Ziauddin Sardar - Critical Muslims, transmodern tradition
Cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar is a bit of an 'enfant terrible' of the Muslim scholarship and one of Brittains most important public intellectuals. Currently, Ziauddin Sardar is Professor of Law and Society, Middlesex University. He's the Chair of the Muslim Institute, a fellowship society that promotes knowledge and debate, which publishes the quarterly 'Critical Muslim'.
A very recommended book from his long list of published works is his autobiography 'Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim'.
In his distinctly personal and independent style, Ziauddin Sardar wrote over 45 books, guest blogged in the Guardian and presented a number of programs for the BBC and Channel 4.
For many decades, this polymath has portrayed a relentless intellectual energy. His research interests went from 'The Future of Muslim Civilisation' over 'Why Do People Hate America?' to 'The A to Z of Postmodern Life' and his professional life includes periods of research work for the Hajj Research Centre in the seventies and an advisory position in the cabinet of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia in the late eighties.
When I met this somewhat fidgety but very welcoming man in London, his main preoccupation was editorial work for the intellectual magazines 'Critical Muslim' and 'East West Affairs'. The former bundles contemporary Muslim ideas and thought, the latter is a journal of North-South relations in postnormal times.
To start somewhere, we started with the past. That is to say, with tradition.
You are known as an outspoken critic of tradition. Yet my own ‘journey through Islam’ has in fact rekindled a great deal of my respect for traditions – both the Muslim as well as my own Christian tradition.
Traditions carry much beauty within themselves, but a great deal of problems comes from tradition. Normally, traditions are not something static. They are constantly reinvented, so to say. In fact, a tradition stays a tradition by reinventing itself. If it doesn’t reinvent itself, it can become a custom and a custom can become very oppressive. But a great part of the contemporary problem is that much of our tradition is ossified, frozen in history, very misogynic and has a great fear of ‘the other’. And certain aspects of these ossified traditions are very deathly, like for example, not allowing free thought, killing apostates or like traditions that are oppressive towards sexual orientation.
A great deal of these traditions actually comes from what I would call ‘manufactured hadiths’. Therefore all criticism has to start with our own sources. We uncritically accept all the hadiths that are thrown at us, without critically engaging with them.
Is it not so, however, that the Islamic tradition normally does critically engage with them, for example by trying to find the chain of narrators in order to figure out the authority of a certain hadith.
Sure, but we have to keep in mind that the methodologies have moved on. There are new ways of criticizing. Even within the old traditional methodologies, I do not think that the hadith criticism was good enough. Two of the premises of accepting a hadith are that it shouldn’t contradict the Qur’an and that it should be a rational hadith, yet lots of accepted hadith do in fact contradict the Qur’an and are totally irrational. According to Bukhari, for example, a hadith explains that “Seeing a black woman in a dream is the sign of an oncoming epidemic.” Or what are we to make of the hadith that tells us that “The Messenger used to visit all nine of his wives every night.” How could any man, no matter how close to the Prophet, have known this? And even if some men might know more about his nocturnal relationships with his wives, how could he humanly have done that, particularly when we are told elsewhere in the same collection (The book of Nikah) that he used to pray all night, so much so that his feet swelled?
We can say the same about Qur’an interpretation. We have the classical Qur’anic methodology that you have to interpret the Qur’an from within the Qur’an, that you have to look at the historical context, and so on. But even that has not really been followed. And some of the classical commentaries are pretty horrendous in terms of what they say about women, about Christians or the way they speak about belief.
Belief can never be a totally rational concept though. You can’t be endlessly critical and analytic about it, I would say. It is, in the end, also a matter of ‘acceptance’.
Sure. Belief certainly doesn’t have to be a totally rational thing. There is such a thing as ‘a leap of faith’. But the leap of faith is about God. In a sense, God has to remain the unseen. Because if God can be seen or if you can prove him by logical argument, everybody will believe in God and there will be no need for faith. What follows after the leap of faith, however, has to be based on some notion of rationality, objectivity, analysis and method. You can’t just believe something because people tell you that they found it in the Qur’an or because they heard a particular hadith.
That’s why criticism is so important. And actually, for me, the greatness of the Muslim civilization lay in its criticism. The early Muslim scholars were very critical, even those who canonized Islamic law. And they expected that those who would follow them would be equally critical. The whole idea of hadith collection, for example, was based on criticism but the generations that followed them did not pay much attention to this aspect of criticism and a lot more to following their predecessors. One person follows the previous one, and he’s in turn followed by another, so there’s rather a chain of followers instead of critical engagement with the text.
And of course, many feminist Muslim scholars have pointed out that most of the Qur’an and hadith interpretations were done by men and as such many of those interpretations have been far too patriarchal.
