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"Britain's Own Muslim Polymath:"On the Politics of Representing Ziauddin Sardar

WORLD FUTURES 2022, VOL.78, NOS. 2-4, 180-190

Vinay Lal 

University of California Los Angeles, Encino, CA, USA


This essay seeks to unravel the cultural politics that underpin the approbation of Ziauddin Sardar, one accepted by the author himself, as "Britain’s own Muslim polymath." It explores how Sardar models himself after the Muslim polymaths of Islam’s “Golden Age,” dwelling on the importance of know- ledge and travel in the worldview of Muslim intellec- tuals. But it also points to the implied anomalousness of the idea of a Muslim polymath, the difficulties that inhere in the idea of multiculturalism, and the neces- sary ambivalence with which a Muslim intellectual such as Sardar must negotiate the shortcomings of contemporary Islam and multiculturalism alike.


Ziauddin Sardar occupies an unusual niche not only in Muslim circles and in British intellectual life but in the wider annals of modern intellec- tual history. The range of his writings would have become apparent to those readers previously unacquainted with his work when Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader appeared in 2003. It suggests a long and sustained engagement on the part of Sardar with (to gesture at Marx and an eminently European preoccupation) “the Muslim Question,” the idea of a Muslim civilization, science and Islam, postmodernism, popular culture, modern technology, and future studies. Yet, at that time, Sardar easily had another ten volumes in a rather differ- ent vein behind him, including half a dozen volumes that he penned in the “Introducing” series as graphic nonfiction narratives on dense subjects (1). Moreover, in the nearly two decades that have elapsed since the aforementioned volume bearing selections from his writings, Sardar has regaled readers with works in yet another vein of writing where he also comes across as a raconteur with an uncanny awareness of the power of storytelling. I refer, of course, to his trilogy of memoirs, commencing with Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim (2004), though his two books that are accommodated under the rubric of cities— The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur (2000) and Mecca: The Sacred City (2014)—similarly suggest a complex interweaving of stories and anecdotes with more thoughtful deliberations on history, politics, philosophy, religion, and culture.

“Britain’s own Muslim polymath.” So says a blurb from The Independent which appears on a number of his books, short and mercifully free of the string of titles that follow men and women of small accomplishments in intellectually bereft Malaysia, a phenomenon that Sardar has caricatured to great effect in his account of Kuala Lumpur (Sardar 2000, pp. 102–105). The blurb captures the particular way the encomiums showered upon Sardar in Britain are ever so slightly hedged by a grudging (if not self-consciously so) acknowledgment that there could be such a thing as a “Muslim polymath,” and that too from the Indian subcontinent. A number of readings come to mind, not least of them the predominant view in a secular world that men and women of religion are generally of narrow disposition, all the more so when they are beholden to a religion such as Islam. There is comparatively little surprise elicited to hear of a Jewish intellectual being described as a poly- math, but a “Muslim polymath” plays upon the notion of the anomaly hidden in such a designation. Britain ruled over that part of the world for the greater part of two centuries and colonial officials were rather more habituated to the idea of thinking of the Muslim as a fanatic, and I suspect that even among the more liberal-minded in Britain the descent into equating the figure of the Muslim with medieval savagery can be precipitous. Sardar has described how, in the wake of the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini in February 1989 calling for divine chastisement against Salman Rushdie for his offense to Islam and to its Prophet, the cream of “the press and the liberal establishment, from the likes of Harold Pinter, Freddy Forsyth, Anthony Burgess, the luminaries of Charter 88, to Robert Kilroy-Silk,” let loose with vitriolic outpourings against Islam and lost no time in circling the wagons (Sardar, 2004, p. 294).

But there is still more, I would even say far more, to Sardar as a “Muslim polymath” who, over the last six decades, notwithstanding the long stints of residence in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, has made his home in Britain. Though his work shows little if any engagement with Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, or Sikh traditions, there is little doubt in my mind that Sardar locates himself firmly within the Indic world view. At least I would like to think that the expansive sense of hospitality and the ethos of ecumenism that are so characteristic of his worldview are informed not only by his understanding of Islam but at least as much by the pluralistic traditions of that part of the world. This is critically important because in the West, especially, the Middle East—or what in the Indian subcontinent is called West Asia—is taken, with scarcely any thought much less interrogation, as the “natural” home of Islam. Indeed, it comes as a tremendous surprise to most people to learn that India and Pakistan together (not to mention Bangladesh) have more Muslims than the Middle East and North Africa put together, and that Indonesia is the single largest Muslim-majority country in the world. The Islam of the subcontinent has often been construed as “inauthentic,” even as, to use but not without justification a rather strong word, a “bastardized” version of the true faith.

