WORLD FUTURES 2022, VOL.78, NOS.2-4, 79-86
Our reality, notes Ziauddin Sardar, is increasing postnormal, where much of what we have taken for granted has lost its significance, or become irrelevant. Postnormal times, a neologism invented by Sardar so aptly describes the era that we inhabit. It is also a theory of change that seeks to understand the changing nature of change, and provide tools for navigating or turbulent epoch. As our times burst into postnormality, Sardar stands in the middle of the accelerating global forces of change, the devolution of democracy, global pandemic, and unfolding climate catastrophes. Readers of this Festschrift will see that he is many things: polymath, media figure, writer and thinker, futurist, and father. He is also a planetary citizen–not satisfied with naming a new era, and creating a new theory, postnormal times–he continues to advocate for transnormal futures: more diverse, positive, hopeful, and wise futures.
Sardar casts a long shadow, has traveled far and wide, and has contributed significantly to theology, global Islam, futures studies and research, epistemology, and cultural studies, particularly as a critic of postmodernism. I must confess that while I have been acquainted with him for more than three decades, and consider myself his friend, it is only recently that I grasped what a remarkable person he is. Helping give birth to this special issue has only deepened my respect and admiration for the depth and scope of his life’s work. I had a cloistered view of him from futures studies and am beginning to see the bigger picture. I thank the contributors for celebrating his body of writing and thought.
This special issue is intended to be a classic Festschrift, presented on his 70th birthday, to honor the work and inspiration given to others by Ziauddin Sardar (hereafter Zia). It is not a eulogy, but an engagement with, and celebration of, the man and his work, unapologetically incomplete given the breadth and scope of his work over the years. This is presumably only the first Festschrift given how much of his work and influence are still untouched here and that he is still very active and continues to breathe life into critical futures studies and Islamic thought. Readers new to his corpus of writing will want to sample Zia’s extensive body of work,(1) that now extends to over 50 books, hundreds of articles, and media. He continues to lead Critical Muslim as Editor, and is the Director of Center for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies, the network he established to develop and promote postnormal times theory.
I came to know Zia through the lens of futures studies. His writing and thinking in the 1990s was aligned with the critical, normative futures studies’philosophy of Jim Dator and the “Manoa School.”(2) I was particularly impressed with and endorsed his work on postmodernism and decolonization of alternative futures images. We really “hit it off” at the subtropical 1997 World Future Studies Federation (WFSF) world conference in Brisbane, which coincided with his formative work on Islamic and non-western futures. We were part of a cohort of youngish scholars in the futures field, the second generation of Federation members that were trying to remake the organization, to shift it from an “old boy’s network” (including our beloved Eleonora Masini, who is considered the grandmother of futures studies), to a more activist, relevant organization. The Brisbane conference stands out among the historical conferen- ces as an outlier – it attempted to honor indigenous cultures in Australia and Asia Pacific, and future activists both within and outside of the WFSF. It was a wild and unwieldy conference that also fragmented and divided. For some reason, Zia who was an executive board member at the time, not only befriended me, but also saw that I was invited to observe board meetings hosted by Australian futurist and WFSF President Tony Stevenson on the Sunshine Coast. A peak experience of that trip and my mid-life was an afternoon Zia and I spent together hiking and communing with koala bears, deconstructing post- structuralism, and weighing various critical theories, and science fiction themes. We smoked cigars. We swapped stories. We grooved with koalas.