They’re absolutely correct on this. Even more so, they weren’t just men, but men with a very tribal outlook on life so that their tribal culture became a part of the tafsir (the explanatory interpreations of Qur’anic verses) and the manufacturing of hadiths.
So without a critical engagement with our sources, I don’t think we have much of a future. This blind faith on tradition is absolutely appalling.
But – and this is an emphasized ‘but’ – I do understand that you cannot ditch tradition completely. You do need traditions. They are very important for our sanity because they gives us a sense of identity and purpose in life. Actually, this is where criticism comes in – or positive criticism at least. Negative criticism simply deconstructs and destroys. But positive criticism tries to take us forward. Positive criticism tries to preserve and promote the many life-enhancing elements of traditions.
Many people will nowadays turn to what they call the ‘Sufi tradition’ to find such life-enhancing elements of Islam. Lately I have written critically about it myself, but how do you assess this quite modern focus on ‘Sufism’?
Lots of people are often impressed by Sufi teachings and Sufi talk on tradition but Sufis themselves have contributed a great deal to misogynic and authoritarian thought in Muslim culture. In classical Sufi tariqats, for example, you’re often supposed to accept your shaykh unquestioningly. But why? Is he God? Why should I accept anyone unquestioningly? Of course I should learn from the shaykh, but I should be able to discuss, debate and openly criticize when I deem it necessary. I find this whole idea of a ‘guru’ and ‘disciple’ quite repugnant. Lots of Sufi’s are however promoting such things. And exactly the same methodology is used by groups like Al Qaeda. In those circles, you’re also not supposed to question the authority.
All of that Sufi business is often just recycling the old traditional stuff. Now I don’t mind that people engage with great minds like Ibn Arabi or Rumi and their illuminating thought, but what I dislike is the perpetuating of uncritical tradition.
In his book about Islam, the theologian Hans Küng sees ‘institutionalized Sufism’ as a factor for a lasting intellectual stagnation. More specifically he explains how the genius of Al Ghazali had been too great since Al Ghazali’s exhaustive integration of traditional jurisprudence, theology and mysticism blocked further thought.
Al Ghazali indeed had a great deal to do with it and Sufis certainly have a lot to answer for. I know it’s sometimes almost considered as blasphemy if you dare to take on this great scholar which has often been called ‘the proof of Islam’. But if you look at his ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers’, a book which has been praised for many centuries, you’ll see that Al Ghazali essentially tried to poop out philosophy and thought. As a result, his presumed victory led to an ossification of critical thought in Islam. He isolated philosophers like Ibn-Rushd, Ibn-Tufayl and Ibn-Sina. (Click here for a more elaborate text of Ziauddin in which he goes deeper into this matter)
Of course, I don’t mind him criticizing those philosophers, but to try to silence thought and rationality that’s a totally different enterprise.
But can we compare this type of historic ossification to the current trend of Salafi-style ossification of Islam?
The underlying process is the same. First of all it involves an exaggerated ‘reverence’. It’s about giving complete reverence to authorities, teachers or your shaykhs and idealizing them as perfect human beings who can solve all problems. This comes with a fear of getting it wrong. In the presence of such an idealized figure, you are scared to be wrong because it feels like a sin. But of course questioning and criticism necessarily involves getting it wrong. Being human means that you sometimes get it wrong. If you’re perfect, you won’t, but if you’re human, you will.
So fear, idealization and over-reverence are essential in this matter. And they’re nothing new. Ibn Khaldun criticized others for exactly these three things.
Today however, these things are also strongly connected to specific economic and political realities, the spread of Petro-Islam from the Gulf being one of them.
I think the Gulf and the Saudi’s have done a lot to promote Wahhabism and closing the minds of Muslims. But that’s hardly surprising. It’s a very tribal society. In fact, their construction of God is a bit like the leader of the Quraysh. He’s always angry, he’s always vengeful, he’s always protective of his tribe and nothing else matters. The whole ‘image’ they made of God is therefore very problematic in my eyes. Where’s the mercy? Where’s the beauty? Where’s humanity? If you look at God’s 99 names, those aspects are among them as well, yet they tend to ignore them.
When I spoke to Dr. D Latifa, she said: “Their work is done. They’ve created the priests, now they will claim Mecca as the Rome of Islam.” Would you then agree with such a quote?
Yes I would. They act quite like an empire and it’s very interesting to see how they’re transforming Mecca very much into a city like imperial Rome. All the cultural property has been removed. They build huge hotels, shopping malls and palaces on top of the Kaaba, transforming it into a contemporary imperial center. It’s not much of a sacred city anymore. It’s a pretty ugly city in many respects. Of course, the Kaaba and its surroundings will always be sacred to Muslims, but once you go outside of it, you’re greeted with much ugliness.
