A universal culture

Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: a Ziauddin Sardar reader

Edited by Sohail Inayatullah and

Ziauddin Sardar believes passionately that what can be called the Islamic world is in a miserable state - politically, economically, morally and, above all, intellectually. It is hard to disagree. There are many important "Muslim" thinkers, but few genuinely stringent and sceptical intellectuals. That is neither surprising nor unique to Islam. How many important intellectuals, anywhere, are unequivocally religious thinkers? What place do theologians have in the cultural life of the "Christian" world?

Almost every academic study concurs in describing the Pakistani preacher-politician Syed Abul A'la Maududi as the most rigorous thinker of all the so-called Islamic revivalists. For this reason, I recently read some of his work. I was shocked by the paucity of ideas, the grim repetitions, and by the anti-Semitism and equally virulent anti-Hinduism. The "scholarship" consisted largely in extensive quotation and paraphrase from other sources. If it is indeed the case that Maud-udi was the most systematic thinker of modern Islam, this is extremely bad news.

To compare Sardar's work with such poisonous nonsense is an insult. But he himself insists on locating his writing in relation to Islamic intellectual worlds, as well as those of western philosophy, history and science. In that Islamic context, but perhaps in any context, his achievement is startling in its range, boldness, scepticism and, above all, sheer quantity. He has published at least 20 books, hundreds of articles, and reams of journalism on a huge variety of subjects. He specialises in the grand, multidisciplinary generalisation. This enormous body of writing includes, inevitably, much that is repetitious, ephemeral or already outdated. This book is welcome therefore because it collects some of his most important articles and excludes the worst.

Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures begins unpromisingly. The cover photo makes the amiable Sardar appear brooding and sinister. The overenthusiastic editors' introduction presents him as a universal genius and culture hero. After that, things improve. The essays are grouped around three of Sardar's most pressing preoccupations: the need for a renewal of Islamic thought; the critique of "postmodernism"; and the potential and limits of futurology. All are stimulating, even for those who, like me, may well conclude that Sardar is wrong about nearly everything.

It is unclear whether Sardar's idea of "reconstructing an Islamic civilisation" is either possible or, for that matter, desirable. Did one ever exist in the past? Has "Islam" ever been a singular entity? Does not a view like his systematically underrate or even ignore internal diversity and change? Does it tend simply to lump together a spread of ideas about religion, culture, community and tradition, which should in truth be separated? In defending all this against the supposed scourges of Eurocentrism, cultural imperialism and postmodernism, which Sardar identifies as the latest, deadliest manifestation of the first two, is he not upholding a historical, even mythical construct?

Even if there were once a cohesively Islamic civilisation, it would not follow that it could be rebuilt today. Euro-American conceptions of modernity, rationality, history, personhood and so on have, like it or not, been globalised. They are no longer external forces that press on India or China or Africa, but part of the social and psychological make-up of almost the whole world. Few people anywhere live outside them. This cultural globalisation is driven by overwhelming economic and political power.

Sardar recognises all that, which makes his insistence that it can and should be undone a desperate (though perhaps appropriate, for someone so serious about religion) act of faith. The option of the kind of pluralist, multicultural but faith-based future that he champions may have long since been foreclosed.

Why should one want to build a specifically Islamic future, even if one could? Sardar might well consider this question as evidence of anti-Islamic, or indeed anti-religious prejudice. But he is committed to rational argument, and to a kind of universalism. He cannot just say, "I've got my world-view and they've got theirs - live and let live." The relativism involved in that stance - which Ziauddin Sardar associates repeatedly but rather loosely with postmodernism - has been rejected from the start of his argument. So he has to offer some strong arguments as to why an admiring but sceptical reader like me should prefer a world based on ethical values derived from Islam (or from any religion) to one based on my rather fuzzy kind of secular liberalism. I don't think he provides such arguments.

Stephen Howe's most recent book is Ireland and Empire (OUP)