He became editor of Futures and although we were both active in the field, we did not cross paths again for some years, well after he began working on postnormal times analysis. My 1989 dissertation had addressed the influence on planetary thinking of what was then called “the new science” (note: Zia’s position at New Scientist), so the advocacy of Ravetz and Funtowitz for a post- normal science, which Futures championed, made perfect sense. And Sardar and Sweeney’s description of postnormal times was a good fit with my work on collapse (Jones, 2019) and descent/New Beginnings futures (see: Jones, 2021). The neologism of postnormal also deftly describes a major takeaway I had from Dator that the 21st Century world would become increasingly tur- bulent and diverse and that would likely cause ever more conflict. Postnormal times theory and analysis captures the essential moving pieces of that reality of complexity, chaos, and contradiction (the 3 Cs), driven by speed, scope, scale and simultaneity (4 s) that we are facing now. Yet, Zia’s message is also that to survive as a global society we need mutual respect for diversity, and that somewhere out there in time we can achieve a return to a new normal, a transition to the transnormal. His influence on the futures field is underrepre- sented in this volume and I particularly recommend Rescuing All Our Futures: The Future of Futures Studies (1998) and Future: All That Matters (2013) an underappreciated primer on critical futures studies.
To my surprise, futurist Zia also turned out to be, according to contribu- tors to this issue, a sharp wit, an almost mythic figure, a polymath, physicist, Qur’an scholar, city expert (Mecca and Kuala Lumpur), reformer, rebel and traditionalist (viva contradictions!), and traveler. His travels in search of truth and Paradise are a running life theme. This selection of articles leans toward his biography, icon as Britain’s own polymath, figure in Islamic globalization, and role as social critic. Future volumes may backfill his vast influence on futures studies, postnormal science, and media studies. We are missing some voices as well, particularly that of the recently deceased Merryl Wyn Davies, a long-term collaborator who passed in 2021. Other voices have reflected on Zia’s work elsewhere, including Sohail Inayatullah and Gail Boxwell (2003) and Tony Stevenson (2008), for example. This special issue will further contribute to the body of knowledge on Zia Sardar.
The tone for the issue is set by Brad Bullock, who uses the 2020 US presidential election as a case study for postnormal times. Bullock explains the genesis of postnormal times from postnormal science and the driving forces of complexity, chaos, and contradiction. His prognosis, at the time if writing, that postnormality would continue to roil US politics well after President Biden has borne out. Bullock also lays out how Zia’s postnormal times theory both creates and reflects the impact of former US President Trump and should prepare us for more postnormal “good times” ahead.
The life and intellectual pursuits of Zia are explored by Iftikhar Malik and Abdulwahab El Affendi. Malik presents us with a narrative of the stages of Zia’s life, the blending of Zia’s Pakistani and British influences, and tensions between traditional and modern (and now postnormal) forces in his career. Malik details the experiences and major influences on Zia in the early phase of his life as he became a “New Muslim Man” and then Zia’s evolution as a critic, particularly of colonial structures that persist across the planet. The next phase of Zia’s development and work, often in collaboration with Merryl Wyn Davies, sees him become a critic of postmodernism, and he continues his spiritual/religious quest for Paradise, rejecting the closed aspects of “Sufis, Salafis and Tablighis,” and other forms of fundamentalist Islamism in favor of a wider Muslim ummah. Malik describes the journey, through these stages of life, as Zia evolves into a model for Muslim scholars and thinkers. El Affendi focusses on Zia as rebel and reformer: Zia’s place during a period when Islamism was spreading, role of Western universities, expatriate consciousness, and the emergence of Islamist ideologies; and Zia’s transformation to critic and leader. El Affendi takes a detailed and nuanced view of Zia’s personal and political transformation, how- ever, noting the ups and downs and the tensions in faith and ontology largely informed by Zia’s immigrant experience and networks in Britain, Pakistan, Malaysia, and elsewhere. El Affendi presents the rich background of the roots of Islamism while weaving in Zia’s personal history, his anti-authoritarian and anti-orthodoxy standpoints, and his commitment to truth and accuracy.
Zia’s credentials as an Islamic reformist are enhanced by his study of the Qur’an, which began as a blog for the Guardian, and was later transformed into a book: Reading the Qur’an. Bruce Lawrence probes Zia’s expertise as a Qur’anic scholar in his contribution, and examines his treatment of certain verses of Chapter two, Sura Al-Baqara (2:2, 2:143, 2:55/256, and 2:284–288). Lawrence lays out Zia’s devotion to and emersion in “in-betweenness,” straddling cultures, seeing convergence and contradictions between tradition, modernity, the emerging postnormal reality, and, his cosmopolitanism. We are presented with the compelling logic of “reading multiple translations,” as a lesson both in theology and as a metaphor for global pluralism. Lawrence insists that we read the verses within the context of the whole, and consider Zia’s advocacy through scripture for freedom of expression, doing good deeds, for community, and honoring diversity.