Your criticism of such issues is very outspoken and straightforward. Often, that type of criticism evokes a counter reaction that pushes people ‘outside’ the community. Do you have the feeling you’re being pushed outside the Muslim community?
Of course people sometimes get upset by my criticism, but fortunately I’m still seen as part of the community and I still see myself as a part of it. And what is a community in any case? You can create community in various ways. There’s also a community of critical Muslims, for example. Yet criticism is frowned upon everywhere. It’s not a specific Muslim problem. If you’re American and criticize America, for example, you also had it. Those in power always frown upon criticism. But those in power can also only be held accountable through criticism. So criticism is essential to accountability.
The possibility to hold things accountable seems to diminish however, as we witness a worldwide ‘growth’ of narrow minded conservatism that increasingly restricts freedom of thought and action.
I think this growth of conservatism is produced by fear. When you fear change, you look inwards and try to create boundaries. And part of the problem for conservatives has been the accelerating rate of change. Look at computers: their computing power doubles every six months, so to speak. It took thirty years to take the first genome out of a fly and now we can take genomes out of everything in a matter of days. How we approach the body, what we regard as life, how we need to construct society, etc. all these things have become major issues. As a result people come together and focus on their particular group, creating ‘us vs. them’ boundaries in their effort to navigate the sea of change. Of course, fear of the others was already there, but when you bring in rapid change, it increases manifold and uncertainty becomes dominant. And people who want certainty often find it in certain literal notions of religion. They simplify things and make clear cut lists of do’s and don’ts. Yet this only creates an illusion of certainty, because, in the end, there is no ultimate certainty.
Postmodern philosophy starts from exactly this premise, that there aren’t any ultimate certainties in lives. Nonetheless, besides being an outspoken critic of ossified Islamic traditions you’re also a critic of modernism and postmodernism. You’ve written several texts and books on the matter. In a sense I see great similarities between the two topics of critique, because modernity as it exists today, is, in my eyes, the ossification of the secular, atheist, scientistic idea that all value eventually can be leveled down to the preferences of the individual. You wrote about ‘transmodernism’ in this respect. What do you exactly mean by it?
As you say, we know that there are lots of problems with modernism. Postmodernism is supposed to critique modernity and take us forward. But it has turned out to be a new form of Western imperialism. Everything is vanity, there are no ground narratives, nothing gives meaning, there is no sense of direction, etc. These post-modern ‘building blocks’ are absolutely untrue, they only have us staring in a void. So we need to go beyond them. That’s where transmodernity comes in.
Transmodernity is an effort to go beyond modernity and postmodernity. We need to bring the life-enhancing aspects of tradition and the best aspects of modernity together. They need to be synthesized into a new way of looking at things. In modernity, tradition is always looked down upon. In transmodernity, tradition is critiqued but then the best bits of tradition are kept and build upon. In postmodernism, modernism is almost seen as evil. But again in transmodernity, modernity is critiqued and its best aspects are enhanced. So it’s a much more critically engaging process that takes the best of what was already there. It doesn’t disconnect you from history, but builds upon elements that can take you forward.
What are some of the most valuable aspects of tradition which, in your eyes, the world needs today?
The whole idea of family as a basic unit on which the community and society is build is a good example. Or the way in which traditional societies have engaged with nature. They don’t see nature as something that needs to be conquered. Nature, to them, is something that you work and live with. So if traditional societies are allowed to follow their traditions, they tend to be ecologically sound. Look at Fez for example. It’s built along on a river, but in such a way that the water is not polluted as it flows downstream. Traditionally, they also allowed certain parts outside the city to be ‘haram’ so that people could not cut the trees of the woodlands.
The tragedy of the Islamic tradition is that we’ve lost the positive life enhancing aspects of it. Sadly enough, we trap ourselves in those aspects of tradition that are often deathly.
So what does the future have in store for us, you think?
Given the global trends, I believe that all too narrow thought will become obsolete. It can of course do much damage in the short run but in the long run the fundamentalist and literalists stuff will eventually prove itself to be totally insufficient and disappear. There will always be fundamentalists and literalists – in fact we need them in order to have a complete human society with all shades of opinion – but they will not be dominant. They will lose their engine. The engine at the moment is Saudi Arabia. And the engine will only be running as long as the oil is flowing – not much longer in other words. Muslim fundamentalism doesn’t have much of a future therefore. It’s just a bunch of slogans without much pragmatic solutions. It’s the people who produce pragmatic solutions who will eventually win the day.
Quite an optimistic outlook for a continuously critical person like you.
I think a religious person has to be optimistic by nature, because religion is all about hope.
for a pdf with a short conversation
about the quarterly 'Critical Muslim'.