Back to top

Ziauddin Sardar's Biographical Writings as Models of Muslim Intellectual Work

WORLD FUTURES 2022, VOL.78, NOS. 2-4, 212-221

Shanon Shah 

King's College London, London, UK


What counts as “proper” intellectual work in the study of Islam? This article argues that Ziauddin Sardar’s autobiographical works are not only examples of “life writing”—they are valuable resources for the study of contemporary Islam. They give concrete context for Sardar’s contributions at the intersections of academic scholarship, journalism, and activism. By reflexively “showing his workings” as a public intellectual, they also provide mentorship for newer generations of Muslim scholars, activists and writers. The article draws on the author’s personal engagement with Desperately Seeking Paradise (2004), Balti Britain (2008) and A Person of Pakistani Origins (2018).


It happened in the middle of an otherwise rollicking conversation with an ex-Salafi brother. For the avoidance of doubt, he wasn’t actually my brother—we’d only just met—but it’s almost Pavlovian, this instinct to refer to pious Muslims as one’s fictive siblings. In some ways, we couldn’t have been more different. He, a working-class, British-born South Asian, sported a thick beard, body piercings and eye-catching tattoos, while I, a middle-class Malaysian of dual ethnicity, have always been clean-shaven and have never contemplated getting even an earring or body ink. But we were both in our 30s and were bonding over our earlier flirtations with Salafism—that purist, puritan brand of Islam—and our subsequent disillu- sionment with it. The bond was strengthened by our post-Salafist, richer experiences of Islam. The conversation galloped along most pleasantly.

Compared to him, I’d only dipped the tip of my toe in Salafi waters. This guy was nearly recruited by Al Qaeda in the lead-up to 9/11 but escaped just in time. I was in awe of him and the spiritual injuries he’d incurred, nursed and recovered from. But then, when I shared a bit more of my Malaysian experiences, he said, a tad dismissively, “But you guys are Shafiis, aren’t you? That’s not great—Shafii’s the reason why sharia became so dogmatic.”

I was dumbstruck. Partly because this was an argument I might well have made in the not-so-distant past myself about Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafii (d. 820AD), the eponym of the Shafii school of legal thought— one of the four extant rites in Sunni Islam now predominant in the Malay Archipelago and East Africa. And partly because, at that point, I was revisiting this idea in my own head without being able to articulate my initial reflections. And, finally, partly because I was disappointed by the ex-Salafi brother’s flippant dismissal of al-Shafii and his followers.

As a legal theorist, al-Shafii was worried that Muslims were starting to formulate rules that were increasingly divorced from the dictates of Islam’s sacred texts. Importantly, however, he did not dismiss the integ- rity of interpretive and analogical reasoning—he was no superficial literal- ist. The famous analogy from the opening of his Risalah (Epistle of Legal Theory) on finding the qibla (the direction of prayer) is instructive. Sure, al-Shafii wrote, the religious ruling on where Muslims should face in prayer is clear. Don’t just turn anywhere—turn toward the Sacred Mosque. This was easy enough to do for the Prophet Muhammad and his followers in Mecca, where the Sacred Mosque was visible or its relative location was easily discerned. But what of Muslims who found themselves having to pray in new and distant locales and had difficulty working out where Mecca even was? Writing in the ninth century AD, this is what al- Shafii (2015, pp. 12–13) had to say: 

...if they were distant from the Sacred Mosque itself, a correct result would be arrived at through interpretation ... which can distinguish between things and their opposites, and those signs that [God] set up for them apart from the Sacred Mosque itself... These signs consisted of mountains, night, and day; winds of well-known names even though their directions might differ; and the risings of the sun, moon, and stars, risings whose locations within the heavens were well known. God obligated them to use interpretation in order to face toward the Sacred Mosque ... And so long as they engaged in such interpretation, they did not abandon God’s command (pp. 12–13).

