Tell me a bit about yourself, your background and education.
|`Before we are Muslims, we are human beings. Belief does not make you special; but it should make you humble. Ready made pieties and formulas do not solve problems; serious thought and hard work solves problems. We need to re-learn how to be humane and rational, the very things that made Muslim civilisation great in history.'
I was born in Pakistan, grew up in Hackney where I went to school, and then studied physics and information science at The City University, London.
Your latest book Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim chronicles an incredible journey. Did you find what you were so 'desperately seeking'?
To discover that you will have to read the book. After all, I do not want to give the ending away!
Your wife is conspicuously absent from this autobiographical work. Why?
It is not so much a biography but an intellectual journey. The people in Desperately Seeking Paradise are those with whom I have intellectual differences and with whom I argue, discuss and debate. It is not so much a personal book, but a book that explores the complex diversity of Islam, the myriads of problems Muslims face, and the possible solutions that have been offered, and my critique of these solutions. My arguments with my wife tend to be of a domestic nature! But she will have a large presence in my second autobiographical excursion: Balti Britain Exploits of a British Asian, where I will describe how I got married and why I got married to a particular person!
You have been involved in a number of Muslim groups/organisations. Tell me about your most memorable experience
and your worst!
The best experience with a Muslim group was in Indonesia where I met and spoke to the women's wing of the Muhamadiyah movement which has some 40 million followers. It was one of the most engaging events of my life. I discovered that most of these women were way ahead of me and had a great deal to teach me. It was a wonderful experience to learn from them.
The worst experience must be at my local mosque in Hendon. I tend to have bad experiences in mosques. There is always someone who is convinced that you have no idea how to pray and is determined to make sure you are standing correctly, sitting properly, raising the index finger at the right time, and so on. And that someone is always certain about his position and is willing to be aggressive to impose it on you. Just go into your local mosque and see!
Which group or personality has inspired you the most?
The person who has influenced me most is the classical Muslim scholar and polymath, al-Baruni. I am in awe of his abilities to transcend disciplinary boundaries and work with equal confidence and depth in a number of different fields. He could measure the specific gravity of base metals correct to three decimal places or the co-ordinates of famous cities just as accurately while providing one of the best accounts of the Hindu religion and the customs and sciences of India. He could write the text on astronomy for the Middle Ages Canon of al-Masudi while studying yoga, while writing a mammoth history of the world (the Chronology of Ancient Nations), while taking an active part in philosophical and theological debates of his time, while travelling to and meeting people from numerous other cultures. He may have lived in the eleventh century, but medieval al-Baruni is not. What could be more modern, indeed post-modern, than the suggestion that reality cannot be divided into isolated segments, that everything is connected to everything else, that ideas, visions and scholarship shape the future?
You have been variously described as a Muslim socialist/communist/secularist/liberal and also increasingly of late as a Muslim intellectual. How would you describe yourself?
To my knowledge, I have never been described as a communist! And, the label 'Muslim intellectual' is hardly recent it goes back over thirty years. Anyway, I am all these, and many other, things. Like most people, I have multiple identities and I do not like to be pigeon-holed.
Through the vast experience you have of the Muslim community, what do you feel are the main challenges we face, both nationally and globally?
To humanise ourselves. Before we are Muslims, we are human beings. Unfortunately, many of us have forgotten this. Some Muslims even think that we stand above humanity that we are somehow different, exclusive, and bound to reign supreme. Belief does not make you special; but it should make you humble. Ready made pieties and formulas do not solve problems; serious thought and hard work solves problems. We need to re-learn how to be humane and rational, the very things that made Muslim civilisation great in history.
What do you feel are the major changes in the British Muslim community over the last decade?
I think the Muslim community is far more organised now than it has ever been. Thanks to the MCB, we speak with a coherent voice and the government is forced to take us seriously. The emergence of highly educated and articulate young people fills me with hope. Particularly, young Muslim women.
And, finally, what are your plans for the future?
I am contracted to write two further tomes for Granta Books. So for the next couple of years, its nose to the grind!
Ziauddin Sardar was in conversation with Dr Sangeeta Dhami.
Desperately Seeking Paradise Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim
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