me.  Now, unknown to Mr Clark, I had borrowed a chess book from the library and mastered the Garry Kasparov opening moves [laughs] and using those, I beat him.  So it was not my original moves, because I wanted to learn, so I’d mastered the moves.  So because he was playing six people, maybe he didn’t notice it, but anyway, he got clobbered in seven moves, full stop.  So Mr Clark taught us physics, as I said, he never taught anything, so somehow I managed to learn something from him.  And then we had chemistry teacher, Mr Pallister, who was very good and he made a real effort to teach as well and I learnt something from him.  And then we had a history teacher, known as Mr Brilliant, who looked like Einstein with his hair like that, and I had a constant battle from him because I just did not buy his version of history.  And so there is a quite vivid memory in mind that one day he was teaching the Indian Mutiny and he kept calling it mutiny and I said no, it’s not a mutiny, it was a freedom fight.  And the thing about Mr Brilliant was, unlike my maths teacher who always accepted when he got things wrong, I suppose in mathematics if you get it wrong, you get it wrong, you know, a child says it’s wrong, you know.  I’ve solved the equation, this is the right answer.  He would never accept that he was wrong in any way and therefore I remember I ended up setting fire to the desk, you know, took matches to the thing and put all my textbooks in there and set fire to them.  I was taken to the headmaster and given six of the best.  But despite all that, I went to 3-4 and then 4-1 and there were three of us who were very good: myself, a chap called Anthony Smith and a chap called AB Jacobs, the three of us then became the kind of stars of Brooke House School, we were the ones that were doing A levels, not many people were doing A levels.  Our O level results were very, very good, we all got very high grades, the three of us.  So we kind of became a group and the other teachers kind of respected us as well and we were also on the debating society and we won a number of debates, I became the London debating champion twice.  Well, the three of us became London champion because we were a team, debating team.  We also ran the chess and we all played cricket as well, so we won kind of cricket championship in school and at the time I was all-rounder and in fact went on to play for Hackney for a little while.  So we were kind of three very powerful group, Christian, Muslim and Jew and as Mr Clark, who was an atheist, used to say, here comes the Abrahamic civilisations, right, so we kind of, you know.  Now I say that Mr Clark wasn’t a very good physics teacher and probably Mr Pallister wasn’t very good either as a chemistry teacher, although they were wonderful folks, is that neither of us got very good A level results in our physical chemistry.  We got good results in maths because, you know.  And we had a new teacher, called Mr Searle, and Mr Searle was the second person from Oxford.  So Mr Clark and Mr Searle became very good friends.  And Mr Searle was again, not a brilliant teacher, but reasonable teacher, but in mathematics we didn’t really need it, you know, we learned most of our maths, we were all good mathematicians so we learnt ourselves.  We should have been good physicists as well, except I don’t think Mr Clark did a very good job, so neither of us got very good results.  But one of us went to University of Kent, I think, to do chemical engineering, the other person went to somewhere like East Anglia or something to do, again, some physics or something to do with physics or chemistry, and my parents simply said find the nearest university.  So the nearest university from where we lived, you know, was City University at Angel, one bus ride away, 38 number bus that I took regularly, so I just basically went to City University.  To do physics.



Before we get to university, could you tell me about your and your family’s religious practice, having moved to England?


Well, both my father and my mother are in a sense religious people, but they were not very religious.  Where we lived there were no mosques there, so the nearest mosque was quite a distance away and it was only at somebody’s house, in a room in a house, in a sense.  So the only time we actually went to the mosque was during the two Eids, the two religious festivals in Eid up to Ramadan and the Hajj when we went to the Central London Mosque as a collective family.  And I was involved in Muslim student activities, so I would go to the mosque there.  And my father would probably, would go to the mosque on Friday, if he felt like it.  But he didn’t believe that it was necessary so he said most of his prayers.  So most of our religious activity was within the house, in the sense that he said his own prayers, my mother said her own prayers.  And my mother spent a lot of time teaching me the Qur’an, you know, and all that, and my sister and my younger brother, so most of our kind of religious education came through her.  And my father occasionally participated, but he only participated when there was an argument and there were lots of religious arguments quite frequently.  On the whole, my mother had two or three requirements and once I kind of fulfilled that, that was fine, that I learnt to read the Qur’an, which she kind of taught, that I was reasonably kind of moral person and she kept quite a staunch eye on from her point, her definition of kind of religious morality.  And that I was kind of socially conscious and doing things for the community and all that.  And I was very involved with the Muslim students so she was quite satisfied, she didn’t quite kind of push me, or my siblings for that matter.  


Most of my kind of religious activities were with the Muslim, I became involved in the Federation of Student Islamic Societies and there was a lot of kind of activities with them.  I was President of the London Islamic Circle, which met every Saturday at the Regent mosque where we talked about religion.  When I say where we talked about religion, the thing to do is that not so much we talked about religion, basically we talked about Muslim culture.  And in those days when you said Muslim culture, science and philosophy were essential part of that culture, so a lot of our discussions and debates were about, you know, science and Muslim history, what has happened to philosophy, why has the philosophy disappeared from Muslim society, and reading classical texts, you know, like Ibn Tufayl or Ibn Rushd and people like that, you know, looking at scientific texts, you know, classical scientific texts and that kind of thing.  So the London Islamic Circle was a pretty kind of intellectual group and mostly university students.  I was probably the youngest, but most of the members were doing PhDs and quite a few of them were doing PhD in sciences, yeah.  But in those days, you could always find people who were doing their PhD in history of science.  Nowadays it’s practically impossible to find somebody.  So we had people who were doing PhD in history of science or PhD in Islamic philosophy, history of medicine, as well as conventional scientific subjects, industrial chemistry and nuclear physics and that kind of stuff.  So it was, that period was kind of very holistic in the way you approach culture, right.  It was not just theology or religious ideas as culture, culture was perceived as a much bigger kind of thing.  And again, poetry and literature were an essential part of that culture and we had a lot -  I mean the tradition of having mushaira was continued in our house, so I mean every other week there was a little gathering of local poets in our house, led by my father and, you know, my father or mother wrote poetry, my father wrote poetry, and there was kind of discussion, so this was a regular event.  I mean these are two kind of cornerstones of kind of my life in Clapton Pond.  Every Sunday I would have to take my mother to the Indian film and every other Sunday there’d be a gathering of… sorry, Sunday I took them to… Saturday there’d be a gathering of poets, a little mushaira, so that was kind of a regular thing.  So we didn’t have gathering for religious discussion, which is interesting, which a lot of people nowadays have.  And most of my religious discussions were outside amongst the students.  



Could you describe or take us on a tour of your home at Clapham [Clapton] Pond?


Well, it was in reflection a pretty dilapidated place, to be quite honest, right.  So there was this house, 9 Hilsea Street, it was divided into two bits.  Mrs [incomp – 1:10:19] and Mrs Johnson lived upstairs.  So you entered through one door, main door, you opened it and you could go up the stairs to Mrs Johnson’s or on the left was a door which took you to our house, our little part. So you go in and there was a kind of main room with bay windows, there was a second room and you go through a corridor and there was a kind of, if you like, living room, and the toilet was outside, so you had to, there was a kitchen and you had to go through the kitchen, outside and the toilet was outside in a very, very kind of small garden.  So my parents slept in the middle room and the three kids slept in the front, which was a much larger room with the bay window.  And all of us got up regularly to go to the toilet which was outside the house, so that was quite a major exercise and the biggest kind of cause of concern for us all, the toilet was outside.  I mean I don’t remember kind of having a really bad time now in Hilsea Street, but looking, I mean I really think it is a pretty dilapidated place.


What do you remember of the kitchen?


The kitchen was exceptionally small.  The only thing in the kitchen was a cooker, that’s it.  There was no place to put any cutlery or anything, you know, there was no tables or no kind of cupboards or anything like that, there was just an old-fashioned cooker.  So the living room had a, we had a cupboard in the living room where we put all our crockery and glasses and, you know, knives and forks and stuff like that.  So a very crowded living room with only one sofa, and eventually we had a television there as well.  I mean in the early stages we didn’t have a television so we used to go and watch, you know, Shenandoah and My Three Sons and Quick Draw McGraw [laughs] at Jean’s house, a lady called Jean who used to live next door to us.


Where did the meetings of poets take place?


The poets took place in the living room, so you can imagine, it was a pretty crowded space.  I remember quite often just kind of standing by the door for three or four hours listening to some awful, awful poetry, because none, I mean as I said, in Pakistan everybody has aspiration to be a poet and not many of them write, but they think they can write.  But occasionally you came across some incredible people, right, so we had different kind of things.  So you’ll have about seven or eight people in this very small room sitting, and then they’d be making requests for samosas or tea and my mother had to regularly go out and make tea or,  yeah, and fry something for them and things like that.  You could just about get eight or nine people in there, sitting on chairs.  Three people sitting on the sofa and some people sitting on chairs.


What did you at that age see as good poetry?  You said you asked a peasant who their favourite poet was and they answered.  If someone had asked you that then, what would you have said?


In those days?   




Because both my mother and my father were heavily into the literature, they made sure that I read some of the classic stuff.  But it wasn’t a kind of a forced thing, it was just the books lying around, kind of thing.  And also, for example, my mother said well, you should do Urdu A level… Urdu O level, which I did, got grade A straightaway, because the books that came up I had already read from much, much earlier and things.  I would have gone on to do Urdu A level as well but I didn’t think it was worthwhile.  So the… I mean I was quite, say from twelve, thirteen years old, I could distinguish between a good poem and a bad one, right?  Now, the Urdu poetry has many particular characteristics, but like all poetry, and the metaphor plays a very important part, and the classical Urdu poetry always has a philosophical content, right?  Or it will have a mystical content.  Say, for example, the metaphor of wine is very common, but how the poet uses the metaphor, the metaphor can be used for umpteen different ways, so the wine could just be plain drunkenness, it could be a mystical kind of elevation, right?  It could be a search for truth.  It could even be a description of the state of the beloved.  And it could also be used to talk about God.  So it’s how you use the metaphor, right, and the good poetry, for me, I mean even in those days I could tell the one that was rich in metaphor which forced me to think.  If you get the meaning of the couplet straightaway, it’s a bad poem.  But if you have to step back and think, and of course the use of the language is very important, so sometimes just the words themselves excite you, you can see that the words, the way the words form, you know, you just feel them.  But if you just have to sit back and say what the hell is the poet saying, that is a good poem, because you are forced to think, in a sense, and how he is using the metaphors and how he’s manipulating them and what he was saying, in a sense.  So right from the very kind of early age I could tell.  And I think this is not just me, I think it’s most Pakistanis in the way that they’re brought up.  I’m not sure about the current generation, but certainly the people of my generation in Pakistan will instantly know.


To what extent did nature and landscape feature in poetry in the way that…


A great deal, a great deal.  Nature, landscape, reflection, rationality, thought is very much part of the repertoire.  I mean as in all poetry in that sense.   Urdu poetry is not different from other kinds of poetry, you know, in the subset area it covers and all that.  But there are particular forms and styles that are specific to Urdu poetry.


Before we move to university, could you just clarify what you said about the journeys to school?  When you described the dangerous journeys to school, I just had a mental image of groups of different kinds of fascists on different corners and you moving between.  Could you describe what it was like?


Yeah.  They were not so much different groups, they were basically one group, two different groups, who also by the way fought amongst each other.  So the skinheads and the blackshirts often fought amongst each other.  So the basic is when you’re walking is not to kind of find a blackshirt or a skinhead wandering about, because if you see one, then the group will not be far away.  So in fact I was caught a number of times and beaten up, but one of the times I was caught by skinheads and I ran to enclosure and I was punched.  So my broken nose today is from that period.  And my nose was broken, I was bleeding and this place was right next to a philatelist, a stamp collectors’ shop, a stamp shop, and the guy who used to run it was a Jewish guy, he came out and, you know, called the police and all that and took me inside and became very good friends and I bought lots of stamps from him [laughs] for my own stamp collection.  So it was, I mean it was not an easy journey.  That was a daily occurrence.  But as time moved on and I went from say, 2.2 to 3.4, I also acquired my own little group and that’s where Anthony Smith and AB Jacobs also became part of it, so we also walked in groups, right, so life became much easier.  And then towards the end, you know, ’68, ’69, they started to disappear, we didn’t see all that many.  One other very common thing in those days was Paki bashing, so the skinheads will go out and look for people like me and beat them up, and that was called Paki bashing, and it was a very common phenomenon.  So it was a hard journey.


What did, I mean…


And the school couldn’t, I mean the school knew but they couldn’t do anything.  I mean there was constant complaints, poor old Mr Harris will come out and look around and, you know, help the students and all that, call the… you know.  But there’s nothing he could have done.  I mean I don’t think he could have done more than he did.  But when we were in the sixth form he was very, very proud of us, you know, we were, Brooke House Secondary School, the second worst school in Britain, had the London debating champion several years running.  Twice we won the debating championship.  We had a great cricket team.  We probably had a football team as well, but I was not really interested.  We had a great cricket team, we played all over the place, you know.  Mr Pallister was one of the teachers who drove us all around, you know, with our kind of cricketing engagements with this school or that school.  He was genuinely very proud of us.  And I think we were probably the last people to do A levels and go to university in that… no, my brother was, my brother went to Brooke House as well and he came out and he also went.  So I mean it was going downhill as well.  I suspect when Mr Harris left it probably did go back downhill.


[end of track 1]

[Track 2]


Could you talk about then your reasons for choosing physics to read at university, and then we’ll talk about your experience at London City University.


City University, yeah.  Well, I mean it was, at Brooke House Secondary School the options for doing different things were very few and kind of nobody pointed me towards the arts in any way.  I mean actually I came to hate history because of Mr Brilliant, which is sad, because later on I discovered a great love for history.  So it was clear that I had to do science.  But I also wanted to go and become a professional cricketer.  So there was, again, as I was saying, in kind of Asian families there are only certain disciplines that are recognised as viable [laughs] and acceptable.  So being a cricketer was not a kind of a career that my family would have accepted.  But anyway, I remember talking to my father and he says okay, if you want to become a cricketer, then you’re a cricketer for ten years, then what are you going to work at?  So I said, I don’t know.  He said, who is your favourite cricketer?  I said, Fred Trueman, who was a fast bowler for England.  So he said, what is Fred Trueman doing now?  I said, I think he’s running a vegetable shop.  So he said, well, if you want to run a vegetable shop, then you should become a cricketer.  So I said okay, what do you suggest?  He says, well, study physics.  So I said, why?  He said, well, if you can do physics, you can do anything.  So – and he himself did engineering through physics – so I said physics it is.  I could have done mathematics, physics or chemistry, you know, but I was less inclined towards physics because I had developed a kind of dislike for Mr Clark, so teachers do have a lot of effect on you in that sense, because he never actually taught us properly and he was just, his class was just, read this text and ask me any questions, that kind of stuff.  I mean, so the choice was limited.  I mean I couldn’t go to a university outside London because my mother would not have allowed that, and anyway, my parents were very poor, they couldn’t afford it.  So my father basically said I can give you your bus fare, so just find the nearest university in London.  So the City University was an option because that was the only option in that sense.


Could you then talk about, let’s talk about the course to start with.  So this is three years?


Yeah, it was three years, yeah, applied physics course.  Again, City University I think is a very good university and the kind of, what you get I think is a function of how much you put in, in a sense. Now, by that time I was doing – I had lots of other interests – so I was doing physics, yes, but I was also doing lots of other things.  So I was first of all executive member, then I  became secretary-general of the Federation of Students’ Islamic Societies, which was quite a big job which required me to go round various universities in Britain, you know, organising Islamic societies at various universities.  I was also involved in a study group.  We used to call it USRA group – U-S-R-A – where we had a philosopher from Sudan who had basically, I think, I’m not sure whether we persuaded him or he persuaded us, to have this study group where we met regularly once a week to go through classic texts.  So we did, you know, the traditional classical civilisation texts, you know, the books of philosophy, the books of, you know, the sayings of the Prophet, the life of the Prophet, classical literature, mystical stuff.  Lots of science and technology stuff and a great deal of philosophy.  And I really didn’t want to do that because I have a kind of… my approach to tradition is very similar to my grandfather’s, Hakim Sahib’s approach to tradition, to [incomp – 05:29] that I have a sceptical and critical approach to it, so I really did want to learn the traditional stuff.  So I was doing that at the same time, and I was studying for the exam.  


And it was a good experience, I think seventeen or eighteen of us started, only six or seven finished.  It was a very tough course, but it was also, in my opinion a great deal of fun.  Two or three things kind of stand out.  We had one, I think – I’m trying to work out – maybe a quantum mechanics teacher who smoked like a chimney and clearly was suffering from very serious… respiratory problems.  So he will come in the class, take a little puff and put an equation on the board, and whilst he’s writing the equation he will have a fit and start coughing – co-co-co-co-co – and the coughing will continue for a good one or two minutes, then he’ll stop, and then he’ll carry on exactly where he left the equation.  So mostly half of his lectures were coughing and the other half were just equations on the board without any explanation.  We had a wonderful Professor Brown who had the main Chair.  He was the professor of… I think heat, his specialism was heat, and statistics.  Yeah, he was a statistics chap.  And he used to teach in a very funny way, I remember once he was giving us a lecture on surfaces and then he put a photograph of a naked model on the screen which shocked all the students, but they gawped at it, and he said, meet, this is Sarah, she’s a surface.  [laughs]  And then he asked us to calculate the surface of her skin.  [laughs]  So we had some fun, great teachers, good and bad.  So I think, I enjoyed studying physics, although I missed the philosophy side of physics, I increasingly became more interested in physics and philosophy, rather than just physics, but I did just physics.  And the final year, we all knew that the quantum mechanics paper was going to be very, very bad, but the teacher who was teaching, the lecturer who was teaching us finally our quantum mechanics I think died, you know, the coughing guy, so the course was left unfinished.  So I remember in the quantum mechanics exam, there was seven or eight of us sitting there and the paper arrived and I was looking at the questions, and I heard a thud, and I turned round and one of my fellow students had fainted, and the two invigilators came and carried him away.  And I was kind of reading the second or third question and there was another thud, this thud and the guy was kind of, not quite fainting, but was in a bad shape, so the teachers came in and said do your best.  He said, but we haven’t covered all this, nothing of this was taught to us.  They said well, it’s too late now.  So the quantum mechanics was on the whole, for three years it was, I wouldn’t say it was a bad experience, but partly I think we didn’t put enough effort ourselves, because at university you’re supposed to learn yourself rather than… I mean the teachers, the lecturers are only there to take you through that thing.  So I got a 2:2, which I was, well I was expecting at least at first a 2:1, and it’s basically the quantum mechanics paper where we didn’t do very well.  But it was a good experience.  As I said, it’s a tough course and therefore not many students survived.  But I stayed the course and finished it, but I did a lot of other things during those three years, apart from just studying physics.  And then, immediately after that, I wanted to do an MSc so I said fine, I’m going to stay here.  And I wanted to do something that was different from physics, but still a science, but some other philosophical or social science context.  And since I wanted to stay at City University, it was very easy because I could just get a bus and be at the university in half an hour.  I looked around and there was very few… the only option was you could do a Masters in physics and music.  I didn’t know much about music so that didn’t quite appeal to me.  The other thing that I found which had social science context was doing information science.  Now, information science in those days was something completely different.  It was basically glorified library science plus automation and computing.  Some of it was known as cybernetics and things like that.  So I thought I’ll do that, so then I did a Masters in information science, which compared with the previous course was a walk.  And again, I did lots of other things.  I had a great time, a lot of it spent arguing with my lecturers, who I have to admit I didn’t consider very clever.  But our professor, Mr Bottle, was a wonderful man and I was interested in publishing, so we even wrote a paper together on analysis of chemical literature, analysing chemical literature.  So Mr Bottle, Dr Bottle and myself and a few other students came together and we wrote a paper together on – it was published in two parts, development of information science.  So that was a good time.



Why were you interested in publishing?  Where had that come from?


Well, one of the other things that I was doing, I’ve always been a multi-tasking person.  So one of the other things I was doing right from my sixth form times was journalism and I always wanted to write and I had reached the conclusion that one route to writing will be through journalism.  So when I was at my sixth form and we won the London debating championship, there was this report in the Hackney Gazette.  So I went down to Hackney Gazette and I said, you know, give me a job.  And they said no, no, no, no, no.  So I was kind of dismissed, but I kept going there.  In fact I kept on going there from my fourth year, not just sixth form, fourth year, but it’s the sixth form when we won the London debating championship.  They recognised me and they actually said okay, you can do some freelance work for us.  So, one of my first jobs was to go and report a fire in Clapton Pond and I came back to see my own school on fire.  Brooke Hall Secondary School was a pretty bad place, so it went through… [laughs]  So I did write a report about the school and they were convinced that I set the school on fire to get a copy in.  And then they sent me round Hackney to, first of all I did all these, you know, pensioners’ council meeting, that kind of stuff, but then they sent me round Hackney to write about industry in Hackney.  So I wrote a para that contributed to a column called ‘Made in Hackney’, which appeared regularly, so I used to write odd bits and pieces for that.  And at the same time there was, in those days there used to be a national sixth form magazine, it was called Sixth Form Opinion.  It was a pretty substantial kind of quarterly magazine, you know, 150 pages, pretty solid stuff.  And I became Science and Technology Editor for that and worked on that.  Some of these were necessity, out of. because we didn’t have any money and I had to actually make some contribution to my… clearly my parents couldn’t support me, so some was out of necessity, but also out of what I wanted to do.  And during my university years I was writing for Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Educational Supplement.


On what areas?


Basically it’s kind of education stuff, science stuff, that kind of stuff.  So I was doing lots of freelance work, and making a reasonably good, you know, I mean in those days, a reasonable kind of, good supplement to the grant.  Once I went to university my parents basically stopped supporting me.  My father became redundant, parts of Dagenham factory was closed and once he became redundant he never managed to find another job.  So there was virtually no income coming in the house, I was, I certainly couldn’t get anything from them and I had £3,000 grant from the government that I used to get, so you can’t live on £3,000 a year, so I used to supplement my income by doing that.  And I was doing lots of work with FOSIS and I was doing the traditional educational thing with my… and doing my physics degree at the same time.  So pretty hectic time of my life.



If we looked at articles in Sixth Form Opinion or later the articles you’re publishing for newspapers during your degree, would we find that some of the things you’re writing about there are echoed in things that you go on to write later?


Er… well, for the supplements it was basically run-of-the-mill education stuff.  I’m not sure that many of them carried my by-line, some of them do carry my by-line.  In Sixth Form Opinion you will find things that, I mean it’s science stuff, but it’s critical science stuff in that.  So, I mean again, my approach to science was very similar to my approach to tradition and modernity, that you need to look at things critically in that sense.  There’s obviously, interest on science and religion is there, yeah.  So if you look at Sixth Form Opinion you probably would find some stuff.  I mean I’ve no idea what I wrote for Sixth Form Opinion, but there’s a number of articles there.  And in FOSIS we used to have a magazine called The Muslim, which was a monthly magazine, a printed magazine, and so I wrote science stuff for that, which clearly was a forerunner of my interest to come.


That was for?


It was called The Muslim.




The FOSIS magazine.  About sixty pages monthly, British Library must have copies of The Muslim, I’m sure.  So you’ll find some stuff there.  And of course the City University itself had a magazine called Quest.  I remember writing an article on Al-Biruni for Quest, a long article on Al-Biruni, during my final year of physics, this is physics years.  


How did the USRA study group start – am I saying that right?


USRA, yeah.  Actually, it’s when we used to meet at London Islamic Circle and various FOSIS meetings, it became obvious that a lot of us talked about things without knowing them.  So we talked about Islamic tradition this and Islamic philosophy this, but the students amongst us hadn’t read anything.  So about four or five of us said well, we’ve got to do this properly and thoroughly and we found a Sudanese scholar who was doing a PhD at Cambridge in philosophy.  His name was Jafar Sheikh Idris.  Later on he became a Wahhabi and went off and taught in Saudi Arabia, but in those days he was very open-minded and into philosophy.  So he took us under his wing, or maybe we persuaded him, I don’t know either way, but he then taught us quite a lot.  And a lot of that teaching was, this is the important text, you must read that, and this is the important text, you must read that, yeah.  And as soon as I finished the kind of, did several years of USRA group and I kind of realised that I didn’t need anybody to guide me any more, I could go out and find these texts myself, I’d become aware of what were the classical texts to read.  You know, Al-Ghazzali’s Book of Knowledge, you know, Ibn Khaldun, you know, the Introduction to History, you know, you’ve got to read these things if you want to know anything about Muslim civilisation.  Or, you know, kind of Ibn Rushd on Harmony of Religion and Science, that kind of stuff.  I met another person who basically was a kind of figurehead for me, like Jafar Sheikh Idris, but in the areas of science and technology, and that’s very interesting because I was sitting in the City University refectory one day.  I think I was doing my Masters, yeah, I was doing my Masters, and a chap came and sat next to me and said what are you doing, we started talking, and he said, well, maybe you and I should collaborate.  And he was very senior to me, I said, you know, how can I collaborate with you?  He said well, I am general secretary of Council for Science and Society.  And I said, what is your name?  He said my name is Jerry Ravetz and I’ve just written this book, Scientific Knowledge and the Social Problem, and there is this council called Council for Science and Society that Ziman – what was his name?  Ziman… the physicist?


I’m not sure, we can…




…we can insert this into the summary when we remember.


Yeah, what his name is.  Yeah, he’s established and there’s some funding and we have some working groups on various science working groups.  There’s one on computing, there’s one on biotechnology, would you like to be part of the information since you’re doing it, so I said sure.  So I became a member of the working group.  Not so much a member of the working group, but kind of somebody who supplied research to them so that they could do things and I was kind of being paid a small amount.  And Jerry basically took me to his wings and he said well, so you are interested in philosophy, and I said yes, I’ve always been interested in philosophy but I haven’t read any, right.  And I’m interested in philosophy of science and methodology of science.  And Jerry said fine, okay, and then he just said read this, read this, read that, read that, very systematically, you know, read the stuff in Newton, read the stuff…  And I got really bored with it and I said I need to read some other stuff.  And he said well, unless you know this then you won’t know… so I had to, you know.  And Jerry would actually give me papers to read, you know, recently published papers he’ll find, you know.  I mean now and again something will arrive in the post, a couple of papers, read these papers, and then we’ll sit, we often meet, great kind of debate and discussion about that and things.  So in ‘77/78 when me and Jerry got very, very close together, he took me to Paris, to a meeting in Paris.  And he said I put your name down to write something on science policy in developing countries.  And I said Jerry, you know, I don’t think I can write that kind of stuff.  But he said you come along with me, so I went with him to Paris and there was this meeting and the meeting was organised to discuss the chapters in a book called Science, Technology and Society Across Disciplinary Perspective, edited by Derek de Solla Price and Ina Spiegel-Rösing.  And Derek de Solla Price and Ina Spiegel-Rösing were the kind of Chairs of this and everybody else there was a contributor to this book, and Jerry himself was a contributor, he wrote a chapter on criticism of science, or criticisms of science, for that book.  And I, who in those days was like, I think, twenty-six, twenty-seven, or something like that, you know, was kind of Jerry’s protégé there at that meeting.  And they said, what is this man doing here, and I remember Jerry was attacked ferociously.  And Jerry said no, he’s going to write the chapter about developing countries.  And they said no, what does he know about it, he doesn’t know anything about it.  And Jerry said no, he’s going to, give him a chance, he is going to write a chapter for this book.  To cut a long story short, eventually they grudgingly accepted that they will, if I write something, they will consider it.  And I wrote a chapter called ‘Science Policy in Developing Countries’, which appears in that book.  In fact, according to editors, that was the easiest chapter to edit for them because I was by that time almost a professional writer and everybody else’s stuff had to be, you know, edited pretty thoroughly.  And so that book, that paper then became a kind of jumping off point for my first book, Science, Technology and Development in the Muslim World.  And the money I got – I mean everybody got paid very handsomely for that book because they had a vast, I mean this is a huge volume, you know, and this was a large amount of funding, I think it… so I got paid very well for writing that chapter.  I wrote it with a friend to finish it in time, because there was a schedule and it had to be met.  Once the rough outline was accepted then I had to finish it very, very quickly to meet the deadline, so I got a friend involved and he kind of helped me finish it so we kind of co-wrote it.  So I used that money to actually travel round as many countries as I could to look at the science and technology when I started working on Science, Technology and Development in the Muslim World.  And Jerry was a good guide there, but by that time I was kind of more or less standing on my own.  So Science, Technology and Development I think came out in ’77 or ’78.



As you got to know Jerry better in this collaboration, did you come to understand why he had taken you under his wing – I think that’s the expression you used?


Well, I think we had common interests.  I have to tell you a couple of things, is that Jerry was very interested in Eastern mysticism and one of the first things I said to him when I was speaking to him, I said Jerry, you know nothing about mysticism.  [laughs]  And so he said okay, you tell…  It’s a kind of arrangement, and I said I know nothing about philosophy but I’m very interested in philosophy, so there was a kind of mutual benefit.  But Jerry wouldn’t listen to me, right?  Because I said to him, look Jerry, if you’re interested in mysticism, it’s very hard work.  It’s like if you want to become a good physicist you have to do three, four years of first degree, you have to do your Masters, you have to do a PhD, you have to go and work in a bloody laboratory or work with a research group, then you became a good physicist, right, you don’t just become a physicist like that.  Similarly you don’t become a mystic just like that.  In the Western, kind of the New Age tradition that he was moving in, you know, everything is instant, but if you want to become a mystic you really have to spend ten, fifteen years learning the classic texts and all that.  And then he really was very keen to experience what mysticism was all about, right?  He kept his science separate, but when he was not doing his mathematics or his philosophy of science or whatever, then he was basically kind of interested in mysticism.  So he didn’t quite, I mean I did find some, you know, classical texts and things for him to read and all that, point him in the direction, so that was a thing.  So there was a mutual interest, right?  And then we both had a, I think innately critical approach to things, including science, and I was very influenced by his scientific knowledge on social problems and I really wanted to work on kind of social problem aspect of that.  And because I was interested in science and the philosophy of science there was a natural corollary that I was interested in science policy.  So it’s not just that I was interested in science, I wanted to know how do we promote science in society and what kind of policies we need to promote the kind of research that we need, you know.  So that was that, that interest was there.  And because of my student involvement in FOSIS and all that, I was politically very active intellectually and I kind of really did believe that democracy means everyone and not just a select few, and that was kind of ingrained in me through my student activism.  So you could say I was from the left, but at home I was totally conservative, because we have a  very conservative, you know, Asian families are very conservative, you know, family matters, you know, certain traditional values.  So at home I was conservative, but out there I was a lefty activist.  



How was Jerry pursuing his interest in mysticism, which you say he kept separate from his science, how would he – apart from speaking to you about it – how was he pursuing that?


That’s a very… have you interviewed him by any chance?