So, yes, follow the sacred texts as closely as possible, said al-Shafii. But, when in doubt or in ignorance, don’t be afraid to use your own rea- soning and interpretation. Just remember to have the right intention and show your workings when you are interpreting or drawing an analogy from a particular sacred injunction. And one need not confine one’s workings to the Qur’an’s Arabic text—Divine revelation also encompasses empirical evidence from the natural world.

In hindsight, the ex-Salafi brother had made a claim about something important to me without showing his workings. And that somehow made me hesitant about sharing my inchoate workings. It’s an issue that troubles me to this day when claims are made about Islam or particular strands within Islam. The analysis seems to be performed in isolation or in fragments. There’s little accounting for the experiences and limiting biases of the people making these claims or how their theorizing about Islam shapes, and is shaped by, their wider encounters in the world.

This may sound odd, since one of the core concepts in traditional Islamic jurisprudence is that of producing dalil, or proof, for one’s argument. Dalil is not limited to logical deduction, and can include proof by analogy and inference and, in natural sciences and law, requires material, empirical evidence. I am not claiming that the ex-Salafi brother was ignorant of this central aspect of Islamic argumentation. I am saying that there is a vital aspect of dalil that is constantly overlooked–that of personal experience and how it (in)forms one’s preferences, motivations and opinions. In my ever-unfolding journey with Islam, I crave the guidance of role models whose observations are backed by honest self-reflection and a curiosity about the world, and who demonstrate these connections transparently. This is what I mean by needing Muslim guides who “show their workings”. Such exemplars certainly exist, but I have personally found them to be quite rare.

Enter Ziauddin Sardar and his biographical works—Desperately Seeking Paradise (2004), Balti Britain (2008), and A Person of Pakistani Origins (2018). They are examples of a Muslim intellectual harnessing a nonfiction literary genre to demonstrate the connection between his per- sonal experiences, the workings of his mind, and the logic in his prolific body of work.

Desperately Seeking Paradise—subtitled “Journeys of a Skeptical Muslim”—describes Sardar’s forays into different arenas of Muslim activism and politics. An irrepressible British-Pakistani Londoner, Sardar joins and leaves a succession of activist networks that have often been glossed as “Islamist.” His later work as a journalist and a researcher brings him to the heartlands of Muslim politics, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Malaysia. Sardar also recounts his efforts at founding, falling out with, and reviving the Muslim Institute. Balti Britain—subtitled “a Provocative Journey through Asian Britain”—zooms in on the racial and cultural elements of Sardar’s experiences within Britain. We experience his uniquely Sardar-ian, British Asian perspective on cuisine, education, marriage, raising children, the impacts of the Rushdie Affair in the late 1980s, and the aftermath of 9/11 and the 7/7 London bombings.

This volume’s journey parallels that of its predecessor but takes the British nation-state as its primary target of analysis. The final volume discussed in this essay, A Person of Pakistani Origins, also recounts a journey of sorts—this time to reclaim Sardar’s affectionate albeit ambivalent relationship with Pakistan. The book begins with Sardar’s complicated pur- suit of official recognition as a person with Pakistani origins—actual nomenclature used by the government of Pakistan to connect with (or manage?) the Pakistani diaspora. What follows is a series of meditations on the lesser known (or less publicized in the West, anyway) dimensions of what being a British Pakistani means to Sardar. The detective novels of Ibn Safi, BA, the harsh moral discipline meted out by diasporic Pakistani Aunties, the joys of Hindi cinema in London and Urdu poetry—all are subjected to Sardar’s characteristic humor and analysis. The volume closes with a moving account of Sardar’s eccentric late Uncle Waheed.

These books can and should be read for sheer pleasure. I chortled aloud through several parts of Desperately Seeking Paradise, which then made me devour Balti Britain and A Person of Pakistani Origins with equal relish. The three volumes are also touching, especially when Sardar describes his encounters with everyday-yet-remarkable Muslims and his relationships with his almost fairy-tale-like family.

