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Ziauddin Sardar's Search for a Fresh Future

British-Pakistani scholar Ziauddin Sardar — who has been called ‘Britain’s own Muslim polymath’ — describes our present circumstances as ‘post-normal times,’ a period of transition characterized by complexity, chaos and contradictions. The way forward, he argues, must be based on humility, modesty and accountability.

Headshot of Ziauddin Sardar, facing the camera, with a green background

Ziauddin Sardar

Sardar’s distinguished career has encompassed academia, publishing, and broadcasting. As well as teaching at universities in the UK and US, he has worked in Saudi Arabia. Back in 1974 he joined the Hajj Research Centre of King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, and performed the Hajj. His lively book “Desperately Seeking Paradise” covers his time in Saudi Arabia as well as his extensive travels across the Muslim world.

For a short time, in 1975, Sardar even worked as a sub-editor for Arab News, which at that time was newly launched.

“We will have to imagine ourselves out of post-normal times and into a new age of normalcy — with an ethical compass and a broad spectrum of imaginations from the rich diversity of human cultures,” he has stated in his ‘Postnormal Times Reader’.

Speaking to Arab News, Sardar stressed that people of faith bear a particular responsibility to play a role in creating a more harmonious world.

“For religious people, it is incumbent on them to help shape the new paradigms which are more humane than the kind of paradigms that have brought us to this stage,” he said. “For example, the idea of living with nature rather than trying to dominate it is very central to Islamic ethics, in my opinion. Most of our problems can be traced back to how we treat and exploit nature. Some of these problems are problems of lifestyle. You are a less of a burden on nature if you are not highly consumer-orientated.”


Sardar's and John Sweeney's work for the 2017 'Postnormal Times' exhibition in Antwerp 

He believes there has to be a new system of economics — a new way of doing business based on ethics and concern for nature.

Many of our current problems, he said, “can be blamed on the neoliberal economy, which automatically assumes that we compete rather than cooperate.”

“Today, events move very fast — often simultaneously — and tend to have global scale. Some people become rich very quickly and their wealth keeps multiplying rapidly. Amazon, Microsoft and Alibaba are good examples. They have become very big and powerful very quickly but the wealth accumulates in fewer and fewer hands,” Sardar said.

“This is happening at the expense of others. Those who are suffering the most are the poor, and the poor are multiplying. Look at the migrant labor force in India; they make a living on a daily wage. With the lockdown they have no income whatsoever. They have been forced to go back to their original homes — which, in some cases, in the absence of any transport, has meant walking hundreds of miles, all the while vulnerable to the virus and at risk of bringing the virus back to their families. How can anyone with any notion of humanity look at such suffering and not feel it and say that something has to be done about it?”

According to the Credit Suisse 2019 Global Wealth Report, the bottom half of wealth holders collectively accounted for less than 1 percent of total global wealth in mid-2019, while the richest 10 percent owned 82 percent of global wealth, and the top 1 percent alone own 45 percent.

The idea of living with nature rather than trying to destroy it is central to Islamic ethics, in my opinion 

But Sardar does not believe that change will be achieved quickly.

“The problem is that capitalism as it exists today is a very powerful force with a huge historical momentum. When paradigms shift they linger for a very long time and it is very difficult for us to deal with the momentum that capitalism has at this moment,” he said. “Any alternative to capitalism has to emerge slowly. It requires engaging with the population in a different way and convincing them of the viability of the system. It can’t be introduced overnight.”

Entrenched ways of thinking and doing form powerful barriers to change, he maintained. Thinking about ‘tomorrow’ falls into three main categories, according to Sardar: The extended present, the familiar future, and the ‘unthought future.’

“Most people, when they forecast, simply extrapolate what is happening now over the next five, 10 or 20 years. We call that the ‘extended present’ because people are just taking the present and extending it. That is also a way of colonizing the future. Many people think that colonization is something that has only occurred in history, but if all you are doing is constantly extrapolating the present then you are also colonizing the future,” he said.

Image with people walking in a line, with bags on their head, wearing COVID-19 masks

Indian daily wage workers starting their long walk to their hometowns as the COVID pandemic began 

And what of the ‘familiar future’?

“This is where imagination comes in but the future is envisaged by what our minds are already full of — for example, concepts of Artificial Intelligence or science fiction or innovative new cars. So we work towards these ideas (that we have already seen),” he explained.

“Finally, the third tomorrow is the ‘unthought future.’ This is where we break the shackles of both the extended present and familiar future. We think outside the paradigms that exist, question the basic assumptions that lie behind the paradigms and try to create new ways of thinking and knowing and working things out. We need to unleash our imagination and get away from the basic principles and assumptions that prevent us from thinking fresh. That’s the challenge,” Sardar continued.

Sardar knows that it is particularly difficult for people with immutable views to change tack even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Such people demonstrate “invincible ignorance,” sometimes for self-gain or political expediency and sometimes due to blind faith. Climate-change deniers and people who believe they are immune to disease because of their faith fall into this category, he said. And education plays a vital role in reducing such dogmatic belief systems.

“All virtues can be taught,” he said. “When we are born, we are born innocent — born to learn. It is normally parents who teach virtues to their children. For example, I consciously taught the virtue of reading to my children both by reading in front of them and reading to them, giving them books as presents and encouraging them to read. You can teach them to be humble and generous and socially conscious.

“When I taught the canons of Islam and we were talking about Zakat, that was a tool for me to teach them about social responsibility. The function of religion and faith is not just to worship God but to serve humanity. The idea of service and looking after those who are less fortunate, these are values I have consciously taught my children.”

Denise Marray | London