No.  He’s over eighty so you should go and interview him, I think.  Now, the thing about, you see, first of all, Jerry was very influenced by things like, you know, Fritjof Capra, Tao of Physics and, you know, that stuff did not impress me at all, I have to tell you that.  I was… my attitude was that physics and mysticism are like two fuming bulls in a boxing ring, and they should not be brought together, while Tao of Physics argued that a certain level are, beyond a certain level physics becomes very mystical, in the elementary particle stuff and all that.  So I had a totally different approach to things than Jerry, because I think that here I was influenced by Al-Biruni, who I read a great deal.  In fact, when I was… I spent three, four months researching and writing a piece on Al-Biruni for this student City University magazine called Quest, as I was mentioning earlier on.  And Al-Biruni was also into science and mysticism, right?  So he did exact science, he could measure the specific gravity of things, he wrote a great book on the co-ordination of the cities.  And then he went to India and he wrote, absolutely masterpiece work on sociology, if you like, on India where he talks about yoga and metaphysicists.  But the interesting thing is, one of the most interesting things is that each enquiry raises a question.  To answer that question appropriately you must allow the appropriate methods of that particular enquiry, you must give them full justice.  In other words, if you are pursuing metaphysical questions you can’t use experimental method to answer the metaphysical question.  But if you are measuring the specific gravity of a metal, then you can’t use metaphysical methods to solve that.  You’ve got to keep your methods separately and give justice to the methods, right?  So each enquiry has its own natural questions that take you to their own specific methods, you can’t go to different methods, right?  You can be inter-disciplinary, you can be a polymath, you can, you know, but you have to do justice to the mode of enquiry and the methods of that mode of enquiry are applicable to that mode of enquiry and not to any other mode of enquiry.  So that I think is the lesson that I learned, and this is what troubled me right from the beginning, with the physics and metaphysics question.  Because mysticism is a different mode of enquiry.  I don’t understand it, I don’t think even mystics themselves understand it, but it has different methods which are nothing to do with science.  Science is a very empirical activity, so you do empirical work within a theoretical framework and your evidence is universally applicable.  In mysticism, if you are a great mystic, nobody can be any wiser, you can’t convince anybody there’s no evidence in that, so they’re different fields altogether and you can’t mix them.  So Jerry, I think felt a kind of, I think some human beings, you know, do have kind of the need for a spiritual fulfilment, some people, you know, human beings are complex people, they’re diverse.  So Jerry had this incredible desire for a spiritual fulfilment and therefore he thought that mysticism was his route, so he, I think he read a bit of Sufism and all that and maybe came to the conclusion it isn’t for him.  So he went the Hindu mysticism route and he became a devotee of Guru Maharaj Ji, a young Hindu mystic.  I remember having lots of discussions with him, he said when I’m in his presence I can heal this, and all that kind of stuff.  Some of it I believed, some of it I didn’t believe.  But I always critiqued them in a polite way, so he accepted my criticism and I actually pointed out this is not… this is a road to destruction.  And in fact this is what happened in the end, he realised that he made a mistake, it was all… part of it wasn’t… maybe some of it may have some relevance, but most of it turned out to be quite irrelevant and Guru Maharaj Ji was if not a total fraud, at least partly he was a fraud.  Even, I think Jerry even went to ashrams and lived with them and all that, etc.  It’s just that period, you know that sixties, seventies, eighties period is like that, where people want to experiment with these things and they’re not satisfied with just doing one particular sort of thing.  But Jerry taught me virtually all I know about philosophy of science and history of science, and I think he did a very good job because he was very, very systematic.  I mean Jerry is a natural teacher, he starts at the beginning and takes you very systematically.  I wish he was my teacher at university because I could have learnt a lot more.  Most of my teachers were not like that, that you begin at the beginning and you do it very, very systematically and you build the foundations in that sense.  Jerry did a very good job in teaching me the history of philosophy of science and very systematically.



What were the sort of key texts in the history of science and the historiography of science that he led you through or pointed to?


All sorts of stuff.  I don’t know.  Things like George Sarton, An Introduction to the History of Science, lots of stuff on scientific… I don’t remember specific text titles, largely because the sheer quantity of the stuff that he kept on throwing in my direction.  Now I had to admit that I didn’t read everything he gave me, but I read a lot of stuff.  Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China.  Actually I think he probably gave me volume one and then I went and bought volume one and two.  And lots of stuff.  Most of the stuff on Newton, Galileo and Newtonian revolution came through papers rather than books.  And some of this Jerry had written himself.  So he’s got a very important paper on scientific revolution.  I read that then I followed some of the references in there and checked those out.  Stuff by Rattansi on Newton I think, and that I got.  So lots and lots of stuff.


Where were you meeting in this initial period after you’d first met in the cafeteria?


We used to meet quite frequently at the Council of Science and Society.  There is somewhere in Chancery Lane I think they had an office.  John Ziman!  John Ziman was the main kind of force behind setting up Council for Science and Society.  It lasted several years before it folded.  


What relations did it have, or did you have with somebody called the British Society for Social Responsibility of Science, which was around…


Yes, it was around that time.  I was not full member of the British Society for… I knew people like Robert Young.  Some people who I later worked with at New Scientist were also members. I think David Dickson was member of that.  So I knew, I went to their meetings, but I wasn’t a kind of card-carrying member.  I was loosely a member of the Radical Science Group, but again, not card-carrying member, in the sense that I went to their meetings, I was involved in debate and discussion, I never wrote anything for Radical Science because I just thought it was too radical for me.  Even some of Jerry’s criticisms I thought were too radical for me, but that comes later on.  I mean in those days I was enthralled by Jerry and really kind of read everything he threw at me.



And could you tell me a little bit more about the London Islamic Circle?


Yes, yeah.


Because this seems very interesting.  What do you know about, to begin with, its sort of origins, its history and origins before the point that you meet it?


The London Islamic Circle has a very long history.  I think it probably started in the sixties and it was, in those days the London, Central London Mosque was not a mosque at all, it was just… it hadn’t been built.  And Raja of Mahmudabad, who was the Director of the Central London Mosque, gave us a room in the building that was there, where we met.  So the London Islamic Circle was already going before I got involved with it.  Then I became a treasurer and eventually I became a president and I was president for quite a long time, five or six years.  Essentially it consisted of a group of intellectuals.  There was no formal membership, but everybody knew that the Circle met at, you know, Saturday, five o’clock Saturday evening in the mosque, five to seven, eight o’clock.  And most of the members were students who were essentially in transition, they were here to do a postgraduate course and they’d be here for three or four years and then they will go back.  So it was a group of transition people.  And essentially, the main political problem that we discussed in those days was Palestine.  But apart from that, everything else was a discussion of intellectual nature, right?  What does it mean to be a modern Muslim, how do we – and one of the very common questions again and again in debate and discussion – how do we bring science back to Islam?  That’s a very common… I mean I wrote a piece for New Scientist which was called, which was basically started, the discussion started at the London Islamic Circle, on how you bring back science.  Most of the members were the students, were doing some sort of science.  There were a lot of people doing nuclear physics, production, industrial engineering and production engineering were two main kind of things, lots of people were doing that kind of stuff.  As well as people doing mathematics, we had very good members who were doing statistics, building statistics, and the main concern was essentially, how do we have some sort of cultural renaissance in Muslim societies.  And as I was saying earlier on, cultural renaissance meant, you know, not just literature and poetry, but also science and technology and all that.  Because we had a much bigger notion of,  holistic notion of culture.  I think once I left the Circle basically folded.  Because what happened was that the mosque was built and once the mosque was built Raja Mahmudabad left, there was a new Saudi director and the whole persona of the mosque changed.  The new director was directly appointed by the Saudi Embassy in London, he was a kind of very narrow-minded person, so I think the Circle just stopped immediately.



How did you come in the first place to know about it, how did it advertise itself to you?


Ah, how did it advertise itself?  Because I was involved with the – I can tell you how it all happened.  I was, when I was in sixth form I was once working at Hackney Gazette, freelancing for Hackney Gazette, they asked me to go and cover a Council meeting on pensioners, so I went to Hackney Council Town Hall, covered this meeting.  As we’re coming out, there was a guy who was distributing leaflets, so I took a leaflet from him and I just started talking to him and he said what’s your name, and he was a Malaysian Muslim from Kuala Lumpur, his name was Ebrahimsa Muhammad, and he said, well, why don’t you join us, we have a society, Federation of Students’ Islamic Societies.  So he just invited me, so I joined him.  In fact, at Brooke House Secondary School I established the Islamic Society at the school itself.  So there was a Brooke House Islamic Society, you know, which met once a month and we organised various kind of speeches and talks and things like that.  And once I got involved in FOSIS then I came to know of London Islamic Circle, because London Islamic Circle was one of the constituents of FOSIS.  



Could you say more about your travels around Britain for FOSIS, is the abbreviation, what were you doing in each of the universities that you visited?


Well, basically the idea was to persuade students, university, I remember going to University of Nottingham, University of York, is to persuade to establish Islamic Society and then become member of the FOSIS.  That was the kind of thing, was to create a network of Islamic Societies.  And I have to kind of emphasise this, that in those days the important thing wasn’t that you must have Islamic Societies so you can have a place to pray, right?  The obsession, you know, with the kind of having mosque and prayer places is not, it wasn’t there in the sixties and the seventies or even the eighties, I mean this is much later.  The idea that you should have an Islamic Society to debate intellectual and culture issues of Muslims, not so that you should have some mullah coming to give you lecture.  And the people who talked and gave that often tended to be professors, you know, intellectuals, that type.  We never kind of… I don’t remember ever having kind of the mullah types coming in to talk to us, which has now become a common phenomenon in Islamic Societies.  The whole make-up was totally different.  There was a kind of buzz that Muslim Societies are on the verge of intellectual revival, of a cultural renaissance.  We used to talk about Islamic resurgence, and it was all based on ideas, it was all based on real science, you know, real thought and doing real work, you know, getting… one of the most common things we used to say, it is time for us to roll up our sleeves and really work hard intellectually.  So that was what we were trying to do when we were creating, helping establish Islamic Societies.  So as general secretary I… part of my job was to go for a couple of days to this university or this university to persuade the people to establish, and if that is established going on see if there are any problems, can we help with some fundings if they’re students.  The union is not giving you enough money, maybe we can, you know, have a little pot.  And then we used to organise, there was a summer conference and a winter gathering.  So there’d be an annual summer conference.  I think in Derby normally, we had some arrangement in Derby and then there’d be a winter gathering in different universities.




If that was the focus then, that an Islamic Society should be there to discuss intellectual life of the community, but you say that was sixties, seventies and even eighties, what happened?  I know this is jumping forward a long way from this, but why did the emphasis change?


I think the emphasis changed because of a lot of that has to do with the Saudi influence. You know, the mosques became bastions of Saudi thought, in a sense, so the Wahhabism.  Many of the mosques, like the Central London Mosque, were financed and built by Saudis, so the mosque in Birmingham, for example, was, you know.  It was not an uncommon sight in those days that the community would get together to start a mosque, then discover they don’t have enough money and they sent a delegation either to Saudi Arabia or to the Gulf States and they will come back with their support and the mosque will be finished, but then you know, they will send their imams and mullahs as well and there’d be other influence, etc, etc.  So there was a kind of a, after the eighties, mid-eighties, I think there was a turning round and the diversity and intellectual content began to get lost.  And with the mosques, they influenced in the universities as well, because who goes to universities, well the students come from the community and they come through the mosque networks.  



Could you tell the story now, in as much detail as you can remember, of the period of travel that was financed you say in part by the earnings from the chapter in the volume that you had written?


Yeah.  Well, essentially, what I did was, after I finished my Masters, my first job was working at the Hajj Research Centre in King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah.  And in between, in between going to Jeddah to work and finishing the Masters and starting work on the PhD as well, I spent, must be about six months, travelling from Morocco – I did it very systematically – I did Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, and I came back and then went back to… came back and then did Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Iran.  So in two trips.  So the idea was to do it very, very systematically. And essentially – some of this research, by the way, came in very handy, because I also put together a guide to science and technology in the Middle East which was published by Longman – and essentially I just went to look at research centres, university research centres but also nationalist centres I went to talk to.  I tried to talk to as many scientists as well as policy decision makers.  Wherever I went I tried to see if I could see the Minister of Science.  I don’t think I succeeded, most of them I failed, but I spoke to a lot of people in various ministries talking about science policy, talking about science education and things like that, very systematically.  So Science, Technology and Development is essentially, it doesn’t actually talk about these institutions, the book doesn’t talk about these institutions, the book actually gives you what I learnt from, so it’s a kind of a, not a system… that’s why most of the research then went into this science and technology guide.  But the actual book is all about the crisis of science in Muslim society and why I think there’s a lack of science, the attitudes of the people that I discovered, which disappointed me a great deal.  There is a kind of chapter on education where I talk about how a rote system is there and how the various professors that I spoke to themselves seemed to me totally out of touch.  I mean, you know, this common story that a professor doesn’t allow the younger people to come up because he feels threatened that he will lose his Chair, but hasn’t bothered reading anything for the last twenty years, so he’s teaching physics textbooks that were, you know, done in the 1940s or something, that kind of stuff.  So the book is kind of the synthesis of the research that I got, rather than describing these places.  But then I wrote a separate kind of guide, as I said, where these things are described or listed and all that, in that sense.


How did you record your encounters with people that you…?


Well, you know, we used to have this lovely institution called ‘Reporter’s Notebook’, which [laughs] comes in for that, most of them were there.  One of my great failures was I never learned shorthand.  I started learning it but I never got round to learning it properly.  So there were all kind of scribbled notes.  I never ever used a tape recorder in most of my early books, I don’t think.  So it’s basically notes, and some of notebooks I still have around in the house, but it will require quite a lot of hunting down to hunt them down, but they’re somewhere.  Not everything has been thrown away, although some of them I have lost.  There are some notebooks that are still there.



And across all of those countries that you mentioned, are there particular visits, particular sites, particular encounters that still stand out which would seem to suggest that they were significant at the time?  


Yes, yes, yes, yes.  I mean I remember going to the National Research Centre in Egypt and saying my god, you know, what a huge place with so many scientists and so much going on, and wandering about and feeling very, very excited.  And then coming back and seeing how many papers they published and the answer is none, right, and I was utterly shocked.  I mean this huge institution with laboratories and all that.  That was quite an encounter.  I remember going to Iran and looking at some of the stuff there and feeling phenomenally excited.  The Shah was pouring a lot of money into modernity and a lot of it was going to science and technology, speaking to people, and you know, two years later there’s a revolution and everything is transformed.  So yes, there are quite a lot.  I mean I remember going to Malaysia for the first time and looking at rubber research and I was so fascinated, I remember thinking shit, you know, that’s one of the things I could do, I should go into rubber research,  you know.  Once you get involved with the subject and you start talking to people and you kind of develop a little appreciation of it, then you feel like, oh, you ought to be doing that, something you ought to be doing.  So yeah, in those days, I mean that’s before I got my job so there’s a lot going on in my mind what I’m going to do with my background.  I’ve got a Masters, between Masters and PhD, I know roughly which way to go, you know, so doing this research was, you know.  And at the back of my mind it was always science policy, coming back to science policy, that’s what I really want to do, is to do science policy at the end of the day.  So, there is some kind of great moment.  But the most vivid was the first time I went to the National Research Centre in Cairo and I was so utterly impressed, I was very, very impressed.  Just the size of the place and the number of people working there, the whole atmosphere, excitement, and then coming back and checking how many research papers they’d published and discovering, zero.  And then later on, I did my research, other digging around and discovered that in fact virtually all the science they are doing, they’re doing for National Research Council USA or for NASA or some places like that, on a special contract where they get wheat for research.  So Egypt gets wheat and in return the American institutions get them to do some very basic scientific stuff, the kind of nuts and bolts stuff that is transferred.  I think it’s called Public Law PL40 or something, it’s some Congress law which is arrangement with Egypt that the basic research is done in the National Research Centre and Egypt is paid in wheat.


And you have a role as adviser at the Hajj Research Centre?


Hajj Research Centre, yeah.  Maybe we should start Hajj Research Centre next time, because that takes us into a nice little different area, isn’t it, altogether?


Sure. Yeah.


Talking about Hajj and, you know.  


[end of track 2]

[Track 3]


I’ve got a few questions based on yesterday and then we’ll carry on from where we got to chronologically.  You talked last time about experience of racism in the UK generally. I wondered whether there was any experience of that at City University at any point?


I have to be honest, I didn’t experience any racism at City University at all.  Mind you, in those days there were not many black or Asians.  There were no folks from other ethnic minorities in my physics class.  I do not remember any lecturers from ethnic minorities.  There were some Muslims, but there were not very many.  We had Islamic Society there at City University.  So I cannot say.  I mean essentially in my personal experience, racism started to disappear once I left Brooke House Secondary School.  After that I think the only other place I experienced some sort of kind of subtle racism was the BBC, much later on.  But apart from that, once I left City University I didn’t really face any racism.  But my experience may be unique.


Thank you.  And what about the composition of the Masters course?  You’ve said in physics there were no other ethnic…


Well no, again, there were absolutely, everybody on the Masters course was essentially from Britain and of white Anglo-Saxon background.  



Thank you.  You spoke yesterday about lots of discussion of science and Islam in the USRA study group and the FOSIS and London Islamic Circle.  I wondered to what extent there was discussion of relations between science and religion in the Department of Physics, or in the Department of Information Science at City University in these sort of mainstream spaces, if you like?


Absolutely none.  I tried to initiate some discussion on science and religion, but essentially religion was regarded as outside the pale.  When you were doing physics, you were doing physics full stop.  There were some attempts to start essentially physics and philosophy kind of modules, but they were in social sciences.  In fact I do remember attending one kind of short course on physics and philosophy in the Social Science Department, but not as a formal part of my degree.  But the one good thing during that period, there was a thing called liberal studies, which we all had to do.  And I think if there was no liberal studies I would have been a very, probably one-dimensional person who could have ended up doing research in physics rather than anything else.  The liberal studies courses were wonderful.  I remember writing an essay on arguments for God and the four classical arguments are invalid, basically, for one of my liberal studies courses.  They were basically kind of conversation/discussion type things.  You turned up and there was a lecturer, you know, there was a topic, and you basically talked about it and at the end of the term you had to write a paper.  But the interesting thing is it was essential you had to pass the liberal studies paper as well, in a sense, you had to write an essay.  There was no written exam but you had to write an essay.  And I think it helped my writing skills.  I admit that by that time, by the time I got to university, my writing skills were quite developed, because I was doing lots of stuff on the side.  But the liberal studies then forced me to read things I would not have conventionally read: some philosophy, some religious texts, stuff on sociology, and essentially my interest in sociology of knowledge began by the liberal studies courses I did, rather than anything I did in the physics department, in a sense.  One of the most intriguing things, for example, that I found at City, is how isolated the departments were.  So, for example, physics and chemistry were totally different departments and there was no communication between them.  And one of the most intriguing things for me during those days was there was a department of chemical physics, not so much a department, a kind of section researching chemical theory, and another one doing physical chemistry.  And I couldn’t quite work out what the difference was and when I actually went and talked to the folks who were doing PhD there, I couldn’t find any difference whatsoever, yet they hated each other and did not talk to each other at all.  That kind of disturbed me in a sense, the kind of isolationist nature of disciplines, that each discipline has fixed boundaries and you can’t cross them.  Now, me coming from my background, growing up in Hackney, coming from Pakistan, I’m used to crossing boundaries and boundaries are not something that I kind of accept as a given or something as natural, in a sense.  So I wanted to cross the disciplinary boundaries and one of the things I pointed out earlier on that I did during my final year of physics was to write a paper on Al-Biruni for, it was called Quest, the journal of City University.  And Al-Biruni had a phenomenal influence on me right from the beginning, because here was a person who was brilliant at everything he did, but he had no respect for disciplinary boundaries, but at the same time, as I was pointing out earlier on, he insisted that each discipline must be given the respect that it deserves and each discipline has its own methodology and you must follow the methodology if you want to engage in enquiry within the disciplines. You can’t, for example, use the methodology of philosophy in doing say, exact natural sciences.  So I accept that, that yes, you have to give due respect to each discipline, but I do not accept disciplinary boundaries.  And right from then on I was very interested in being inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary, right.  And so probably unconsciously I modelled myself a little bit on Al-Biruni.



How had you first encountered Al-Biruni?  I know you’ve written elsewhere about, I mean if you have a hero it would be him, but how did you first…?


I first came across Al-Biruni when I was reading Science and Civilisation in Islam by Hossein Nasr, a book that I’ve kind of analysed at great length, because it’s a very biased book in many respects, but I don’t want to go into that at the moment.  And of all the various descriptions of scientists and the science they were doing, he talks about, kind of Al-Biruni stuck out and I just got fascinated by him and I thought well, he’s somebody that I need to actually research myself.  And fortunately for me, somewhere at the same time there was a kind of a millennial celebration of Al-Biruni’s birth or something, a thousand years, you know, something like that, I can’t remember exactly.  So there was a big conference, probably in Pakistan, but I managed to get hold of the conference proceedings, which were like a thousand pages, with literally, you know, a couple of hundred papers in them on various aspects of Al-Biruni’s life.  So I just kind of read that from cover to cover and I wrote letters to various people who appear in that and tried to get in touch with them, and so on and so forth.  So I got quite fascinated by him and I kind of studied him quite in considerable detail.  I also managed to acquire some of his books.  I mean India is very easy to acquire, but some other books are very difficult to acquire, but I managed to get hold of them.  I have to admit that in some of the science I didn’t get the mathematics and science and the co-ordination of cities and so on and so forth, but the books themselves kind of made the persona of Al-Biruni kind of alive.



How does the… is there a danger that valuing different methodologies in different disciplines can become a way of, for example, holding science and religion apart?  I’m only asking because I’m thinking of some of the literature on science and Christianity that’s around at this period, and there’s an argument following what they call complementarity where you’ve got science on the one hand and religion on the other hand, two different valuable discourses which are complementary but can’t be mixed.  Is there a danger that the valuing of different methods sort of feeds that kind of thing, which I assume you’d be opposed to?


I’m opposed to, but I think methods themselves are methods and all methods have good and bad points, have their strength and weaknesses.  But the question of values is different.  I mean I do believe, for example, that values are integral to science, but that’s a different debate that we can move on to.  But Al-Biruni is somebody who actually shows that.  And then I carried on and studied Ibn Rushd, Ibn Tufail and his great book, the philosophical novel, The Life of Hayy, etc, and it’s really obvious to me that these scientists really held on to their values and their values were contributing to their science.  It’s something that was confirmed when I became a friend of Abdus Salam.  And Abdus Salam was a very interesting fellow because he belonged to a minority sect in Islam, the Ahmadi, right, who have, from the Sunni point, from my point of view, from the Sunni point of view, they have some very peculiar beliefs which we regard as odd and irrational, right?  About which we had, me and Abdus Salam had long discussions.  But it was pretty obvious to me that Abdus Salam, who studied the Qur’an quite regularly and had a very deep understanding of the Qur’an, that his physics and his religion were not two separate things, they were very integral to his outlook.  But of course the methods are totally different.  I mean what he did in studying fundamental forces was not the same methodology as he was studying the Qur’an, or discussing various theological issues with his particular community leader, in a sense.  But for him, values were very integral and the fact that he was a Muslim and a particular kind of Muslim, was very important for the science that he was doing and he justified it, and he says my notion of unity, right?  I mean when I read the Qur’an the idea of unity comes again and again, and this idea of unity is not just the unity of God, but the unity of, you know, of humankind, the unity of men and nature, you know, the unity of ecological system, etc, etc, and therefore I strongly believe there are unifying forces in nature, and therefore I am motivated to research them.  That was his argument, which I accepted totally.  So the idea of separating the methods does not necessarily lead you to say that science and religion are two water-tight compartments, right, they have nothing to say to each other in a sense.  But going back to the mysticism question that we were talking about earlier, that’s a different thing, that becomes a question of method.   So somehow we need to differentiate the question of method with the question of values.



To what extent did you, was it possible to think about the physics that you were reading as an undergraduate and Islam, whether that was at the level of methods or values, you as a student?  Because I know that you’re writing in the early eighties, you talk about scientists in Muslim countries having a sort of schizophrenic identity and keeping things apart, how did…


This is something that I discovered when I was going around, remember that I went round the Muslim world just after doing my Masters.  In fact the money I got from writing the paper for Ina Spiegel-Rösing and Derek de Solla Price was, actually bought me a ticket.  I actually bought a round-the-world ticket, I think it cost me £200 or something in those days.  But I only went to kind of certain countries, didn’t actually go round the world, but that was the cheapest way of doing it.  And one of the things I discovered is that often if you meet kind of very pious kind of scientist who is also religiously very pious, he will say well, I’m an evolutionist in the laboratory but when I go out, you know, I become something completely different.  There was this kind of split personality, right?  That I do my religion at home, but when I’m in the laboratory I’m a scientist.  And I found that very, very odd in a sense, because what I often found is that when they’re in the laboratory they’re very rational and critical, but when they’re at home and talking about religion they’re very rational and uncritical and I couldn’t quite kind of, you know, kind of fasten these contradictions in these individuals, in a sense.  And they were a very serious cause of concern for me and that’s one of the reasons I arrived at the whole kind of religion and science discourse.


How did you follow them home in that way?  Were you meeting people who you…


Oh yeah, when I met, I made total friends with people. So for example, when I arrived and went to the National Research Laboratory in Egypt I made friends with lots of those people, I went to their houses.  I mean in a sense, I remember in Morocco that there was almost a competition between various people, whose house should I stay in and the people were getting upset, and I was going from house and house and they were taking me to their laboratory.  I mean the interesting thing, I’m not sure whether this still exists, certainly in those days, the scientists felt very lonely, so when you talked to them about their science they were very excited, they were kind of almost grateful that somebody’s giving his attention.  And when I say look, I’m a science journalist, I’m trying to write this book, they were kind of all over me.  Whatever you want to know, let me show you my laboratory, let me take you and meet my students, please come to my house.  If you have no place to stay, why are you staying in a horrible hotel, come and stay at my house.  Things like that.  Now, I haven’t done these journeys but Ehsan Masood has, so it would be interesting to know whether he thinks the same sort of, he has discovered the same sort of dynamic or not.  But I found that most of the scientists I met were very gracious, very eager to talk about their work, grateful for somebody giving them attention and very hospitable.  And this was universal, like wherever I went in the Muslim world.  It was not just in Morocco or Egypt, wherever I would go.


Another thing you say is that they were reluctant to talk about religion, well, not only reluctant but they were very careful not to talk about religion in the workplace, in the scientific workplace.


That’s right.   Yeah, yeah.


Was that a feature of, again, all of the countries?


Again, that was very common.  That was very common.  I mean that’s what really convinced me that there is a split personality operating across the board here, it’s not just half a dozen.  Yeah, almost all of them behaved like that, that when they’re in the laboratory they’ve been trained in certain ways, they do their science in certain ways, they talk about cause and effect, you know, they talk about experimental method, etc, etc.  But when they – and always about theory and how the whole thing fits in the theory – but when they leave that and at home when you’re talking about, you know, general religious discussion, I mean when two Muslims meet it is absolutely hundred per cent guaranteed that they will start talking about religion immediately, if not sooner.  So especially when you meet, we talk about religion, their notion, very, very different.  For example, a very good example, continuously I’ve had that, is the traditions of the Prophet.  I discovered that most scientists accepted the traditions of Prophet on face value, even if the tradition that is being reported, the little story, is totally irrational, you see.  So for example, there’s a very famous tradition that if a fly falls in your glass of water, tip it out and put the second wing of the fly in the water, because the first wing contains a disease, the second wing will create the cure.  I said to them, well if you do that you’re going to make the water even worse and you’re bound to get, you know, that just doesn’t make sense.  But they will not argue about it, even though rationally it may not… they will just accept it on face value.  And that was very troublesome, why is it that you can be very rational in the laboratory but when it comes to religious matters your rationality goes out of the window.


Does that relate to wider arguments you then develop about passive acceptance being a problem?


Yes, yes.  Yes, indeed.


Thank you.


Could you now tell the story of what happens – I’m sort of returning to where we’d got to – what happens after your Masters in terms of decisions about what to do next?  We know that you go on the travels, partly funded by the writing, but you also take up a post, I think, at a research centre, so if you could tell that story.


Yeah.  So this is very kind of early ’74, late ’74, early ’75, a period of that nature, when I’ve finished my Masters and I’m thinking of what to do next and I’m planning my PhD.  And my term as a secretary of FOSIS is coming to an end, I mean lots of kind of changes going on.  And we used to live in Hackney and by this time we had moved to a tower block, which was called Nightingale Estate, and we had Seaton Point.  There were six points, each point was a kind of thirty, forty storey building.  And I spent a lot of time when we were living there thinking how ridiculous the architecture was and how the aerodynamic of the Nightingale Estate was totally messed up, because when you walked from the road into the estate you were hit by a gush of winds, because the wind will come and the buildings would push the wind.  And one of my – I was also at that time kind of a chair of the Hackney Citizens’ Rights and one of my job at Nightingale Estate was to retrieve the laundry of old people.  So they will hang out their laundry from the seventeenth or eighteenth floor, and it will fly off, right?  And then you’d have to go and knock on the door and say, are these your underwears?  And it was always old folks, right, and the lift was never working, always something going on with the lift, so it was pretty…  We lived on the seventeenth floor, number 49 Seaton Point.  And it was not a place where you would get many visitors.  When people came to my house it was usually my friends who I brought with me.  So one day two people just kind of more or less appeared on the door and knocked on the door, to my surprise, and I opened the door and there was one German convert to Islam and a Saudi by the name of Sami Angawi.  And they just basically came into the house and they said well, you know, we know about you from all your friends, and the students’ connection was pretty tight, there were lots of Saudis in the Federation of Islamic Societies, they used to go back and forward, you know.  Many of them got their PhD and became directors of various institutions in Saudi Arabia or in the Gulf, so they had heard about me and they said, well we want you to come and work with us on the city of Mecca and the problems of Hajj.  Now, I have to say, at that moment I had absolutely no idea that there were problems of Hajj and I knew very little about the city of Mecca.  So just that there were various things on offer.  One, somebody who was in his kind of mid-twenties, a young Muslim who grew up in England for him to work in the city of Mecca is a golden opportunity.  Two, it was Saudi Arabia and they were offering, you know, Saudi Arabia in the golden age when the salaries were exceptionally high, so you could kind of, you had to be a fool…  And three, the two people, who were in white, were exceptionally wonderful, there was absolutely no doubt and they were very passionate, so they described various problems of Hajj and problems in the city of Mecca, the city is being destroyed, the traditional heritage is being demolished, the Hajj is becoming more and more problematic, problem of traffic and all that.  So I agreed with them and therefore within a few months I was at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah at the Hajj Research Centre.  There was one problem, everybody at the Hajj Research Centre had a job to do, so there were architects, there were engineers, there was a transport engineer, there was a professor of zoology, there was people who looked after health and hygiene, and I didn’t have a kind of specifically disciplinary role, you know, what would a physicist or information scientist do there.  So I didn’t have an official title, so they just said okay, we will just call you Information Consultant.  And the word information had to be there because my Masters said information and the university only recognised disciplines that were, you know, certified, as it were.  So it couldn’t say anything else.  So I became kind of Information Consultant, but basically my job was as a trans-disciplinary person to bring the whole thing together.  What we did was, we first of all developed a simulation model of Hajj in the city, based on kind of systems dynamic global modelling, that produced the first kind of limits to growth report, if you remember, Donella Meadows.  So that was one of our things, and also just kind of co-ordinating various aspects of research providing kind of right information and getting methodology, getting folks to kind of bring in specialised people to help with various specific problems.  So we looked at every aspect of the Hajj.  First, accommodation, both permanent structures and, you know, when people go to pilgrimage they spend a day in the Plains of Arafat where they just have tents.  So we were doing research in tent structures, what are… and frequent fires there, so we were saying what are the most appropriate form of fire-resistant tents.  Transporting pilgrims from one place to another place, which was a big problem, because you’ve got roughly – in those days about 1.5 to 1.8 million pilgrims – transporting them at a specific time, collectively.  So that was a huge, huge, huge problem.  We measured the pollution, exhaust fumes, and discovered there was seventy-eight tons per day, was being produced.  We were measuring the kind of, the number of people who were going round the Kaaba and the carrying capacity of the mosque structure itself.  At what particular point, for example, people performing the tawaf will start being crushed.  And we calculated it’s about 78,000 people during those times, during that structure, and if you have 78,000 people then you’ve reached a critical level and people will start being squeezed and being crushed.  So that’s the sort of very rank and file scientific stuff we were doing, you know.  The traffic flow and so on.  And all of that was going in the model and showing how the Hajj environment will change.  So what will happen if certain culture properties is destroyed.  There was a standard, like a master plan which we critiqued and we produced our own alternative architecture plan for the city.  And we photographed everything.  We photographed the pilgrims, we photographed the movement, we had time lapse photographs of the whole thing, we did aerial photographs of the whole thing.  So it was a very comprehensive model of Hajj and the city that we worked in.  And we came up with various conclusions which we thought were very, very valid.  It was the first time, for example, I discovered Jevons Law – you know the Jevons Law?  Jevons had produced a law in 19… I think it goes back to 1956, I think he was a transport engineer and he kind of discovered that if, for example, you have traffic on a two-lane motorway and you want to decrease the congestion, the natural thing to do is to increase it to four lanes, but the counterintuitive result is the traffic increases and it does not decrease.  And we were seeing that in the Hajj all the time, because they were building more and more roads and more and more lanes and the traffic was not increasing, it was decre… well, it was not decreasing, it was increasing, the congestion continued to increase.  And I researched that and I discovered that there’s a reason and that Jevons had discovered it and he discovered it way back in 1956, and then he generalised it as a general law, that in a particular, in any given system, when the system reaches a particular point, trying to increase its efficiency actually decreases its efficiency.  So our suggestion was that vehicles should only be used in certain areas, there should be pedestrian walkways, because in the summer the Hajj can be very, very hot, forty, forty-five degrees, there should be covered passageways, there should be lots of trees, you know, there should be no tunnels under any circumstances, there should be no spaghetti junction, you know, and people should be encouraged not to go to a ritual point at the same time, but there should be a laminar flow.   We showed through our computer simulations that if you have laminar flow in the Hajj, because it’s a valley, if you have a laminar flow, you could go, people could go round, you know, without causing congestion.  But because vehicles bring everybody to a ritual point at the same time, there is this vast amount of congestion, so you needed laminar flow rather than simply…  So we had worked most of that out, I mean it was pretty solid science, very well researched, everything was reported, but the Saudi authorities were not really interested.  Partly because they were sold on high technology, there’s a lot of money to be made and there’s a lot of corruption around and all that.  And the most interesting thing is that many of the architects and all these people who were actually – and the transport engineers who were building all this and designing all this – couldn’t visit the city at all, they couldn’t visit the sites, because the sites were Muslims only.  So they were kind of, you know, god knows how they were kind of developing all that.  So it’s a very strange situation.  


