WORLD FUTURES 2022, VOL.78, NOS.2-4, 101-110
Jordi Serra del Pino
Centre for Postnormal Policy and Future Studies, Barcelona, Spain
A reflection on Ziauddin Sardar’s life and multiple lines of work. The thesis of the article is that all his intellectual endeavors converge in his recent work on postnormal times. During his life Sardar has gone down many theoretical paths, moving from theology to science, natural and social. Postnormal times capture and reflect this polyhedric work and provide an addition key to understand his diverse interests and achievements.
I’m reading him for the first time and I have to concentrate not to miss the article’s point; I’m listening to him blasting to an audience; I’m shaking inside an elevator; I’m being stepped on in my sleep; I feel a moment of totally unexpected fraternal joy; I make him crawl on the floor; we spend ten hours working hysterically in a room while a blizzard blows outside; I’m being mocked (many times); I’m very happy to be far away from him as, otherwise, I would be strangling him with my own hands; I’m crying (several times); I’m terrified that I’m going to die in a crappy and dark hotel room; I can’t help but thinking of chaotic dynamics while a policeman hits me with his baton; I’m smuggling cigars (a few times); I’m trying to write something meaningful and I hope that I will be mocked again.
In Watchmen, the graphic novel by Moore and Gibbons, Jonathan Osterman (aka Dr. Manhattan) explains to Laurie Juspeczyk (aka Silk Spectre) that a thermodynamic miracle is a crowning unlikelihood, like when a particular person is conceived out of a chaos of improbability. However, for Osterman the question is: how, in a world so full of people, we get accustomed to these thermodynamic miracles and we take them for granted
Well, I do not.
What are the odds of someone experiencing all what I have described in the first paragraph? Probably not that high. Yet, them being of part of my life, it may be that my estimation is faulty and biased. However, I know for sure that the chances of a British polymath (of Pakistani origin) adopting a stubborn but passionate Catalan futurist as a brother were low, extremely low. Actually, I am certain that Osterman would agree that it is a truly thermodynamic miracle; because the only reason I have experienced those particular events and situations above is precisely because of Ziauddin Sardar. As a matter of fact, they are a chronological account of some of my experiences and feelings with him.
So here I am: writing a piece about Ziauddin Sardar, trying to be insightful for the potential reader, fair to the scholar but, above all, doing my best not to upset my brother. As an only child there have been lessons that I’ve only learned after my adoption, like learning that fraternal love can also hurt you. Granted, Zia’s love can be quite tough; but then again, you can also offend those you love even if you do not want to. Still, there is something I am sure of, if I do this right, it may provide material for new jokes on me; if I do it wrong it will become a story of mythical proportions showing, beyond any reasonable doubt, my multiple shortcomings, and additionally, proving that Catalans get every- thing wrong.
In any case, this is my story about Zia, my adoptive brother.
Too Postnormal to Be Normal
Is Ziauddin Sardar a man out of his time? Very recently a common colleague stated that Zia is too modern to be truly postnormal. I believe that it is just the opposite, and I shall try to make my case here.
In many senses, someone could think Zia would have been very happy living in Al-Andalus’ golden period, listening and debating with people like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd or Ibn Tufail; he might have enjoyed even more being in Ghazni studying with al-Biruni. In any of these places, he would have found immediately all the inconsistencies and flaws in those scholars’ thinking and would have challenged them to push their ideas even further. No doubt, he would have been thrilled to travel to places like Cairo, Damascus, Bagdad, Istanbul or Samarkand and, most likely even further (it is easy to picture him on camel back cursing the animal for the uncomfortable saddle). He would have found ways to engage new people, learn from them, share their ideas (and their food) and then move on. Although the key question is: would have he been at home then? Would have he found the Islam he longs for back then?
