Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim, Granta Books, 2004/2005
[Published in the Mail&Guardian, 25 November 2005]
BORN IN 1951 in Pakistan and raised in London, Ziauddin Sardar is a prolific 21st century universal man. His Google hits amount to thousands, referring the googler not only to Sardar’s own writing, but to writing about him. His own topics range from information technology to scientific futures, from literary reviews to Islam.
As columnist, he is interpreter and critic of Islam to the West, while understanding the role of colonialism in the decline of Islamic culture. In short, his project is to show and emphasize a strain of scepticism in Islam. This provokes the ire of both American patriots and less sceptical Muslims. To the former, he is an apologist for Islam; to the latter, a traitor (there are some scary blogs out there).
Desperately Seeking Paradise continues this project, tracing the writer’s journey from his youth as a Muslim student activist in the 1970s to his role in various Muslim think-tanks. From his hurtful breaks with dogmatic former comrades to reconciliation with them post-9/11. Throughout, Sardar traces the history of humanism and scepticism in Islam, using it as antidote to various forms of bigotry he encounters as he himself searches for some Islamic movement or think-tank in which he can play a role.
And the book is a hoot, cultural criticism as comedy. Frequently, Sardar is approached by a pair of characters who either want to ‘help’ him find ‘true’ Islam, or who seek his help in matters religious or political. Having identified himself as a seeker (‘Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave’ is an oft-quoted saying of the Prophet Muhammad), Sardar readily falls in tow with whomever knocks on his door.
Sooner or later, though, he discovers his companions to be absolutist and unforgiving in religion. The comedy is created by the way in which Sardar caricatures these characters and his conversations with them, throwing the naïve simplicity of their belief into sharp relief. Sometimes, this verges on uncomfortable stereotype, and one wonders about Sardar’s less explicit motives. But he redeems himself by his own, witty self-effacements.
Desperately Seeking Paradise is a must read for the way in which its extended argument against absolutism is interwoven with a history of scepticism in Islam. It also contains a wealth of information around the history of interpretation of the Koran, early Islamic jurisprudence, literature and culture and so on. So, for instance, the book explains how Shariah (Islamic Law) started out as jurisprudence in action, as a method of interpretation after the prophet’s death. But it is the interpretations of ‘eighth century, classical jurists’ themselves that then become codified as Shariah, making their historical interpretations an unchanging Law.
And, underneath the comedy and scepticism and frustration at absolutism, the book is also a paean to the history of Islam. This is evident in the chapter on Sardar’s time in Mecca, establishing the Hajj Research Centre. The aim was to study human movement during the pilgrimage and to use such analysis in town-planning so that Mecca could be developed without losing its history. At some point Sardar reenacts the pilgrimage on foot, and the reader encounters the voice of a sceptic filled with the passion of a believer. The voice of someone who understands the importance of history and culture and ritual, who understands the spirit of Islam and believes in it far more passionately than any of his dogmatic opponents.