Throughout his life, Zia has been rather partial to young scholars, nursing and nurturing them, guiding them where necessary, and getting them published. Five such scholars have contributed to this special issue. Jordi Serra del Pino, who Zia adopted as a younger brother unrelated by blood but bonded by experience and collaboration, provides a very personal take on Zia. Serra argues that Zia is more of a modernist than he will admit, with an analytical mind, more drawn to rational inquiry than faith. He also argues that Zia is full of complexities and contradictions—an emergent postnormal phenomenon in himself. Yet, his desire for a world built on the MAD elements (Mutually Assured Diversity, Mutually Assured Definitions, etc.), visioning and creating transnormal futures, is inspiring. Tahir Abbas was first exposed to Zia in his early media years, when Zia was seen by some as an agitator. The two ended up sharing history and work.
Abbas reflects on Zia’s ideas on seeing the Other as a projection of Self, and vice versa. The central theme is the reciprocal and interactive tension between Other and Self, informed by those shared experiences of the British Muslim community, the emergence of Islamism, and Muslim nation states. Abbas confesses his own self-discovery in this period of development, partly and often signifi- cantly thanks to Zia. Abbas relates their shared engagement with the challenge of multiple identities and concludes with an analysis of the difference that Zia draws between the person and the individual. Shanon Shah, who Zia mentored as a writer for Critical Muslim, celebrates Zia’s evolution as a progressive Muslim, relates that to Shah’s own growth, and focuses on the three central Zia autobiographies as the ‘workings’ evidence of his work on theological concepts. Central to Muslim belief is dalil—the evidence at the foundation of belief—and it is Zia’s body of autobiographic work, his three literary autobiographies, that serves both as a dalil of his faith and a model for Shah. He asserts that these books are the context for Zia’s scholarly writing. Shah grants that Zia—as a model of a progres- sive Muslim writer—is admittedly imperfect. Apropos of that, he notes that Zia does not suffer fools easily, yet is exemplary as a generous and nurturing person. Shah makes a strong case for Zia as a model for aspiring progressive Muslims, and acknowledges Zia’s positive influence on thousands of students, scholars, and activists—Muslim theologians and critical futurists across the planet.
Liam Mayo and C Scott Jordan became Zia’s proteges through their interest in the postnormal times theory. Scott became involved while still in his twenties, when Zia was working in Chicago. He would drive down from Omaha, where he was studying, to take part in the theory building seminars and workshops. Mayo became the first person to undertake and obtain a doctorate in postnor- mal times. In his interview, Mayo fills in some detail about postnormal times theory and analysis with Zia. The themes of the conversation were: the relation- ship between decolonization of futures and postnormal times, the disruptive nature of the acceleration of speed, scope, scale, and simultaneity of global change, and the blessings and curses of postmodernism as postnormal times accelerate and deepen. Postnormal times theory is not something to prove one way or another, it is like gravity—you ignore it at your peril. Zia addresses the role of and need for empowerment in decolonizing the futures we are given; and working to create and shape the futures we desire. Jordan joins the conver- sation by considering Zia as critic and cultural contrarian. He notes the fierce stubbornness of the man that has sometimes led him to be ejected from confer- ences and cancelation of his visas. Jordan describes the value of Zia’s opposition spirit, gives examples of how important the unthought is to avoid group think— for example, structuring the Ten Man principle to ensure a devil’s advocate in strategic decision making. Despite his occasional stubbornness, Zia embraces and advocates “half wrong, half right” standpoint, particularly in postnormal times. Jordan dives into other aspects of postnormal Zia, his attention to the contradictions of dying paradigms, neoliberalism, consumerism, and academic disciplines. Jordan also addresses the importance of polylogues and transcending what Zia calls the “smog of ignorance” by embracing unthought futures and exploring transnormal potentialities.