After about three or four years – I had a great time at the Hajj Research Centre, I have to tell you that.  One thing is first of all the King Abdul Aziz University library was very good.  When I got there, there was hardly any books there, apart from Agatha Christie and things like that, and I used to read one Agatha Christie a day.  [laughs]  But then slowly, and I started ordering books, they will take order and in fact they will…   So within a year it was absolutely stunning library, so I spent a lot of time reading in the library, reading.  Basically we only had to be at the Centre from seven to two, everybody went home after that, you know, so there was a lot of time for reading and doing other things and some of the money that I earnt from there I used for travelling, so I went round the Muslim world.  This time I bought a ticket and did a very systematic journey starting again at Morocco, going all the way to Indonesia, spending two, three weeks at each, you know.  And then breaking and coming back and doing work with them, then going back and picking up the journey.  So I did that very thoroughly, looking at all the scientific institutions, looking at the science policies of the countries and so on and so forth.  So I had a very productive time, intellectually certainly, and from kind of travelling, you know, and gaining knowledge.  But it was obvious to me after four years that our research is not going to make any difference to anybody because nobody was going to pay any attention to it.  There was no money to be made from the solutions we were offering.  We were not Luddites, we were not saying don’t bring any technology, but we were saying that technology has to be assessed and you have to take the environment into consideration.  So when the mountains begin to be kind of flattened and Mecca – in the Qur’an the Mecca is described as a barren valley, so when Mecca is… it became evident that Mecca is not going to be a valley any more, it’s going to be one large plain with, you know, given over to cars, that there was no point talking about it and the whole, the old city was just, in front of our eyes, was just totally, you know, buildings two, three hundred years old, castles seven, eight hundred years old were just being bulldozed.  There was no… and horrible, ugly architecture, you know.  The interesting thing about the old buildings is that they were not just environmentally sound, but they were very cool, they had a natural air-conditioning system the way they were done, the way the windows were arranged and all that, and the new system of course needed modern air conditioning and they were horrendous.  Certainly I didn’t find them very attractive.  So, after four years I basically left.  One of the things that became quite kind of evident is that the problems we are dealing with, problems we are dealing with do not have, do not have, if you like, quick solutions.  The problems of a city like Mecca and the problems of Hajj are very complex problems and they require, to get them right, really solve them, they require a long term perspective.  They are not problems that can be solved by instant importation of technology.  And no matter what science you do, politics has a big effect, you know, that was one of the big lessons that I learned, you know, that science and politics are linked.  You can do the most wonderful research but if the politicians are not interested, you know, at what your outcome is, it’s not going to be any use to anybody.  So I, one of the things I did while I was in Saudi Arabia is to – I mean I got very interested in the future and saying, well how do we kind of persuade people to think in the long run, right?  It’s not just… every time they would talk about the Hajj, they will say, next year it’s going to increase to so much.  And I would always say, yes, but why stop next year, why can’t we just look at it and extrapolate and say what it’ll be like in ten years, fifteen years, and plan for that rather than just planning for next year, right?  And the long term perspective was missing, so I got interested in the future and I wrote my second book there, The Future of Muslim Civilisation, which was mostly written in the King Abdul Aziz University library and all the resources I needed were there in the library and if I needed a book they would just get it, I mean they had all the money in the world, you know, you just had to ask, basically.  So I had a great time and I did a lot of research and reading during that period.




What do you remember of attempts made to try to convince those that you would have had to have needed to convince to accept these less sort of technologically ambitious solutions, but more carefully researched solutions for the city?


But we did everything.  I mean like every other week there’d be some Prince coming to visit the Hajj Research Centre.  He’ll be shown our simulation model, he’d be very excited by, you know, oh you’ve done that, that is phenomenal, you’ve done that in Saudi Arabia, that’s even wonderful, you know, etc, etc, right?  And we’ll show the graph, we’ll show the charts, we’ll show the photographs, we’ll show… and he’ll go convinced, and then nothing will happen.  You know, we’ve had the most high ranking Princes and Ministers, you know, coming in.  The Minister of Hajj [...] was a friend of our Director, right?  He came frequently, but the, I mean everybody who was everybody in Saudi Arabia, or rather everybody who was anybody in the decision making process knew what we were doing, had probably seen our research, right?  We could physically show in a computer simulation model what will happen to the Hajj if you increase this parameter or reduce that parameter what will happen to the city, to the geology of the city, to the ecology of the city, to the environment of the city.  I mean it was a pretty thoroughly researched model, we had about twelve people working day and night, you know, and gathering data and all that.  And every time they left we thought, well, these guys were convinced, but nothing ever happened, right, because the whole kind of momentum was just in buying high technology and high solution and Saudi Arabia was sold into a vision of ultra-modernity, right, essentially.  They wanted, you know, Mecca to basically look like the cities in The Fifth Element, you know, or the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, that was their vision of the future and that’s what they wanted.


Who else would have been talking to them about solutions for the city?


Every architect who had a desire to do anything in Saudi Arabia [laughs], every architecture company, every engineering company.  They were just lining up, literally, they were just lining up.  I mean one of our most jokes is we used to call them, there were two kinds of people, Sidi - Sidi is a Moroccan-Arabic word for ‘Mister’ – so Sidi Proposal and Sidi Invoice.  So you met two kinds of people, the people, you know, who come along from various, from Europe and America with a proposal to do something about traffic in, you know, wherever, and they would be highly powered, they’d be global companies.  Or Sidi Invoice, they’d made something and they want to be paid.  So these were the two common people you met.



Thank you.  Am I right that you met the person who becomes your wife while you were in Saudi Arabia, or does that happen…


No, no, no, no.  I met the person who becomes my wife in Pakistan itself.  It is when I went for the first time and visited my grandfather in Dipalpur, right?  By that time some of the family had moved to a place called Bahawalnagar, which was not so far, so I went to Bahawalnagar and that’s where I saw my wife to be.


Was that during your… you went there as part of your wider travels?




So about the same time?  Yeah.


Yeah, about the same time.  I went there and stayed in Pakistan, I went to the Pakistan Science Research Council or whatever it’s called, PCSR, something like that.  I went to University of Karachi and lots of other institutions, travelled down, and then went there and stayed with my family as well.


And what was her name and what had been her sort of life story to that point?


Well, her name is Saliha.  Her life story basically is that she… the story’s slightly complicated here.  I mean it’s not just, I mean we’re talking about an extended family system.  So you remember that I said that my family had a very traumatic period, traumatic time during the Partition, and various parts of the family kind of were lost and it took them time – from my mother’s side.  So my mother and her sister, well, they migrated to Pakistan, there was a lot of trauma and loss and all that, and one of the things they kind of said, that if we survive and get there, to ensure our continuation, as it were, if you had a son and I had a daughter then we’ll make sure that they get married, right?  So that’s what happened.  But this was not known to me, this came out because my mother manipulated and all that, because you know, Asian mothers can be very manipulating.  My mother is wonderful, a very pious person, but she can be very manipulating, specially to her children. I think this is very common among most Asian mothers.  So I was against the idea, I remember.  And the first time I kind of met my wife I said no, no, no, no, this is, not really interested.  But since I was travelling a lot, so I was actually stopping in Pakistan, so I, for example, stopped in Pakistan when I went to look at science in Malaysia or in Indonesia, or Iran, when I went to Iran I stopped in Pakistan.  So I was… and I saw her more and more and then I began to say, you know, this is not a bad idea.  By which time then she had decided that it was a bad idea, right?  So there was a lot of negotiation and all that, but in the end it’s worked out.  So I remember that my wedding was a very strange affair.  My kind of wedding party had to go from Karachi to Bahawalnagar, so we were all kind of there and I thought that my wife to be had agreed, but by that time she was hesitating as well, because of my, I mean my earlier hesitation and when we got there, you know, they said yes, there’ll be a wedding soon hopefully, we are negotiating, you know, she’ll change her mind, maybe she won’t change her mind or something.  And then one day I got up and they were putting tents outside the house and I said, ‘Oh, what are these for?’  They said, ‘They’re for wedding’.  ‘Whose wedding?’  ‘Yours.’  Oh, good.   So in fact that was it, so we just got married.  The interesting thing is that because of the connection of Hakim Sahib, my grandfather, virtually all the town was there, even though it was organised at very short notice, virtually all the town was there, in a sense.  It was a very traditional wedding, we had traditional clothes and all that kind of stuff.  



Thank you.  Having then decided to leave the Hajj Research Centre, what’s…


Yeah, I planned that very carefully, because I had to kind of decide what to do.  So I was… so Science, Technology and Development in the Muslim World came about in, it was published in 1977 and The Future of Muslim Civilisation I think came out in 1979.  Now, the Science, Technology and Development in the Muslim World was not widely reviewed, but it was reviewed in certain places.  One of the most interesting things was that Nature did not review it, but Nature wrote an editorial on the book.  So I was sitting in the King Abdul Aziz University library looking at Nature and I opened an issue and there it was, an editorial on my book, right?  So that was very astonishing.  So kind of I got in touch with them, said I’m the guy who’s written the book and I’m in Saudi Arabia, do you want anything.  So we had some kind of exchanges.  The editor of Nature during that time was a wonderful person called David Davies.  And he said when you’re in London, you know, come and see us.  So when I was in London in ’78 I came and saw him and we had a conversation and the news editor during that period was a chap called Robert Walgate, who was also an exceptional, I mean a brilliant guy, was exceptionally wonderful person.  So I kind of negotiated with them and they said okay, we’ll make you Muslim world correspondent, and since a lot was going on, so they gave me some funding to particularly do three kind of big things.  So I kind of left Hajj Research Centre in ’79 and then immediately went off to Iran to work on… I mean the Iranian revolution had happened in February during that year, so my first port of call was Iran.  And then I did a very general piece for them.  So that came out as a cover story, on science in the Muslim world.  Then I did a piece on what do the revolutionaries think about science, and that was published as scientific thinking behind Khomeini.  And then I did stuff on Turkey and so on and so forth, and then after that I kind of did regular stuff for…  So I came back to London and I worked for Nature for a couple of years. 


And then the New Scientist folks… I think David Davies left and, what’s his name?  Meadows, John Meadows… John Maddox became editor and he and I didn’t see eye to eye because I think his idea was that, you know, science is essentially a kind of Western invention and a Western privilege.  [laughs]  So what is this guy doing, writing about?  And there was a wonderful guy there at Nature who was Washington editor, David Dickson.  And one of my… when David Dickson went on… his wife became pregnant and took six months off, so I did Washington for them for a little period.  I had a great time at Nature.  But when John Maddox came, it became a bit difficult and by that time the New Scientist folks were kind of asking me whether I was interested in joining their gang, so I left and became a kind of Middle East correspondent for – Middle East consultant – for New Scientist, which I did for several years, a lot of stuff for them.  But there was a wonderful kind of group of people.  There was Colin Tudge, who was features editor.  And I remember in one particular meeting somebody was saying, why is it that every time Zia writes a story it appears on the front of the magazine.  And Colin Tudge said, well, if you write as wonderful stories as he does then yours will also appear on…  So apparently, during that period I wrote more cover stories for New Scientist than anybody else.  But, to be honest, I was writing about exotic stuff, you know, I mean like, you know, icebergs and camels in the desert in Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia, see it while it lasts, was one particular, you know, stuff.  So I was writing about exotic places, so I suppose it, you know, it was not surprising that some of my stuff ended up on the cover.  There was Colin Tudge.  There was Joseph Hanlon, who was…   So there was a kind of a radical group of radical scientists around New Scientist and New Scientist had a strong social conscience and some wonderful writers, science writers and journalists were there, so I was in phenomenally good company.  It’s probably one of my, as a journalist, one of my best periods that I can think of.  I mean I did so much travel on behalf of New Scientist and wrote some, I think, wrote some wonderful stories.


I’ll go back over both of those, Nature and New Scientist, but while you’re just talking about people, these are the people on the masthead about the time, I think…


Yes.  Colin Tudge was the feature editor and Lawrence McGinty, who was a news editor, was an absolutely wonderful chap, he went off to work for ITN.  And I think what a great loss to New Scientist, because he was absolutely astonishing.  So I did a lot of stuff for Lawrence McGinty.  Colin Tudge, we became very good friends.  We became quite kind of close friends, he visited my house, I went to see him.  I used to call him ‘Tudgy’.  He used to hate that. [laughs]  And there was a very good news editor, Georgina Ferry.  It was a very, very, very, very good crowd.  Stephanie Yanchinski, Christine Sutton and of course there was John Gribbin, who was always there, I mean he was a kind of a pillar.  But I always thought that John wrote the same story over and over again, and wrote the same book over and over again.  But he was a great guy.  So I mean there were some wonderful people there and very congenial, very kind of friendly atmosphere, everybody supporting everybody else.



Can we just go back to the Nature offices when you’re meeting David Davies in 1978?  Could you describe the offices as they were then, for people who not only haven’t seen Nature offices, but might not have seen a magazine office, and then go on to talk about why you describe David Davies as wonderful.


Yeah, okay.  The Nature office was in Macmillan building, you know, and you kind of… I think you took a lift and went to, I don’t exactly remember, second or third floor.  One of the, and the first time I met - sorry - the first time I visited the Nature office, I was kind of shocked, to be quite honest.  You know, Nature, my Masters thesis was on readability of scientific journals, and so I had researched Nature a hell of a lot, you know, Royal Society library I was given special access to kind of Nature going back to that, so I was kind of looking at how scientific papers have become less or more readable and etc, etc, especially the physics bits, the physics section.  So I had this kind of incredible picture of Nature as the greatest science journal in the world, so I assumed the opulent and, you know, big.  But you walked in this kind of first or second floor office and it was kind of open desks.  There were about a dozen desks and the editor’s kind of room at the end.  And you say, what?  This journal started 250 years ago and the offices, you know, it’s kind of so, basically, ridiculously small, right?  And you expect, you know, kind of old-fashioned leather chairs and books, you know, there.  But none of that, I mean it was really a very functional office, in a sense.  And the first time I met, Robert Walgate met me, and we had a chat.  The thing I liked about Robert Walgate, he was always smiling, there was always a smile, right?  And then he would ask very, very pertinent questions.  There was no messing about with him.  There was almost – the reason I think he was brilliant was because he was sharp-minded.  If I said look, I want to go to Iran, he’d say, okay, what exactly will you do?  And then you have to tell him what exactly you will do, where you will go.  He was sharp.  And then we had a little chat with him and then he took me in to see David Davies.  He’s just such a warm and human person.  I mean no arrogance, very humble.  I expected someone who was editor of Nature, you know, to really be very haughty and I’m sitting here, you know, kind of supervising this great institution and the primary scientific journal in the world, etc, etc.  Very, very humble, right?  We had sandwich lunch or something like that, together.  So it was completely kind of unexpected from what I would expect Nature office to be.  David Davies was kind of person that if you met him you would immediately know that this is a very warm and gentle person.  He spoke politely, he spoke softly, you know.  Always kind of asking, making sure, you know, that somebody like me wasn’t bullshitting, to be quite honest.  But he, then I discovered that he was the one who wrote the editorial, right, so he was clearly very impressed by Science, Technology and Development.  But most of my dealings were with Robert Walgate during that period.



You say that when John Maddox re-took over the journal that he had this particular view.  Were there other people, were there other journalists at Nature who you sensed also may have had this particular view of what science consisted of, which might not include articles on Islamic science or articles on science in Iran, and so on?


Well, I think they were, they were.  I must admit I can’t remember their names, but there were certain people who were a bit suspicious of what is going on here.  There was a guy who used to edit the physics papers, I think he was almost lukewarm towards me.  I can’t remember his name.  But the important thing is that the editor and the news editor was so… and then as I said, most of my dealings were with them and I did a lot of book reviews.  I can’t remember who the book review editor was, but I had no problem with her either.  But it was Robbie Walgate who really spearheaded that.  And of course with the approval of and the encouragement of David Davies.  



Could you then say what happened when, in more detail, what happened when John Maddox comes back?


Well, I can’t really, because when John Maddox came back it was pretty obvious to me that he will not be interested in the way I do things.  David Dickson was the Washington editor, reached the same conclusion and then more or less left very soon after John Maddox came.  I think Robert Walgate also may have left, or may have lasted another year.  But it was pretty obvious that there is going to be a reorientation.  I mean one of the first things they did was on homeopathy, tried to show that homeopathy is a hoax, etc, etc.  I mean frankly I have no respect for homeopathy, but the way they did it was pretty dubious and not particularly scientific in my opinion.  And there was lots going on which I found a bit unpleasant and not quite to my liking.  And there was New Scientist so why bother staying at Nature when you can do what you want to do at New Scientist.


Do you remember pre or post Maddox coming in, any discussion of science and religion among the journalists?  I don’t know whether you had sort of meetings all together or little talks or, you know, briefings and so on?


Oh yes, we had frequent discussions.  It’s not just, it wasn’t just Islam, science and Islam, there was a lot of stuff on science and Hinduism.  There was a chap called Anil Agarwal, who was a very good journalist from India, Indian journalist who was here for a few years, then he went back, who was involved.  He also went to New Scientist later on.  So there was talk of other religion, there was talk of… there was a lot of stuff on science in the Vatican.  I’m not sure some of it actually ended up in the magazine because they always found it difficult to find people to write on these subjects.  But their interest was wide, I mean it was not just Islam, it was all religions.  So religion was seen as an important component.  And don’t forget that both Robert Walgate and David Dickson were heavily into science policy and politics, so there’s a lot of politics of science in Nature during those days. So it’s not surprising that there would be stuff on religion as well.


Did David Davies…


And another thing is that during that period the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development, the first one was being held, it was held in Vienna and I was sent by Nature along with other people to actually cover it.  And that galvanised a lot of attention.  So there was real effort to bring the questions of science and development in the magazine, cover science in other parts of the world and also kind of focus on the conference and what sort of things may come out of it and what are the issues, and etc, etc.  So there was a lot of interest overall globally on issues of science and religion and science and development and so on and so forth.


Did you have any sense of what might happen to that sort of content when Maddox took over?  The science and policy, science and development, science and politics?


I think Maddox was not interested in policy.  Maddox was certainly not interested in politics.  The interesting thing is here that, you know the Ina Spiegel-Rösing book?  Science, Technology and Society: A Cross-Discipline Perspective, was actually reviewed in New Scientist, and it was reviewed by Brenda Maddox, John Maddox’s wife.  And she said this book is full of incredible papers, but there is this ridiculous paper talking about science policy in developing countries.  She chose to single out my chapter, you know, for saying this is ridiculous and irrelevant stuff.  That’s Brenda Maddox, his wife, so you can imagine what he thought of that kind of stuff.  I think the whole direction of Nature changed and become into a very positive notion of science that is basically, you know, isolated thing that has no connection with society, with region, with politics, with government or anything, it’s something that we do in kind of ivory tower, you know, academia or we do it in kind of, you know, pristine research institutions with noble people, you know, undertaking noble search for truth.  That kind of approach, which I found a bit laughable.


Did David Davies ever talk about his Quaker faith?


It took a long time for me to discover he was Quaker, by the way.  He didn’t tell me he was Quaker, I think it was somebody else who said you realise that he’s Quaker?  So he didn’t actually talk about his Quaker… but when I learnt that he was Quaker, then I came to the conclusion, well, the fact that the way he is is not surprising, right?  I mean he does… I mean there was this thing that he was willing to see that there may be more than one truth, more than one perspective to a particular issue and then they could both be true.  That kind of… and that’s what really warmed me up to him, because I’ve always assumed that any given situation has a number of perspectives and not all of them are contradictory, you know.  Some of them are complementary truths.  So when I discovered that he was Quaker, I wasn’t surprised, I wasn’t surprised.   He was clearly a very religious person, but he didn’t display his religion.  I mean I, when I was doing my stuff in Nature I was a very religious person at well but I didn’t display it.  I mean the fact that I… people knew that I was a Muslim  because I wrote about Islam and Muslim societies, but otherwise they wouldn’t know that I am Muslim, in a sense.  So he was a bit like me.  So I mean I saw that kind of reflection there, as it were.  And we had all sorts of discussions on science and politics and science and religion.


Was not talking about your faith at Nature something that you did deliberately, if you see what I mean, or carefully or knowingly?


No, no, I don’t think it was deliberate.  During that period you could talk about anything openly with any of your Nature colleagues.  You didn’t have to… I mean there were a whole group of freelancers from all different backgrounds and varieties coming into the office and, you know, talking about all sorts of things, you know.  People talking about Brazilian indigenous communities being, you know, their environment being destroyed, to people talking about what’s happening in, you know, in the forests of Indonesia and so on and so forth.  So I mean I don’t think there was any taboo subject as such, and nobody said don’t talk about religion, right?  But there were so many other things to talk about.  [laughs]



Thank you.  And could you do something similar for New Scientist, in terms of describing it as a sort of physical workplace?


Yeah.  The New Scientist office during those days was at New Oxford Street.  It was an old kind of quite dilapidated little building, I was pretty surprised at the kind of location.  And you went in, it was a kind of open-plan office with a room right at the end which was the editor’s room and everybody had their desks and kind of people sitting on their desks with sort of old-fashioned computers in front of them, you know, I think it was Apple IIs or something, I can’t remember, some old kind of, you know.  And everybody kind of rushing around and talking to each other, standing around.  And Lawrence McGinty, he was a news editor, had an office at one end and I remember that every time I walked in I would hear Lawrence shout, ‘Oh, I need the copy for that, I need the copy for that!’ and there was always kind of that kind of thing, kind of going on.  And we kind of did wonderful things.  I mean for example, I was talking to Colin Tudge and I said, ‘Colin, you know, I think I’ve got too much sugar in my body, I’m feeling… there’s something’.  He said, ‘Oh, let’s test it’.  I said, ‘What do you mean?’  He said, ‘Well, go and pee on that tin and we’ll use the burner here, you know, boil it and see if the sugar crystals form’.  So I went and peed and [laughs], you know, came back and he just had a little Bunsen burner there and he checked it, no, no, you’re alright, no, I can’t see any sugar crystals.  You know, I mean there was that kind of atmosphere in a sense.  And we used to all, Lawrence used to love Indian food and there was a Punjab restaurant, something Punjab, right behind the thing, and so every time we would go and have a very long lunch there, you know, starting at 12.30 or 1 o’clock and carrying on till 3.30, you know.  And a lot of things will be discussed.  Things will be commissioned, you know, comments will be made on stories and, you know, and what are the plans and what’s happening next, you know, this book is coming out, we should find if there’s anybody interested in reviewing it, that kind of stuff.  So it was more exciting, I mean the Nature office was much more subdued, while the New Scientist office was much more exciting, right?  And there was a kind of radical science component to it.  Joseph Hanlon, for example, was a very hard-headed Marxist, for example, and he really did kind of bring his Marxism to his technology analysis, right, and he did stuff on Mozambique and West Africa, phenomenal stuff on science and science and technology in Africa.  So it was a much more kind of exciting place with lots going on and people writing books.  I mean every time kind of, you know, we’ll have a meeting and somebody would say to Colin, ‘Have you written your great encyclopaedia of zoology’ or whatever it is he was writing, which he did in fact produce something like that later on.  And everybody was working on books and every other month there’d be a new book by John Gribbin.  So there was a hell of a lot going on and you learnt a lot because somebody will come back from somewhere and will say, you know, I’ve done this.  So it was a much more animated and exciting kind of editorial office than Nature, which had its own qualities, but it wasn’t quite that bubbly, as it were.


In the mix of all of that discussion, where did the discussion specifically of science and religion fit in, if at all?


Well, I mean it fitted.  If you had most of the main editors interested in science policy and politics and then so much going on in terms of religion during that period, Islamic revival and all that, then it was, you know.  I mean one of the first things I did for New Scientist was a cover story called ‘Can Science Come Back to Islam?’  And so it, far from being a taboo question, religion was raised frequently.  And everybody was interested in it, it’s not that it was limited to one or two people.  I mean everybody, the book review editor, Georgina Henry [Ferry], you know, I did a lot of reviews for her on books related to science and religion.  Lawrence McGinty was interested in news, what’s happening in science in Iran or Pakistan or other places.  Colin Tudge as features editor would happily run a piece on science and religion in any shape or form, provided it, you know, it was quality stuff.  If it was quality journalism, there was no problem.  I mean the emphasis was it should be well written, it should be really thoroughly researched.



Where were you living at this time, first while working for Nature and then for New Scientist?


Yeah.  Well I was, when I came back from Saudi Arabia, the Hajj Research Centre, one of the things I did was, is to bring a pot of money precisely £44,000 in a carrier bag, which was the salary that I saved up.  In Saudi Arabia during those days it was practically impossible for a foreigner to open a bank account, so they gave you your money in cash every month and you had a wad of money.  So I saved all that up and just brought it and the first thing I did is to buy a place in Colindale.  The reason I bought the place in Colindale was because the British Library newspaper division was there.  In fact it was still there till about eighteen months ago, now it’s been demolished and turned into new kind of luxury flats.  And I did quite a lot of my… I used to go to Colindale quite a lot to look at newspapers.  So for example, if I’m planning a visit to, say, Egypt, I will go and look at kind of the English edition of Al-Ahram for the whole year and see what science stories have come out, and then plan a trip around there.  Or sometimes I will just go there thinking I’m going to Egypt and I looked at some paper and say, you know, this huge thing in relation to science is happening in, you know, in Jordan or in Iraq or something, maybe I should go in there.  So it was a good place to scan the newspapers and pick up science stories that could be developing.  So I used to go to that regularly, like every fortnight I will spend at least half a day at the newspaper library looking at newspapers from that part of the world.  So I thought I might as well buy a house nearby, which I did, using the funds that I’d saved up in Saudi Arabia.  So we moved to Colindale where in fact I still live, I’ve been there for the last forty years.


Could you describe that house and then in the same way that I asked you to take us on a tour of your childhood home, if you could take us on a tour of this one and then perhaps start to tell us about memories of your – you have a young family at some point soon, I think – of them there?


Yeah.  So, I mean I chose the house in Colindale basically because it was literally ten minutes from the newspaper library, to be quite honest, right?  And I thought, well I can go there regularly and the library had a lot of other stuff that I was interested in, apart from newspapers.  And it wasn’t a very big house, it was basically two point – they used to call it three bedroom – but basically it’s 2.3 bedrooms, because the third bedroom is like one-third of the size, you know, it’s not really very big.  And I had a daughter.  The interesting thing is that my wife for a little period in time lived with my parents in Warwick Avenue, near Paddington.  My parents had moved from Seaton Point to Downfield Close in basically, Paddington.  So my wife was there and when she was pregnant I was still in Saudi Arabia, but I came back, I returned like three months before the delivery period.  So every now and again I would say well, you know, I think it’s time, and she said no, no, no.  And there was the St Mary’s Hospital right… not too far, literally like five minutes’ walk from where we were and she was going there.  No, no, I’ve just been there, checked, it’s fine.  And one day I said – and this is getting three days on – no, no, I’m going to take you there.  So I took her there and just a few, a couple of weeks before that when I accompanied my wife there, I said to the gynaecologist, I said, could I deliver my child.  And she kind of looked at me and started laughing.  And she said, ‘Well, it’s against the law, and’ you know, ‘What do you know about child delivery?’  I said, ‘Well, basically I know nothing, but since you are the expert, you can guide me, I can just, you know, I think it’ll be a great experience’.  They said, ‘No, no, no, no.  We don’t do things like that’.  So I said, ‘Fine’.  So I went and saw the administrator and the chief guy there.  I said, ‘I don’t know about you, but I have discovered that some patients are saying that this E. coli has been found here’.  And he said, ‘What patients?’  I said, ‘I don’t know, some patients, but I am from New Scientist and I would like to write a story about that’.  So he kind of turned red.  I said, ‘Well, there’s one possibility here, that if I can deliver my child then this story doesn’t get written’.  So he said, ‘So this is a fake story?’  I said, ‘No, no, it’s a real story’, right?  But the story didn’t get written, so there was a negotiation and they agreed that I will deliver my child.  But, if the surgeon touches me on my hand like that I must immediately get back, right, and I must follow the instructions strictly.  So under these conditions I delivered my daughter at St Mary’s College – sorry – St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.  When I say I delivered, I mean I delivered all of eight or nine minutes that I could [laughs] and then I was kind of tapped on the shoulder and removed, but it was one of the most phenomenal experiences of my life.  So I had, my daughter was about a year and a half when we moved to Colindale.  And I remember going to New Scientist office and Jeremy Cherfas who used to be, I think, I don’t know, a biology consultant or something, came to me and says, ‘Are you interested in a kitten?’  I said, ‘What, what do you mean?’  He says, ‘Well, a friend of mine’s cat has had six kittens and if you’re interested in a kitten I can give you one’.  I said, ‘Sure.  Where do I get it?’  He said, ‘You don’t get it, just sit there, I’ll bring it to you’.  So I went to his little corner and he had six kittens there and he just gave me one.  So when we were moving we had the kitten as well.  She was called Lucy and she stayed with us for eighteen years, lived in… unfortunately died of cancer right at the end.  So there was me, my wife, my daughter and Lucy in the house.  There were two problems.  First of all, two and a half rooms is not big enough for somebody like me who has literally hundreds of books, so that became a major problem.  And then two years down the line we had my first son, and then four years after that we had a second son, so what I actually did was to add a room every time a child arrived.  So first I added a room just for the books and then I added a room for my son and then I added in a room for my other son, and then when the house became quite full, then I added an attic.  So in fact it started off as 2.3 rooms, but it ended up as 5.5 rooms [laughs] with lots of space, so it’s much bigger now than we bought it.  And it’s got a conservatory and so on and so forth.  So the house is transformed.  The first extensions were done, me and my brother, who in those days became a carpenter, by the way, so we converted the garage and all that.  And then, well then I had it properly done afterwards.  So the house itself has transformed and kind of grown as we have grown in it.  


[end of track 3]

[Track 4]


Could you tell the story now of your involvement in founding the magazine, Inquiry, and working on it?