The last question is relevant as Zia defines himself as Muslim: “The kernel of my essence is Islam. I am a Muslim” (Sardar, 1996, p. 665). In Desperately Seeking Paradise the subtitle is “Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim”; maybe it would have been more accurate to define him as a critical Muslim as it cannot be denied that Zia is one of the main critics of Islam. As a devout Muslim, Zia finds purpose and momentum in his faith; as a rational person, he cannot be happy with the state of Islam today. He looks back and fathoms the potential of what, at the time, was a revolutionary idea. An idea based on faith and developed as a religion. And somehow the result is wanting. The inner certainty that, as brilliant and magnificent as it may be, it could be more. Or maybe the realization that it is not that brilliant and magnificent, although it could be. Is there just a lost potential or is it something that still needs to be worked out? Zia aims uncompromisingly for excellence, he could hardly settle for less, not in the important things at least. Thus, he keeps on criticizing hoping that critique may open up opportunities for improvement.
The point for him is that faith is not to be understood, it is to be felt. Still, feelings and emotions are not Zia’s strongest suit, “I don’t do emotions very well” he admitted in Balti Britain (2008, p. 196). He is, above anything else, a person of reason. He sees an idea and immediately starts weighting its strengths and weaknesses, ponders its implications and runs mental simulations of its development. Maybe this constant mental analysis is a by-product of his hyperactive mind. Nonetheless, his faith is that golden precious bit of himself that connects him to a tradition of thinkers and philosophers that wondered on the mysteries of the divine long before him. But it is also a dear link to his mother, to cherished parts of his privacy and his inner self; a part that does not really need to be ana- lyzed but experienced and enjoyed. In this regard, I wonder if faith is a safe port when reason fails. Whatever it is, faith is part of his upbringing; religion was a familiar presence when growing up. But science was his chosen path when pursuing an education. He has not really worked that much as a scientist, but once the scientific approach took root it has never left him. And that even changed his way to look at his own faith.
He has devoted extensive effort and time to study Islam, he has analyzed the words, its meaning, the context, the history and the economic and social factors embedded in the evolution of Islam. He has never lost the sense of wonder and awe of his faith or of true believers. Yet, his faith is based as much on understanding as it is on belief. Maybe his early conversations with his mother trying to make sense of the readings woke his analytical mind, maybe rational inquiry was in him as much as faith. I find myself uncapable to ascertain if faith or reason are equally reassuring or troubling for Zia. He is probably more accurately captured by the in-between tension; moving from one to another in a delicate and dynamic balance that it is only sustained by his determination to carry on. But it is not just this tension what defines him, it also is, if not more, his restlessness.
So no, I do not believe that he would have been happier in Al-Andalus, Ghazni, or any other of the great Muslim cultural places or times. Actually, I am quite convinced that he would have ended having serious problems with the powers to be back then, and there is a chance that some of his intellectual references would have ended disliking him deeply. The real reason is that you could hardly find a person more attuned to his time than Ziauddin Sardar. Of course, there are aspects of the present that he does not like, but he is mostly a futurist and he is living in a moment of fascinating and profound change. Not only that, but present day technology allows him to follow nowadays transformations very closely; and, more important, he can play a key role helping us to understand how and why we are in this great transition.
And it is precisely the recognition of the nature of this period what provides us with additional clues to understand Zia’s angst. A man of faith hoping for his religion to be more, a rational man expecting reason to explain better and being failed by both. Zia was a postnormal person avant la lettre, and has always been. I can think of few people quite as complex, chaotic and contradictory. Actually, I am going to make the case that the reason that pushed him to be a futurist and to reform Islam was the postnormal push.