Then there are older collogues and friends. Zia has had a long and rewarding relationship with the futurist and political scientist Jim Dator, and philosopher and historian of science Jerry Ravetz. Dator contrasts his personal narrative with that of Zia. On the surface, from Dator’s perspective, it’s about their differences; but both above and beneath the surface, it is about the importance of identity and anchors to genealogical history. Through this lens, Dator explores the importance of Zia’s work on the futures of governance and political design, specifically his critical writing on Islamic polities and how the idea of the “Islamic state” collides with the call for a united ummah. Dator argues that “postnormality is not about the future” and asks: when has the world ever been normal? Dator acknowledges, however, that future shock is real and agrees with Zia that we need to look beyond singular views of the future and acknowledge alternatives, both past and future. Ravetz chronicles the long history he shares with Zia working on progressive issues in organizations and then in writing and editing in the some of the same places and spaces. Themes that run through Ravetz’s narrative include his mystical and contrarian proclivities. He speculates that his radical nature may be what cost him a conventional academic career but paved the way for his essential contributions to the development of postnormal science, and indirectly to Zia’s postnormal times theory. Ravetz also details the story of his radical critique of science, his forecast of the decline and fall of the Euro-American science and technology empire, the pitfalls of growing power and knowledge due to science and the risks to our own control of information. He asserts that both he and Zia have compassion for metaphysics, for inner experience, and particularly for achieving more social justice.
The Independent newspaper described Zia as “Britain’s own polymath,” although, as far as I know, Zia had never used the phrase. Vinay Lal analyzes and deconstructs the description of Zia as “Britain’s own Muslim polymath,” addressing the contradictions and power of Zia’s embrace of the mantle. Lal considers this through the lens of the many topics Zia has engaged, including the idea of Muslim civilization, and critiques of postmodernism, technology, popular culture, and futures studies. He acknowledges Zia’s influence outside of Britain, as an advocate for the Indic world and civilizations, and general advo- cacy of travel and knowledge. Lal considers how Zia aligns with historical Muslim polymaths, al-Baruni, ibn Battuta, and ibn Arabi—and sees the influence or reflection of those polymaths in Zia’s own narrative. Lal considers the contra- dictions of the theme of multiculturalism, a theme both embraced and critiqued in Zia’s work and at the heart of the ironies and messages of being Britain’s Muslim polymath. The theme of multiculturalism is also taken up by Martin Rose, who tells the story of Zia’s time with the British Council, a story of cul- tural paradox where cultural relations and multiculturalism collide with Zia’s indubitable critical standpoint. The focus is on Zia’s reinterpretation of cultural relations as mutually assured diversity (and the other MAD variables) or transmodernism. Unlike multiculturalism embedded in western civilization, Zia’s version is a two-way relationship with benefits for both parties. Whereas multiculturalism is shaped by the power and history of the British Empire, transmodernism, particularly guided by multiple voices in polylogues, redesigns the mentality of what it means to be a British Muslim. Rose explains how Zia has helped redefine the very meaning of what it means to be British.
Two contributions are not directly related to Zia’s work. Boyd Tonkin reviews documentary film producer Adam Curtis, whose career spans over thirty years with ten major, and highly influential, documentary series or movies for BBC. His focus has been on the results of the collapse of grand narratives, as he sees it, the end of progress, the collapse of the liberal project, and the naked power of corporations and governments—"modernity and its discontents.” Tonkin contrasts Zia’s postnormal times with Curtis’ dystopian prognosis and belief that “no one has any version of... a better kind of future”—postnormal analysis offers at least a glimmer of hope for the trans- normal. Whereas Curtis’ hypernormal determinism does not allow for the unexpected or chaos that may create the space for positive change and social justice, postnormal times offers the possibility that social movements and agency offer hope to avoid collapse and apocalypse.