I think, but before I do that, just to make a connection.  While I was working at New Scientist, I was getting a lot of offers from television to kind of do something, the kind of stuff that I was doing for New Scientist, doing for television.  And one of the things I got involved in was called Science and… The Crucible of Science, I think it’s called, and Robert Young from the Radical Science Group was kind of spearheading, there was a thirteen-part, supposed to be thirteen-part series on science with a radical science perspective.  I think it got made, but it didn’t get made to thirteen parts.  And I was part researcher on that.  Most of the kind of non-Western science in there, India and other parts were researched by me.  So I think Science and Crucible or Science as… I can’t remember the exact title of the thing.  [Crucible: Science in Society]  But it was not a very good experience because Robert Young was a dictator, like most of these kind of Radical Group folks tend to be when they get in a decision making kind of position.  But at the same time, while I was working on New Scientist and doing a little bit of this stuff, there was a kind of opening for… Channel 4 started, and Channel 4 wanted to do basically an Asian show done by Asians.  They had a black show done by blacks called Black on Black and they had Asian show done by Asians, it was called Eastern Eye.  So I became a reporter on Eastern Eye.  I left New Scientist and joined London Weekend Television and worked on that.  I mean of course that had absolutely nothing to do with science, but it was good journalism and I was there for two and a half years, I had great fun and learnt a great deal about television and filmmaking.  Fortunately at London Weekend Television they should train you very well, and I’ve always believed that if you want to do something you must do it to the best of your ability, so I really did want to be trained properly and they did train me properly.  And I also kind of made extra effort and got extra training and things, so I had a great, great time.  At that moment, despite the fact that the Iranian revolution had turned out to be a total disaster from all points of view, it turned out to be as nasty as all the other revolutions, we still believed that the Iranians would put money in genuine scientific research, higher education and intellectual thought and all that.  That was still there, I mean if you go back and look at my reportage on scientific thinking behind Khomeini, there is a lot of optimism and hope there about real genuine attempt to do science and not just import things, etc.  So there’s a lot of, this hope is still there in, you know, early… basically, you’re talking about what, ’82, ’83, something like that.  So a great friend of mine, his name is Iqbal Asaria, had a lot of connections with the Iranian revolutionary folks.  Not so much the revolutionary guards, but those who were in the kind of sensible position.  So he came to see me one day and he said, well, some folks from Iran are willing to put in money to start a kind of intellectual magazine, something that promotes original thinking in Islam, talks about science and technology, talks about religion in a rational fashion rather than just as, you know, irrational theology.  So I was a bit reluctant, because it meant leaving television and I was really getting quite familiar and I was being recognised in the street and all that.  That was both good and bad, sometimes I used to enjoy being recognised on the street, sometimes used to hate it.  So it meant leaving television, I was making a reasonably, I was getting a quite handsome salary.  But there was this kind of desire to really do something to kind of bring back science and bring back intellectual thought in the Muslim world, and I thought that probably would be a good opportunity because they were putting a lot of money, it would be international magazine, 100,000 copies would be printed and distributed all over the world.  So they said you can be fully in charge, but there’s only one condition.  And I said, what is that, and they said you can’t be called editor, you must be something else, but you will be in charge.  I said well why can’t I be an editor?  Well, it turned out that I had written things about Iran [laughs] which were not very complimentary and described the mullahs kind of as irrational, you know, bloodsucking killers, etc, etc.  So they said well, a few people don’t feel, you know, favourably inclined towards you, but there’s certain other group who know what you have done, so as long as you are not called an editor you can do that.  So basically they left me to my device, so I created Inquiry.  It was, right at the centre of Inquiry there was a section called ‘Ideas’ where basically almost everything can be debated.  There was, you know, it was totally open, every question could be debated, you can talk about anything in intellectual terms.  And then it had, you know, the usual stuff, news from various correspondents and review sections, things like columns, you know, a typical magazine.  But the important section was the twenty, thirty pages in the middle called ‘Ideas’ where we looked at all sorts of things.  And we were very, very critical of Iran and Saudi Arabia and, you know, everywhere.  And the whole function of the magazine was to promote critical thought, is to encourage genuine science development and some real innovation in higher education, in universities too.  That was the basic goal.  It lasted for five years and it had tremendous impact.  I mean even to this day, some people of my generation talk about Inquiry.  I’ll tell you how I left the magazine, why the magazine collapsed as well, is that then I was asked to write a review about, the book was called The Qur’an and Science by a well-known physicist in Iran, I think his name is Golshani, he’s still there.  This review appeared in a very traditional kind of conservative magazine called The Muslim World Book Review, and so essentially I was pretty harsh on him, because my main criticism was that you cannot use Islamic authorities to justify scientific endeavour, right?  You can’t say that, for example, the Big Bang theory works because Imam so-and-so said such-and-such in the ninth century, which can be interpreted, you know, that sort of thing.  And actually it says how many times do you need all these imams, why can’t you just open your mind and look at it fresh and move forward.  So it was a pretty harsh review and it was interpreted as an open criticism of the kind of, the Imam Khomeini’s thought.  I also said something nasty about the supreme leader, why do we need a supreme leader, science doesn’t need supreme leaders. [laughs]  It needs original minds. I remember one sentence, that it needs people who are willing to kind of roll their sleeves and go into the laboratory, right, and then do experimental work.  It doesn’t need guidance from the supreme leader.  We need policy, that’s a different thing, but it doesn’t need guidance from a supreme leader.  So as a result of that review I was basically dismissed and once I left, as I said, the magazine was just basically kind of, I was the foundation of the magazine and so when I left they just closed it within a year.


How were you told that you were leaving?


I was sitting in my office and Iqbal came in, he said some Ayatollah, a great scholar, had just come from Iran and you upset them very much.  You know, I said, ‘Did I, what did I do?’  They said, oh, this review.  I’d even forgotten about it.  It took, the review took six months to get there.  [laughs]  Said, you know, this review, and so he came and said to me, he sat down and he said, he said to me, ‘You know, the Western culture is very, very strange’.  I said, ‘What do you mean?’  He said, ‘You know, I mean this question of kind of homosexuality and Aids’ he said.  I said, ‘What do you mean?’  He said, ‘Well you know the West has just discovered homosexuality and then now they’ve infected the world with Aids, and we’ve been practising it for a thousand years in Qom and nothing has happened’.  [laughs]  So I said, ‘Oh, that’s very interesting’.  So we all had a good laugh and then he said, ‘Well...’  - he was a very nice guy – and then said, ‘Well, I bring bad news for you, that I think you have to leave, because you’ve upset the powers that be’. So I said, ‘Fine’.  Actually, I always suspected, I mean you’re always testing the boundaries, so it was a matter of time before we, you know.  So it was not a great surprise to me, I mean some of our editorials were pretty kind of attacking Iran and they were actually funding us, so it was not…  Certainly in the ‘Ideas’  section we really took the revolution apart and we said there’s nothing Islamic about this revolution and in fact there cannot be such a thing as Islamic revolution because all revolutions follow the same path and they end up devouring their children and this is exactly what it is.  Just because it’s in Iran doesn’t mean you can put a label on, Islamic, and it suddenly becomes pious or whatever, it’s like every other revolution and some of the things that the mullahs have done cannot be excused and it’s criminal behaviour.  So I mean we were pretty open about our criticism of Iran.  So it was not a surprise to me that one day they came and said you can’t carry on doing this.



What were you, over the period that we’ve been talking about today, which is basically the first half of the eighties at least, how would you describe your own sort of private religious practice during this time, either at home or, you know, at a mosque or whatever?


Well, I’m not a conventionally pious person, right?  So I’m not heavily into rituals.  Although we, certainly during the Inquiry period there was a mosque and we prayed regularly there, collectively.  But I would not go out of my way to pray if there’s no arrangement, if I’m doing other things.  My notion of worship is slightly different than a conventional orthodox notion of worship, which insists that you must do five times prayer and all that, because I think for me enquiry itself is worship.  And this is something that I’ve not invented, this is something that I’ve learnt from classical Muslim scholars, this is something that the Prophet himself says. The Prophet says that the ink of a scholar is worth more than the blood of a martyr, you know, and there are lots of other traditions which are of a similar ilk.  You know, seek knowledge from cradle to grave, and so on and so forth.  Then clearly seeking knowledge is a form of worship.  So for me the kind of critical thought and engagement I have or making efforts to promote scientific enquiry in Muslim societies is a form of worship.  It is me, this is my religion telling me to do that.  So there is a religious motivation behind it.  I’m not doing science because, you know, I want to have a great institution, so a lot of money can be made, you know, for that.  I really do believe that it is an essential component of a Muslim society to do original research.  And going back to Abdus Salam, this is the kind of discussion we had and he believed that too.  And one of the most kind of painful discussions we had was about the serious lack of science in the Muslim world, right, and we used to talk about, you know, the reasons behind it and all sorts of things like that. Is it just colonialism, you know, is it something within Islam, for example, is a common discussion.  What is it, right, there’s something wrong with Muslim societies, why are they not concerned about these things.  So I am conventionally not a particularly kind of person, I don’t have a beard like most pious Muslims do, I don’t kind of go to mosque five times a day, but I have very deep religious convictions and part of those convictions is that enquiry is one way we discover God.  God wants us to search and he wants us to search in every which way possible.  So the relation is only one aspect of that search and scientific enquiry is a very important aspect of the search.  I mean Muslims often say that God has two signs, you know, one is revelation and one is science, that is a very common kind of saying among classic…  So for me, doing the kind of work that I did at Inquiry or doing the kind of work that I did at New Scientist and Nature was itself a form of worship.  It’s like going to the church every week, except I was doing it all the time, in that sense, because pursuit of knowledge itself is a form of worship.



How does this relate to your writing in the eighties where you’re discussing debates over reasons for decline of Islamic science and you come to certain conclusions about the way in which a certain tradition in Islam won out over another?  And the one that won out was the one which was about passive acceptance and the one that lost was what you’ve been talking about, the struggle to know.




In a way that’s accessible for the listener, could you…


Yeah.  You see, one of the things that happened at New Scientist, and it started with Nature, when my story came out, ‘Science in the Muslim World’ on the cover, there was a lot of debate and discussion started throughout the Muslim world, about… I mean it was quite a popular debate.  For example, when I went to Pakistan, you could see the debate in the newspaper and in those days General Zia, the military dictator was in power, and he was talking about science and science policy and things like that.  So by the time the New Scientist cover story came out, you know, ‘Can Science Come Back to Islam?’, there was a kind of a coalition for discourse on Islamic science, so I’m kind of attributed with starting that discourse on Islamic science.  And the discourse had, from my perspective, had two or three very strong components.  One component was how can we, how can Muslim societies internalise science.  In other words, how can they naturally regard science as an essential part of who they are, so the whole population, the whole society and community accepts that, right?  Just as they accept certain religious tenets, they accept that science is an essential part of being a Muslim.  And that was one of the main components of that discourse.  The other components was the value components.  Now, in various aspects of parts of my intellectual life I have been a social constructionist in science and sometimes I’ve been half social constructionist, etc, and my friend, old Jerry Ravetz was also critical of social constructionism to some extent.  But I do believe that science is partly socially constructed.  Which part?  First, the parts of policy.  Clearly, policy is something that involves politics, that involves community, that involves governments, that involves politicians, right, in a sense.  So they decide on the funding, right, and science progresses on the basis of funding.  If you don’t have a funding you don’t do certain research, if you have funding you do certain other research.  So the policy aspect was very, very important, so a lot of the discourse was how do we promote science policy, right, how do we motivate politicians and other decision makers to put money in science.  So that was the important component of that discourse.  And then there was a component of values in a sense that what do you research and what do you not research.  Do you research diarrhoea or do you research cancer, right?  I mean this was a very big question now during that period, in Bangladesh, for example, I met many, many people who thought, oh diarrhoea, it’s a horrible thing, cancer is much more, we can get funding for it and all that.  But actually more people were dying of diarrhoea, cancer was not a big issue in Bangladesh in those days.  I don’t think it’s a big issue even now, but in Pakistan it has become quite an issue now.  So value judgements are very important, you know, what area you research, especially the funding is limited, and what area you do not research.  And I think those value questions have to be debated in society, they cannot be decided, you know, a priori by something.  So these were the aspects of the discourse, right?  So the religion comes into discourse in terms of values and in terms of democratic discussion about funding and issues of what is important to society that must be researched.  There’s a very old, in the Book of Knowledge, which is Al-Ghazzali’s Book of Knowledge, produced around twelfth century, there’s a section where it says that there are certain disciplines, if the community does not… there are certain disciplines which, if the individual does not know them, it does not harm him.  But if the community doesn’t know those disciplines then it harms the individual and the community.  So it gives the example of medicine.  He says, if you’re not a medical doctor, that’s fine, but if you don’t have a single medical doctor in your community, then you’re going to suffer, both individually and the community suffer.  So that was the idea behind the value of discussion, what values do we use to decide what is important for us as a community, and therefore we must do research in that area.  I’m not saying that radical physics is not important, what I am actually saying is that there are some other things which are equally important or more important that need attention, so that was the idea of…  So it was a pretty sophisticated discourse.  And the book I wrote, Explorations in Islamic Science, actually takes you through that very carefully and it’s very well argued book about what do I mean by Islam, Islamic science.  And where does religion come in, where does religion stop, right?  So, the discourse as I developed it was very, very clear, that there’s no religion comes in what method you choose because the method has to relate to the questions of enquiry, right?  Religion comes in much before you get to the method, but once you’re in the laboratory and doing the experiment method, that’s a different story, right?  And also, in the discourse as I developed it, made it very, very clear that we are not talking about tacit knowledge.  We are talking about empirical work that can be reproduced by any culture.  So just because you are working on the problems of Muslim society and kind of defining the funding and the values of questions and all that, come from a perspective of Islam, doesn’t mean that the end product cannot be replicated.  If it cannot be replicated then it’s not science, it has to be replicated and be able to be replicated.  So these things were all kind of made very, very clear.  So the discourse was pitched at a very, very high intellectual level with very clear delineations.  But unfortunately it went into a totally different direction, it went into basically three distinct directions, there were lots of people who argued like me, but the people who argued like me were, I suppose, not very large in numbers, but the people who argued in much larger numbers were the science and the mysticism lot.  I mean, remember I said that I discovered Al-Biruni through Hossein Nasr’s book Science and Civilisation in Islam, and Hossein Nasr has been one of the key – and I said that there’s problems with the book, and one of the problems with the book is that he introduced mysticism to a lot of scientists and all that – and he has been a major proponent of kind of science as mysticism, you know.  But science is not just knowledge, it’s sacred knowledge, and if it’s sacred knowledge then it can become secret knowledge, right.  And the book, for example, he produced for the World of Islam Festival, Islamic Science and Illustrated Study, it’s a very lavish book, where most aspects of the history of Islamic science that he talks about are things like, you know, cosmology, geomancy and kind of you know, even astrology and alchemy and stuff like that, but not about real chemistry, not about real physics, not about Al-Haytham’s real physics or Al-Biruni’s real physics, you know, or Jabir ibn Hayyan’s chemistry, although he also did alchemy.  So there’s a lot of emphasis, and the book actually ends up kind of portraying Islamic science as some sort of sacred knowledge, and to me there’s nothing sacred about science.  [laughs]  It’s open enquiry, full stop.  You know, it’s peer review, open enquiry, we kind of decide on.  And he had world’s following, lots and lots of people who kind of take that route.  And then the third aspect where kind of Islamic science is seen as some sort of esoteric, I’m not quite sure the right way to put it, but kind of very esoteric activity where you see that Qur’an is full of scientific, you know, scientific formulas or whatever you like.  So there are people who discovered electricity in the Qur’an and relativity in the Qur’an and so on and so forth.  There’s a whole vast literature now on the scientific miracles of the Qur’an.  As far as I can see there’s not a single scientific miracle of any kind.  I don’t believe in miracles so that makes it even more difficult.  So the debate got into a totally different direction from where I and some of my colleagues.  There’s a whole group of us who used to call ourselves the Ijmalis, which means, it comes from the word jamaal, meaning beauty, the beautiful ones, and the idea was we saw beauty in science, right, we saw science as a beautiful thing, you know, the scientific truth is a wonderful, beautiful thing.  And we did a lot of kind of work in the Islamic science discourse.  But increasingly it became evident to me, it’s a bit like what was happening at the Hajj Research Centre, that the discourse was going in a totally different direction, the mystics were taking over, and worse, we call it ijaz literature, you know, the scientific miracle community was just, you know, I mean it was… there was so much money involved.  Saudi Arabia had a huge project, scientific miracles in the Qur’an and millions and millions of pounds worth of project and they were importing, you know, kind of Western biologists to show how wonderful the Qur’ani description of the child birth is and the embryonic development.  Certain doctor… all sorts of strange things going on, which had, in my opinion, nothing to do with science, it was just obscurantism of the worst possible kind.  People experimenting with jinns and things like that, in Pakistan.  So it was just basically hijacked. I remember writing an article in the New Scientist saying yes, I started the Islamic science discourse but I have absolutely nothing to do with it and I will not partake in it any more because these guys, the mystics and the obscurantists have just taken over the whole thing and, you know, to me that is not science.  Science is a totally different phenomena and, you know, if it’s not empirical it doesn’t work, it’s not within a particular theoretical framework, if it cannot be replicated, you know, it doesn’t appear in a peer review journal, then it’s not science as far as I’m concerned. Full stop.


How long did it take for you to feel that the discourse that you’d started had been hijacked in these sort of rogue ways?


About ten to fifteen years.  I mean after the New Scientist article came out, there was a lot of activity, a lot of activity all over the world, and there was in Aligarh University, they set up an Islamic science group and they started a journal, Journal of Islamic Science, that went on for several years.  It’s a pretty good journal.  But even in Aligarh there were struggles between the mystics and the kind of, let’s call them ‘hard scientists’, if you like, for want of a better word.   And you could see that tension in the Journal itself.  I remember writing for the Journal, I wrote a number of articles for it.  I think… a couple of other things happened which disillusioned me as well at the same time.  Now, when I was working on Inquiry I spent a lot of time promoting history and philosophy of science in the department.  So, for example, University of Aleppo had a wonderful department of History and Philosophy of Science, so you know, we tried to get some funding for them from various sources.  There was a UNESCO thing on promoting history and philosophy of science in Muslim countries.  But what I noticed was that some great historians and philosophers of Islamic science were kind of getting old and basically dying and not being replaced by younger scholars.  So there was that kind of disillusionment, there is a whole discipline that is disappearing and nobody’s doing anything about it.  And when the Aleppo centre closed, I think late, maybe late 19… mid-nineties, I think it closed, ’95, ’97, I don’t recollect, I was very, very sad.  It was one of the very active places.  Some other centres were going to be established in Morocco and Malaysia and other places, but then they never materialised because people were just not really interested in general in historical scholarship.  They’d much rather believe all the miracles of science can be found in the Qu’ran than put money in real scholarship, in a sense.  So there were a number of other things that kind of disillusioned me a lot and I just distanced myself.  Well, this is not me, this is not the physics that I learnt, this is not the chemistry that I know.  This is not the biology, right, and this is certainly not the notion of science that I know.  



Did you see Abdus Salam as being in the group of you, you know, the first group, the sort of founding…


No, Abdus Salam really believed in science as a neutral kind of international activity.  He didn’t believe that, I mean for example, I argued with him again and again, there are certain problems that are specific to Pakistan and they are scientific problems.  For example, part of Northern Pakistan is in an earthquake belt, so you need to research real appropriate housing for that region that can… every time there’s an earthquake, you know, hundreds of thousands of people die because the houses are very weak and they’re not designed to… right?  You need to develop some sort of, have some, you know.  So in fact there was a time when I was promoting a kind of, you know, built environment research centre that just did that kind of research to see how do we develop the housing.  Now he didn’t see that as a viable scientific problem.  For him, you know, science was big science, so he really wanted, you know, theoretical physics being taught at every university, which is fine, I have no objection with that, but he didn’t see it… I mean, for example, he would not regard – and maybe I’m wrong in this, because I didn’t talk to him on this – I’m assuming he would not regard diarrhoea research as real science, but he would regard cancer research as real science.  And that’s, are the question of values that I wanted to bring into the discourse, you know, how do you solve the problems of people, right?  Not all science has to be looking at grand questions of existence and cosmology, some of it must be devoted to pragmatic solution for a suffering community that is suffering from basic diseases, lack of sanitation, etc, etc, and you have to focus on that.  I mean one of the arguments, for example, that we said look, at any given time in history, in recent history, anywhere from one-third to half of the world’s refugees are Muslims, right?  Why cannot we have somewhere in the Muslim world an international centre for refugees’ studies that actually looks at the problems of refugees and say, when refugees are collected, are produced, or they have to flee or whatever, what is the quickest and simplest way of providing them with accommodation, with sanitation, you know.  Can we develop a structure that can be put up very, very quickly, but it’s really not a tent, you know, pretty solid that can really protect people from, you know, severe cold and is cool in summer, has some sanitation so that the place doesn’t turn into a kind of health hazard, etc, etc.  Why can’t we develop that?  So I kind of spent, I mean during my enquiries, I spent quite a lot of energy talking to people, wealthy people in the position of making decisions, to create something like that.  Nobody is interested.  Nobody was interested, in a sense.  But they also didn’t regard it as doing science, that’s the real question.  For them, that was not a scientific enquiry, refugees have nothing to do with science.  So how do you persuade people, you know, it’s not just the big questions of particle physics and the genome, but science also has some very pragmatic things to offer.



Who were the small number of people who you say were the, you know, your allies in this particular way of thinking about Islamic science, the way that you started the discourse off?


Well, there’s a group of people.  One of them was a chap called Parvez Manzoor, who was a geologist, he taught in the University of Stockholm.  And there was another guy called Munawar Anees, he was a biologist.  He’s gone back to Pakistan now.  There’s my colleague, Merryl Wyn Davies, who was an anthropologist.  There was a chap called Anwar Nasim, who was a biochemist and he went to Pakistan and became, I think, the Chair of the Pakistan Science Foundation.  I mean he’s done a lot of good work in Pakistan, Dr Anwar Nasim.  Trying to think, who else was there?  Oh, there was my close friend, Anwar Ibrahim, who was, in those days he was Minister of Education in Malaysia and then he became the Prime Minister, then he fell out with Mahathir and ended up in prison, as you probably know the story of Ibrahim.  So there were those kind of group of seven or eight people and we met regularly to talk about issues of science.  Not just the issues of science, but also other issues of kind of Muslim societies.



Is now the time to tell me about the BBC television programme, Encounters with Islam?  Is this… we’ve talked about Eastern Eye, but this, it seems to be at this time, mid-eighties?


Yeah.  So I left Eastern Eye to work for Inquiry, but I was still interested in television, so we set up our own small production company called ISF Productions – Informed, Serious and Forward Looking Productions, ISF – and we, one of the first things we did was a series for BBC and in fact Merryl Wyn Davies was the anthropologist who worked on Everyman and Disappearing World, programmes like that, was the producer for Encounters with Islam.  In fact that’s where I met her, just before that I met her, when I was doing Eastern Eye, I met her in the mosque, she was filming something so we kind of sat down and talked about it, if you leave BBC and I leave LWT then we can start a little company and do our own thing, so that’s what we did.


And what was involved in making Encounters with Islam, remembering that the listener has perhaps not made a television programme.  But this is something I think that you wrote and presented for the BBC?


Yeah, there’s not much writing involved.  I mean I conceived it, the Encounters with Islam.  One of the things that we learned from kind of the Islamic science discourse was that it is very difficult to persuade Muslims to think in conceptual terms, right?  And for them to make connections between science and knowledge and politics and religion, you know, make meaningful and rational connections, it is probably very important to focus on key Islamic concepts.  In my discussions with Abdus Salam, one of the concepts that we talked about constantly was tawhid, the concept of unity.  Now, in orthodoxy, tawhid simply means ‘one God’, right?  But it’s a very sophisticated concept and it means unity of humanity, the unity of man and nature, it’s all, as Abdus Salam would frequently say, and if you read some of his writings, you’ll see that it’s all-encompassing unity.  And the concept of ‘ilm, which is a very central concept in Islam, ‘ilm, knowledge, what is knowledge, right?  And why is nowadays we only think, Muslims only think of knowledge as religious knowledge.  Well, in fact, in the classical period, knowledge was knowledge, full stop, right?  And an alim is somebody who had knowledge, was not just a kind of a mullah, in fact he was a very low category of alim, the real alims in classical period who were recognised as alims were scientists, philosophers, thinkers, poets, you know, these were all alims.  Even poetry, somebody who is a poet has some form of knowledge, so you recognise him as alim.  Why is this concept of ‘ilm, which is again an all-encompassing concept, been reduced to simply, you know, not religious knowledge.  Just says the concept of tawhid has just been reduced to one unity of God in a sense.  So in the Islamic science discourse that I developed, there was a focus on conceptual understanding of the two terms, Islam and science.  And so we developed a kind of a framework of ten particular concepts which were the key concepts of Islamic science.  So tawhid was one, you know, worship was one, ibadah, meaning that knowledge is worship, right?  ‘Ilm is the concept of knowledge.  The concept of istislah.  So there were about ten concepts like that that we developed, that if you are discussing the ideas of science and Islam and science policy in Muslim societies, these are the concepts that you would be framing your discourse in.  So the television programmes I wanted to make was in fact to promote these concepts, because I became convinced that that’s one way of not just promoting science, but actually promoting critical thinking and promoting how things are interconnected, both in reality and in Islamic framework.  So that was the basic idea.  


So before I did Encounters with Islam, I did an experimental programme for BBC called Science and the Temple of ‘Ilm, which was a twenty minute segment in a show called Antenna, which was a science show on BBC, where in fact I interviewed Abdus Salam.  In that show there is an interview with Abdus Salam as well.  So that the idea of Encounters with Islam was to actually focus on certain key concepts and try and convince both Muslims and non-Muslim viewers that Islam has incredibly rich tradition of intellectual and scientific tradition and one way to understand that tradition is through these concepts, because what has happened is that we now think in terms of dogma and not in terms of concepts, that we need a shift away from dogma into concepts.  You see, my approach to prayer and worship is not through rituals.  Remember I said I’m not a very ritualistic dogmatic person, it’s through a conceptual notion of what is ibadah in Islam and ibadah also incorporates thinking, right?  Writing, that’s a form of worship.  So if you think your writing is a form of worship then you’re not likely to write something that will lead to injustice, right, or to violence.  You’ll never write a fascist tract if you think you’re engaging in worship, in that sense, right?  So that’s how I think and I think that’s probably the best way of promoting ideas and thought and science in Muslim society.  So a lot of emphasis was placed on concepts and this was the idea behind Encounters with Islam.  So we took about four to six concepts and we got somebody researching who was an expert on the subject and just talked about the concept and showed how rich this concept is. And it doesn’t mean the one-dimensional interpretation that is the introduction of the orthodoxy, but a rich concept.  Later on, we developed it much further, so we had twelve concepts and we did a programme called Faces of Islam that was done for TV3 in Malaysia, where we had twelve concepts, you see.  I mean, for example, one of them is jihad, so we kind of show that in that, that’s before all the jihadi stuff.  This is late nineties.  And we show that jihad is a very sophisticated concept and fighting is only one very small component of it, it actually starts with jihad of nafs, or the jihad with oneself, about, you know, jihad with egos and desires, etc.  And then it goes and goes.  So these were the basic ideas behind.  And the kind of television that I was interested in doing essentially, showing either the conceptual richness of Islam or the plurality and diversity of Islam, that’s the kind of television I was… I’m not really into just going out and doing any old television thing.  





In these cases, in Antenna, Encounters with Islam and Faces of Islam, did you feel that you were able to make the programmes that you wanted to do against no resistance, or against resistance, or that you weren’t able to make the programmes?

All the television programmes that I’ve ever done have been exactly as the way I wanted to do them, because, well, for two reasons.  One is that a lot of the programmes that were offered to me I rejected because they were basically doing things.  Towards the end of my kind of career at Eastern Eye I was a pretty known face and I remember a letter that Jane Hewland, who was the Executive Producer at LWT wrote to me saying, you’re going to be a star and you’re really daft to leave us, leave television now.  And I had a reputation, you know, as a kind of… Whenever a story fell, not just in Eastern Eye but in other programmes as well, they would always call me in, I was called from, you know, when I had the flu, I was called from flu back to come and make a story stand, right?  So I could have gone, if I did, all I wanted was to do television, but that was not my goal in life.  And even recently, in the last three or four years, I’ve been, you know, quite a few offers have been made to me.  But I would only do something that fits with the overall framework of what I want to do.  So, for example, I would never do a Horizon on, you know, how great nuclear physics, how great, you know, astronomy is, or quantum theory is, or whatever.  If they ask me to do something then I will say well, if you allow me to do a programme, say, on the great Catholic scientists, the history of great Catholic scientists.  Now that’s something I will be really interested in, you know, looking at great scientists who are also very devoted Catholics, right?  Why is it that we never have a history of Newton that actually points out how religious he was, how obsessed he was with biblical codes.  Why we always have Newton and gravity, right?  [laughs]  This is a very truncated Newton, because other half of him was doing something totally different.  So… and frankly there isn’t much scope for that sort of thing, you know.  I know, I can recall a number of occasions where I was offered things I was very keen to do and the moment I said I want to go in this direction they said, well, no, no, that’s not us.  If you want to do that, you must do it like that.  So the few programmes that I have been able to do are the ones that basically are done on my condition and therefore I could do.  I mean if you look at Encounters with Islam it’s a very simple – I can’t remember, it’s either four or six – half hour discussion programme, but it’s very deep and rich and it really does take you places just by looking at a single concept.  And you can learn, I mean you can, if you’re slightly interested you’ll be glued on the discussion, the discussion itself is a very deep form of entertainment there, right?  And talking heads tend to be very boring, but in fact, you know, you could turn them into scintillating and entertaining TV, provided they are done properly.  



So what you say implies that you think that BBC, let’s say, treatment of science from the eighties onwards has tended to return to a small number of topics, I think you said cosmology and astronomy.


I mean I think the science on BBC is the most appalling science you will find.  Think back to old Horizons, you see?  The old Horizons were incredible programmes because they don’t just, they didn’t look at science just in a kind of glorified ‘gee whiz’ way, but they looked at science critically, right?  The old Horizons are quite critical science, they did critical science in many respects.  So if we look at Horizons of the seventies and the eighties and then basically now what we have on the BBC is ‘gee whiz’ science, look how great science is.  It can solve all the problems of the university.  You know, you have this, you know, David [Brian] Cox sitting in, you know, contemplating the universe as though he’s solved everything there is to solve, right?  You know, it’s kind of height of arrogance and kind of… it’s just dripping with haughtiness and I find it very, very distasteful.  Yes, we should encourage people to go into science, yes, we should motivate people to science, but it has to be done as a human activity, not as some sort of superhuman activity where you solve all the problems of the universe, right?  And the kind of, it’s basically science as entertainment, so you’ve got to have some actor or some, you know, vacuous celebrity kind of presenting it, you know, in the front, and kind of breathless kind of editing.  So I think the science on BBC is absolutely and utterly appalling, it’s just one-dimensional science and it’s dominated by one or two people because the commissioning editors have no imagination and they cannot imagine science beyond what this is.  And also because they think every single programme must be by definition entertaining and must get some ratings so it has to have certain things.  So there’s no real science, there’s no real science on BBC, this is just, you know, either it’s beautiful animals and pictures, you know, David – what’s his name?




David Attenborough, or it’s lovely stars and, you know, exploring kind of black holes or what have you, from David [Brian] Cox.  And that to me is not what, not real science programmes, I mean they’re just one-dimensional stuff.



What sort of things have you been offered but turned down in this way?


What sort of things I’ve been…  After we did… I did a Crucible of Science a long time ago, so I was offered a kind of short, a short, three or four kind of half hour, or one hour stuff of doing kind of a travelogue type science, but not necessarily in the Muslim world, but also in kind of Europe and all that.  There were some… I don’t know, it was a very long time ago so I can’t exactly remember the details about it, but there were just too many conditions, you must go there, you must go there.  And it was more geared towards Europe than the developing world, although the angle supposed to be the developing world, it was more geared towards developing world.  I remember… I remember having quite kind of heated discussions about it, what it should cover, and then it just didn’t materialise because, in a sense, they were not really…   I mean, you see, Jeremy Cherfas did a lovely show, I think it was called – on zoos or something.  I can’t do that.  I mean Jeremy is… that was wonderful for him.  But it was also very critical show, right?  So it’s not just… he just doesn’t want the kind of, the conservation of the animals, he was also questioning the values of zoos, right, and was very critical about them, in a sense.  So he never did another one, that’s the only one he ever did.  But if he was a big celebrity maybe you could have got away with it, I don’t know.  So I can’t just do stuff with pretty pictures, I want ideas and I want criticism and I want counter-criticism as well.  And conventional television now is basically one idea a show, I mean you just have one idea and run with it, you know. Sometimes you have one or two critical voices to show balance, but otherwise there’s no real exploration of ideas or why are contradictions there.  Sometimes the contradictions may be inherent and they’re not outside, so just having somebody from outside saying something may not necessarily be all that, you know, eliminated.  