Much more importantly, however, these works provide concrete con- texts for Sardar’s prolific, more “serious” works, spanning Qur’anic interpretation, Islamic knowledge, science, the environment, and futures and postnormal studies. For Muslim writers and aspiring scholar-activists like me, they are invaluably accessible, informative documents in which Sardar shows the experiential and personal workings behind his conclusions about matters related to Islam. Sardar’s skillful weaving together of personal experience, political context, identity, spirituality, and scholarly analysis make them intellectual works in their own right. Often, questions that arise whenever I read Sardar’s other works or hear in one of his talks or lectures will become clarified, or at least partly answered, by recalling these biographical writings.

In the past, for example, I have wondered where Sardar can be placed on the spectrum of contemporary Muslim thinkers. To put things crude- ly–using shorthand labels that are deeply problematic but which were, honestly, once part of my vocabulary, too—is he a “liberal,” a “traditionalist,” or an “apologist” for “Islamism?” Consider Sardar’s reflec- tions on the contributions of the great Imams in Sunni and Shia Islamic tradition, four of whom–Abu Hanifah, Malik, Al-Shafii, and Ibn Hanbal—became eponyms for extant Schools in Sunni Islam. The excerpt below is from a section in Desperately Seeking Paradise where Sardar challenges the claim made by founders of the Muslim Brotherhood that these Imams were to be revered as paragons of perfection. Sardar contends that the Imams often disagreed vehemently, albeit respectfully, with each other’s teachings—Al-Shafii first disagreed with the Malikis and then the Hanafis. He then attempted to synthesize the two schools through his Risalah, introduced above. Sardar (2004, p. 51) observed:

After a life of debating and challenging received opinions, Shafii, who never shied away from disagreeing with anyone, died at the hands of followers of Imam Malik who beat him to death. The legal opinions of these scholars, the substance that forms the body of Islamic Law, was never meant to be absolute, comprehensive or eternal, let alone the ultimate understanding of what constitutes the Law in Islam. They themselves saw, and emphasized, that their personal opinions were just opinions, which they changed frequently, and never intended to be Eternal Law. To claim, as for example Hassan al-Banna [the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood] did, that the Imams had solved all problems for all time, amounts to attributing divine authority to gentle, unassuming, unsure men. Who can say that Islamic Law, as it exists, is the final word on everything?

This is the kind of criticism I can get on board with. It is hard-hitting yet reverent toward what Sardar believes to be Islam’s ethical and spiritual underpinnings. And this is but one example of how Sardar’s autobiographies have helped me to piece together a picture of his personal legacy which can inform my own Muslim journey of contemplation and action.

I first encountered Sardar’s work in 1999, as an undergraduate student in Melbourne, Australia, where I was studying for an engineering degree under a scholarship from PETRONAS—the Malaysian state-owned oil- and-gas company. Earlier in my university career, I had explored Salafist and other variants of Islamic revivalism before being traumatized by them and plunging headlong into a spiritual crisis. I was ready to give up on Islam altogether when I picked up Sardar’s graphic guide, Introducing Islam, while browsing in a bookshop in Lygon Street. Intrigued by its contents and finding its graphic format accessible and appealing, I decided to give it a try.

It changed my life. I remember, for example, being stunned by Sardar’s pithy exposition about the rationalist Mutazilite tradition within Islam—something that was never mentioned in all of my Islamic Studies lessons in primary and secondary school in Malaysia, or in the dreary Friday sermons I suffered through at my university’s Muslim prayer room. After this, there was no turning back. I hungrily sought out writings by Sardar and other writers, including Muslim feminists such as amina wadud, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, and Fatima Mernissi, as well as scholars such as the Egyptians Fathi Osman and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and the Afghan Mohammad Hashim Kamali. Another game-changer for me was Omid Safi’s pioneering edited volume Progressive Muslims, published in 2003.