Many scholars of Islam, especially those with a philological bent or who are immersed in textual readings of the Quran and whose sensibilities have been shaped by something akin to the ideological temperament of the so-called “originalists” in the United States, have to the great detriment of the Islamic world itself been unmindful not simply of what may be called the “varieties of Islam” but of the uniquely distinct place and world historical role of Indian Islam. It is common to speak of the convivencia that characterized Muslim Spain from the time of the Umayyad conquest in the 8th century until the expulsion of Jews in 1492 (Sardar, 2004, pp. 299, 306–309), but even more remarkable, and much less frequently commented on, is the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis forged in north India and subsequently the Deccan. It is inconceivable to think of Islam in South Asia without its close proximity, over several cen- turies of Muslim rule to Hinduism and other religions of the soil, the Sanskrit cosmopolis, and the remarkable pluralism of Indian traditions. I would wager to say that Sardar is, perhaps to a degree that he himself does not recognize, a product of the Indic world—and more specifically of what I have called the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis, sometimes epitomized as the Ganga-Yamuna Tehzeeb or what in English is generally termed the “composite culture” created by the admixture of Islam and Hinduism (2).

If the term “Muslim polymath” is scarcely without its politics as a term of approbation, it remains to be asked why Sardar himself has so readily embraced the designation, considering that it also adorns the home page of his elegantly designed website []. The answer may not be obvious but can be gleaned from the pages of a dozen or more of his works. The Muslim polymaths who illuminated at least the Abrahamic world while Europe was sunk in darkness, and who

are most famously remembered as European Christendom’s conduit to the learning of the ancient Greeks—a characterization perforce of Europe’s own making, born of the necessity of delineating the purport- edly radical advent of modernity and its processes of secularization, including the jettisoning of religious faith—are clearly men after whom Sardar has self-consciously modeled himself and whose ecumenical spirit shines through the pages of his own writings. If we were to take Sardar at his own word, at least at a certain point in time in his own thinking that model would appear to be al-Biruni, known both for a copious account of Hindustan—the subtitle, at least as rendered in English, leaves out nothing—and “a mammoth history of the world, the Chronology of Ancient Nations,” (3) and (what might perhaps be somewhat unsettling for Sardar) remembered in Hindu India as a scholar who one millennium ago accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni on his rapacious and bloodthirsty conquests of India. “Like al-Baruni,” Sardar writes in seeming adumbra- tion of his style of thought, “I do not believe in disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, disciplines—all disciplines—are artificial social constructions” (Sardar, 1996, p. 667). No one in al-Biruni’s time, however, thought of “disciplinary boundaries”: even if we allow for the distinctions in medi- eval times between faculties of law, theology, arts, and medicine, the idea of “disciplinary boundaries” is of distinctly modern vintage.

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni was doubtless a polymath, sometimes described as the world’s first anthropologist, but nevertheless we have to turn elsewhere to see what Sardar makes of the Muslim polymaths in whose path he seeks to tread in his own fashion. He and his intellectual soulmate and fellow sojourner in the histories of Islam, the late Merryl Wyn Davies, together have dwelled on Muslims as, to give an old expression a new twist in meaning, “the people of the book”: they call to mind the “awesome, sophisticated and wide-ranging publication industry that grew in the Muslim civilization around the middle of the eighth century, almost one thousand years before books appeared in the same quantity and quality in the West,” and they stress “Islam’s love for knowledge” and the centrality of the book to Muslim civilization (Sardar & Davies, 1990, pp. 96–100). In this universe of Muslim travelers with a ravenous appetite for books and the knowledge acquired from a certain form of observational travel, some names crop up time after time. Wondering what the experience of the Kaaba may have been for the 14th century Moroccan ibn Battuta, Sardar says that “the fourteenth-century author of one of the world’s great travel classics had become something of a hero of mine” (Sardar, 2014, pp. xxi, 232). He speaks in similarly laudatory language of the 12th century Murcia-born mystic, Muhammad ibn Arabi, pointing to “his vast encyclopedia of spiritual knowledge seeking to unite tradition, reason and mysticism,” and noting that “despite all his travels and disputes, ibn Arabi managed to write 350 books” (Sardar, 2004, p. 306). By the yardstick of numbers, Sardar may not quite make the cut; but at some 70 books, and that in an age where distractions are as common and prolific as ants, he has written more than what most people will read in a lifetime.