In 2010 he wrote “Welcome to Postnormal Times” an article that I think that it is his most insightful and influential piece. In that paper he defined postnormal times as:
(...) an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. Ours is a transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future. (Sardar, 2010, p. 435)
The first time I read the article I thought that it was we have been looking for all along. The turning of the century had been a tough moment for futurist. In general, we have managed to miss important happenings such as the fall of the Wall (and the subsequent collapse of the USSR), the rise of new threats (like al Qaeda and S11) or, more relevant for Zia, the Arab Spring. We had had a recurrent conversation for years: futures studies was not doing so well and we were looking for ways to overhaul it. We tried new approaches and theories and nothing seem to work completely. His input was to make us realize that the problem was not, or not only, the tools we were using to grasp reality; reality itself had changed, and we needed a total upgrade in our cognitive tools to process and understand it. In essence Zia was telling us that, for futures to move on, it had to be emancipated from its modern upbringing, what Alvin Toffler called the second wave, the industrial age. Alas, we do not have new tools to capture the emerging reality and thus we have to make do with old ones while we try to develop the new toolkit. However, the second part of the definition postnormal is also very revealing of Zia’s own development in “a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future (Sardar, 2010, p. 435). In many senses, a very accurate report of his own work. I could even go further and say that Zia is a man of his time because the present is the only time he can be; both the past and the future are problematic for him. So, that is why he needs tradition to be a dynamic outlook and the future a free space. The past and future have to be that way in order to reconcile both and give him hope that the best of the past can be cherished, and that we can conceive (highly) superior futures for all of us (well, minus some bas- tards). His way to work out the connection is by doing futures, by pre- serving what is valuable and necessary from the past, but also imagining and building new futures for everyone. There could be no more fitting profession for him than as futurist.
But still, it is true that Zia is modern in many regards, despite his love for technological gadgets he is quite an inhabitant of the Gutenberg Galaxy; particularly regarding academic matters. Then again, to be postnormal, the old orthodoxies must also be there, partially at least. But there is one aspect where this modern pull is especially felt: in his fondness for lin- earity. His writing can seem winding; he likes to introduce all sorts of connected elements, deviations and side detours. However, he always knows where he is going, or where he is taking you. By the end of the piece the different lines will converge, and he will bring closure to the many openings he has generated. He likes to take you from A to B, even if he makes you stop in M, G, R and H during the way. This facet is even more present when he teaches or lectures, he takes the pattern of introduction, main point and conclusion to a point and you cannot help but wondering if he has suffered through many slow audiences in the past (then again, everybody is slow compared to him). Still, it cannot be denied that linearity is deep in him, to a point that he greatly dislikes flashbacks, those he calls lazy writing. This may be one of reasons he so much enjoys Turkish historical soap operas.
Anyway, this does not refute my previous point about him being complex, chaotic and contradictory. Even before he coined the notion of post- normal times he described himself this way:
I am not an easy person to pin down. I am several things; yet none of them. I was born in Pakistan but, as many Pakistanis would be eager to point out, I am not Pakistani. I am, however, an eager consumer of Pakistani culture and even retain my original Pakistani accent: it has been responsible for some serious setbacks in my career as a broadcaster, but I am proud of it. I have lived most of my life in Britain; but I am not English. Even though I was educated in England, worked for British institutions, and have voted (Labour) in every election in the past 30 years, I am an outsider; and, if Britain continues in its current trajectory, I will always be an outsider. Having spent seven years studying with traditionalist Muslim scholars, I am sometimes a traditionalist at heart. I can hold my own with any Mullah worth his salt, but no one will ever credit me with being one. For me tradition is a dynamic and not a static or fossilized outlook. I am, therefore, very uncomfortable in the company of puritans, romantics and those who always look backwards for inspiration. I live in the modern world, use its technology, enjoy some of its cultural products- but I am not a modernist. Indeed, I have spent most of my life arguing against the suffocating and instrumental excesses of modernity. I engage with my postmodernist friends, write about post-modernism, but I am not a post- modernist either. (Sardar, 1996, p. 665)
Zia is a living embodiment of complexity and contradictions, and proud of it. The point is that the above paragraph describes the essence of living in postnormal times, although it was written fourteen years before he developed the concept. And yes, you could point that this quotation does not cover the chaos component of the current conception of postnormal times. Then again you have not worked with him or, even more to the point, traveled with him. Anyone that has journeyed with him could attest that there are times that Zia seems a harbinger of com- ing chaos. I cannot help but think that this is going to cost me in more puns at my expense.