By the time Desperately Seeking Paradise was published in 2004, however, a degree of cynicism had set in. I had, by this point, attended a lecture by the Egyptian scholar, Tariq Ramadan, in Kuala Lumpur. I found myself being seduced by his charismatic aura, yet his lecture and the audience Q&A left me with a funny aftertaste that I could not quite explain. Some of my Muslim women friends who attended felt the same. One of them later claimed that Ramadan was the master of the “double discourse”—saying nice liberal-sounding things to some audiences but reverting to regressive Islamist rhetoric when it suited him. I was disillu- sioned. “Most of them are like that,” she continued. By “them,” she meant celebrity Muslim male spokespersons. “Even Ziauddin Sardar?” I asked. “Probably,” came the reply. It was well-known in some Malaysian circles that Sardar was closely connected to Anwar Ibrahim, our former deputy prime minister who was sacked in 1998 on trumped up charges of cor- ruption and sodomy. Whilst many within these circles strenuously opposed the persecution of Anwar, they were also wary of what they saw as Anwar’s Islamist leanings.

My disillusionment at this stage meant that I never read Desperately Seeking Paradise when it first came out. “Why bother,” I thought. “Zia’s only going to end up disappointing me, like Tariq Ramadan.” I would probably never have read it had it not been for a last-minute chance invitation I received to the launch of the quarterly periodical Critical Muslim in London, in January 2012. I had just started my PhD in the sociology of religion at King’s College London and was keen to take advantage of London as a vibrant intellectual playground. 

The auditorium at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was packed with people I did not recognize, so I sat silently in a corner. I occupied a seat in one of the back rows, by the aisle, just in case the experience was unbearable and I needed a quick escape. Instead, from the moment Zia walked onstage, I was intrigued. He and the other panelists spoke convincingly about the depth and range of reportage and analysis they had commissioned for the first issue, “The Arabs Are Alive” — a nuanced take on the Arab Spring—and gave us a taste of the upcoming Critical Muslim issues. I skimmed through the names on the periodical’s editorial and advisory committees—they included several people whose work I admired, including Ebrahim Moosa and Karen Armstrong.

So, instead of fleeing after the launch, I worked up the courage to introduce myself to Robin Yassin-Kassab, one of the editors who had spoken on the panel. I explained that I was a former journalist and human rights activist from Malaysia and was interested in contributing to Critical Muslim. Yassin-Kassab warmly encouraged me to send some samples of my writing via email, and I left the auditorium feeling a little giddy, in a good way. On the way out, I introduced myself to Samia Rahman, now Director of the Muslim Institute (which co-publishes Critical Muslim with Hurst & Company) and immediately signed up as an Associate Fellow. The next day, I submitted samples of my work to Yassin-Kassab, expecting a polite “thanks but no thanks,” or at the very least an invitation to contribute something brief and light. Instead, he replied almost immediately, commissioning an article for the third issue of Critical Muslim, “Fear and Loathing”, on homosexuality and Islam–this was after I explicitly signaled my progressive leanings in my introductory email.

I jumped at the chance and wrote an honest, heartfelt piece that criticized homophobia and transphobia within Muslim societies. I also criticized the explicit and implicit Islamophobia the characterizes a sig- nificant proportion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) activism in the West. I was expecting the usual “could you please tone it down” caution and eventual censorship that I was no stranger to, even from many supposedly “liberal” Muslims. Instead, I might have squealed a bit in my university’s computer lab when, the next week, Sardar personally emailed me with feedback (signing off informally as Zia). He wanted a couple of revisions—which were editorially sound and strengthened the essay–but, basically, he liked the piece. I was gob-smacked. This was certainly not the supposed reformist-in-Islamist-clothing that I was bracing myself to be disillusioned with. Not only that– Sardar commissioned another piece from me for a future issue, and another one after that. It quickly felt like I was getting two different educations for the price of one–my own doctoral degree, and my Critical Muslim editorial apprenticeship under Sardar.