It would be superfluous to list all the Muslim polymaths, each “witness to a thinking faith,” before the advent of the European age of conquest and expansion whose works have in various ways left an indelible impression upon him (Sardar & Davies, 1990, p. 105). Sardar’s observations about ibn Battuta and ibn Arabi, howsoever brief, leave much to be teased out to discern some of his preoccupations, two of which merit mention. First, it is arresting that ibn Arabi receives his approbation for having sought to “unite tradition, reason and mysticism”—a view that is central to Sardar’s own identity as, if one may invoke the title of the scin- tillatingly provocative journal he founded nearly a decade ago, a “critical Muslim.” It explains why he can be scathingly critical of Salman Rushdie, whose Satanic Verses Sardar interprets not only as offensive but as a descent into lunacy that occludes the possibility of even thinking of “Muslim civilization,” and at the same time be unapologetically blunt in saying that “no great ideas about Islam or anything else have come out of Mecca since the Prophet migrated from the city to Medina” (Sardar, 2014, p. 351). We may leave aside for the present his verdict on the city’s citizens as, with “a few notable exceptions” and “greedy and money- grabbing.” What is most pertinent is that “equality is conspicuously absent in the Holy City,” an indictment perhaps even more severe in that the attraction of Islam especially among the poor and the oppressed has often been represented as consisting in its promise of equality (Sardar, 2014, p. 353). Sardar seems to ask with some anguish, “Where in Mecca today is the dream of peace, tolerance and humane, respectful, mutual understanding? It can be found in the hearts of pilgrims, but where else does it reside in the Holy City?” (Sardar, 2014, p. 351) But this is not the sum of his views on Mecca in his study of the city: as Sardar moves to the concluding lines, we discern that his dream of Mecca, the love he bears for Mecca, lives on: “This Mecca has always been more than a geographical location: it is a state of consciousness, the focus of prayer, the signifier of aspiration for the Divine” (Sardar, 2014, p. 362). Here, in Sardar’s views on Mecca, we see a palpable demonstration of the attempt to “unite tradition, reason and mysticism.”

Secondly, Sardar is struck by his predecessors” predisposition to travel, as is amply clear from his pointed remarks on the travels of ibn Arabi and al-Biruni and his pronounced admiration for the globe-trotting ibn Battuta thanks to whose travel narrative we have a brilliant narrative of the mad Sultan of Delhi, Muhammad Tughluq, who on a whim commanded the entire population of Delhi at an instant’s notice to move to a new capital over 1000 kilometers to the south. The clearest expression of Sardar’s position comes in his own travelogue-memoir, Desperately Seeking Paradise, which is at one stroke an account of the varieties of Islam, the evolution in his own thinking, and the specter of the Muslim polymaths of Islam’s Golden Age who haunt predominantly Muslim countries today—and above all a narrative of his own journeys through Islamic countries, the last also an implicit jab at V. S. Naipaul’s Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981). “In classical Islam,”writes Sardar, “the quest for knowledge had always been intimately linked with extensive travel; a fact endorsed by none other than al-Ghazali” (Sardar, 2004, p. 85). The 11th-century author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers and The Revival of Religious Sciences is viewed with admir- ation since he sought “to teach logic to mystics, spirituality to logicians and mathematicians, and rhetoric and philosophy to theologians, and usher all and sundry towards the balanced road to paradise,” but such a rendering of this scholar’s monumental accomplishments is incomplete without the realization that “for Al-Ghazali travel is an essential component of belief. He links thought and travel to the common theme of seeking knowledge. Both worldly knowledge and inner knowledge of one’s Self and one’s position in the cosmos are acquired through travel” (Sardar, 2004, p. 86).

In the Islamic tradition, two forms of travel are broadly delineated. The “outward, physical travel, professionally undertaken, for the sake of learning and discovery” is designated as rihla, and it is distinguished from safar, which likewise involves “physical exertion” but also leads to “inner transformation, liberation and attainment. The “inner” and the “outer” complement each other but Sardar (2004), following al-Ghazali, recognizes that there are many “classes of travel and travelers” (p. 87). His thinking on the subject, moreover, appears not to have changed, and if anything appears to have taken, if he will permit some liberties to an old friend and fellow traveler such as myself with a shared commitment to discerning how we may strive for a future that is free of the genocidal “epistemologies of the North” and one more likely to produce an eco- logical survival of plurality, a more dogmatic turn.4 “I may state without a shadow of a doubt that if you’ve never traveled,” wrote Sardar, “you’ve never lived. If you do not venture out into the world, you will never acquire knowledge. If you do not attempt to discover yourself, you can never know yourself” (Sardar, 2018, para. 3). He is astute enough to know that most travel today is but another form of consumption and consequently he is justly dismissive of tourism and insistent that travel should not be confused with that plague called tourism. But there are far more substantive criticisms to be made of the astounding proposition that “if you’ve never traveled, you’ve never lived.” What would we make, for instance, of Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), who barely ventured a few miles from his home during his entire life, and whose learning was yet capacious enough to accommodate not only the wisdom of the Greeks and Romans but also Hafiz, Saadi [Sadi of Shiraz], Mencius, Lao-Tze, The Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, and texts far too numerous to enumerate? Moreover, the impress of Thoreau’s thinking is now globally present in the very idea of “civil disobedience” (Lal, 2009). He walked only in the woods around his home in Concord, Massachusetts, never further than the woods in Maine, and yet, as the philosopher Frederic Gros has written recently, he is “viewed as the very bard of nomadism, the champion of wandering, the poet of random drift, of fevered and intoxicated walks ... ” (Gros, 2020, p. 124).