[end of track 4]

[Track 5]


Last time we got to about the point of the end of Inquiry and today, if that’s okay, I’m going to ask just a few questions covering the period that we’ve already covered and then we’ll move on through your life story.  The first question I was curious about was, what was the view of your parents of your writings, you know, over the period that we talked last time?


Right.  Well, initially my parents were very proud of my writing.  So my mother used to kind of collect clippings of my articles and news stories and stuff like that, and I think she started making a scrapbook, but it got bigger and bigger and after two or three years I think she just lost interest.  [laughs]  So they knew that I was doing this and if, for example, I did a new book, my father will ask for a copy and I never knew whether he actually read it or not, but he certainly demanded a copy.  And my mother just wanted to feel it physically, she didn’t actually read it.  But they were immensely proud of my work, certainly during the kind of seventies up to mid-eighties they took great interest, and I think they just then started to realise it’s just routine, in a sense, so they didn’t take as much interest after that. 


Did they engage at any level with the content of it?


Well, not directly, but indirectly they certainly did because I often kind of talked about these things to my wife… sorry, to my mother, sometimes my father as well.  Because my mother was not highly educated, but sometimes her views of things were very, very refreshing. Sometimes she will ask very simple questions which would not have occurred to me, and then that’s it, could look, you know, this looks like a ridiculously simple question but it has a very complex answer.  So there was a lot of indirect communication, discussion and debate, but nothing, I mean I would never discuss physics with her, but I would discuss things like, you know, what do you think of the material world, how does that, your view of the material world shape your kind of life and so on and so forth.  These sort of questions, often related to the Qur’an as well.  In fact, quite a lot of my early discussions on the Qur’an and my knowledge of Qur’an came from my mother.  And I asked her, you know, almost anything that I could think of, because if it related to the Qu’ran she normally had an answer.  I didn’t always accept her answers but they always kind of got me thinking, in a sense.  And a lot of the questions I asked were related to science, but not kind of, they were not asked directly as science questions, if you see what I mean.  It’s in a more general philosophical sense.  


Did you yourself continue to read the Qur’an through this early part of your adult life?


Oh yes, very much so.  Actually, it’s not quite correct to say that I read the Qur’an, what I actually read was the commentaries on the Qur’an, so I constantly read different commentaries.  Say, for example, when I got hold of Muhammad Asad’s The Message of the Qur’an, I remember reading it again and again.  And basically the commentary occurs in footnotes, so what I actually read was footnotes [laughs], mostly, in that sense.  And when I was involved in the early part of my student career with various people from Jamaat-e-Islami, then I read Maududi’s kind of translation and commentary.  I mean basically it’s long kind of small volumes of commentary and some of them were combined together and published in English, so I read them, probably more than once.  And that was probably the one that left me with too many hanging questions, it was the most unsatisfying thing I think I read, in terms of Qur’an commentary.  So I did, yes, the answer to the question, yes I did read the Qur’an, but I read the commentaries more often.  


Thank you. 


Of New Scientist, we talked last time about New Scientist, do you remember at New Scientist any talk of its former editor, Bernard Dixon?


Yes.  There was some… I mean when I actually joined it was Mike Kenwood who was editor, Bernard had just left.  I did a couple of things with Bernard, I’m not quite sure what I did, I think a couple of events where he was speaking or chairing and I kind of was on the same panels.  But I didn’t have a great deal to actually do with him.  People tend to have, I mean Bernard’s, from what I could gather from the other members of New Scientist, they tended to have kind of other… he was a bit like Marmite, right, so they either had a strong affection for him or a strong dislike for him.  


On what grounds would the dislike have come?  We can cover the like as well, but…


Yeah.  To be quite honest, I’m not quite sure. I remember during that period I read a couple of Bernard’s books, I think one was on chemistry or something, Chemical… I can’t remember what it was called.  It was just kind of straightforward positive scientist.  He was very much a positivist, right, in that sense.  And the people I kind of tended to hang around with were not, well, they were critical, either they were critical scientists themselves or they were certainly critical science journalists, right.  So their approach to science was not, was… I wouldn’t say diametrically opposite, but quite different from Bernard Dixon’s approach to science.  So I think in our circle he was very quickly forgotten, to be quite honest.


I only ask because during the period in which he was editor, he seems to have been responsible for the majority of articles and reviews on science and religion, so I wondered whether that interest of his was something that was remembered.  But it seems as if it wasn’t.


It may be that other members of New Scientist kind of family during that period may remember it.  But I mean they were certainly interested in science and religion, you know, when I got there.  I can’t really say whether this interest was largely because of Bernard.  What I can say, that this interest was largely, according to Colin Tudge, Lawrence McGinty and Mike Kenwood himself.



What do you remember of their coverage of New Science of Life, Rupert Sheldrake’s book, which would have been during your time? 


Yeah, it was… I can’t actually remember, to be honest.  I know when it came out it caused quite a lot of stir and there was a lot of debate and discussion. I think I may have even tried to persuade Georgina Ferry to let me review it, but I didn’t get it, I think it must be Jeremy Cherfas, somebody like that who reviewed it, I didn’t get it in the end.


I wondered whether you met him at that point or at any point?  I know that when you’re writing Postmodernism and the Other, he’s one of the authors that you regard as a positive postmodernist.  You’ve got certain criticisms of it, but at least…


No, I never got round to meeting him, to be quite honest.  But I remember, I was pretty excited by the book myself and he kind of… I mean I think he was a refreshing voice that was different from the dominant scheme of, you know, things, so I quite kind of liked his approach.


Thank you.


Could you take us on then from where we got to last time?  I should indicate that I’ve read fairly closely Desperately Seeking Paradise, which covers, I think, quite a lot of the sort of next stages of your life that we’re going to talk about today.  And so to preface this bit of the life story interview, I wondered whether you could tell me about the writing of that book first, Desperately Seeking Paradise, why did you write it and why did you write it when you wrote it, if you like?


Well, why did I write it?  To be honest, I’d been wanting to write it for quite some time.  It went through, first of all, in my mind and then also in the kind of planning that I was doing for the book, it went through several kind of drafts and changes.  And it was going to be essentially an autobiography seen through the eyes of a science journalist, that’s what I was planning to do, and from the perspective of kind of somebody who was really interested in the future.  Originally I called it Desperately Seeking Tomorrow [laughs], but then 9/11 happened, right, and my agent said well, maybe it’s better that you concentrate on your kind of Muslim life, that’s kind of hot now.  And when we approached Granta, who published it, there was a wonderful editor there called Sara Holloway, and she was, although herself being quite secularist and atheist, was also much interested in the religious kind of story.  So the challenge then became, because when I originally conceived it, I was going to write it as my life in Saudi Arabia, looking at science there, my life at, kind of brief life at Nature and New Scientist and how I got into future studies and what future studies means to me, it’s kind of… it was going to be a kind of antithesis to future shock.  That was going to be my approach.  I mean I never got round to writing that book, although that book is still in my mind.  So I had to kind of rethink it very much within the kind of Muslim framework of my life.  And it became very easy because there was a lot more material there.  And then I realised that I could make it a bit more humorous instead of kind of just kind of dry critical science book.  So probably if 9/11 hadn’t happened it would have been a different book, I think.  So that’s how it kind of came out, came out that way.  But it’s very likely that had I written it originally as I intended it as a science and futures book, I would have written it later on. Because originally I conceived as, the autobiography as in three volumes: one, my life as a Muslim; one, my life as an Asian; and one, my life as somebody who’s looking for rational explanation and moving towards the future.  So that was kind of three, and the third one’s supposed to be the first, right.  So it just so happens, and I still haven’t written the third one.


It contains, the reader will be struck by the fact that it contains a lot of speech, a lot of conversation.




I wondered – and this is a kind of reported speech of a kind – I wondered how accurate the speech is?  And this would…


This is very interesting, I’ve been asked this question a number of times.  I once found myself speaking in Liverpool and somebody raised the question of Desperately Seeking Paradise and the question they asked was that, how many people who appear in the Desperately Seeking Paradise are real.  And I said, all of them are real, they’re all alive except two people have died.  And there’s a man sitting in front of me, he says, ‘I am Dr Khan who appears in the first chapter’, right.  And I look at him, I’m starting to realise, yes.  And I saw him sitting there and didn’t recognise him, but when he said it, of course, because I hadn’t seen him for twenty years.  So then somebody else said how accurate is your depiction, including the speech.  Very accurate, this is how it happened, this is what I saw.  The only speech that is reconstructed is the speech that is reconstructed regarding my mother and father, because that’s from the childhood dialogue.  So that’s how I remember it, right?  But most of the dialogue in the book is very accurate for two or three reasons.  First, during the travel stuff I kept copious notes – I had about twenty, you know, notebooks that I’d gone through – and second is that I took the speech, a lot of it, from published stuff that I published myself.  So, for example, my dialogues with, say the architect, Gulzar Haider, or my friend Parvez Manzoor.  Actually they appeared in Inquiry [laughs], right?  So they are kind of just more or less adapted from there, if you like.  And some of the kind of dialogues later on, later on in the book are basically based on, for example, what happened when I met General Zia, almost immediately when I came back from the meeting I took notes and, you know, of what he had said.  So most of the direct reported speech is pretty accurate, except I would argue, during the first part of the book with my parents, which is reconstructed.  But even that, I would say, is very accurate, because I had been carrying them in my mind for a very long time.  


Thank you.


Could you then take us on from last time?  This is being, well, being fired from Inquiry, if you like, because of a particular review of a book.  And if you could tell the story of what happens next, with the existence of your autobiography in mind, if you like, so we perhaps don’t want to reproduce it, you probably don’t want to reproduce the detail that’s there in verbal form now, but if you could tell the story in a way which adds to the autobiography while the listener is aware that that autobiography exists, so they can read it alongside what you say now.


Yeah.  Well, the, two or three things happened.  One was that after I left Inquiry there was my involvement with the East-West University in Chicago.  Now, East-West University was actually established by a man called Wasiullah Khan and a few of his friends.  And the idea was that they should, instead of just talking about education and what we should do about the world, they should do something very practical, so they have the university in kind of midtown Chicago catering for largely from people from South Side, poor blacks, you know, very cheap, kind of very low fees, providing as good an education as they possibly can.   Now, he used to call it tuition-driven model, but unfortunately if you have a very low tuition and most of your students come from very poor background, you’re not going to have a great deal of money to run the university.  So I got involved with him and he, one of the things we had to do, because the university was always short of cash, was to go out and raise money for it.  And then also, because I was interested in future studies and all that, he said why don’t you establish, you know, some sort of institution as well.  So we established the Centre for Policy and Future Studies there as a kind of, again, network.  I was in network from then on, earlier on I’d been creating network.  I always thought that the future of institutions lies not just in brick and mortar, but creating a network of people who kind of think together and come together.  So it was created as a network, the people coming in together, we had conferences and all that, we published a number of books.  We had two series of books that was published by Mansell, one was called Islamic Studies Series and the other was called Islamic Future Series, something like that.  And we had about twelve, thirteen books coming out over the four, five years.  And virtually all of these books came out of discussions that we had, you know, together.  So, for example, my friend Merryl Wyn Davies wrote a book about anthropology, Knowing One Another.  I remember, that book took four or five years of gestation, it was a very hard slog, a number of debates and discussion about… she wrote it, but she would not have been able to write it unless we had all that amount of debate and discussion.  And I wrote my second book, Islamic Future: the Shape of Ideas to Come, that was based on, you know, we’re talking about, say, for example, what is the future Islamic state, can the idea survive or not.  You know, what are you going to do about the Sharia, how are you going to drag it into the twentieth century, and so on and so forth.  So various chapters in that book are basically a kind of summary of discussions that we had and my own arguments, in that sense.  So it was a pretty vibrant time, but also pretty poverty stricken time because we were always looking for money, even to bring more people together we had to go out and raise funds so we can meet for three, four days just to have a debate and discussion.  


That was kind of one aspect.  And the second aspect is that I got involved with my friend, Anwar Ibrahim, who was then Minister of Education, he had just become Minister of Education in Malaysia, and so he was able to provide us with some kind of funding.  So we had numerous conferences in Kuala Lumpur because he could find money and we met there very, very frequently.  And Anwar was, I became quite close to him.  I’d known him from my student days, when he was a student too and he would come here as a student leader there and we’ll meet, but we didn’t have very close relationship till I went to Kuala Lumpur for the first time and then really got to know him and he got to know me and then the old friendship kind of reignited in a much more solid way.  So me and my friend Merryl Wyn Davies, she actually moved to Malaysia, she became adviser to him, and at the same time, so that we could have some sort of earnings, we worked for TV3, which was a new channel there.  So we kind of established the channel and brought our television experience, because Merryl was a television producer, she’d worked for the BBC for ten, fifteen years, she’s done incredible programmes like Disappearing World and Global Report and Heart of the Matter, things like that.  So we kind of partly tried to set up TV3, established their news department, various documentary strands and so on and so forth, and then spent most of our time also kind of doing work for Anwar.  One of the first things that we did, and that actually probably was a small seed that was sown between him and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, because Mahathir Mohamad wanted to establish a new kind of big university, you know, one of those kind of state of the art universities that are very common in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, that, he was kind of using that model.  And we persuaded Anwar not to back the university, but to put the money in secondary and primary education.  When we were there, the literacy in Malaysia was like fifty, sixty per cent.  And he agreed and in fact was able to stop, persuade Mahathir not to go big on another university, but put money in primary and secondary education, as a result of which, within four or five years the literacy in Malaysia raised to ninety… I mean I think Malaysia’s probably the, in the Muslim world certainly, has the highest literacy rate.  That was one of our kind of early successes there that we had.  And we also, I mean it also enabled me to kind of look at science curriculum there, look at kind of scientific research, we kind of recommended that he puts money in basic kind of, I think we used to, in those days we used to call it micro-electronics.  So Mahathir was keen on that as well, so they established some sort of micro-electronics research centre, I think, which became quite established.  We also introduced, managed to introduce futures studies in the syllabus, which I think is still going, that, in parts of secondary education, they teach futures literacy, you know, think about what is strand analysis and how do you look at forecasting or, you know, what is prediction, that kind of stuff.  I think that’s probably quite integrated part of the curriculum.  So we had some success while we were there in Malaysia and I’m quite proud of the work we did.  The thing about Anwar is that he himself is a genuinely thinking intellectual person, so you could sit and argue with him and if you could show him reason, you know, analysis, he will be convinced.  If it has some evidence and is based on some reasonable, you know, he will be convinced.  He’s not like a politician who’s got an ideological kind of stick to beat people with, he is very much trying to do something for the people and how do we do it.  And we kind of convinced him that policy is not a one-dimensional policy, it’s becoming more and more complex.  Of course now, policy is a very complex issue, right, because we are now in webs of problem.  In those days you could still isolate problems and try and handle them.  And this idea that policy cannot be just one-dimensional, you can just sit down and say, we want to do that, it has to be based on certain evidence, it has to be based on certain research.  The only problem is that since there were not many people in Malaysia who were doing this kind of work, we had to do our own research, go out and dig out things and all that.  But it was quite a productive period.



Could you talk about your tendency not to accept the offer, even the sort of the urging of people to actually relocate to these places where you’re working, either to Chicago or to Malaysia, why…


Yeah, that is true.  I mean my friend Merryl still to this day kind of shouts and screams at me, because I persuaded her to go to Malaysia and so she spent twelve years there, and I persuaded my friend Zafar Malik to go to Chicago.  There are two or three things here. I think that for somebody who spends a lot of time just thinking and working things out and then who writes quite a lot, it is very important to have roots and a base.  I am not the kind of person who can write… when I was working for, say, New Scientist or Nature, you know, I could write a story if I’m sitting in Vienna, right?  I could write a story, you know, if I’m sitting in Kuala Lumpur, that’s fine, that’s journalism.  But if you’re really writing a book which is a totally different craft and it’s a craft that requires you to sit down for eight or nine, nine hours, pretty lonely kind of… where you don’t really want to be disturbed because you are really thinking and trying to work things out and you have to do that day after day, month after month, and some time a book may take two or three years, then you really want something kind of rooted in one place.  So not just that, I refused to move into other countries, I even refused to move out of this house.  So once I left New Scientist – no, in fact when I came here I was still working for nature when we bought this house – so just, I think, basically when I bought this house I had either just left Nature or I left Nature within six months or eight months.  I’ve kind of been in this house and I’ve got all my books here and all that, and one of the reasons I bought this house was that the British Library newspaper division was very near.  Unfortunately it has now been relocated into some far off place in Yorkshire or somewhere.  And that was a wonderful place to just walk down there and take out any newspaper, you know, five years old, ten years old, they’ll bring it to you, you can just make your notes and things.  And there were lots of early kind of magazines and things that I could have access to, so it was a great resource.  And then if I needed to actually get some books, you know, there’s the London Library, there’s SOAS, I’ve even used my City University library for quite some time.  So it’s a place where you could do research relatively easily and a place where one could write.  So most of, virtually all of my books are actually written here, apart from the early ones, are written in this house.  So I think, I would say that probably most writers like to be rooted in a place, a place that has certain familiarity and gives them certain kind of amenities to write.  For example, you can see, not a single sound, you’ve been here, you know, for so long and you haven’t heard anything, it’s a very, very quiet place to write.  And if I need something I just nip down and get it.  I think you do need that kind of support, especially if you are grinding through a book, say like something like Desperately Seeking Paradise took about three and a half years to write.  And then I will write a kind of, some draft of a chapter, and I say it’s not engaging, right, literally I’m going to start rewriting it.  Same thing over and again to make it as engaging for the reader as possible, because I want the reader to turn the page.  And so it’s not just something that you can slap on, it’s not journalism, you’re just reporting and it’ll appear the following day.  So for that reason I think you do need a base.  So every time, for example, there was incredible pressure on me to move to Kuala Lumpur, but I resisted it.  In fact more or less refused.  Chicago, again, Wasiullah Khan again and again asking me to kind of move, trying to provide me also facilities.  I said no, I can’t.  When it comes to writing, this is the place where I write.  I mean I don’t want to go off to some island, romantic island and write there, I don’t do that kind of writing.  I do need social contact and I do need debate and discussion, which is essential for me to think, engage with people, you know, to stimulate my own thought, to criticise myself.  But once I have reached a conclusion, once I know what I’m going to write, then I need a space, and this is the best space for me.



Thank you.  Could you talk about the way in which you were able to combine a very busy work life, mixing advising, debating and writing, and having a young family?  They appear, that is your family, in Desperately Seeking Paradise when, well, in two places really.  One, that you say that they go out during the summer to Malaysia, in the school summer holidays and join you there, but no details of your sort of interaction with the family there, and they also appear, you mention that after the Rushdie affair, your children, you were able to answer the questions of your children when they came home from school saying that’s not what Islam is, is it?  But, so we have…


They also appeared in Balti Britain quite a lot.


Okay, fine, yes.


I think the best answer is that when I am writing, I’m a pretty bad person. I get agitated very quickly if I am disturbed.  Even a telephone call will disturb me and I’ll be agitated.  So normally I write in chunks of maybe two, three weeks, or four weeks, and it is that period when I can really isolate myself.   I don’t go out of the house, I just get up in the morning.  And it’s almost like a military operation, you know, I set the time aside, I’m not going to go anywhere, I’m going to get up in the morning whenever I get up and I’m going to write till I’m exhausted and then do the same thing again and again, right?  So that’s how I write.  But when I’m not doing that, then the whole life is there, full stop, you know.  Engagement with the family, children and what have you.  I’ve always felt that you can learn things from everyone and, you know, I mean for example, there is this anecdote that actually appears in Desperately Seeking Paradise that when I’m in Pakistan I kind of go out and get a shave and the guy who’s shaving me, we’re talking and mention President Zia and he kind of cuts me.  And then I kind of realise that is his revenge, that he can’t take the revenge on Zia, but he’s taking a revenge on somebody who’s talking about him in that sense.  So I mean you can learn even from a kind of barber, may teach you a great deal.  And I always found that children are a great source of information and knowledge.  Not in the conventional sense, but in the innocence with which they ask questions.  And it’s surprising, the innocence of their questions sometimes can be as deep as the questions of a philosopher.  In fact, children ask quite philosophical questions: why are we here, where are we going, why are we going there, right?  So I’ve kind of learnt a great deal from my children and often when I have kind of been stuck on something, you know, I’ve never really suffered from writer’s cramp, but I do get periods where I’m not quite, the ideas are not flowing and things are not… Then kind of engagement with the children, playing with them, asking, you know, talking to them and all that can be very enlightening.  Of course they could open new tracts to explore things, and if nothing happens then you can certainly write I just was talking to my children, as I do, as you can find out.  As you discover in a number of my books that the children come in, but they often come in when I don’t know what else to say, and then I’m saying look here, you know, I’ve been talking to my kids and that’s what I’ve learnt from them, in that sense.  


So again, think for a writer like me, you’ve got to have kind of roots and the family, children do provide you with the roots that you do need, you know.  No matter where I go in the world, how great a time I have there, when I come back, right, the feeling of home can never be kind of bettered by anything else.  There is this kind of, not just physical, but there is kind of this mental and psychological, almost kind of deep spiritual comfort that you have when you’re there, when you’re home, in that sense.  And that means that you are at peace with yourself, to a reasonable extent, I mean as long as one can be.  So there is no angst.  In that sense I’ve never had this kind of angst about, kind of concerns. There are always worries about money or, you know, finding the right school for your child, that kind of stuff, but they’re not deep angst, I’ve never kind of felt a deep angst in that sense.  And quite often people ask me how are you able to write so much, how can you have written over fifty books.  And I think my answer always is that because I have a base and that base is not just a physical base but is also a mental landscape, right, it’s also a kind of a spiritual fulfilment.  That suggests that I’m reasonably kind of happy with myself in that sense.  I’m very agitated about the state of the world, right, I’m very unhappy about the injustices and I often have sleepless nights, for example, when you are watching, recently, I mean there are two or three images, in this case both of a child: the Syrian refugee little boy who was found dead on a beach; and then the Syrian boy in Aleppo, you know.  You know, I couldn’t sleep for two or three nights, the images, they’re so deep I couldn’t get them out of my head.  So all the ways of the world are there, but there is something which is kind of also deep that gives you a certain level of peace within yourself, which then enables you to kind of write or do as much work as one can do.  But I think if you’re fighting yourself constantly, then you’re not going to be very productive.  So I have to say that I have never had a major fight with myself, although I have had fights with myself, in terms of ideas and all that, but never in terms of kind of meaning or purpose, you know, am I wasting my life or not.  Never that kind of questioning.



Has that protected you from the kind of depression that you mention other members of your intellectual group feeling at various points when things aren’t going well in…


Yeah.  This is one interesting thing, because I’ve never been depressed in my life.  And to begin with, I mean it’s not just, I mean two or three Ijmali friends became very, very depressed for various reasons, and I found it very difficult to understand.  I think maybe also because, I have to say that, that even though my own belief goes up and down like a pendulum, I am a deep and profound believer in God.  Not so much in dogmatic religion, but certainly in the creator, in God.  And that basic belief, which cannot be rationalised, at least from my position, simply because it is a belief.  If it’s rationalised, then it’s not a belief.  It has to be a leap in the dark to be a belief.  I mean the Qur’an says we believe in the unseen, it has to be the unseen, right?  It’s also a great source of hope, so I’ve always been optimistic, even in the kind of most pessimistic and awful situations, I tend to look for silver lining and see how we can get out of this and how we can best make use of this situation.  And I think that’s what, at the end of the day, that is the essence of religion for me, religion does give you hope, full stop, that there is accountability, there is a creator, there is an accountability, you know.  There is some sort of justice, absolute justice somewhere at the end of it all.   So that’s the kind of, if you like, the source of hope.  So I’ve never been really deeply pessimistic and perhaps that may be the reason why I have never been really depressed.  I mean I’ve been upset.   So to be quite honest I don’t really know what depression is, because sometimes when I’m upset and angry I think, am I depressed.  [laughs]  Because I’ve never ever been depressed.  But I’ve seen some of my friends who have been very, very depressed and almost suicidal and I could see how much suffering they have gone through.  But I find that kind of difficult to comprehend.  And I think that more kind of dislocated you are from places and people, the more likely you are to be depressed.  I think you… I mean this is what we mean by a sense of community, right?  What does community give you?  A community gives you kind of a sense of belonging, a sense of home and what have you.  So for me, the kind of my immediate environment, the house, the physical house, the human family, right, and the mental and the spiritual environment that provides is the anchor, right.  That’s why I don’t want to leave that anchor, I don’t want to displace myself, because I think if I physically moved somewhere else, I will also suffer mental displacement in that sense. It’s like when you leave a community and you go somewhere else you feel a bit alienated.  So it’s the same with me.  And because of depression I know some of my friends who are incredibly talented, and there’s one person who I believe has an IQ in the 180s, exceptionally clever man, very learned, widely read – can’t produce anything, you know, because he’s depressed.



The friends in your group who were depressed, were they then depressed in your view because of the things that, the things they lacked that you had?  In other words they were moving about all over the place and strength of faith not as strong – did these play into it?


It’s very, very difficult to say.  I mean I’m the last person to say anything about anybody’s faith, I mean it is between them and, you know.  I think it’s ridiculous for anybody else to say anything about anybody’s faith.  But I would say that they didn’t have the kind of anchor that I had.  I would say that’s probably the, you know, the best answer.  I mean my neighbour here, number three, not this particular neighbour, earlier neighbour, one day he came to me and he said I’m moving house.  And I said, oh yeah?  That’s a shame, you know, we were hoping you will stay.  He said, why don’t you sell your house as well, I’ve sold it for so much profit and I’m buying somewhere else for that much profit.  So I said, how long do you plan to stay there?  He said, I’m going to stay there for three, four years and then I’m going to sell that as well and buy another one.  So he was recommending that I should do that.  So I said well, I’m sure that you’re going to make a lot of money out of all this, this is a very good thing to do from your point of view.  But I’d rather not make money and stay here, even though I may lose, because the house provides me with the anchor that I need, I don’t want to be moving houses.  Because you’re not just moving physically, you’re also moving mentally.  Wherever you go you have to create an environment, you have to establish an environment and that itself requires a lot of effort, physical and mental effort, right, so you’re perpetually exhausted.  And that is very common amongst kind of, well, very common in Britain but probably most of, you know, Europe and Western countries, that people kind of upgrade and move to the next bigger house and bigger house.  Which also suggested some sort of insatiable, I don’t know, desire.  But I’m pretty happy and satisfied where I am.  And the level of satisfaction I think is very, very important.  If you continue to desire bigger and bigger things, then the desire is never satisfied, and that itself is a source of alienation, frustration and depression, I would argue, in a sense.  More and faster is not necessarily better.  In some cases more and faster in fact is counterproductive.  


Thank you.


To what extent is your wife involved in your work at the level of the ideas or of support in other ways, and how…


Well, I mean she did… it is very, very important, I mean I’ve talked to a number of young people who come and ask me, well I want to become a writer, what should I do and how do I move forward.  And one of the things I say is you do need stability or essentially you need human stability that begins with a supporting partner.  So I would not have been able to do ten per cent of what I’ve done had I not had a wife who was totally supportive.  Now, I don’t talk intellectual things with her, she’s traditional in a different…  We talk about other things, but she makes a point of reading everything I write from cover to cover, agreeing or disagreeing with it and sometimes she will say I read the book and I don’t like it, full stop, I’m not going to talk about it.  That’s fine.  But I think without the support, so when I’m writing, for example, over the years she realises that I’m writing and I don’t want to be disturbed.  And then she will create an environment where I’m not disturbed, go out of the way to make sure… I think that sort of support is essential.  But when I’m not writing she also knows that he’s not writing at the moment and I can shout at him, I can do anything and that’s fine.  So that kind of support I think is very, very important.  And I’ve been very fortunate that since 1997 I had this support, and I don’t think without that support I would have been able to do as much as I’ve done.  Now, some people kind of, specially some of my close friends, have said well, you know, if Saliha was kind of also a kind of academic or a scholar then you, no, you could discuss things with her.  And I came to conclusion that no, if she was an academic and a scholar we’d be fighting each other all the time and it would be just like two egos.  Because she doesn’t have any ego or anything like that, you know, I think it’s turned out to be much better in that sense.  When I do need to debate and discuss then, there is a network, you go out and talk to people and say, you know, what do you think about…  So I think it is essential…  And what is the best way to write?  The best way to write is basically to, you know, put your bum on a chair and write.  But by the time you get to putting the bum on the chair, you need several, so many other things to be in place so you have the time to put your bum in the chair to write.  Now, if you have a partner who can facilitate all that, then half the battle is won, right, and if you have a partner that is pulling you away from that, consciously or unconsciously, then you are going to be struggling in that sense.  So I’ve been very fortunate to have a partner that actually facilitates, has facilitated, you know, for the last forty years.  


And when, for example, you’ve had members of your network at your own home, say, discussing and debating, where is your wife when that happens, I suppose is the question?

What kind of support? 


Well, one of the things you have to realise is that all those people who are part of my network are also close friends of my wife.  They become de-facto close friends for my wife.  So my friend Merryl is also godmother to my children and is a very close friend of my wife, is almost part of the extended family.  So when one collects, say, for example, the Ijmalis, who are almost like, we were like an extended family.  So they will come, some members of them will come and live with me with their wives, right, we will go on holiday together, normally to Kuala Lumpur over twelve years, or Chicago several times.  So it becomes… so what one is trying to do is create an extended family in which everybody participates and is, you know, and everybody kind of slips into some sort of roles that they define for themselves.


Are the Ijmalis intact as a group?



No.  No, the Ijmalis disbursed and this is in fact towards the end of Desperately Seeking Paradise, that some of them became very depressed, mainly because what they saw happening in the Muslim world, 9/11 had quite serious impact and the London bombings, and all this kind of extremism and they just couldn’t understand where it is coming from and, you know, what’s happening in that sense.  So the Ijmalis kind of, I wouldn’t say they disbanded, they dissolved and disappeared in that sense.  And I say in Desperately Seeking Paradise the project itself failed and therefore we need to move on and create another project because the struggle has to continue in that sense.  But, other networks have been created after that and newer extended families are being established.


Yes, we’ll get to that, because at the end of the book Ehsan Masood and someone else arrives and you say it’s the next journey.


But on the point about the efforts of the Ijmali group failing, as you put it, do you have a view then on why certain attempts to intervene in discourse are successful and why certain attempts to intervene in discourse are not?  In other words, what’s your diagnosis of why, if it did fail, the Ijmali argument failed?


No, I do not think the Ijmali argument failed.  The Ijmali argument is very, very powerful and it stands where, you know, the Ijmali argument, the three or four components of the Ijmali argument, one component is that life is not, does not exist in watertight compartments, but that we need to have a look at life in a more holistic way.  So, for example, science is not separate from values, policy is not, you know, separate from evidence, that when you are trying to solve any particular human problem you will need to look at, you know, the scientific dimension of the problem, the spiritual dimension of the problem, the human, the social dimension of the problem, and that was a very holistic approach that we emphasised right from the beginning, that’s why we started the Islamic science discourse saying that actually, if science is going to solve the problems of Muslim societies then it must consider the needs, requirements and values of Muslim societies, otherwise you’re just importing technology and not really doing original research of your own.  That was the basic argument.  So that argument I think is even more valid now than it was before.  And then we consistently argued that Islam needs to be rethought, that Sharia has to be reformulated, right, and we need to rediscover what it means to be a Muslim in contemporary time.  This is in fact is the whole argument of The Future of Muslim Civilisation and also the Islamic Futures: the Shape of Ideas to Come.  And that is now even more valid than it was when we first articulated it in the eighties and the early nineties.  So it’s not that the argument of Ijmalis has failed, but what has failed is the actually effort to promote the discourse and make it into a much more kind of broader, you know, discourse that is widely debated and discussed and recognised within Muslim societies.  And there, what has really kind of been problematic is events, you know, ‘Events, dear boy’ as Churchill [Harold Macmillan] said, ‘Events’.  9/11, you know, the London bombings, the emergence of fundamentalism, the spread of Wahhabi thought very rapidly, right?  Even in the seventies and the eighties the Wahhabis are not, you know, all that dominant.  When I was working in Saudi Arabia I was firmly convinced that only, Wahhabism can only survive in Saudi Arabia, it has no relevance to the rest of the world.  That is just a little enclave of Wahhabism that is going to exist here, right, you know.  By 2005 we were seeing Wahhabism as the dominant kind of sect of the Muslim world.  So it’s the events that really undermined the Ijmali effort, not the thought, the thought was, I think, quite deep and quite profound and quite a lot of people didn’t, I mean very well established good solid scholars didn’t quite understand it or see the value of it.  So we’ve kind of been overwhelmed by the events more than anything else, and that’s in fact what Desperately Seeking Paradise tries to show, that the events were moving so rapidly.


