Pilgrim on a rocky road
Desperately Seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim
By Ziauddin Sardar
It is a tragedy that despite the rich history of the written word in the Islamic tradition, there is so little literary expression from Muslims in the West - a community of incredible cultural and linguistic diversity and a repository of global experiences. It is this drought that makes Ziauddin Sardar's latest book special: for it not only gives an indication of the possibilities, but also shows the challenges involved.
Admittedly, Sardar is a prolific writer. As the title suggests, his book details a man's journey through life as a member of a faith group that has been through many upheavals and changes during his lifetime. Like most of Sardar's works, this is not a "Muslim book", because it seems obsessed - in its expressions, tone and choice of issues - with impressing an elitist metropolitan readership. It reminds me of an orientalist travelogue as it attempts to be intimate in both worlds.
The book provoked mixed emotions from me as a young(ish) second-generation British Muslim. The fly-on-the-wall narrative voice and intimate and personalised tone was captivating, but I was disturbed by the unnecessary and sometimes juvenile comments about his peers and, even more, by the lack of generosity of spirit. He seems to snigger as his "rationality" apparently conquers the "bearded Muslim men", whom he implies are backward by comparison.
Sardar is from a generation of middle-class anglophile Muslims, both pious and intellectual, for whom there was little space in the British Muslim community in the 1970s and 80s. He, and other intellectual fugitives, went mainstream and flourished. Now that the community has opened up, he is not interested in re-engaging with it other than making an occasional effort to debate with Muslim academics.
It is not difficult to share his disappointment with developments in the Muslim community: the lack of intellectual synergy, acceptance of mediocrity in almost every aspect of existence, and the terrible failure of religious leaders to deliver even a semblance of relevant leadership and direction.
In a way, the book promotes the notion that people such as Sardar are warriors in the necessary battle for reformation that is taking place within Islam. His sweeping statements about Islamic reformation will no doubt win easy friends among those who believe contemporary Islam is essentially flawed, but this rhetoric is problematic. Changes are taking place, but the driving forces are more complex than this book recognises; the process is more a restoration of Islam than a reformation.
His rejection of Sufism is a little hard to swallow as his experiences are based only on one extreme manifestation of Sufism, which happened to bring about the downfall of his brother. He ignores the broad channels of Sufism, which have provided the counter culture by which orthodoxy could be challenged and Islam constantly brought back to its spiritual centre, and this is to the book's detriment.
Sardar is, of course, no religious scholar (neither does he claim to be one) and so pulls little weight with the Muslim masses. It is sad that such a gifted person has been forced into writing about a faith based on love in expressions that are frequently tarnished with bitterness, anger and, sometimes, even contempt. The effect will be, unfortunately, to accelerate the marginalisation of Sardar and his views.
Sardar is not a self-hating Muslim but sometimes he tries too hard to appease his New Statesman-reading audience at the unnecessary expense of near contempt for the British Muslim community. In Islam courage is admired, but courage without chivalry and manners is detested.
Once in a while (but all too rarely), he reveals moments of longing affection for and affinity with the community, with much genuine trauma.
For instance, he asks tenderly: "What point in seeking paradise if one is alone, bereft of the community that is integral not only to the who, how and why I am but to my idea of paradise itself?"
He details many captivating and worthy discussions he has had during his "journey". Each anecdote invariably ends with a victorious punchline that suggests he has retold these tales many times. This throws doubt over whether he remains true to the context and proceedings of these discussions or is more concerned with producing a revisionist history. Nonetheless, this is an unusually honest effort at Muslim literary expression.
It would have been more effective and credible if the recollections were a little less Sardar-centric, but his devil's-advocate stubbornness in the face of pomposity is amusing. He likens himself to a contemporary Mullah Nasiruddin - the archetypal joker figure of Islamic tradition whom Sardar describes as "a projection from deep within the universal Muslim psyche; someone who can point out the absurdities of their situation; someone they can believe and laugh with" - in his struggle against the vain tyranny of the many who rightfully, or wrongfully, dominate Muslim discourse.
Many would disagree, however, that he has the depth of knowledge, breadth of experience and, above all, compassion, to lead the reformation he seeks.
Fareena Alam is editor of the British Muslim magazine Q-News