Still, even as I have sought to unearth the cultural politics that informs the view of Sardar as “Britain’s own Muslim polymath,” I have thus far gestured only at another set of considerations, revolving around the vexed question of Islam and multiculturalism, and it is to this that I shall now turn briefly in the concluding part of this paper. I do so with the aware- ness that a full treatment of the question would require a lengthy excur- sus that would far exceed what is possible in the confines of this paper, especially given that Sardar has long wrestled with both a scholarly and public discourse on the location of Islam in relation to modernity, as well as with the issue of multiculturalism in Britain and more widely in the West. In various writings, but most explicitly in Postmodernism and the Other (Sardar, 1998), Sardar has been critical of postmodernism of which he says that “far from being a new theory of liberation,” it is, “particularly from the perspective of the Other, the non-western cultures,” “simply a new wave of domination riding on the crest of colonialism and modernity” (Sardar, 1998, p. 13). He sees a continuum between colonialism, modernity, and postmodernism: where colonialism entails “the physical occupation of the territory of Others,” and “modernity signaled their mental occupation,” postmodernism “now moves in to take possession of their total reality” (Sardar, 1998, p. 20; see also pp. 23, 28). It is not altogether germane whether I agree with the broad brushstrokes in which he has painted postmodernism, nor need we be detained by considera- tions on what, if any, is the point of congruence between his critique and that which has emanated from Marxists who, quite unlike the postmod- ernists, hold on to the idea that “class” is not reducible and must ultim- ately remain the bedrock of any critical social analysis. What is vitally important, as Sardar would recognize, is that the postmodernism remained an argument among academics, scarcely creating a ripple in everyday discourse. To the very limited extent that postmodernism made its way into public languages, it did so as a fancy term for what people understood to be “cultural relativism,” the idea (repulsive to many) that there are no enduring truths, and the notion that the West may not have the final word on what constitutes truth, beauty, art, or anything else. In the media, public policy, and in the culture of the school and the state, the operative term was not postmodernism but rather multiculturalism; and it is of course multiculturalism that is also being brought to the fore when it is announced that Sardar is “Britain’s own Muslim polymath.”

That Britain has had a rough time with multiculturalism is no secret— and that it is the real or alleged doggedness of the Muslims, in particular, in seeking to preserve their social, cultural, and religious mores within a distinct enclave, and thereby repudiating “Englishness” or what England holds dear, that lies at the core of Britain’s uneasiness with multicultural- ism is also not in doubt. Let us, however, first pause to reflect on what Sardar has had to say on the subject of multiculturalism since, I would submit, he does not go nearly as far as I might in stripping bare the charade of multiculturalism. In an essay on “medicine in a multicultural society,” Sardar writes that a “multicultural society, by definition, contains a number of distinct groups with a diversity of worldviews.” He then goes on to elaborate the conditions necessary for a “genuine multicultural society,” none more important than the identification of “the points of convergence, the common principles and shared values of the ethical and moral frameworks of different worldviews,” before arguing that Britain has not met this standard in that it would be difficult if not inconceivable to argue that “the institutions of British society might have resonance with and derive a moral rationale from the values of other cultures” (Sardar, 2003, p. 301). This is all eminently reasonable, except that his invocation of a “genuine multicultural society” suggests the ambivalence of his critique. Before Europeans colonized Africans, Arabs, Malays, Indians, and others, they colonized their own women and their own vari- ous Others. The English brutalized the Scots, Welsh, and the Irish before they took to colonizing the more remote races, effecting the “Highland Clearances” in Scotland and subjecting the detested Irish, captive to the superstitions of Popery, to regimes of abject subjugation. Similarly, as Larry Wolf has so persuasively argued, “Eastern Europe” with its despised Slavs and Muscovites furnished the “first model of underdevelopment” for its putative opposite, “Western Europe” (Wolff, 1994, p. 9). The point here is simply this: the multiculturalism that is now on witness in the societies of the modern West has been written on a tabula rasa, against a backdrop where diversity was eviscerated and dissenters were extirpated or exiled. Such multiculturalism is purely an imposition from the top and, worse, is now being peddled to other countries where genuine plur- alism has always been, to put it colloquially, a presence on the ground. Now civilizations such as India, which has more plurality than what England, America, or Europe could ever dream of, are being hectored for not respecting multiculturalism.

