Questions are never indiscreet: answers sometimes are

The Friday Times | Feb 22, 2006

Imaduddin Ahmed

“Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim” 
By Ziauddin Sardar; 
Granta Books (2004); 
Pp 356; 
Rs 445

 Islam is all the rage. The charade Hudood laws debate continues in parliament as I write, taking prime media space. Scholars and politicos are discussing how Islamic the Hudood laws are. The Islamist politicos in favour of the Hudood laws say they are defending the Shariah.

Yet how often do you hear ‘the Shariah’ being questioned as a valid basis for law?. . . I thought so. Want to see how it is questioned? In his book Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical, Ziauddin Sardar concludes, ‘[T]he Shariah as understood by Muslims today, has nothing really to do with the truth of Islam. It is in fact largely fiqh, a body of historically frozen judicial thought and rulings,’ which lends itself to authoritarianism and stifles the development of Islamic ideology and law. Sardar notes that for almost 150 years after the Prophet (pbuh), the religious knowledge of Islam was not called the Shariah. This knowledge was largely personal and somewhat subjective.

Sardar’s highly entertaining autobiography is replete with criticisms of Islamic thought as he narrates his experiences with several visions of Islam and of significant historical moments in the past 30 years. Desperately Seeking Paradise also serves as a useful primer to scholastic works on Islam and movements in Islamic history. Through the course of the book we find Sardar searching for a way for Islam to flourish in the modern world. In this book, Sardar does not explain “why Islam?”, but through his seeking, he presents questions and criticisms – through very readable dialogues – that aren’t getting the media attention they deserve.

Born in Dipalpur, Punjab but in Hackney since childhood, Sardar is a professional writer – he has published over 40 books. He spent his student days in the late ’60s and early ’70s as an activist in FOSIS (Federation of Students Islamic Society in UK and Eire). Our adventure with our guide to Islam begins as he opens his door to two well-meaning Muslims – a recurring theme throughout his life – and finds himself on the road the same day to encourage others in northern England to join the Tablighi Jamaat.

Inspired by Al-Ghazali to seek knowledge by travelling, Sardar continues his journey beyond Sheffield. Among other places, he takes us to and examines mystical Konya, pre- and post-revolutionary Tehran and pre-Saddam Baghdad, Zia’s Pakistan, Muslim villages near Beijing, modernising Wahhabi Mecca, secular Istanbul and pluralist Kuala Lumpur. Bradford is also visited, where youths are only exposed to the radical views of racist Islamophobes and Khomeini, but not of moderate Muslims. On the way we are introduced, sometimes a tad too briefly, to Malcolm X, Maududi, members of the Saudi royal family, Iran’s revolutionary guards, al-Faruqi, Zia ul-Haq and Osama Bin Laden. Sardar also managed to penetrate the inner circle of the Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. Of course we are also introduced to a whole host of intellectuals and his own eclectic mix of eccentric friends – one of whom, Beaconhouse National University students will be delighted to find out – is Dr Gulzar Haider. ‘If one were to ask him, “How are you?” he would reply, “Last night in my dreams I saw snow crystals of such beauty that they will haunt me for the rest of my life.”‘

Gulzar Haider, like Sardar, found Zia ul-Haq’s antics in Pakistan disheartening. Sardar wrote as much in an earlier book:

‘[I]n Pakistan [. . .] a deranged dictator sits on the throne [. . .] His first actions are to introduce “Islamic punishments” – as if Islam begins and ends with them [. . .] Can there be a better invitation to Islam than this?’

This narrative gets him into trouble as Sardar meets Zia ul-Haq for the first time: ‘”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.’

Yet Sardar survives to tell his tales . . . and to return to Pakistan in the wake of the Sofia Bibi case. Through conversations with Parvez Manzoor and Asma Barlas, Sardar dares to deconstruct the Shariah. Barlas, who challenges the witness laws, explains that the Shariah was formulated by jurists during the misogynistic Abbasid period.

Despite being a thought provoking read, Desperately Seeking Paradise is a primer at best, and an unapologetically subjective one at that. But it functions to mirror the narrator’s experience: it encourages the reader to start her own journey. I, for one, am excited that I’ll start reading Islamic law as this article is published.

Imaduddin Ahmed is Features Editor at The Friday Times



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