Thank you.


Could you expand on the description you give in Desperately Seeking Paradise of the changes in Malaysia over the time that you are there, the effects of globalisation, the sort of peak or trough of which was Terminator 2 in the jungle, but more on the way in which you saw the city and, more broadly, the country change over that period.


Yeah.  Very interesting.  When I first started going to Malaysia I have to say I actually loved the place.  It was green, there are wonderful, a number of wonderful, wonderful things about Malaysia during that period.  Wherever you looked it was green.  There were hardly kind of multi-storey buildings, I can think of only two or three when I was there.  And some of the kind of old village life was preserved within the city itself, so there was a kampung baru, the new village, right, which had this very kampung, you know, which is a Malay word for village, had this kind of feeling.  And various other parts of, I mean the whole city looked like a kind of a network of villages, you know.  And it always rained at a very precise time, so every day at something like quarter to four it would start raining and then, you know, quarter past five the rain will stop and then everybody will carry on with their business. And there was kind of a very openness about the people.  The underlying tension between Chinese and Malay and all that, but on the whole, I mean when people say that, you know, Malaysian, Indonesian are very liberal Islam, you actually saw that, the people were very, very liberal, you know, very open-minded.  I mean had we a couple of very interesting incidents, which do not occur, which I don’t think they are described in Desperately Seeking Paradise, that me and Merryl one day were supposed to go to an open house, so after end of Ramadan they have Eid, but in Malaysia they call it Hari Raya, and they have an open house at Hari Raya so you can just, they invite you to, you know, you can just go in any time.  So we were invited to an open house, we got there and we started enjoying the food and talking to the people, and then I asked Merryl, where is our host, the person who invite… we couldn’t find it, so we came out of the house and there was another house, open house, so we went in there and that was the house we were supposed to be in, that was where our host.  But the other house where we were there, they just accepted us, there was no kind of thing that you’ve come to the wrong house, there was that kind of openness, it was a wonderful place.  And slowly you saw more and more shopping malls emerging, slowly more and more kind of five star hotels, kampung baru kind of more or less disappeared and more and more traffic congestion at the same time.  You could actually visually see that, you know, as time went by, from month to month.  So where we worked in TV3 and where I, we had an apartment in a place called Menara Indah, which was quite kind of six or seven miles from where we worked in TV3 in the centre of the town, from month to month it will take longer and longer to get back, drive back and you could physically and visually see that, right.  And one of the first things that I did when I came back from Malaysia was to write my book on Malaysia called The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur.  And what I saw was basically the city was eating itself, the city was just consuming itself.  So, so many shopping malls came, it was just incredible how do you sustain that level of shopping malls, just one after another.  So many hotels and the big kind of buildings, how do you sustain the traffics?   It was just absolutely… I mean it was a marvel to hold, but it was also horrific at the same time.  I mean what was marvellous about it was actually you could see the transition, right?  What was horrific is the end product, what you actually saw, in a sense.  And then, not just more and more traffic, but more and more pollution.  And then you had this strange situation where the entire city was covered with haze, you know, basically polluted thing, it was just called haze, and you will have the haze up to six months in a year.  And that rain, the monsoon rain which came daily, and you knew exactly when it was coming, now it was coming all the time, or not coming at all.  So the monsoon patterns had changed, within ten years you could see the monsoon…  So the more, if you like, the more the city became globalised, the more kind of ugly and monstrous it became.  And now I would say that Kuala Lumpur is one of my least favourite cities.


To what extent was this experience in Malaysia an influence on Postmodernism and the Other, which you must have written soon after you…


Yeah, I was writing Postmodernism and the Other when I was coming and going back.  So in fact when I come back from Kuala Lumpur and in London solid for three, four… two, three months, I would kind of write a chunk of the book.   And I actually finished it when I left Malaysia for good and I spent a whole kind of nine months just sorting it out and polishing it.  I actually saw, if you like, the postmodernism in action.  I mean there was, one day I got up and saw this article in the, I can’t remember if it was the New Strait Times or the Malay Mail, saying, you know, a postmodern hotel has been opened.  [laughs]  And we went and saw this postmodern hotel, you know, you walked in the dark, no sense of direction.  So the impact of postmodern… I mean many of the shopping malls were designed very much with post, you know, postmodern architecture and postmodern ways of doing things, right, of bringing past, present and the future in one place and no sense of a kind of, you know, no kind of fixed sense of direction, you could wander about the mall endlessly in loops and have certain amount of smell and, you know, you can experience the entire global world there, you don’t have to go anywhere, etc, etc.  So I actually saw that.  I mean globalisation and postmodernism emerged more or less the same time.  [laughs]  So a great deal of fuss about, I wrote a couple of short articles on postmodern thought, you  know, based on Malaysia.  And then I started thinking about it and they became… so a lot of thinking for Postmodern and the Other, and a lot of reading for it was done in Kuala Lumpur, but the book was actually written in London in my house when I came back.  And short pieces were written, various sections and things and notes and things.



To what extent were you continuing to read on the history of science and the sociology of science and the philosophy of science by this stage, by a stage when presumably Jerry Ravetz’s influence on you is less, or at least he isn’t sending you articles to read?


No, no, no.  I am sending Jerry articles to read now. [laughs]  No, I don’t think that my reading on history of science or philosophy of science or anything became less.  I mean I’m a very, very avid reader and if there was a new book that had come out or if a really new paper was published, I would know about it, through the circle I’d get informed.  So I kept up with all the literature, to this day I keep up with all the literature.  But what Jerry is now doing, Jerry has moved on to his idea of post-normal science and I have become the editor of Futures, and we met a number of times and he was having some difficulty in getting the papers published.  He was working with a close friend of his, Silvio Funtowicz, who was an Argentinian mathematician.  Brilliant, brilliant mathematician, great thinker.  And the two formed a very solid team, I think, they worked very well.  It was interesting because I witnessed them, a number of times they were, you know, two working together and there was a lot of screaming and shouting [laughs] going on, right, which reminded me of how we, the Ijmalis used to work.  So I was on the kind of side – let me just go and get a glass of water as well.  


[break in recording?]



Jerry thought that his stuff on post-normal science was a bit too critical and most kind of science journals would not accept it.  So I said well, it is about the future of science and Futures deal with everything, so it’s something that you should publish in Futures.  So we published his first paper on post-normal science and since then we continuously kind of, Futures continued to publish regular papers on post-normal science, both from Jerry and Silvio and from other sources.  And since I was both publishing stuff on post-normal science in Futures and communicating with Jerry I also got quite interested in post-normal science.  But I had two or three problems with that.  The fact that science was going post-normal, I had no problem with, you know, the fact that more and more scientific facts were uncertain, we developed the idea of extended facts, that facts could actually change when new research comes out, right?  That values were uncertain, that decisions were urgent, all that.  I had two main problems with the approach.  One, I thought it wasn’t as deeply rooted in complexity as it should be, because it didn’t actually bring in the notion that the world is becoming more and more complex, in a sense.  And right from the beginning I wasn’t sure whether this is just about science or about the world in general.   Now, Jerry and Silvio provided lots of evidence to say this is really happening in science, right.  But I couldn’t provide any evidence to say that it’s happening elsewhere as well, that was the main kind of thing.  So in fact Jerry and I actually edited an issue, a special issue of Futures on complexity, and I also, we also worked in cyberspace and we problematised cyberspace way, way before people started problematising it.  In fact we published, co-edited a book together.  I wrote a paper called ‘Cyberspace as the Darker Side of the West’, almost twenty years ago, I think that paper must be at least twenty years old, where I argue that just as a great deal of science emerged from the Empire and that, you know, that science and business got together to create a new territory, which was then colonised, that cyberspace will do exactly the same, that business and science and technology will come to create a new territory which will not be a physical territory, it’ll be cyberspace territory, but it’ll be a new territory and the same sort of game will be played there about colonising, you know, mind, cultures, and so on and so forth.  So I think the paper’s still around somewhere and it’ll be easily found on the net.  As a result Jerry got very interested on this as well, so we did a book together.  And we did a number of issues, Jerry produced a number of special issues on post-normal science.  And I think from kind of mid-nineties the idea of post-normal science began to spread.  There was a lot of criticism from various sources, some people dismissed the whole idea, but certainly a great many people working in ecology and environment saw that this really is something that is important.  And one very important component of post-normal science was that the way to move forward was these extended peer communities, that you don’t just referee a paper, as it were, two experts look at it, but you need to extend the peer community to include other people; to include science journalists, to include activists, to include people who totally disagree with the theory, to include housewives, because when you’re dealing with issues of science and society it affects everybody.  So this idea of extended peer community was very central to post-normal science.  And as such I think lots of environmentals and ecologists really saw the value of it and saw that the whole thing was shifting, that you can’t just do science without understanding something about the politics of science and the relationship of science and society.  So I think by now, post-normal science is a pretty well-established discourse.  The first Chair in Post-normal Science was established a couple of years ago at the University of Oslo, as you probably know.  I’ve heard that a couple of other Chairs are going to emerge over the next two or three years.  So my involvement in science continued, but it took a new form, because Jerry himself moved into post-normal science.  


Were there particular ecologists and environmentalists that you engaged with in developing this?


Were there particular environment and ecologists?


You say that this was the discipline that took up the idea.


Took up the idea.  The reason I say that is that as editor of Futures, the most number of papers I got on post-normal science were dealing with environment and ecology, yeah.  I mean if you look at, say, last fifteen years of Futures we published a couple of hundred papers on post-normal science, various aspects of post-normal science.  And quite a few of them came from kind of people working in environmental sciences, in ecology.  We didn’t get many papers on post-normal science from people working in particle physics, for example, [laughs] right.  But we did get quite a few from people working in new medical technologies.



While we’re still on Postmodernism and the Other, do you remember how Don Cupitt’s work came to your attention?


Yeah, well it came to the attention, I mean I had read Don Cupitt before he did the – now, what was it called – The Sea of Faith?  Yeah.  Before he did.  You see, my position on various things is that they’re half right and half wrong.  You see, even when we are engaging with post-normal science, I accepted a lot of the evidence and I found some of Jerry’s work quite kind of brilliant, but I had reservations, in a sense.  Similarly, when postmodernism emerged, one or two things you could see.  For example, the postmodern contention that the distinction between image and reality is dissolving, you could see that, you know, with the Gulf War and all that, there was no problem.  The post-normal kind of thesis that the voiceless should have a voice, well, that’s what I’ve been doing all my life, that’s hardly new.  But this very idea, the key idea that grand narratives have collapsed, that I never bought, in a sense.  I had no problem in thinking that a great deal of science is socially constructed.  I think we were talking about it earlier, but I didn’t buy that all science is socially constructed, right, in that sense.  So, my main kind of problem with postmodernism was its basic thesis that the grand narratives have broken down.  Now, I had two problems with that, I had a personal problem.  The personal problem is that as a believer in God, my grand narrative is meaningless, then my life collapses.  I become meaningless.  I mean, you know, we were talking about all this about hope, about why I feel at ease with myself, I don’t have inner angst.  All that disappears and all I have is, Umberto Eco’s onion, you know, which I keep peeling and there’s nothing there and I become more and more anxious as I peel more and more, you know, try and find something and of course there is nothing there.  So I didn’t buy that right from the beginning, so that was my personal thing.  And the second aspect, second was basically the objective and the evidence.  I mean, for example, if all science is socially constructed, then there is no objectivity.  What do you do with objectivity, I mean it is so deeply subjective that objectivity disappears and it is pretty clear that there is a reality out there that science describes, full stop, right?  So I was, if you like, half a postmodernist, in a sense.  But then when Don Cupitt and David Griffin and other people started writing about post-normal religion, well, that really kind of more or less upset me, you know.  Because here essentially what postmodernism is saying is that anything goes.  Now, two things happen with that, one is if anything goes, then everything stays.  So postmodernism can never be about social justice because essentially it’s justifying what already exists, so what kind of criticism is this, the whole function of postmodernism, it’s a critique of modernity which was oppressive, so we’re trying to produce something which is less oppressive.  Well, clearly it can’t be less oppressive if it leaves the structures intact.  And if it says anything goes, then everything stays, full stop.  And the fact that you kind of go around and reconstruct or rebuild your religion bit by bit, you know, as it suits you.  I found that very, very, very, very problematic.  Now, it has to be said that most of my intellectual life has been spent in thinking about how we reframe Islam, how we rethink Islam, how we… but that does not mean that I think that the fundamental tenets of Islam are irrelevant.  As a believer I do think that the Qur’an is revelation from God.  As a believer I do think that Mohammed is the Prophet of God.  But if I say I’ll take the Qur’an but not the Prophet, or I’ll take the Prophet and not the Qur’an, I mean that doesn’t make sense, you know.  So I mean the Don Cupitt approach didn’t quite appeal to me, but I thought it was also a very dangerous way to move forward.  This comes from the fact that if grand narratives are meaningless then tradition is meaningless, then history is meaningless.  Therefore the tradition in which history, within which religion exists is meaningless.  Now, one practical thing that convinced me this approach to be totally wrong, is the fact that I did spend a great deal of time with New Age folks in America, in Chicago, in California where my sister lives, I went to the Elmwood Institute, I went to Big Sur, you know.  I went to Fritjof Capra’s place, I went to Florida, Gainesville, spent some time with kind of New Age religion people there as well.  And what they’re all trying to do is to, well, basically they’re seeking spirituality, they are suffering from angst, they want a spirituality, but they want a spirituality in a very Western construction and in very Western way.  In other words, they want spirituality now, instantly, right?  And what I know a little about Sufism and tradition is that spirituality is something that you struggle for virtually most of your life before you get anywhere, right?  And what I saw in many of the New Age people, they were talking wonderful language, this, that, but mostly rubbish.  I mean they were just talking junk most of the time.  I mean some of the ideas were so ridiculous, you know, birthing, you must rebirth yourself and, you know, the idea that, you know, particle physics is the ultimate mysticism, right, and if you want to be a mystical you could get that mysticism through appreciating particle physics and all kind of… I mean particle physics, particle physics and mysticism.  I mean some very strange kind of ridiculous ideas.  And this essentially what postmodern religion is being reduced to.  And even in certain Christian communities that I deliberately visited to find out, the open kind of Christian communities, they were kind of taking bits and pieces from everywhere and trying to combine things in a very kind of strange and weird way which I would not recognise as Christianity.  So for me, tradition in religion matters, right?  Tradition is the kind of, provides the boundaries within which that particular religion makes sense.  Now, of course, tradition is problematic as much as anything else in the world because tradition can become ossified and can become oppressive, etc, etc.  So tradition remains tradition by reinventing itself, but it reinvents itself within the framework, right?  If you ditch tradition, then religion has no anchor.  So I found the kind of Cupitt kind of approach pretty kind of bizarre, to be quite honest, while I was very impressed by his scholarship, and I think even the television programme is very good.  I mean I’m impressed by his eruditeness and his arguments, but at the end of the day I don’t really buy it.  So postmodernism and the idea that came out of not just my experience in Kuala Lumpur which were kind of very visual and physical, but also my kind of travels in alternative communities you know, Arcosanti, I went to all sort of places during the kind of nineties to find out what’s going on, particularly from the postmodern perspective.  I have to admit that to some extent I wanted postmodernism to succeed and be a genuine kind of discourse of liberation.  In fact, there was a time when I desperately wanted postmodernism, despite all my reservation to it.  But wherever I went, the evidence I found was totally the opposite, right?  You know, so when the Salisbury [Sainsbury] Wing of the National Gallery opened it’s supposed to be great postmodern wing, I kind of rushed to see it.  I was totally unimpressed, totally unimpressed.  You know, Bonaventure Hotel in there, I went all the way to California, to LA just to see the hotel.  Didn’t do anything for me.   You know, the architecture, you know, the art galleries, you know, there were the kind postmodern signs, the postmodern religion or the religious communities I went where people were, I mean I found all of them to be rather banal and unimpressive and often in my, to my thinking, destructive in the long term.  So that’s why it became necessary to write Postmodernism and the Other.  And then once I reached the conclusion after doing all my kind of travels and research and all that, I really wanted to take a hammer to it, I mean it’s a really unrelenting attack on postmodernism in that sense, of all sides, systematically go for religion, systematically go for science, systematically go for, you know, architecture and other aspects of postmodernism, while showing that I really understanding what postmodernism is all about.  It’s not something that I just thought about or read about, it’s something I’ve actually tried to live physically and see what the end products is, I’ve been to the postmodern hotels, I’ve been to the postmodern art galleries, I’ve been to the postmodern communities, you know.  I’ve debated about postmodern science, what have you, so it’s a very hands-on book at the same time.



What do you remember of response to it?


It has become quite a cult book.  It was the first real attack on postmodernism, although there’s some sort of dispute whether Christopher Norris’s book came out before me or mine, or I came… I think mine came out about six months ago.  But his approach is quite different.  My approach, I actually take people to the places I’ve been to, right, so it makes it that much immediate.  It’s not just a discursive book, it’s also a kind of taking people there book, in that sense.  So it has a huge, huge following.  To this day I get letters from people saying I read Postmodernism and the Other and this point, or that point, you know.  And it’s been taught in many, many universities, even in places where one would regard as a postmodern enclave, it is there as at least a token [laughs] critique book.  



Now, you came back from Kuala Lumpur in 1997…




…could you take us on from there?


Came back from Kuala Lumpur in 1997.  I think almost the first thing I did when I came back from Kuala Lumpur is to write The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur.  By the way, in between I was also doing these small, well, they’re not - they’re small but they’re not easy books to write – what used to be known as ‘Beginners’ Series’, which turned out, then they were changed to ‘Introducing Series’.  In fact I wrote Introducing Mathematics with Jerry, we wrote Introducing Islam with my friend, Zafar Malik.  I wrote Introducing Chaos, which up to that time, Introducing Chaos was one of my bestsellers.  I mean it sold literally hundreds of thousands of copies.  And about a year ago I got an email from a friend and it said, look at this, I was attending some TED talk and I recorded this for you.  So I switched it on and there was a young boy who was giving a TED talk and he’s like fifteen, sixteen – sorry – thirteen, fourteen years, quite young.  And he says, my life was changed by a book, and he holds out a copy of Introducing Chaos, this book.  [laughs]  And then he talks about chaos and all that.  So some of these books have had a quite long life and quite impact.  So I think I wrote two or three after coming, because I needed, to be quite honest, it was not a very good time in terms of personal finance, I had to write quite a lot.  So I wrote kind of a number of these books.  How the mathematics book came out, to be written is very interesting, because my friend, Richard Appignanesi, who was the commissioning editor, commissioned some prominent – I mean these books are supposed to be written by really prominent people who are experts in their field and they are providing a guide to people, and essentially they are undergraduate and postgraduate books, although they can be read by anybody.  So he rang me one day in quite desperation, he said I’ve got this great mathematician – I can’t remember his name – well-known, he mentioned the name and I immediately recognised it.  I said, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, he’s written some great papers’.  He says, ‘Well, I’ve commissioned him to do the book and he’s sent me the book and I’m afraid it’s…’ I said, ‘Well, send it to me’.  So he sent it to me and I looked at it, it was just full of equations.  It was like A level mathematics, right?  And of course you can’t publish that in that kind of series.  So I said, ‘Richard, there’s nothing I can do with it, it’s, you know’.  He says, ‘Well, I’m really stuck because it’s in the catalogue, we’ve got things set up, it has to be out within three, four months’.  So I said, ‘Fine, I’ll write it for you but you have to give me twice as much’.  [laughs]  ‘And I may need a little help if you want it, you know, done within…’  So in fact it was literally done in five weeks, so the little help was provided by Jerry, who provided quite a lot of help, because I needed people to talk to.  And the thing with these ‘Introducing’ books, they’re known as ‘Graphic Guides’, they’re cartoon books, but what I discovered very early on is that if you are writing these books as conventional books, then you’re going to fail, right?  You have to write them as though they were a film or a television script.  If you write them as script with what I would call, you know, in television we have synch when somebody comes on and speaks, so that, you have speech bubbles which serve as synchs, and how you go from one shot to another.  If you write it as scripts then they’re relatively easy to write.  So the first one, which was Introducing Islam, took me about three, four months to write, but after that I wrote six or seven more and they never took more than a month or five weeks, because they were written as scripts, right, and then they work as scripts, yeah?  They don’t work as a conventional book, you know, with a beginning and end, they work as script with little chunks of films, as it were, put together.  So once I cracked that, then it was very easy.  So a couple of them were written as rescue jobs [laughs] because the great expert delivered a text which was incomprehensible.


You say that this was a time of financial difficulty, or at least concern.  Why at this time?


Well, because we left Kuala Lumpur in a very bad shape.  Our friend, Anwar Ibrahim, basically had a very major falling out with the Prime Minister, you know, Mahathir Mohamad.  The issue was really a very deep issue of corruption and Anwar would not agree to certain things, as Minister of Finance he did not agree to certain things, so not just Mahathir fired him, literally the same day he was fired, he was arrested on a kind of… it’s not even fake, because when you fake something you actually make an effort to faking it, but it was just kind of made up charge of homosexuality and then – I’ve known him for all my life and he’s definitely not gay or remotely interested in that area – but when it does mean is that if you’re going to accuse a politician of something in Malaysia, it has to be something that will be really obnoxious or abhorrent in Malay eyes.  There’s no point saying to them, he’s corrupt so I’m going to arrest him, because all the politicians in Malaysia…  There’s no point in saying that he has affairs, because they all have affairs.  Or saying that he took money from there to there, well, because you have to accuse him of something that, because he was a very popular politician and is very likely to succeed.  In fact he was a designated successor of Mahathir.  His popularity had to be dented and it had to be something that the Malays really find abhorrent, and therefore the charge of homosexuality, because Malays are very, it’s a very deeply conservative society where homosexuality is really looked down as a great kind of abhorrent sin, you know, in the classical biblical sense, right.  So that’s why he was accused of homosexuality and trumped up charges and sent for six years.  So we had to leave Malaysia quite kind of thing, in a pretty bad situation and most of our, you know, my colleague Merryl lost virtually everything.  She had a house there, a lot of stuff in there, all her books, she was an anthropologist, she’s collected a lot of anthropological artefacts, you know, money and everything, car, whatever we had.  So basically I had to kind of restart as a freelance coming back to London and one of the things I did was to write a number of Introducing texts during that period.  


And then, sitting on this very sofa watching television, then I kind of also started writing for The New Statesman, and I had two or three kind of main functions there.  Part of my job was to write a monthly essay.  In fact I wrote the first, ‘New Statesman Essay’ it was called.  And I remember very well that I used to write a column, two columns a month and an essay.  But before that I also did a science column, science column and review, so I was kind of really attached to New Statesman as part of, if you like, my freelance work.  And I was, I remember it very well, [1:37:49] that my daughter was graduating and we were at UCL for her graduation ceremony, and I got a call from Peter Wilby, the editor of New Statesman, a wonderful man, probably one of the best editors I’ve worked with.  I’ve worked with lots of editors, Peter had really, I mean he was really editor… I mean really knew.  So I got a call from him saying, ‘Do you know what is going on?’  I said, ‘No’.  He said, ‘Well, something has happened in New York, some bomb, you’d better go home and watch some television’.  So I left this ceremony of my daughter, in fact all three of us we just attended whatever was necessary quickly and came back, and I switched the television on and of course we saw the 9/11 attacks.  I didn’t see them live because by the time I got here, the event, both planes had hit the building, Twin Towers, but I watched the repeat.  And then, towards the evening, there was this incredible footage of a woman coming out of the debris and asking a reporter, ‘Why do they hate us?’  And so I was sitting there and I rang my friend Merryl and I said, ‘Merryl, this question, did you just see that?’  She said, ‘Yes’.  She was watching exactly the same thing.  She said, ‘Yes, I just saw her and she asked, why do they hate us?’  I said, ‘That is not a question.  It is an enquiry, right, and we should write a book, Why do people hate America?’  And then we approached, I mean I just rang my friend Jeremy, with whom I had done some Icon books, and you know, would he be interested in a book called ‘Why Do People Hate America’?  He said, not just that we’d be interested in that book, but we want it published the day before yesterday.  Right.  And we just immediately, I mean basically we got a contract within a day or so and they said you’ve got less than ten weeks to do it.  So me and Merryl, we literally sat down daily and wrote that, and the book was out something like February 2012.  In April of 2012 I was in United States promoting it.  And that was one of our big successes because it became a bestseller.




Could you talk about that process of writing with Merryl over that short period?


Okay.  Let me just bring the heating down.


I don’t think I’ve had more fun writing a book than I had writing Why Do People Hate America?  And right from the beginning, in our initial discussions, we reached the conclusion that ‘Why Do People Hate America?’ will be enquiry, it won’t be answered as a question, but it will be treated as an enquiry. And we are going to make it, we’re going to do some basic research, but not a great deal, and we’re going to make it into a film book.  The question will be answered by examining American film and television.  So it’s very much a film book.  And in fact to this day it is thought as film book in certain American universities, in a media studies and film studies programme.  So there’s two research: one research that I did was very simple.  I got hold of all my journalist friends that I could, you know, and there was a list of 300, all round the world, and I simply sent them emails saying I want you to tell me from your perspective why would your community hate America.  And we got four or five different, so from wherever we asked, we got totally different answer.  So, for example, when we asked that to some of my Brazilian and Latin American friends, they said we hate America because of the Monroe Doctrine.  When you asked the Arabs and the Middle East, they would say we hate America because it has been supporting Israel and ignoring the rights of the Palestinians.  Then you asked the Indians they said, we hate America because of Bhopal and the neem tree, which is the American corporations patented various kind of parts of the neem tree, which is a very, very common tree and they patented various kind of biodata and stuff like that, so there was a big scandal going on during that period.  So we got different answers, so we realised that this really is enquiry and you need to give the answer in different ways, it’s not a single answer, it’s a multiple answer.  So the main problem that we had is what films to pick, and that’s where the fun came in.  So lots of films, which one we…   And, for example, there was a television series at that time called Alias, I don’t know whether you ever seen it, quite popular for that period, and I said I’m just going to write about Alias, and I think Merryl decided to write on some, I can’t remember, classic Westerns or something.  And once we decided, I mean the hardest thing was choosing the film and deciding, and then the writing was just easy, because the film itself told the story, the film itself provided the argument why people would hate America, in that sense.  So the Alias, for example, I used to show that… Alias actually presents America in terms of the cosmological.  We framed the whole thing in four arguments for God.  So in Alias the operative, the CIA operative, is omnipresent, she can go anywhere any time, so at one shot she may be in Los Angeles, but another shot she may be in Outer Mongolia, right?  And the third shot she may be doing something in a factory in India.  So America projects itself as a kind of omnipresent, you know, God, right.  It can be anytime, anywhere, you know, wherever, as it were.  So we framed the whole argument in terms of…   The summary of the book is that America now sees itself as a substitute for the four arguments for God, but we know that all of them are invalid.  [laughs]  So that’s the kind of thing.  And again, it was written very, very fast and it kind of became one of our biggest… and certainly sustained us for some time, for a couple of years.


Do you remember what the input from the publisher was, you know, post-contract, when they saw the draft, were there certain…


Virtually no input.  I think they asked us to… put couple of tables in, or something like that.   Apart from that, I don’t think there was any input.  But it’s a very readable book, because it discusses film so you’ve got a lot of narrative and all that.  And in fact the last film, it discusses La Haine, which is the French film, and it concludes with that.  And because that book was very successful, Icon asked us to do another book.  In fact we did three books for Icon on America.  Why Do People Hate America?, Will America Change… I’ve forgotten what the title of the third book is.  It should be here somewhere.  Will America Change?  Oh, American Dream, Global NightmareAmerican Dream, Global Nightmare is in fact a totally film book.  All three are film books.  


Thank you.


So in fact most of, from 2001 to 2004 we spent writing the American books.  The second book took much longer because a bit more considered and it’s a different kind of book.  And then I started working on Desperately Seeking Paradise, around 2003 and carried on working on and off on it for some time.






To what extent did you have discussions with Merryl about faith itself?  I know there’s a point where you’re attempting to dissuade her from conversion, but we… beyond that I don’t know about the extent to which you talk about something as personal as faith with her.


Well, to be quite honest, we are always talking about faith in one way or another.  If we were not very religious people, we probably would have written Why Do People Hate America? in a totally different way.  Because of the kind of importance of faith to us, the arguments in the book came be framed in terms of arguments for God, because of our interest in faith, as it were.  But also, why did we choose films?  That also has something to do with faith, because many of these films are actually pointing towards purpose, towards meaning, you know, towards self-definition of America, how America is projecting itself, how Americans perceive themselves, right.  And these are all kind of questions of, if not direct questions of faith, you know, actually related to one’s own self-perception of position in the universe, if you like, in that sense, you know, so they’re ontological in some ways.  So faith does, we never kind of discuss faith in literal sense, but most of our discussions sooner or later ends up with some aspect of faith.



Could you talk about the nature and extent of your engagement with the New Atheists who appear particularly strongly about the time we’re discussing?


Yeah.  Well, to be quite honest I have not had a great many confrontations.  The only confrontation I had was with Christopher Hitchens and it was at the, must be at the Hay Festival.  It was a Guardian debate and it was a Guardian dinner, in fact, and we found ourselves sitting opposite each other.  And there was kind of quite a heated debate and discussion between us, and the editor, Alan Rusbridger, was sitting next to Christopher Hitchens and then he kind of basically moved either me or Christopher Hitchens to a different part of the table.  But that’s about as close as I’ve got to actually having a direct contact with… oh no, with what’s his name, Richard Dawkins, I’ve been on a number of radio programmes with Richard Dawkins.  I think I was on one radio programme with Karen Armstrong, Richard Dawkins and myself, in a sense.  But I have to tell you that I have never really bothered very much with the New Atheists, because I don’t take them very seriously or their arguments very very seriously, some of the stuff is very very shallow.  So I went out and bought the Dawkins book, it is such a shallow…  I mean if, essentially, you know, if a scientist wrote a book about, say, new biology or new physics of that level, he’d be derided, right?  I mean it’s almost undergraduate stuff, his level of argument.  So they’ve never really bothered me in any real sense.  And if there was a chance of debating them I would have absolutely no problem in doing that.  I mean I was, two years ago, I was at Chalke Valley History Festival and the IQ people who do the IQ debates, had organised a debate, that religion, most violence in history has been spread by religion.  And they rang me up and they said would you be interested in this debate.  I said sure, and they said would you mind, would you suggest who is for or against you.  I said, I don’t really care.  So to my shock and surprise, they said, person who will be with you, kind of speaking against the motion is Tom Holland, my friend.  [laughs]  I know Tom Holland very well, but we’ve had our disputes because he has a different notion of religion. And speaking for the motion was Nick Cohen from The Observer and a historian of, I think, military historian.  And when we got there, the director of the IQ debate said to us that I don’t want to kind of upset you too much, but every single IQ debate that we’ve ever had about religion, the people who were defending religion have lost, so the chances of you winning this debate are basically zero.  So I said to Tom, well, that provides us with even greater challenge, right, let’s go in there.  And the guy who was chairing it, what’s his name – Stourton – what is Stourton’s first name?  You know, he used to be BBC Radio…


Oh, Edward Stourton?