Let us put it this way: the “genuine multiculturalism” that Sardar aspires for is no more possible than “genuine” or real development. He is all too aware of the brilliantly cogent and lacerating critiques of “development” that have been launched over the last three decades by theorists of the global South, among them Ashis Nandy, Arturo Escobar, Majid Rahnema, Ivan Illich, and Vandana Shiva. The title of one of his essays, “Beyond Development: An Islamic Perspective,” is revealing in this respect, as is his observation in the opening lines that “the basic assumption of development, no matter how it is defined, are [sic] of a linear teleology vis-a-vis the standard yardstick of development of measurement: western civilization” (Sardar, 2003, p. 312). Proponents of development have sought to rescue it with a panoply of terms: alternative development; humane development; development with a human face; sus- tainable development; and so on. But how does one salvage a notion that is bursting with genocidal intent? Development condemns the objects of its inquiry, pity, and relief to live the lives of others: it construes Europe’s past as the present of Sudan, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, or other “underdeveloped” or “developing” nations, just as it construes the future of these same countries as the present of Europe (Lal, 2002). Development not only strips those targeted for “development” of their history but also cannibalizes their futures. Elsewhere, Sardar seems to concede that multiculturalism might be thought of in the same vein. He put the matter cryptically in a short essay (2002) which commences with these words: “Multiculturalism stinks. This is the consensus of both the Left and the Right.” It stinks for different reasons, on doubt, but the stench is there nevertheless, just as Sardar is also certain that we must not “abandon multiculturalism” but rather “question the limited nature of our supposedly perfect liberal ideas” (Sardar, 2002, pp. 137, 144).

It should now be clear why there is a dense cultural politics that informs the representation of Sardar as “Britain’s own Muslim polymath” and why this designation of his identity receives his approbation as well. It is not merely a case of recognition on his part that that multicultural- ism in Britain is, to use the horribly cliched phrase, a “work in process.” There may appear to be something condescending, to most readers, in his argument that multiculturalism “is something that the majority white communities need to preserve their humanity” (Sardar, 2002, p. 144), but this is inescapably true; what is also true, and less transparent, is the fact that it is part of the civilizational heritage of Sardar to believe that freedom is indivisible, and that the enhancement of the dignity of one leads to the enhancement of the dignity of the other. Sardar cannot jettison multiculturalism any more than he can give up on the House of Islam—and not only because Islam had in the past, to his mind and within the worldview that he has forged, furnished the most illuminating instance of “genuine multiculturalism.” Islam has by his own admission given him the only refuge that he has known, particularly in trying times, but Sardar has watched with anguish how the world of Islam has become increasingly constricted and shorn of ideas. It is not accidental that the Muslim polymaths who dart in and out of his books all hail from the period of Islamic Enlightenment and that he has scarcely anything to say about contemporary Muslim intellectuals. It would require a very long exegesis to show how precisely, in the vision of “Britain’s own Muslim polymath,” Islam may require a strong dose of multiculturalism and multiculturalism in turn may become less anemic with a shot from the Islamic pharmacopeia. One can only commend him for journeying into this difficult terrain and, to evoke Thoreau yet again, marching to the music of a different drummer.


  1. A bibliography of his writings to the end of 2002 compiled by Gail Boxwell appears in Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader (Sardar, 2003, pp. 350–361); a more updated bibliography is available at his website, The “Introducing” series began as “The Beginner’s Guide” and has in turn transformed into a series under the rubric of “A Graphic Guide.” In time, Sardar would author eight volumes on these subjects: chaos; cultural studies; Islam; learning and memory; mathematics; media studies; philosophy of science; and postmodernism.

  2. The Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb is a reference to the unique culture that over the course of around eight centuries has developed in the doab, in the region, that is, between the two rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, showing the admixture of Muslim norms and the pre-existing cultural traits of pre-Islamic India.

  3. Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (2002, 2004). Though Sardar writes al-Baruni, I have hewed to the more common “al-Biruni.”

  4. The phrase, “epistemologies of the North,” is borrowed from de Sousa Santos (2018), one of the first works to attempt a critical assessment of some thinkers from the Global South. For a previous such attempt in this vein, see Connell (2007).


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