In retrospect, it is quite clear that postnormal has provided Zia with a name for a feeling has had long before the concept was created, almost like a scratch for an itch he could not place. And it fully explains the energy poured in mastering concepts, theories and ideas only to question them followingly. In a truly postnormal manner, he was squeezing all what old orthodoxies were offering but, as they were/are not enough. He has tried to move on to the emerging ones. Has he succeeded?
Too Postnormal to Be Transnormal
Zia’s recent writing appears to reflect a growing anxiety about postnormal times. Regardless of how well postnormal describes his biography, there are two deeply unsatisfying questions about postnormal times.
The first one has to do with the non-closing nature of postnormal times, given that we are a transitional period, an in-between age. Postnormal times can only finish by the start of a new epoch. As a matter of fact, it is quite possible that nobody realizes that postnormal times have ended until the new era is firmly stablished. In short, postnormal will offer no closure and its end will only be perceived in retrospect. For a person that aims for completion this must be exceedingly frustrating. But I know that some, Zia included, will object to my argument contending, as he has often stated, that there are times that the travel is more relevant than the destination. This is true, but it does not invalidate the argument, because in those cases the point of the travel is the travel itself. But even this sense of moving is denied when you are in a moment that is defined by two negations: not the old and not the new. As Bauman and Mauro (2016) put it, “We are living in the interregnum between what is no longer and what is not yet (p. 1).” And, even for someone that just looks for certainties only to test them, this can be very discouraging.
The second unsatisfying questions about postnormal times is what I will call the equidistant nature of postnormal times—something different from what I meant in the previous paragraph. He and I have been presenting and explaining postnormal times for quite some time. All along some patterns have arisen: the first one is to equate postnormal with cri- sis or bad news, the number of times that Zia and I have had to spend time comforting people after introducing them to postnormal times is many; the second, the feeling that postnormal times are a test that we have to pass or, conversely, that we cannot fail. Of course, we also have our share of responsibility here. On numerous occasions we have talked of future challenges, meaning that they are developments or situations that call upon us to respond. A future challenge is not negative or positive per se; it is something that will compel us to action because inaction is the best way to turn it into a crisis. However, if we react adequately it can be an opportunity, too. In any case, we might have not been fully aware that by introducing the challenge connotations we were reinforcing many people’s perceptions that postnormal times is an exam that we are going to flunk. It is very true that the stakes are high, most possibly higher than ever. But it is entirely up to us. We are the ones that have to decide if we want to make it through and then determine how we can do it (or maybe if we can do it). But this does not change the essence of postnormal times one little bit. Some people see a mountain and feel the need to climb it. They are the ones that turn the peak into a challenge but the mountain could not care less about if they succeed or not. Anyway, the open nature of postnormal times, as I have discovered recently, seems to be unsettling for Zia. He did not become a futurist just to register change, he is a futurist to aim for better, more desirable, futures. This equidistance of postnormal times leave us without references, making the advent to a new stage of human development or extinction equally acceptable outcomes—something simply intolerable for Zia.
I can affirm this confidently due to a recurrent exchange we have had for some time. We have discussed, between the two of us, and with other colleagues, if it is even possible to determine the duration of postnormal times. My point is that, since this an in-between period, it must have an end; while others are not so sure that postnormal times has a finish. To make my point I usually emphasize the unsustainability of the current moment, in almost every account, and the fact that either our capacity to surpass this moment or our incapacity to do it (and likely extinction fol- lowingly) will signal the end of postnormal times. At this point, Zia’s usual reply is that if we go extinct it is “game over” and the notion of postnormal times becomes irrelevant. But this makes me wonder, is he contesting my point about the finiteness of postnormal times or the fact that extinction is a perfectly possible close for this period?