Edward Stourton.  So Edward Stourton was chairing it, so when the debate started, Edward Stourton said, ‘Well, we’re going to have a little poll before the debate starts.  How many people here think that religion is responsible for most of the violence in history?’  Now, don’t forget this is a history festival and probably lots of historians there.  Almost everybody put their hands up.  So he turned around and said to me, ‘Well, it looks like you’ve already lost’.  [laughs]  So anyway, when the debate started, frankly, me and Tom just clobbered the opposition, we just not actually clobbered them, we decimated them, right?  Because, I mean most ridiculous thing to say, that all the violence in history.  Look at the twentieth century; two world wars, Stalin, Khmer Rouge, right?  What else have we had?  And China, the Cultural Revolution.  Nothing to do with religion.  These things have to do with atheism.  Stalin was an atheist.  China, Mao was an atheist.  Khmer Rouge people were atheists, right?  The Nazis were Nazis, for god’s sake!  Nothing…  The Crusades lasted 300 years, but how many people died?  And if you compare, you know, more people died in the War of Roses, for god’s sake.  So if you look at history, the amount of propaganda people have bought about religion is just enormous, I mean there’s no basic, there’s hardly any basic understanding of real facts.  See, for example, when people talk about the life of the Prophet, they say the Prophet has spent most of his life fighting, okay?  Well, the truth is, there are three battles in his life, right, and one expedition.  The crucial battle is the first battle, Battle of Badr, it lasted one morning.  [laughs]  Right?  It lasted a morning.  Then the second major battle the following year is Battle of Uhud.  It lasted one evening, right?  Then the third battle is Battle of Trench.  It lasted one month but there was no battle.  Why?  Because the Muslims dug a trench around the city and their enemy, the Quraish, could not cross the trench, so they stayed there for a month, then there was a sandstorm, they lost some of their equipment and got bored and went home, right?  And then there was the Expedition of Tabouk which lasted a couple of months, and he sat outside the Tabouk Castle, which was impenetrable, till the provisions ran out in the castle and the people in the castle had no option but to surrender.  That’s the total time he spent.  So, for the twenty-three years he was a Prophet, maybe he fought ten days, or fifteen days, but people have a totally different perception.  They don’t understand, right?  If you look at the First World War and the Second World War, they’re the most brutal things in history.  And in terms of life, we look at how many people lost their life in the Cultural Revolution in China, right?  Or how brutal the Khmer Rouge were, the Killing Fields, you know, of Cambodia.  And the Vietnam War, the Vietnam War had nothing to do with religion either.  It was an ideological war, in a sense.  So we just clobbered the opposition.  And then Edward Stourton took the second vote, and we won, right?  The same people who voted first time that religion has caused most violence in history, the same people, their minds were changed and they voted against it, in a sense.  So the arguments can change their mind.  And we came out and the director of IQ was shocked, he said, this has never happened to us before, you’re the first people who defend religion and win.  And I have to admit that Tom’s knowledge of facts was incredible, I mean I clobbered Nick Cohen, you know, Nick Cohen was totally destroyed, and he just destroyed the military historian absolutely.  And the audience were reasonably educated to understand argument, evidence and reason.  So the essential point is that you don’t have to, I mean in a sense, I mean you were asking me how often me and Merryl discuss faith.  We don’t discuss faith up front, but it comes down in the arguments and the evidence and how we frame things and how we want to take things forward, in that sense.



How did you prepare for that debate?


I didn’t, I just went there.  Normally, for all the festivals I do, I must have done hundreds and hundreds of festivals, not just in Britain but all round England, all the kind of speeches and things I do, I normally do not prepare anything.  I may just scribble a few notes.  I prefer to speak off the cuff and in my own experience, if I prepare something, one, it may become totally irrelevant because it all depends on what the other people say, and two, if I stick to the script, I perform much worse than if I just say okay, let’s take this man on and argue with him, you know, on what he has said, in that sense.  So I seldom actually prepare anything, unless I’m giving a very formal lecture.  The only time I’ve actually had to read a lecture was at the Royal Society when there was this lecture on Islamic science, where they insisted that I must read, because it has to go into the proceedings of the Royal Society, has to appear.  So that’s one of the rare occasions when I actually read a whole lecture.  Normally I would just turn up and speak from notes if I’m giving a formal lecture.  But if I’m speaking at a festival or in a panel or discussing, then I just, you know, just go as it is.



What do you remember the heated argument with Christopher Hitchens being about?


Er… what was the heated argument about?  Oh, I think it was about Muslims, that you know, Muslims cannot be trusted or something like that, yeah.  Although I can’t remember the details of it.  It only lasted about ten, fifteen minutes, because then the organisers realised is that these two are going to, you know, be at loggerhead, and they just moved us.  



Thank you.  Yes, there’s two sort of significant bits of committee work.  One is that you are a member of the Committee for Equality and Human Rights?




Could you tell that story?


So not committee, it was commission, Commission for Equality and Human Rights.  I think we may have to conclude in twenty minutes, because once my wife comes in… there’s quite a lot, so we can carry on and we can decide on a date?




Yeah.  So, I think when Desperately Seeking Paradise came out, at about the same time I heard that the government is setting up the Equality and Human Rights Commission and that there is going to be equality acts, and since I’ve always been interested in equality act, it’s… and the issues of equality and justice, so I thought that may be something that I’d like to be involved in.  I was actually thinking about it and one day I got up and I read that Trevor Phillips has been made the Chair.  And of course I knew Trevor Phillips from my London Weekend days.  When I was working on Eastern Eye he was doing Black on Black, and after that we had also done a few things together, so we were friends in a sense.  So I just rang him up and he says, ‘My god, you know, apply immediately, apply’, right?  So I just applied, as a commissioner, and got it.  So I was one of the… I did five years.  The commissioners are normally there for four years, but there was a preparatory period for setting up the Commission, so I was one of the first commissioner to be setting up.  And essentially, my job as a commissioner was to kind of give as much input, you know, from religion’s perspective on the Equality Act and deal with issues of religion that may emerge from wider public. And one of the first issues that I got quite involved in had nothing to do with Islam at all, it had to do with a Christian British Airways hostess who was wearing a cross and maybe a passenger objected or something, but anyway, the British Airways essentially instructed her either to take the cross off or to lose the job, you know, her job.  So we defended her, because I thought that’s a basic violation of rights.  I mean, why should not… I mean if I was totally and utterly outrageously dressed as a punk you would have no objection, but if I am decently dressed and I have a cross on, you have an objection, you know.  And I just found that totally ridiculous.  So that was one of the things we picked up and defended, and we won.  The Commission won that case.  There were quite a few.  There were about… I mean the period of Equality and Human Rights Commission in my life was quite a reflective period in the sense that on any issue there were twelve kind of positions, because there were twelve commissioners, and each issue had twelve positions.  And this is, I mean that’s probably the first time I came to the conclusion that unless we really bring in complexity and see these issues are interconnected, we are not going to solve them, that the issues of contemporary society are very, very complex.  And if you’re just looking at that issue from your own narrow perspective, you’re never going to be able to find a solution that kind of satisfies most people in society.  So it was quite a reflective time for me.  And one of the first things I did for the Commission, when we were having discussions, I said look, you know, we don’t have a language here, so the first thing we need to do is language.  So I think nobody’s ever written anything for the Commission, but one of the first things I did, and I wrote as a collective exercise, the language of equality.  So it should still be available on their website.  So how do we discuss equality in terms of language.  And most of the commissioners and the Commission itself accepted that and then that became the kind of language to be used within the Commission.


You said most of the commissioners.


Because there were still objections to various things, for example, you know, we couldn’t, I mean do we have to use LGBTQY or can we come up with a certain thing or when you said just gays and lesbian, then a lot of people got upset because we didn’t mention transgender, and I couldn’t find a solution to that.  [laughs]  I couldn’t find a solution to that, so there were…   So, I mean, vast majority of the commissioners and the people in the Commission did accept the language.  Everybody praised it and did use it, but not everybody, because there are always people who have reservations, which is fine, because you can’t really find a solution. I mean that’s exactly the point I’m making, that contemporary landscape is so complex that you just cannot come up with a solution that will satisfy everybody.  So the five year I spent… the first year at the Commission was very exhausting when just setting up things and running around here and there.  I don’t think, apart from doing the language of equality, I don’t think I did a great deal.  But the next four years were very instructive and quite thought provoking.  We spent a lot of time thinking about what equality means.  What it means to be a senior citizen in a society like Britain.  What is the distinction between religious discrimination and racial discrimination?  Is a black person who is a Muslim, for example, does he experience double discrimination?  Quite deep issues like that.  And also solving some problems, like this case of the Christian air stewardess.  There were one or two other cases of discrimination against gays that we picked up.  A number of issues that I actually solved basically by bringing people together on my own without involving much of the Commission.  For example, there was the story that in Luton the Sikhs and the Muslims were fighting each other and was going to basically became a major issue.  So I invited the Sikh leaders and the Muslim leaders to the Commission and we sat round a table and I asked the Sikhs what is the problem, and they said well, the Muslims are converting our girls and they’re marrying our girls.  So I asked the Muslims, what is the problem?  The Sikhs are marrying our girls, right?  So, you know, I mean classical, narrow-mindedness, you know, patriarchal issues.  And then you had to point out, look, neither of you are converting anybody and if Sikh is marrying a Muslim, you know, it’s her own choice and if a Muslim is marrying a Sikh it is his or her own choice, but you cannot turn that into a conflict.  And in fact the issue was solved.  And many of these issues are basically issues of perception, where somebody deliberately creates a, spreads a lie, or something happens that people perceive in a different way and then, you know, hatred emerges.  


Could you describe the room where you met and who else was there so we get a sense of who the other commissioners were?  I realise we’ve got to stop in a moment, but we might be able to get a description of the sort of setting and a sense of who else was…


[end of track 5]


[Track 6]


Could you, picking up on something you said last time, can you tell me in more detail about your experiences of New Age movements, in America especially, I think you experienced them?


Most of my experience with New Age movements comes through my friend, Hazel Henderson, who is a well-known futurist in America and kind of alternative economics person.  She’s established a number of ethical trusts and kind of equity participation schemes and so on and so forth.  She’s done a hell of a lot in practical terms.  In the late seventies and eighties she was quite well known for being an alternative futures person.   She wrote a wonderful book called, Creating Futures, I think it was called, and another one on the solar age.  And I travelled with her and I came through contact with various people who are associated with New Age, so I went and spent some time with them.  The longest time I spent was at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where I went for a number of conferences.  And it is there that I kind of experienced the most wild side of New Age kind of mystical people, for example, I went and joined some Rumi groups, who were into Rumi, and the first thing I noticed was that their Rumi was totally divorced from Sufism, which is my Rumi, I mean my Rumi is a Sufi, basically, and Sufism is a mystical aspect of Islam.  And their Rumi was very kind of secular, New Age, kind of wonderful person, right, but not really rooted in Islamic tradition, which I found very odd.  And at Big Sur I met kind of various people, to be frank, I hardly remember their names because, you know, I met them for a couple of days and so on and so forth.  Kind of New Age gurus, mystical folks, you know, people like Alan Watts.  There were all sorts of… Baba Ram Dass, all sorts of strange people.  Ninety-nine per cent of them were converts to either Buddhism or some variety of Sufism or some other variety of Eastern mysticism.  So they were basically American converts, and they had the zeal of the converts, that you normally have.  But almost always it was thought minus tradition.  And for me, tradition – I think we were talking about it earlier on – is very very important for providing anchor.  So they were anchor-less, right?  I mean it’s almost Karma Cola variety, right, they wanted a Coca-Cola equivalent of mysticism, a quick buzz, in a sense.  Quite a contrast with the time I spent with some monks in Iona Island during that period as well.  I spent I think about a week, ten days there, living with monks.  Where the Christianity was very deeply rooted and that was a totally different experience, there was an anchor there, there was a tradition there, right?  And these people were just as open and inclusive and kind of, you know, deeply mystical, into compassion, etc.  But they were very different from the kind of almost anything goes variety of mysticism that I found in the New Age.  So I mean it was a good experiment, but I soon realised that New Age is not going anywhere.  And in fact it was one of the things that led me to write about New Age mysticism and postmodernism in Postmodernism and the Other.


Do you remember any discussion of science at the Esalen Institute?


Oh yes, yes.  Great debates on science, essentially science and values, science and metaphysics, particle physics and mysticism, that kind of discussion.  The Esalen Institute, people used to publish – I suspect they still publish it – quite a good journal called Revision and a lot of the discussions that we had ended up in Revision, being published in Revision.  And essentially it was all about science and society, science and kind of social justice kind of discussions.  How do we use science to promote social discussion.  Quite a lot of suspicion about big science.  But at the same time, kind of unconditional devotion to technology, and the computers were emerging in those days and, you know, there was this, the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand, I spent some time with Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog people.  And they were quite obsessed by technology and they thought technology could solve the problems of the world.  I mean their criticism of science was basically that science is not kind of paying attention to social issues and they thought that technology, especially in the hands of kind of New Age guys, could actually solve those problems.  Again, I thought that their approach to technology was technology without ideology.  They saw, while they saw science as something that was not without kind of ideological bias, they saw technology as ideologically free, which was very strange for me.  How can you have one and not the other?  I think both are influenced by politics.



What is your view of the interest of certain, let’s say Western scientists, in relations between science and spirituality or mysticism or religion at the level of content? This is especially with reference to particle physics, you know, particle physics pointing to higher realities or to suggesting divine order, that sort of thing?


Yeah.  I think it all takes us back to, essentially it takes us back to the argument from design.  And design is a kind of argument that is essentially, takes place not in the head, but in the heart.  If you think about argument from design, like other arguments for God, it’s not a valid argument, but it does kind of… it has quite a lot of impact on the heart.  If, for example, you’re going to see beauty and design in a flower, in a garden, in a tree, in a forest, then it’s not surprising that you will see beauty and design in particle physics, you know, symmetry and all that kind of stuff and just the wonderful nature of elementary particles from proton, electron, neutrons, to quarks and gluons and hadrons and so on and so forth.  So I think that most of the people that I’ve met, and I’ve attended many kind of symposiums and conferences on science and religion, especially amongst the Christians, who I think are much more, intellectually much more sophisticated and have a better kind of understanding and much more deeper thought than most of the Muslims I have met, Muslim scientists I have met.  I found them to be a kind of a wonderful, spiritual people, and essentially they are using science to justify their spiritual outlook.  There’s nothing wrong with that, in a sense.  I too, for example, I see kind of the validity of the design argument from my heart, although I don’t accept it intellectually, as it were.  So I mean it’s not, I don’t think it is something that is totally wrong or totally right, it is just the approach that people take.  And essentially, in science you discover what you’re looking for.  So if you’re looking for kind of some sort of spiritual enlightenment, you certainly will find in particle physics.  I mean during the seventies and eighties I met so many people who were heavily into The Tao of Physics, The Dancing, you know, Wu Li Masters, that kind of kind of approach.  And a lot of them were kind of New Age mystics who had come from physics background, like Fritjof Capra, for example, was a physicist, is a physicist.  So it was kind of an interesting attempt to bring East and West together, but I do not think that you can bring East and West together by doing injustice to their own tradition and foundation.  You need to pay respect to that, in a sense, first.  So I would argue that say, an Indian Bhakti mystic will find it, you know, the whole argument about particle physics very strange, in a sense, and quite alien.  So this is why I keep emphasising tradition, I think mysticism makes sense within anchored tradition, otherwise it just becomes metaphysics.


One of the organisations where scientists interested in these sorts of things would sometimes go and talk about these sorts of things was a group called The Study Society, and another one was called The Scientific and Medical Network.  Were you ever, did you have contact with either of those?


No, I heard about both of them but I was never actually in contact with either of them, in a sense. My circle was essentially those people who were interested in futures and during that period a lot of New Age people were interested in futures, in that sense, so that’s how I got into the whole thing.  Not through kind of simply science and religion approach.



And along with attending conferences, did you read the books of scientist Christians who were writing – John Polkinghorne, Russell Stannard?


Oh yeah.  John… Peacocke, John Polkinghorne, yes definitely, definitely.  And I have been in a number of conferences with them talking about that and debating with them.  There’s a wonderful historian of science from Oxford who used to run a whole programme on the subject, I’ve forgotten his name.


John Hedley Brooke?


John Hedley Brookes [Brooke].  I spoke at his meetings a number of times, we exchanged emails, I invited him to one or two conferences, he invited me to a couple of his conferences, and I had great respect for him.  A deep thinker, in my opinion.   This is, I mean most of the Christian thinkers I found, Polkinghorne is an example, John Hedley Brookes [Brooke] is example, they are very deep thinkers and they think deeply, both about Christianity and about science.  In contrast the Muslim approach to science and religion is very superficial.  It has very little understanding of the complexity of science.  You know, most of them just take, their approach is science is neutral and international and value free and, you know, the romantic notion of scientists working against all odds.  They don’t really have an appreciation of how science works as a process, that in fact it’s a very collective enterprise.  There are no individual scientists making great discoveries in ivory towers any more, you know, a cancer laboratory has huge number of people working in it.  That kind of process aspect is not there in their understanding.  And therefore, their understanding of science is weak and also the understanding of religion is very dogmatic.  That’s why I don’t think anything deep has come out from the Muslim world.  But the Christian thought, the Christian ethics on science and religion has been very deep and quite impressive.  




Did you detect in reading those books what you spoke of earlier as being a sort of argument from the heart, that these are people who are both scientists and Christians and part of the sort of motivation for the enquiry is to align, you know, these two parts of themselves and to have one side supporting the other?


Which is commendable, because I know many, many scientists, Muslim scientists, I think there is a very famous, Zaghloul Naggar who wrote a book about geology and the Qur’an and in the seventies and early eighties he was a big name in the Muslim circles talking about, you know, science and value, science and religion, etc.  And I basically asked him, I said, you know, you’re a geologist, you believe in evolution.  He says yes, when I’m in my laboratory I’m evolutionist, but when I’m outside the laboratory I’m not evolutionist.  I mean, you know, that kind of split personality is counterproductive and that’s why he never did anything solid.  I mean that book on geology and the Qur’an is a pretty mediocre work.  But unlike the Christian scientists, they really thought deeply about these things and they tried to kind of develop a more holistic understanding.  You see, my problem is this, that the moment you invoke God and science, science ends.  Science has to be an open enquiry, continually asking questions.  The moment you say God is the answer, then of course there are no answers to discover, right, so it’s the end of enquiry.  So science has to be a mode of enquiry that doesn’t involve God, but that does not mean that you do not develop an understanding of God through science, so they’re two different things in the sense.  You see, for example, if you say that, you know, God created earth, etc, etc, then the question, what is the origin of the earth, becomes meaningless, right, in that sense.  So as long as that aspect is kept away from science, I have no problem with it.  And I too have kind of acquired an understanding of God, of the Divine, through science, yeah.  But I do believe that you don’t involve God in science.


What’s the difference between the writer of the book on Islam and geology who said that he believed in evolution in his lab but not out of it, what’s the difference between that as a split personality, I think you said, and the idea of multiple selves, which is a…


A very strong part of my thought, yeah.  You see, the multiple selves are integrated selves, they’re not necessarily different, right?   They’re different if you invoke them in different contexts.  So, for example, in certain circumstances it suits me to say that I’m a Pakistani Muslim.  In some other circumstances it suits me to say I am British.  In some circumstances it suits me to say, you know, I’m a Muslim scholar, and in some other circles it’s, you know, I would not kind of bring my Muslim scholarship into play at all, I may just have a totally different…  But that doesn’t mean my personalities are split, the multiple selves are a collective holistic part of me, so they don’t split my personality, in fact they enhance it.  So it’s a totally different… it’s a form of synthesis rather than reduction, if you see what I mean.  And so if you say, you know, in the laboratory I am just a kind of scientist and evolutionist, but outside I’m not a scientist, I’m not an evolutionist, that is a very split, that’s a very split personality.  I think there’s certain, you know, facts and a certain amount of evidence that you just cannot ignore.  So your identity cannot be based on negating or accepting those facts, right?  You know, climate change is a reality, you only have to look at what’s going on in the Arctic Circle to actually see, you can visually see climate change in action.  So if my identity’s based on climate denial, then that’s a form of reduction, yeah?  It’s a kind of refusal to accept evidence.  And that refusal to accept evidence may be based on my ideology more than anything else, in a sense.  But if I see the evidence of climate change and I accept it, and then I say well, this is both and the will of God and the action of man, that’s a different thing. And then we can change the action of man because the will of God can also be changed, right.  God does not change people unless they change themselves, this is the words from the Qur’an.  So, we need to change ourselves to change the will of God in that sense.  Now, that’s a different and much more sophisticated approach.


So that implies that multiple selves can’t be in stark contrast with each other, there has to be some thought or resolution or compatibility?


Absolutely, they’re complementary to each other, they’re not antagonistic to each other.


Thank you.  


Now we left you last time having joined the Equality and Human Rights Commission as one of the first ten commissioners in 2005, you’ve talked about the pamphlet on language that you drafted for the committee and you’ve talked about a couple of cases that you were involved in defending, and you were about to go on, but we ran out of time, to describe the setting of the meetings and to talk about relations between you and the other nine commissioners.  So I wondered whether we could pick up from there?


Yeah.  I mean I have to tell you that we had long meetings, sometimes they would start at ten o’clock and finish like six or seven o’clock in the evening, discussing issues of equality, you know, what is actually meant by gender equality in contemporary times.  Things like when we’re talking about sexual orientation, are we simply talking about gays and lesbians, what about transgenders, what about all other varieties of sexuality and so on and so forth.  And of course what is the difference between kind of, you know, hatred of religion and hatred of a race.  Is, for example, Islamophobia an ethnic thing or is it a religious thing.  Some of these questions are very kind of knotty questions, they’re complex questions.  And it was really wonderful, I mean to kind of walk into these meetings and see somebody like Kay Allen, you know, just had recently been the Chair of the Race Equality Commission.  She – no, not Kay Allen, sorry – Professor Kay Hampton, who was the Chair of Race Equality Commission.  Or Professor Frances [Francesca] Klug who was absolutely kind of incredible mind, deep understanding of human rights, exceptionally kind of clear on the issue of rights and responsibilities and so on and so forth.  And you had, you know, people like Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, she, I think she became Baroness while… she wasn’t a Baroness when we started the Equality, maybe she became Baroness afterwards, who was an expert on disability, but absolutely sharp as a razor.  So round the table you had these kind of incredibly brain trust, if you like, so the discussions that we had were incredible.  And one of the things that I really used to enjoy is we often used to go away for two or three days’ retreat just to explore certain issues and come to the conclusions.  It was, I mean I’d learnt hell of a lot during that period.  But also, it enabled me to kind of sharpen my own arguments and some of the things that I was not sure about or confident about, I would just throw it away and see what people say, so I often played kind of devil’s advocate during various of these discussions just to see kind of the line of argument, more than anything else.  Intellectually the Commission did a lot, but I’m not… and we made a serious contribution to the equality legislation.  Whether we did anything practically and we succeeded practically, I’m not sure.  I think that was the weakness of the Commission, I don’t think it achieved a great deal in practical terms, unless you regard the Equalities Act 2010 as one of our practical kind of outcome.  Apart from that, you know, we took up various cases and all that, but I don’t think we made a major impact on the kind of equality discourse in Britain.





What would have happened for you to have thought that the practical outcomes were significant, what would have been desirable that didn’t happen?


I think that the Equality and Human Rights Commission was actually recognised as kind of the equality body, that it had proper recognition from the parliament, which it did to begin with, but I think… and it had appropriate funding.  And it really was a proactive institution that went out to promote equality, rather than a passive institution which waited for people to come and ask them questions or bring their problems to them, in a sense.  I mean, for example, the language paper, if that was really, instead of just limiting it to the members of the Commission, it was kind of distributed widely and became a discussion document across Britain, that would have had a much better impact, you know, more people talking about it in that sense.  And I think because the Commission didn’t really kind of have a major impact on British discourse, we see lots of these, let us say, unsavoury ideas coming.  I mean, the whole thing about Brexit and how it has been justified, I think is a reflection of the failure of, the earlier failure of the Commission.  


This is the second time in the interview when you’ve talked about an attempt to intervene in discourse not being as successful as you wanted it to be.  A bit earlier it was science and Islam going off in another direction, mysticism, fundamentalism.  Here it’s equality and human rights being sort of taken over by sort of narrow nationalist ideas.  And you talked about discourse.  I wonder whether you have a view on how things in British discourse, which I assume means mainstream media discussion, newspaper discussion, widespread sort of discussion, how do people, how are people effective in that, in moving the discourse and what are the reasons for discourses, for attempts to intervene in discourse sort of failing?  Are there sort of, I wonder, sort of key players in the media who you have to influence in order to get your message out, or you know, as someone who has nothing to do with the media, how do you actually intervene successfully in discourse?


I mean by discourse I just simply… I don’t just mean debate and discussion and all that, I also mean it as a structure of knowledge, that it becomes an accepted mode of enquiry and thinking, in a sense.  I think for that to happen it has to be kind of spread throughout, it’s not just the media and the social media, but also it has to be kind of in a sense promoted by government as some versions of their policy, right, and not just by the government but also by other, you know, political parties.  It has to be kind of accepted.  So the whole idea, for example, I mean this idea that immigrants are a problem, is unquestionably accepted within the kind of large proportion of the British society, right?  After all, fifty-one per cent of the population voted for Brexit on the basis of that, and so certain lies then actually are seen as facts or knowledge and the truth then evaporates or has no meaning.  So what I would like to see is that the discourse then becomes embedded and is accepted as knowledge, so the idea that it’s not immigrants, you know, who cause economic problem or unemployment, it’s established then people take that as accepted fact.  It’s like gravity in that sense.  Or that, you know, that Britain now is a very diverse, multi-cultural society and when you say Britain first, you don’t simply mean white folks first, because there are people here who’ve, I mean systematically, surveys have shown that most Muslims feel more British than the English and they stand up for their Britishness.  So certain kind of prejudices are still deeply embedded and if the Commission had done its work properly, not just while I was there but also after I left, these prejudices would not exist in society in the kind of proportion that they exist at the moment.  So I think the failure is that these prejudices are still widely in circulation.  I suspect they have increased rather than decreased, which is a tragedy.



Why did you leave the Commission?  Was it simply a matter of the end of a term of service?


Well yeah, I think my term ended.  I did apply for a second term, but I was not selected, I think they wanted to bring in other people, which is fine, which is how it should be.  So I think most of the commissioners were changed after I left.



And you also served on something called the Interim National Security Forum at the Cabinet Office, 2009 to 2010.  Could you tell me about that?


Well, that’s very interesting.  When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, within the first or second week of his premiership, I got a letter from him saying that, inviting me to join the, as it was then called, Interim… what was it called, Interim…?


Interim National Security Forum.


Interim National Security Forum, yes.  I’d met Gordon Brown a number of times.  Most memorably I met him at the Hay Festival, so I was going to have, I was having a session there and I was sitting in the green room and there was a big storm brewing outside, it was raining very, very heavily and not many of the kind of authors managed to get there, so I got there rather early so I was in the green room tent on my own and then eventually Gordon Brown was kind of wheeled in with his Private Secretary and all that.  And he had just brought a book out, on heroes, I think it was.  And we greeted each other, so he recognised me.  Of course I clearly recognised him and we immediately started talking about his book, which I had already seen.  And there were one or two people that he portrayed as heroes which I disagreed with.  So, for example, Aung San Suu Kyi was portrayed as a hero in that book and I argued against that, you know, that no, she basically comes from a very privileged background, background you know.  I kind of presented my argument, there was quite interesting debate.  We were both basically trapped, because not much was going on in the festival because it was raining very, very heavily.  So we were there for about maybe hour and a half or even two hours, just talking ideas, in a sense.  So we got to know each other very well.  And I have a great respect for him because he comes from the kind of Christian background that I really value, you know, where Christianity and socialism come together, right?  And he’s, in my opinion, a genuine intellectual, really somebody who thinks, in a sense.  So the argument we had about Aung San Suu Kyi was very detailed and he presented why he thinks she’s a hero, and I presented my argument saying why I do not think she’s a hero, right, and pointing out many things.  In fact, some of the things I pointed out led up to her position now where she’s basically part of a military government, right, turning blind eye to the kind of horror and massacre of the Rohingya people, right?  She did not even allow a single kind of Muslim to be a member of her party, let alone stand on behalf of her party.  She went out deliberately to actually exclude all of them and it became a big issue.  So I was not too surprised when I saw the letter.  It was basically about a dozen people who I suppose are the good and great of Britain who were there, people who are established thinkers and scholars like Amartya Sen and also people from British security backgrounds, MI5, MI6, that kind of people.  And we met regularly, essentially to discuss security policy and issues of national security.  In those days there wasn’t a, what you may call a cyber policy, cyber security policy, so we had a lot of discussion on how to develop a cyber security polity, establish a cyber security national kind of organisation or centre and what kind of new security threats may emerge.  So there was a lot of futures kind of discussion and it involved what kind of threats could emerge in the next five, ten years and so on, so forth. Unfortunately, as you know, Gordon Brown was only Prime Minister for about two years, so when David Cameron became Prime Minister – and I also knew David Cameron, I debated him at the Royal Society of Arts in Charing Cross on multiculturalism when I was a commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, we had a meeting there with basically me and him and maybe one or two other people, and I also had engaged with him in a number of other places.  When he became President, within the fortnight of him becoming – sorry, Prime Minister – within a fortnight of him becoming Prime Minister, I got a letter saying your service will not be needed any more.  And then in fact he disbanded the Forum, which is surprising, because actually the Forum was set up by Act of Parliament.


Did you have to sign the Official Secrets Act?


I did, I did.  I did.


Is there anything about the discussions that you can disclose that you can talk about that in terms of sort of content?


Er no, basically it was agreed that our discussion stays there, full stop.  But I mean it was quite an interesting time for me.  I think one of the most interesting aspects was not just that I got to know Gordon Brown, but also how kind of the British government system works in more detail, but I also developed friendship with Amartya Sen, because we used to sit around the table alphabetically, with Gordon Brown or Lord West chairing, and so Sen and Sardar came close so we both often sat together and then stayed there afterwards and talked about ideas, about identity and violence and various things like that.


I wondered how your work for the Equality and Human Rights Commission and for this, how you saw it linking up with your wider work as a thing for a writer.  For example, I wasn’t sure whether the travels around the country that inform Balti Britain, I wondered whether you were travelling round the country as a commissioner for that, you know, whether travel for your work as a commissioner was the reason for travelling to various places that you write about in Balti Britain or not?


Some of the travel was done while I was a commissioner, because we would have had meetings in Birmingham and Bradford and other places, so I made contacts.  But for Balti Britain I actually travelled as a citizen, if you like, you know, without anything.  Just went there, I went to Bradford and stayed some time there, I went to Glasgow and spent some time there, I went to Birmingham and Manchester, all of these places.  No, most of the travel was done kind of after I left the Commission.



Could you tell the story of making Battle for Islam?  We’ve talked about some of your earlier TV, but not this.


The Battle for Islam basically came about, the BBC approached me, the kind of commissioning editor there was the wife of Edward Stourton, Fiona Stourton, wonderful, elegant, very perceptive woman.  And she basically wanted me to kind of present an alternative way of Islam that was based on kind of ordinary Muslims, in a sense.  So it was my idea that it should be a travel and to her credit she just let me do it, so it was totally kind of my creation from beginning to end, what it should be like.  And the whole idea was to show what Islam means to kind of ordinary folks in Malaysia, in Indonesia, in Morocco, you know, young people, old people.  So in Turkey, for example, we had a fashion model in the show who was a Sufi, which is a nice combination.  In Indonesia we had a person who was a bodyguard or basically looking after the mosque, the national mosque there.  In Pakistan we had a teacher.  So it’s kind of ordinary kind of people and how they perceive Islam.  But overlaid on that was a couple of kind of my own theses, which I’m not sure whether they came very strongly in the film, but I think the point was made, is that the change within Islam will come from the periphery and not from the centre.   And people were surprised, including the BBC folks, were very surprised when I said no, I don’t want to go to Saudi Arabia, I don’t want to go to the Middle East, I didn’t want to go to Egypt, right?  And very much went to the periphery, kind of Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey, because I believed that the change, that’s where most interesting things are happening and the change within Islam will come from the periphery, the centre will be transformed by the periphery, that was the kind of the thesis that I wanted to explore and present in the film.  It was very well received and I was supposed to be doing lots of other things for Fiona, but within a year after that broadcast she actually left BBC and went off to work for some, I think, independent company.  So that idea didn’t materialise, although I was approached to do other things for the BBC but they didn’t quite gel.


