Jerry Ravetz enjoys a rollicking good read about one Muslim's search for his own Truth.
Granta Books, UK, 2004, £16.99
THIS IS AN important book, for several reasons. First, Zia Sardar is a principal writer and intellectual, having written on many different subjects, including Islam, science and America. He has always shown them as seen through his eyes. Now he writes about himself, again through his own eyes. He provides us with a unique insight into the personality and endeavour of someone who is one of the genuinely prophetic voices of our age.
Further, in this book Sardar provides us with a unique insight into the religion that defines his work and his life. This is very important just now, when Islam is the 'antichrist du jour', sandwiched between the Red Menace of yesteryear and the Yellow Peril soon to come. His portrait of Islam is certainly individualistic. It may even be idiosyncratic and eccentric. But for those who do not need a fiendish 'Other' for security in their picture of the world, it is reassuring. Muslims are really just like everyone else in their struggles and their follies.
Sardar's refreshing perspective on Islam comes through clearly in the very first chapter. He is collected by some eccentric holy men, who barrel around the country like a comedy team, coming to rest at a conference where the same old banal pieties are proclaimed as the secret to the salvation of Islam and the world. But there he meets a kindred spirit, an Englishwoman convert who kept her religion even when her Muslim marriage collapsed. They arrange a secret rendezvous, out of sight of the enthusiasts, and there agree, "Let's get the hell out of here!"
This was the first of Sardar's many and varied adventures in search of paradise. Going on for some three decades, they took him across the whole Muslim world, including extended stays in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. The one represents, in concentrated form, much of what is wrong with Islam; and the other seemed, for quite a long while, to provide the hope that Islam could really make a great contribution to contemporary civilisation.
Through all his experiences, his message becomes ever more clear. The Prophet was a man of supreme mercy, compassion and forgiveness. The Holy Koran conveys his message about right behaviour in this world, and the quite indescribable glories and bliss of the next. But when Islamic civilisation settled down, the jurists prepared a harsh and misogynistic legal code: the notorious Sharia. Later, when Islam went into decline, belief and Muslim identity oscillated between dry (and frequently cruel) legalism on the one side and anti-rational (and easily corrupted) mysticism on the other. Every reforming tendency went wrong; thus Wahhabism started as an extreme Puritanism and eventually became a vehicle of Fascistic intolerance. On top of this, Islam's decline coincided with the rise of the West, and so its thinkers suffer all the ills of inferiority and failure, retreating to literalism or fantasies of as many sorts as may be imagined.
With characteristic self-confidence, Sardar set out at an early age to change all that. He and a small band of comrades (whose eccentricities are lovingly portrayed here) wrote books, edited short-lived journals, and eventually became advisers to the saintly Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia. It was always precarious, for they were inherently subversive to just about every established interest in the Islamic world. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, they sensed that Islam would be next; then, after the first Gulf War and, finally, the destruction of Anwar, their mission became ever more hopeless in practical terms.
But Sardar never really became desperate. Indeed, the only false note in the whole book is the term 'desperately' in the title. His existence and identity are secure, thanks partly to his family background and also to his profound experience of the truth of his religion. He is also sustained by his deep knowledge of the history of Islam, its prophets, priests and philosophers. The great Muslim debates on God's place in the world, to which much of European medieval and modern philosophy is indebted, have been familiar to him from childhood. All this foundation explains just what sort of 'sceptical' Muslim he is: one who can doubt anything that anyone else needs for their security, because he really knows, or rather Knows, what it is all about.
But I would not want to give the impression that this is a 'serious' book. On the contrary, as the initial adventure indicates, it is a rollicking good tale of the adventures of a sort of innocent abroad. He will go anywhere, try anything, talk to anyone, and always be devastatingly honest. Who else would think of challenging the fundamentals of the Shia faith while being the passenger of a Shia colleague driving in the middle of nowhere in Iran? For his pains, he was dumped on the road, and hitchhiked his way back to civilisation. Dictators personally quoted his criticisms back at him, but then let him go to criticise again. Revolutionary guards in Iran seriously considered executing him as a spy, especially when he told them that their Islamic paradise was turning into a standard-issue totalitarian dictatorship. Some Saudis once turned up with a cheque for five million dollars or pounds (it didn't seem to matter which), to help in his work - if only he would be more tactful.
Sardar's qualities as a travel writer have already been shown in his lyrical homage to Kuala Lumpur. Here we follow him through another sort of travel: that of the seeker, with an irrepressible zest for life. We have the mixture of delightful pen-portraits of friends, acquaintances, opponents and great Muslims of the past, together with sharp analyses of various cultures and tendencies. Through it all is this central character, rather like Candide in his openness, almost reminiscent of Kim in his earnestness and sensitivity, frequently impassioned, sometimes depressed, but never giving us a dull page.
Jerry Ravetz co-authored Cyberfutures and Introducing Mathematics with Zia Sardar. His own work is focused on policy-related science in the 'post-normal' age; his book The No-Nonsense Guide to Science is published by Verso.