Who was this man, whose works had excited and liberated me early on and who was now welcoming my own contributions, but who also had the reputation as an “apologist for Islamism” in some circles? I decided it was time for me to read Desperately Seeking Paradise to get to know him better. The more I read, the more confidence and trust I developed in Sardar’s analysis. I was struck by how he didn’t shy away from showing his workings, even regarding the most questionable characters he had close encounters with. In the chapter “The Laws of Heaven,” Sardar took a hatchet to the deeply terrifying (mis)application of so-called Sharia law in Pakistan, which included a jaw-dropping account of an encounter with the infamous military dictator, President Zia-ul-Haq (Sardar, 2004, p. 220):

‘Do I look like a deranged dictator to you?’ he demanded. The whole table was stunned and immediately everyone seemed to find their food fascinating. I was conscious of turmoil in my inner self. Diplomacy is not my strong suit; tact, caution and a prudential turn of phrase have long been strangers to my nature. My instant reaction was to shout out: ‘YES!’ I wrestled spontaneity to a draw and merely sat still and quiet. There is a famous Latin epithet to the effect that silence is assent; this would have to do.

This episode is so priceless that Sardar (2018, pp. 33–34) revisits it in A Person of Pakistani Origins. Perhaps these examples of proximity to certain kinds of powerful Muslims give Sardar’s critics the excuse to dismiss him, either as a stained apologist or a beyond-the-pale reformist. The truth, as Sardar reveals in his biographies, is more complicated. For instance, Desperately Seeking Paradise contains other portions that are riveting and painfully uncomfortable at the same time, especially Sardar’s recounting of the founding of the Muslim Institute. He lays bare his initial comradeship and acrimonious falling out with co-founder Kalim Siddiqui over the Institute’s alignment with the Iranian regime (Sardar, 2004, pp. 169, 340). What continues to move me is not just Sardar’s account of the Institute’s difficult history and his expulsion from it, but the eventual relaunching of a revitalized, independent Muslim Institute decades afterwards. Many Muslim movements and organizations have difficult and questionable histories—the test of their mettle is in how they transcend these and reinvent themselves for the better.

Like most prominent Muslim writers, Sardar is no plaster saint. The difference is, he not only tells us this in his own words—he demonstrates this repeatedly through the episodes he recounts in his biographical writings. In the earlier phase of my discovery of progressive Islam, I thought I was looking for an ethically-pure and untainted Muslim role model. But such a person cannot and does not exist, because Muslims, believe it are not, are only human. I continued to have expectations, however I did not need teachers who were famous, pure, or dazzlingly charismatic, but I did still seek guides who were as authentic and frank as they could be about their strengths and limitations. People who used their own difficult experiences to show their workings. Didn’t Jalaluddin Rumi, the great 13th century Muslim scholar and mystic, say, “The wound is where the Light enters you?”

Even this analogy, I fear, is complicated with Sardar. Part of my journey to a more holistic Islam has involved a deepening appreciation of Sufism, Islam’s mystical tradition, with its embrace of personal experience as a path to spiritual awakening—hence my joyous albeit belated discovery of Rumi. But even in this, I have had to contend with Sardar’s ambivalence. It should come as no surprise that Desperately Seeking Paradise also contains passages about his flirtation with Sufism, with Sardar (2004, p. 84) concluding:

My own mystical experience meant that I couldn’t reject Sufism per se. There is something deep and quite intoxicating at its core. But my encounters with its contemporary manifestations were far from enlightening. My problem was a problem of forms, the forms in which Sufism today has been made into a business of Masters, mystery and obfuscations ... . The tendency to degenerate into authoritarianism and become a cult of the Master is ever present.... Where contemporary Sufi Masters of various kinds led I was not about to follow.

Yet Sardar is no knee-jerk anti-Sufi spoilsport. In the interest of not giving spoilers, readers are directed to A Person of Pakistani Origins to find out more about Sardar’s nuanced observations about Islamic mysticism.