Can you talk about that in a bit more detail?  Why Fiona having gone could you not continue with the ideas that you had in mind, given the success of Battle for Islam?


I think most of the things that I made are very much my films and the kind of recent regimes in the BBC and Channel 4, for example, and I suspect in other places, kind of like to guide and much more hands-on things, so the kind of thing that I was being offered was much more, you know, we would like you to do this precisely, kind of stuff.  And I’m not… I’m much more of an organic kind of person that sort of things, films I’ve made are very organic and kind of come out of it.  So, for example, the Dispatches I did, The Mullah and the Military, started off as something completely different and I realised that was not the story and then got to what I thought was the real story, in a sense.  But if you have a kind of a system where you have it pre-filmed and you just go out and shoot a pre-film and you have a, you know, and then the commissioning editor comes along and says take this off and take that off and re-do this and… that doesn’t really work with me.  It works with lots of people.  So lots of interference is not productive, in my opinion.  And so that’s the kind of things that I was being offered, so I didn’t quite…  But also, I became slightly disillusioned with television by that time anyway, because two or three things happened, one is that television in the eighties and nineties was still very much a kind of collective thing, so you had only four or five channels and the nation did come together over some programmes, right?  So I mean like Battle for Islam was watched by, I mean it didn’t have a very high rating, but it was watched by a hell of a lot of people.  When more and more channels started to appear it became very fragmented, right, and in my opinion the quality went down.  I mean, for example, we have this myth that the BBC is a great television institution.  In fact most BBC programmes are quite mediocre and third rate.  You only have to be somewhere like say, in Malaysia or Pakistan watching BBC World Service and you realise how badly it compares with CNN or even with Al Jazeera, and if you look at some of the kind of programmes that are coming out even now, say from Netflix or Amazon, I mean the BBC stuff is, you know.  And it’s kind of stuck in a rut, the same costume drama, the similar kind of comedy shows, almost same varieties of documentaries.  You know, how long we are going to carry on with David Attenborough, right, you know?  Wonderful they are, but clearly, you know, we have to move on from that kind of nature documentary, there must be much more different ways of doing nature documentary, and so on and so forth.  So the truth is that television lost its sparkle for me and I wanted to concentrate more on writing and much more on understanding the world, in a sense.  


And I became quite concerned about what was going around the world.  It is about the same time that I decided to give up the editorship of Futures, which by then, by 2010, 2009, 2008, that sort of period, I’d been editing it for fifteen years.  And one of the things that I was asked to do and I also decided to do is that I should try and sum up what have I learnt editing Futures for the last fifteen years, what are the trends that are emerging, what are the emerging issues, you know.  What kind of scenarios people are painting about the future in next ten, fifteen, twenty years, that kind of stuff.  And I sat down to actually do that, go back through the issues of Futures that I edited and kind of re-read some of the papers.  And something completely different emerged, that the world is not just changing rapidly, but it’s just changing in a very specific way, that the world is becoming more and more interconnected, it’s becoming more and more complex.  And there’s, if you have complexity, then interconnections, you often have positive feedback and therefore we are getting more and more chaotic events.  And a great deal of conventional future studies is missing the chaotic event, it is failing to see complexity.  So instead of writing a paper saying, you know, this is what I have learnt and this is what has happened in the last fifty years, a summary, so I actually wrote something completely different, it was a paper called Welcome to Post-Normal Times, which kind of tried to define the post-normal times.  I remember when we were talking earlier on about post-normal science and my work with Jerry, Jerry’s argument was that science is becoming complex, right, therefore the decisions are difficult to make, the values are in dispute, right, almost always there’s an urgency involved and, you know, we don’t know where to go.  What I discovered while going through the last fifteen years of Futures and reading a lot of other stuff, is that this is a general phenomenon, it’s not something that applies only to science, it applies to society as a whole and it applies… and it’s globalised, in a sense.  So the more the world becomes globalised and interconnected, more contradictions appear on the surface.  And the thing about contradictions is normally they cannot be resolved unless there’s a give and take.  You have to have the ability to transcend them, which we certainly do not.  So the contradictions often result in conflict, which makes things more complex, which means the chances of chaos are even greater.  So when the post-normal times paper came, was published, it caused quite a lot of stir in the kind of futures community, a lot of people saw that as a kind of new way of looking at the world, in that sense.  And round 2011 I decided that I don’t want to do any journalism, I don’t want to do any television or even actually I didn’t want to do… there was even, the idea was floated by Philip Campbell that I should go back to Nature, who was editor of Futures – sorry, of Nature – and we met at the Athenaeum Club a couple of times and he wanted me to get back to writing science and maybe go back to Nature.  So I deliberately decided that I’m going to spend most of my time just writing my kind of books about how do we reform Islam and working on post-normal times theory and taking that forward as much as possible.  


So nothing very much happened for a couple of years and I kept on thinking how am I going to develop these ideas.  And it became quite evident that I couldn’t do that on my own.  And my earlier experience with, for example, with the Ijmalis was that I am much more productive when I am engaging in debate and discussion with other people.  So I needed people around me to debate and discuss and for them, and also for the whole idea of post-normal science to be taken up by others, in a sense, post-normal times to be taken by others rather than just me.  And so in 2013 I was invited to University of Hawaii at the Samsung Foundation Symposium or Conference, and it was on Future of Journalism, and I was asked to give the keynote address.  So I went there to give my keynote address, which went on fine, everything was okay.  And a young man called John Sweeney came and sat in the back and asked a few questions which I thought were quite intelligent, and I met him afterwards.  And I asked him, he’s about to finish his PhD, what does he want to do.  So he said that basically I have got two goals in life, one is already accomplished and the other one I want to accomplish.  So I said, ‘What are your two goals?’  He says, ‘My first goal was to work with Jim Dator’.  Jim Dator is a very well-known futurist who established the Future Centre at the University of Hawaii in the Political Science department.  And John was doing his PhD under him.  So I said, ‘What is your other goal?’  He says, ‘My other goal is to work with Ziauddin Sardar’.  So I laughingly said, ‘What makes you think that Ziauddin Sardar will work with you?’  So he said, ‘Well that’s to be discovered’.  So we had lunch together and there was the new Star Trek film, so I said, ‘Why don’t we go and see the Star Trek film?’  So we went and saw the Star Trek film and when we came out and we went to dinner I said, ‘Well, explain the film to me, you know, analyse it for me’.  And he did a brilliant analysis.  And then he says, ‘This is an interview isn’t it?’  I said, ‘It is’.  [laughs]  And then I said if you are really interested in working on post-normal science then come – I was in Chicago during those days – and I said we’re organising a small meeting in three days’ time, so I don’t have any resources, you have to find the money.  So three days’ time, he turned up in Chicago, found his own ticket, you know, and we’ve been working ever since and we’ve published a number of papers.  John and my old friend Jordi Serra, who was a Spanish futurist who I’ve known for a very, very long time.   Jordi and I worked together in the Federation of… the World Federation of Future Studies.  So I’d known him and Jordi was very interested in it.  So we formed a small core group and it’s slowly expanding.  So the idea of rethinking how do we look at the future in a much more imaginative way which is more relevant to the kind of reality we find ourselves in, so that’s the idea.  So our idea of looking at the future, not in terms of just one future unfolding, but in terms of three tomorrows that fold simultaneously, three different varieties of futures that emerge, they could be separate but they could also be simultaneous and they could enfold around themselves, that kind of methodology, which is quite sophisticated, developed by working together.  And there was some criticism of the Welcome to Post-Normal Science which, some valid, some not so valid, so I wrote a second paper, Post-Normal Times Revisited where I took some of the criticism on board.  So, the whole thing is kind of moving forward.  The old centre that we established at East West University, the Centre of Future Studies, Centre for Policy and Future Studies, that was transformed into Centre for Postnormal Policy and Future Studies and became more of a network.  So kind of we – Jordi lives in Barcelona and John travels and he works for UNESCO and other institutions – but we come together every six weeks just to talk about post-normal times.  We may spend four or five days, we organise workshops, we’ve developed courses for various universities, so it’s being taught, Jordi’s teaching it at his own university in Barcelona, it’s being taught at Erasmus College in Brussels, maybe at Alexandria Library in Alexandria, Egypt.  Possibly we may be teaching it at the university in Qatar, also a possibility that we may be teaching it in Singapore.  So it’s kind of slowly disseminating and kind of being accepted as a genuine discourse that looks at the world in a different way.  


Thank you.  When I asked you earlier in your…


Can I have another glass of water?  Would you like another glass of water as well?


Yes please.


[end of track 6]

[Track 7]


I asked you, I think in the first session, you’d been talking about experience of racism at school and I asked whether you’d experienced racism at other times in your life, and you said that in general that you hadn’t except for one time at the BBC.  I wondered when and what that meant?


Ah yes.  Earlier on, when I was working for Channel 4 at Eastern Eye and I left that, I was offered a programme, I was asked basically to do a programme on Islam.  It was called Inside Islam and it was going to be one hour, six episodes, huge budget, about a million pound budget.  In those days it was kind of huge, huge budget.  And we started researching it and spent kind of about a year researching it, it was all set to go.  And then commissioning editor changed, as it often happens, and so the new commissioning editor asked me to come over and kind of talk about the programme.  So I went to see him and he basically said well, I don’t think we want somebody with your accent doing a show for BBC.  And he killed it, even though we had spent about a year developing it.  So, yes.  Television… I mean I wouldn’t say it’s a place of overt racism, but it’s certainly a place where racism exist in various kind of subtle forms.  And I’ve kind of seen it, although I have not experienced it myself, but I have seen it in action, in a sense.  And it’s very interesting, I would have argued in the eighties and early noughties, that Britain was a much more enlightened society, you know, we hadn’t actually conquered racism but it was really now confined to kind of margins.  But I think over the last five years it has increased and it’s now quite openly expressed and often it is expressed in kind of a different kind of subtle language, so people are not as kind of, as crude about racism as they were, but it was, you know, often expressed in terms of identity, we want Englishness, you know.  What does that mean?  We want British values.  Well, what are British values, right?  You know, it’s kind of that.  And also I would say that Brexit very much a product of that kind of racism.  And Nigel Farage and his political party, you can’t say that they are racist, but their utterances and their actions often lead to increasing racism.  


What was your response when that particular commissioning editor said that?


Actually, I was quite shocked, I just left.  I stood up and left and that’s it, basically.  The most interesting thing is that when I was doing Eastern Eye at London Weekend Television, there was Janet Street-Porter doing Six O’Clock Show or something, and of course she had a very thick accent and the LWT were very proud of the variety of accents that were on display at the kind of shows we were doing.  So Black on Black, for example, had lots of black people reporting and presenting with their kind of accents.  Eastern Eye had lots of Asian folks and, you know, you could see this variety of… so it’s a very cosmopolitan, multi-racial, multi kind of culture place.  And so to experience that at the BBC was quite a kind of major shock.



You’re not naming the person, is that because you are not naming them on purpose or because you just don’t remember their name?


I’m not naming them on purpose.  I know who the person is, and the person comes from a pretty religious background as well.  And so that was even bigger shock for me.



Now, at the end of Desperately Seeking Paradise, which seems to be around 2003, you have two more people visiting you and they are Ehsan Masood and Shamim Miah?


Shamim Miah, yeah.


And they ask for your help to change the Muslims.  Can you tell us what happens next in that part of your life?


Yeah.  It’s very interesting, because many people, when they criticise Desperately Seeking Paradise, one of their criticism is that the book has no ending.  Because the last words of the book are, ‘But that’s another story’.  There are two reasons why the book doesn’t have an ending.  First, it’s written very much in kind of Arabian Nights style, so stories within stories, right?  And of course these stories have no ending, so you have to follow the style in that sense.  But also, to actually show that the story isn’t complete, that there is a lot more to do, in a sense.  And to persuade the reader that in fact they can take the story forward themselves, right?  So these are the kind of reasons why it ends the way it ends and a lot of thought was given to how it should end and…  So, for my part, is that in the seventies I was involved with the creation of the Muslim Institute and the idea was that we will have a kind of intellectual centre where we’ll be exploring potential future of Islam, how we can reform Islam from within, how can we shape it for a more viable future.  So the full title of the Institute was the Muslim Institute for Research and Planning, that was the title.  But as those who have read Desperately Seeking Paradise know that the Institute became involved in Iranian revolution and the director, Kalim Siddiqui, then became a theoretician of the line of the Ayatollah, line of the Imam, as it was called in those days.  And then I kind of left in disgust and the Institute continued in various forms, it became the Muslim parliament and all sorts of things happened, Kalim Siddiqui agreed with the fatwa of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and so on and so forth.  So when Kalim Siddiqui died, one of the person who was involved with the Muslim Institute right from the beginning, Ghayasuddin Siddiqui then came to me and said well, not just he came to me, he actually brought the original trustees’ deeds with him and he said look, your signature is here, right, your signature is here, essentially you should now take over the Institute, and I accept the fact that we made very serious mistakes and perhaps we should go back to the original idea that it should be an intellectual institution open to debate and discussion, right, and exploring, you know, reforms within Islam and so on and so forth.  So I said okay, I accept that, but on a couple of conditions.  One condition is that I only do it for about five to six years, I’m only chair of the trust for five or six years, and the second is that my successor should be chosen with me and he should be Ehsan Masood.  So when I, I had to go to Coventry to kind of be accepted as a chair and be accepted as a trustee first, and Ehsan was, I think, in some other part of the world, maybe he was in Singapore or Korea or somewhere like that, and we had to ring him on the phone and ask him.  And he said yes, yes, I accept.  


So in 2009 then we kind of relaunched the Muslim Institute in the original kind of notion of it as an intellectual body.  And we kind of rethought it as an institution which has some classical connection to Islamic history and tradition, and that is the kind of futuwwa groups.  The futuwwa groups were essentially intellectual circles during the Abbasid period and maybe later on, and these were groups that met to discuss various intellectual issues of the day and some of them became very powerful and even the caliphs wanted to become members.  And their stories were certain futuwwa groups refused membership to the caliph on the basis that if caliph was there they may not be able to openly critique the political situation.  So there is some connection like that and essentially the Muslim Institute is an open intellectual space where anything can be discussed.  So all those things that cannot be discussed in Muslim societies: issues of homosexuality; authoritarianism; you know, women’s rights; what’s wrong with the Sharia.  All the kind of very basic and the issues of science and religion, science and Islam, all those issues can be openly discussed.  So it’s a kind of fellowship body where people become Fellow of the Muslim Institute, and then take part in debate and discussion.  So we have two or three kind of hallmarks.  One is in terms of debate and discussion we meet regularly every end of November, beginning of December, in Salisbury at Sarum College, which is a wonderful ecumenical Christian seminary.  We kind of take over it for a whole weekend and have a residential conference where we discuss all sorts of issues.  So a couple of years ago the theme was ‘Act of Imagination’.  This year the theme is ‘Blessed be the Innovators’, given the fact that the idea of innovation in Islam is regarded as forbidden, you know, it’s a very taboo subject,, but we are looking at it from totally different way, we are saying innovation is necessary and good, rather than the traditional Islamic thought, which bans Bid’ah, innovation, right?  And these are exceptionally well attended, great kind of events with a hell of a lot of debate and discussion.  Sometimes very heated debate and discussion, but always generates a great deal of enlightenment.  We have an Ibn Rushd lecture that honours Ibn Rushd, every year.  Ibn Rushd is a great twelfth century philosopher, Andalusian philosopher.  And these lectures are kind of intellectual events, we hold them at [Art] Workers’ Guild in London, which is a wonderful venue, you know, where in fact maybe people like Darwin debated and Thackeray, you know, came down to give their lectures and speeches, it’s a wonderful institution.  So it’s got a connection with British intellectual history and we’re bringing the Muslim intellectual history there, so it’s a kind of very appropriate place where we have that.  And then we right from the beginning decided that we should have a platform, an intellectual platform that explores the kind of issues that we want to talk about.  And that does not see Muslims as separate from the world.  So the whole idea of Critical Muslim was created, which is a quarterly journal, which basically is like a book, so four issues a year means basically four books, each issue is devoted to a theme that is then explored pretty thoroughly.  And the idea is that the Muslims and the world are not separate, they’re interlinked.  So the issues of the world are issues that the Muslims must engage with.  And the issues of the Muslims are issues that the world must engage with, because they influence each other, we live in an interconnected complex world, so you can’t separate these things and an event that may occur in Karachi will have impact in the streets of Bradford, right?  A decision that is taken in Washington, you know, could have dire consequences in Baghdad or Damascus or Cairo.  So you cannot kind of treat them in isolation.  So, while it’s called Critical Muslim, not all contributors are Muslim and we look at all sorts of different issues in Critical Muslim, and I’ve kind of been editing that.  And that’s also a kind of major, quite a hefty job and it’s one reason I don’t regret giving up journalism and television work and all that, because – and then we’ve done twenty issues so far and I think each issue is a kind of ground-breaking thing.  Not surprisingly, Critical Muslim has been banned in many places, banned in Malaysia, the second issue, ‘The Idea of Islam’, was confiscated by the government, not released at all.  Issue three was banned in Pakistan and then has not been republished there.  We had a co-publishing deal with a big publisher in India and they were a bit, even though they signed the deal and they even gave advance and all that, in the end they thought it was too risky, specially after the BJP government came to power, so that was scrapped.  So we’ve faced a lot of hardship from that point of view.  But, it’s doing very well and the most important thing is that a lot of young people have emerged through that, you know, we’ve encouraged a lot of young writers, young thinkers.  And wherever I go, when people talk about Critical Muslim, most often or not they tend to be young thinkers, in their thirties, early thirties, late twenties, you know, those kind of people, who really want to reform Islam, they really want to engage with the world, change the world for the better and are really kind of excited, both they’re angry with what is going on and excited about the prospect of positive change.



Why did you want Ehsan Masood to be your successor?


Well, because he… partly because he was the one who was actually suggesting that I should continue with the kind of work I’m doing.  I mean he is the one who suggested that there is another story, but we haven’t discovered it yet.  So Ehsan Masood, and partly because I thought he was the kind of ideal person.  Ehsan is a very reflective kind of relaxed, objective kind of person who thinks things through in a very cool fashion, so I thought he’d be ideal.  But Shamim Miah is also involved in the Muslim Institute, is a very active Fellow, have organised a number of events and so on and so forth, and she’s written for Critical Muslim.  So both of those people who emerged at the end of Desperately Seeking Paradise are now part of the Muslim Institute and are continuing the story forward in their own ways.


You talked about difficulties with publishing Critical Muslim in various places, what though has been the response to the reformed Muslim Institute and Critical Muslim in Britain?  To what extent have you experienced negative responses of the kind that you talk about elsewhere?


The negative responses basically come from kind of ultra-conservative quarters where any kind of innovation and change within Islam is shunned, essentially.  But that is a generation that has basically had its day.  You know, fifties, sixties kind of Muslims who are kind of deeply entrenched in ossified tradition, we are not going to change their mind.  But their children are a totally different phenomena, they grew up in Britain, they are much more open-minded, they can see the problems, you see.  And when you talk to people about tradition and point out the problems of tradition and then say look, traditions remain traditions by reinventing themselves, it makes sense to them.  It’s not that we are asking you should ditch your tradition.  Tradition, as I kept on emphasising throughout this interview, is very important, it provides an anchor.  But traditions should not be allowed to become a custom, which is just a dead thing, right?  Traditions are a dynamic thing, they’re a life enhancing thing and to be life enhancing they must be reworked, rethought.  Once they become ossified they become a meaningless and a mindless custom and what we need to do is to get away from many of these customs, kind of insisting that women should belong in the home, right, this is not part of classical Islam.  You know, some of the kind of sexual taboos.  If you look at classical Muslim society it was very liberated sexually, so the kind of taboos that we have in contemporary Muslim society essentially come from Victorian colonialism that we have, you know.  I mean the homosexuality laws in India and Pakistan were introduced by Britain, they continue, they’re part of the British law.  The law of blasphemy in Pakistan, it’s basically introduced by the British, right, which is still on the statutes.  So many of these things have to be kind of critically examined and say look, first of all, they are not part of our tradition, and second thing, those part of the traditions that have really kind of become backward, right, need to be debated and rethought and reworked.  And most young, when you talk to young Muslims, specially women, they immediately click on exactly what you’re saying.  And what I have discovered over the last four or five years during my travels, say, in Pakistan, in Turkey, in America where I met lots of young Muslims, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Macedonia, you know, in Indonesia, that it is the women who are more alive to the issues and it’s the women who are thinking, who are asking questions, who really want to reform and change.  And that’s very exciting for me, because I think that some real positive work will be done from that quarter.





Why do you think it is more likely to be female Muslims that pick up on the sorts of things you’re…

First of all, I think it’s part of a general trend around the world.  In general, if you look at, for example, the educational achievement in Britain, the women are doing better than men. That is very true in Pakistan.  If you go to a university in Pakistan, three-quarters of the students will be female.  If you go to universities in place like Saudi Arabia, right, the women’s university are much more thriving, have more students and more dynamic than, you know, because their universities are separate.  And I visited a number of universities in Turkey, right, always the female participation in terms of students is much higher than male participation. So I think this part has become a general trend and it’s not limited to Muslim societies.  But second, because the women have kind of experienced the oppression themselves, they can see the oppressive boundaries of traditional conservative kind of closed mind kind of approach to their religion, right, so they kind of see the possibility of change much more easily and are more eager because they’ve experienced oppression themselves, to change and change things.  


 I think it’s in Balti Britain that you talk about your own wife being illuminating for you on this issue.


Yes, yes.  Yes.


Thank you.


To what extent did science feature in the work of the reformed Muslim Institute and of Critical Muslim?  Can you think of particular moments or particular events where science comes in?


Well, science comes in in terms of new knowledge.  A great deal of the work of the Muslim Institute and the emphasis of Critical Muslim is on creating new knowledge.  Now, we are deliberately not emphasising that knowledge has to be divided into different categories, in a sense that I am convinced, and I think most people now are moving in that direction, that we need interdisciplinary approach to things rather than simply disciplinary.  I mean the problems of economics, for example, cannot be solved by the discipline of economics, which itself is falling apart and is almost bankrupt in certain aspects.  So you need to bring in other disciplines, in a sense.  So the kind of approach we take to knowledge is interdisciplinary in which science plays an important part.  We don’t emphasise it, but we don’t ignore it either in that sense.  So almost everything we do has that.  So, for example, we were asked, a group of gay Muslims from America approached and said each issue of Critical Muslim is devoted to a theme, so why don’t you have a theme, you know, on gay and lesbian Islam or something, homosexuality and Islam, or something like that.  And I said no, that is not a viable theme for us, because we have something about sexual orientation in every issue.  We don’t want to ghettoise it by turning it… utopia is a theme for us, post-West is a theme for us, relationships is theme for us, but women’s issues are not a theme for us, right?  Homosexuality and Islam is not a theme for us.  And science as such is not a theme for us, because these are things which are part of the whole, they are in every issue in one way or the other.   So, for example, education, we did an issue on education reform, there was a piece on science: why is it that science is being neglected in Muslim society and what are the consequences of that, you see.  We did an issue on extremism, just called ‘Extreme’, where we looked at why is it that so many extremists come from science and engineering background, right?  Because now it’s well established through recent research that most of the fundamentalists and extremists and people, the sort of people who go and join ISIS or work for Al-Qaeda, come from science, computing, medicine and engineering backgrounds.  It’s something like ninety-five per cent, there’s hardly anyone from social science background.  Why is that, that’s a big issue.  So, we always have something on the kind of broader things that are important  to life rather than just creating an issue about them and then kind of moving on in that sense.  So, while science is not kind of flagged, it is there.  Indeed, it is not possible to be critical in contemporary world, critical Muslim or critical Christian or critical atheist without engaging with science.  [laughs]  So science has to be there and it’s always there.  But what we do not want to do is to just say there is only science, nothing else.



Thank you.  Could you tell me the story of the support that the Institute gave to Usama Hasan and perhaps the support that you gave to him personally, I don’t know, but certainly there was a Defend Usama Hasan Facebook group which seems to have come out of the Muslim Institute.


Yes, yes.  Well, part of the Muslim Institute is to defend intellectual issues, right?  And when Usama Hasan faced kind of all sorts of not just problems but genuine threats, you know, and death threats and so on, because of his stand on evolution, we had to do something.  So in fact I think the Muslim Institute website was full of things defending him.  We invited him, he’s been to our winter gathering, he’s spoken about his own story, he’s spoken about the importance of evolution in Islamic thought.  We had a special conference at the London office to talk about him and his issue.  So while he is not a Fellow of the Muslim Institute, we went out to defend him because it was an intellectual issue, as we will do to any other, anybody else who faces similar problems for, you know, for standing up to the truth, whether it is scientific truth or religious truth or whatever.  I think Usama was quite grateful for our support and it did provide him with some sort of reassurance in a sense.  


How should we understand what happened, why did what happened happen?  Why was evolutionary biology here so…


This is very interesting, because the Muslims have always been evolutionists.  You go back to, you know, Al-Jahiz in ninth century, where he’s almost talking about, you know, species and selection of species and all that.  Or you to go twelfth century Ibn Al-Tufail’s The Life of Hayy, where Hayy is generated spontaneously from slime and comes out and, you know, from the sea on an island and then kind of finds a, you know, a gazelle and assumes that the gazelle is his mother and then she dies after two years and he dissects her, and so on and so forth.  So Muslims have always been evolutionary in that sense, I mean evolution is not an alien thing to Muslim history and Muslim history of ideas.  So it’s very surprising that we have now become the kind of creationists that… You see, for example, the Qur’an does not say that the earth was created in six days and God rested on the seventh.  The Qur’an says God says be, and it is, that’s basically it, that’s the only evolution that occurs.  And it says that we developed societies in steps, which is also very evolutionary thought.  So for us to kind of become creationists is very, very strange and that’s really to do with Christian fundamentalism and creationism, the influence of that on Muslim societies and various conferences where conservative Muslims have been brought into the kind of creationist discourse.  And over the last fifty years it has become a kind of a fundamental dogma for certain varieties of ultra-conservative Muslims.  Very, very strangely, even though there’s no justification for that, either in the Qur’an or in the Life of the Prophet, you know, about any of that.  And also, it’s more or less regarded at par with blasphemy, so if you say you are against creationism and you’re for revolution, these people think that you are kind of blaspheming Islam or something.  And so it’s become part of the extremist dogma and I think that’s why Usama found himself into trouble.  But I mean I’ve been talking about evolution all my life, for God’s sake, you know.  But I don’t move in those kind of circles any more, that’s the point.  I mean he, being an imam at the mosque, he comes across these narrow-minded bigots, basically.


When did you first notice creationism being part of that conservative Muslim thought?


In the early nineties when a chap called Yahya Harun, Harun Yahya, who I’d never heard of before, I still have no idea who he really is, I know vaguely who he is now, started publishing these strange books.  He’s some sort of cultist from Turkey, god knows… and we don’t really know where he gets his money.  But there was a time when his books just were everywhere.  They were basically distributed free and lots of people got hooked on them, right, and it’s very much everything is in the Qur’an, all science is in the Qur’an, and then he also kind of perpetuated this kind of creationist myth that became a kind of part of the conservative dogma.  And also, certain kind of conservatives who were essentially anti-science because they associated science with atheism, and given that lots of New Atheists also kind of associated science with atheism, the two combined together and reinforced each other.  So it really is kind of, it starts to emerge in the late eighties and is solidified in the nineties, all this. There are also a couple of big, I mean there’s a big conference – I can’t remember the exact date – in Cairo and the conference was about population where alliances were formed between certain kind of conservative Muslim groups and Christian fundamentalists.  They were essentially about birth control and all that, and then they became kind of also merged with kind of creationism.


Is that a conference… that’s presumably a conference that you were aware of rather than attended?


Yeah, I didn’t attend, but I heard about it and there were lots of articles saying that this is happening.  





Is it right that you pick up your earlier work on science and Islam a little bit around, well in the 2000s through a Royal Society lecture, and there’s a Nature article, ‘Beyond the Troubled Relationship’.  Is there a particular reason why you return to some of these arguments then?


No, I just wanted to bring that part of my thought to a conclusion, in a sense, and I think we need to move on.  Whatever the debate or discussion about Islam and science, it has to be of a different nature, it cannot be of the same nature as it was before, I think.  And we, because science itself has changed, as Jerry would argue, it has gone post-normal, so the issues and values are much more important in science now than they were.  I mean what’s happening in medicine, for example, and the rapid research in kind of genetic engineering, stem cell research, you know, all variety of things of that nature mean that the whole issue of what it means to be human now becomes very important, in a sense.  And I mean the whole thing is just an ethical minefield.  So clearly religion has a much more important part to play, not solely religious values, but we do need to discuss what are the essential values and ethics that is going to shape all that research.  So we can’t just allow that research to continue in a… I mean, simply just because something can be done does not mean it ought to be done.  I mean this whole idea is that, you know, science is like a mountain and because, you know, the Everest is there so we climb it, you know, that argument is totally obsolete, and in my opinion, dangerously so, you know.  Not every technology that can be developed should be developed.  So the whole idea of involvement of people is much more important, there has to be some kind of, if you like, democratisation of both science and technology and we really do need to discuss these issues openly before things are done.  So for me, the discussion about religion and science is much more important and more urgent than it was in the, you know, seventies and eighties and even early nineties when I was working on it.  Not just it’s much more urgent, it’s much more important in terms of the future of humanity.  So it has to be of a different nature.  I mean a great deal of my work was very much of intellectual nature.  Now we have serious practical problems which could have serious consequences for humanity, right?  Should we develop artificial intelligence or not?  I mean that is a very important thing.  Should we allow certain kind of IV fertilisation, you know, what does it mean to have a child with three parents, right?  What consequences it will have on society, what consequences it may even have, you know, on kind of long-term evolution of humanity.  So all these things kind of need to be discussed.  So it’s not just a question of Islam and science, or Christianity and science, I think the whole issue is now religion and science and all the religions have to come together and look at these issues very, very seriously and collectively.  


[end of track 7]

Could you talk now about your current writing work and your sort of near future plans?


Well, at the moment I am kind of focussed on two things.  I think the Muslim Institute is in a good position so I’ve withdrawn from there.  As was originally agreed, I will only be Chair for five or six years, so now I’m not the Chair any more, Ehsan Masood has taken over, so I’m quite happy with that.  Hopefully we’ll find somebody else in two or three years down the line to edit Critical Muslim.  So most of my work now is devoted to working on post-normal times theory and at the moment I’m trying to put a post-normal times reader together, because there’s enough material out there, enough papers to actually bring them together.  And I’m also trying to look at, or basically this is going to be the next book after my History of Mecca, it’s a history of books in Islam, how have books fought with books, how did they emerge in the first place, what were the controversial books, what books changed the history of Islam, what books were very important but were neglected.  In fact, Islam describes itself as the religion of the book, because at the centre of Islam is the book, the Qur’an, which is the reading, the novel reading in a sense.  So it’s about reading and books, so it’s a history of books in Islam right from the beginning of Islam over time.  So that’s going to be a reasonably big project, will take me the next two, three years to actually do that.  And at the same time I want to develop the post-normal times theory as much as possible, so these are the two kind of focusses.  And as far as kind of my travel and other things are concerned, I’m trying to spend more and more time engaging with young people.  The first point is that the future belongs to them, but the second thing is that I am discovering that the young people are more amenable to change, they’re more, they understand the complexity of the contemporary times much better than their parents.  So I spent a lot of time travelling and talking to young people, organising workshops, discussing issues of Islam, issues of post-normal times, issues of how the world is changing, and the point I’m emphasising is, not just that, you know, things change, things have always changed, but what is more important is for young people to go out and change things in the positive direction.  


[end of track 8, end of recording]