Zia answered this in “Afterthoughts: Transnormal, the ‘New Normal’ and other Varieties of ‘Normal’ in Postnormal Times” (Sardar, 2021), where he gives his take on transnormal. Being asked so many times about what will come after postnormal times, Zia came up with the notion of transnormal. Originally, it was vaguely defined concept; but, somehow, these conversations about the duration of postnormal times triggered a deeper reflection on what transnormal could be. The paper covers the different kinds of normal, being old, new, complex, post or trans but it poses a significant difference with the inaugural Welcome to Postnormal Times. In Afterthoughts there is something else. Yes, you can find plenty of description, like in the part about old, new and complex normal. But as the article unfolds, we notice how the description turns into a diagnos- tic and finally becomes a prescription. The transition is very smooth, Zia is a great writer, but at some point, the text ceases to be about what it is to get into what it should be. This is most visible in the two founding pillars of transnormal: transmodernity and mutually assured diversity.
The first one tackles the need to transcend modernity and, also post- modernity, as notions that are poisoning our futures. But this time he is very precise developing an strenuous list about what entails transmodernity:
the continuous and constant transformation of all cultures;
the ceaseless transmission of cultures between cultures;
the incessant and perpetual transitions within cultures;
the valid transitive relations within particular cultures;
the constant to and for translation of cultures between cultures;
the regular translocation of cultures in geographical space in a globalized world;
the transparency of power relations between and within cultures;
the transference of cultural desires to new cultural goals;
trans-disciplinary modes of study and inquiry and understanding cultures; and
transcendence of the given future of modernity and colonized futures of postmodernism into a plethora of viable and desirable, autonomous and interconnected, transmodern futures. (Sardar, 2021)
This seems an extremely ambitious enterprise in its own, but Zia realizes that transmodernity can be problematic without the preservation of diversity. Thus, he adds mutually assured diversity, again in a very thorough manner, including:
Mutually Assured Definitions
Mutually Assured Dissent
Mutually Assured Discourse
Mutually Assured Demarcations
Mutually Assured Democracy
Mutually Assured Degrowth
Mutually Assured Dematerialization.
Mutually Assured Defence
Mutually Assured Dependence
Mutually Assured Desires
Mutually Assured Dignity
Mutually Assured Destinies (Sardar, 2021)
Both lists surprised me the first time I read them for their level of detail. Something unusual in Zia, he has always tried to attain elegant succinct definitions, easy to remember. By comparison those seemed the points of a legal text. However, my main concern is that I am not sure these lists can be fully accomplished. Actually, some of the MAD points seem to arise potential conflicts. I find it hard to believe that he does not realize of these possible divergences. But I think that he was just focusing of the items that he believed cannot be left out. Postnormal times are unforgiving, like those stone walls that if you lean on them will scratch you; it is only understandable that Zia would want to build hope by set- ting a new, more desirable, course. However, he is so concerned with the spots to avoid that this course offers no workable way to navigate it. Not only that, he approaches the construction of transnormal in a most normal way. Something that, in itself is profoundly postnormal. If mutually
assured dissent is to be realized it is to be expected that other people will dissent, too.
Zia is deeply modern in many regards. But this is precisely the essence of being postnormal: to aim for the new, to strive for it even if you have to create it with outdated tools. My point is that if we can only use normal resources (categories, theories, or tools) is hard enough to work out postnormal but attempting to build transnormal with them is impossible. I suspect that deep inside Zia is aware that he is a sort of postnormal Moses, leading us through the postnormal desert but unable to get into the transnormal land. And maybe rightly so, otherwise he would start challenging transnormal too.
Bauman, Z., & Mauro, E. (2016). Babel. Polity.
Sardar, Z. (1996). Natural born futurist. Futures, 28(6–7), 665–668. https://doi.org/10.1016/0016-3287(96)84474-0
Sardar, Z. (2008). Balti Britain. Granta Publications.
Sardar, Z. (2010). Welcome to postnormal times. Futures, 42(5), 435–444. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2009.11.028
Sardar, Z. (2021). Afterthoughts: Transnormal, the ‘New Normal’ and other varieties of ‘normal’ in postnormal times. World Futures Review, 13(2), 54–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/19467567211025755