Carool Kersten presents the eschatology and speculative realism of the Iranian philosopher and writer, Reza Negarestani, who has pioneered the genre of “theory-fiction.” Kersten explores Negarestani’s themes of taqiyya and qiyama. The foreground forces of the apocalypse are driven by taqiyya, concealment, where the boundaries blur between civilian and terrorist, desertification accompany the “White War,” the battlefield migrates to the homeland. Qiyama explores the mismatch of Islamic and western chronologic, the claim that Islam’s eschatology precludes the revelatory apocalypse of Christianity—as there is no revelatory end in Islam. There is no qiyama, or uncovering, only rebellion and a pressure on western collapse to reconceptualize time and (with taqiyya) space. Zia is not mentioned, but Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and other works appear to embrace the acceleration of change and the resulting chaos, complexity, and contradictions that describe the emergent postnormal times.
Finally, Faisal Devji offers a synthesis of the Festschrift selections, recognizing the irony and spectacle of Zia’s position in center of the globalization of Islam, and involved and yet somewhat detached standpoint that Zia takes. Devji recognizes Zia as a writer “of difference” compared to many of his peers, particularly through the lens of the Rushdie Affair. Devji offers insights such as the tension between the two dominant sects of Islam: Sunni—who can look to the Golden Age, and Shi’a—who are relegated to a history of defeat and martyrdom. Devji’s analysis focuses in on the heretical nature of Zia’s work, for example his critical, yet respectful, reading of the Qur’an, and also his heretical positions on science, epistemology, and human futures. Devji honors the prickly and quirky nature of the articles in this collection.
The work of Ziauddin Sardar offers a window to progressive Islam, the idea of Islamic civilization and Muslim Futures, and a guide to critical futures studies. He opened the door to postnormal times analysis, and now transnormal theory and studies. He took us beyond the trendy management acronym VUCA to see that the transformational changes we are going through are not just superficial changes, but changes leading to an epistemic shift, a paradigm shift. The ecological, social, and political changes unfolding across the planet are profound and technological disruption accelerates the postnormal chaos, complexity, and contradiction. Welcome to postnormal times, and Zia (3).
Last remarks (Jordi Serra del Pino, used with permission)
See: https://ziauddinsardar.com/ and see his extensive Wikipedia page. Recommended: his personal website timeline and the first two volumes of his autobiography, Desperately Seeking Paradise (2004) and Balti Britain (2008).
University of Hawaii at Manoa Department of Political Science Master’s program in Alternative Futures where I completed my MA (1983) and PhD (1989). For more background on the Manoa School, see: Jones (1992). The Manoa School of Futures Studies. Futures Research Quarterly. Winter 1992, 19–25; Dator (2009). Alternative Futures at the Manoa School. Journal of Futures Studies, November 2009, 14(2): 1–18.
It has been an honor to corral and organize this special issue. I am grateful to Alfonso Montuori for his invitation and support, Daniel Glenn for education on the Editorial Manager system and his trouble-shooting, and Jim Dator for being the pathfinder through the Taylor & Francis system. Thank you, Zia, for being such a provocative study and nurturing friend.
Inayatullah, S., & Boxwell, G. (2003). Introduction: The Other Futurist. Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader, 1–25.
Jones, C. (2019). When things fall apart: Global weirding, postnormal times, and complexity limits. In Building sustainability through environmental education (pp. 149–165). IGI Global.
Jones, C. (2021). Getting past Cassandra: 21 C Slaughter. Futures, 132, 102790. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2021.102790
Sardar, Z. (1998). Rescuing all our futures: The future of futures studies. Z. Sardar (Ed). Adamantine Press.
Sardar, Z. (2013). Future: All That Matters. McGraw-Hill Education.
Stevenson, T. (2008). Ziauddin Sardar: Explaining Islam to the West. In Davies M. W. (Eds.), Profiles in courage: Political actors and ideas in contemporary Asia. Australian Scholarly Publishing.