Ultimately, the value of Sardar’s biographical reflections is most fully appreciated when they are placed side by side. As a self-proclaimed skeptical Muslim, Sardar has inspired generations of Muslim activists and scholars. Not to abandon or superficially apologize for Islam, but to experience it with their hearts impassioned, eyes open, and brains intact. My own experiences of Muslim authoritarianism and Islamophobia have often led me to simmer with silent anger yet still feel powerless and ashamed to be yet another stereotype of Muslim rage. Reading Sardar’s biographical writings is therefore validating and comforting. Another anecdote that has stayed with me from the very first time I read it is from Balti Britain. It recounts Sardar’s secondary school experiences in Hackney with an imperialist, casually racist history teacher, Mr. Brilliant (and Sardar assures us this is not a pseudonym). Again, it is worth reproducing at length (Sardar, 2008, p. 102):

A few weeks later, Mr Brilliant introduced the topic of the ‘Indian Mutiny’. This was a subject I knew a great deal about. I protested immediately.‘That was no mutiny,’ I should, ‘it was a struggle for freedom from British domination.’ As usual, Mr Brilliant ignored me. He opened the lesson with the European ‘discovery’ of India and went on to the formation of the East India Company. I started throwing bits of paper at the blackboard. He shouted: ‘Behave yourself or it’s six of the best for you.’ The lesson continued, and Mr Brilliant went on to describe how the Company brought civilization to India. I could not take it any more. I got up, turned my table upside down and threw my texts and exercise books on the floor.

This passage is cathartic. Re-reading it allows me to replay all the times I wanted, but never had the gumption, to turn my table upside down in school classrooms and university lecture halls in Malaysia, Australia, and Britain. If readers also think this makes Sardar a little bit scary, they are not wrong. He certainly does not suffer fools–try and miss a deadline and see what happens. At the same time, Sardar is generous and nurturing. This combination of fury and care is important for newer generations of critical Muslim scholar-activists to reflect on. We are always going to be gaslighted, censored, and manipulated by powerful Islamophobic and authoritarian Muslim forces. We need a way to hold on to our own reality and authenticity as Muslims who believe that Islam stands for social justice. Some of us need to see how others have done it. Sardar’s biographical works show us, warts and all, how he has done it and continues to do it. In a way, his description of the four Sunni Imams could well apply to him, that they themselves stressed that their personal opinions were just opinions, which changed often, and never expected to become law.

Recalling the ending of Desperately Seeking Paradise always gives me goosebumps. By this point, Sardar has already put us through the wringer of his (mis)adventures in global Islam, and we sense that he is tired and ready to hang up his hat. Reading at home in his garden, he is interrupted by the doorbell. Standing at his front door are Ehsan Masood, now Chair of the Muslim Institute, and Shamim Miah, now Senior Lecturer at the School of Education, University of Huddersfield–both of whom I have had the pleasure and privilege to get to know and work with, too. Here is Sardar’s version of events (2004):

‘Brother Zia,’ Shamim said after the polite conversation dried up, ‘we are here to ask you to help us.’

‘Help you do what?’ I asked, pretending to be surprised.

‘Change the Muslims,’ Ehsan shot back.

I thought for a moment; and looked at their faces. I recognized the passion, the devotion, the concern, the perplexity, and all the expectation I had known when I too considered myself to be a young man.

Off on the road again, I thought. I can do nothing but live by my metaphors. Paradise awaits. And once again, in the company of new and old friends, I set off on a new departure (pp. 342–343).

And that is the difference between a cynic and a skeptic.


al-Shafii, M. Ibn I. (2015). The epistle on legal theory: A translation of Al-Shafii’s Risalah. (K. Ali, Ed.; J. E. Lowry, Trans.). NYU Press.

Sardar, Z. (2004). Desperately seeking paradise. Granta.

Sardar, Z. (2008). Balti Britain. Granta.

Sardar, Z. (2018). A person of Pakistani origins. Hurst & Company.