Is Desperately Seeking Paradise a travelogue through the Muslim world over the course of 30 years; a reconstruction of conversations with Muslim leaders and scholars from different parts of the globe; an account of a man's quest for understanding of the religion in which he passionately believes, even while he dissociates himself from many of the claims made in its name; or a first-hand account of some of the more significant moments in the history of various nations in the latter part of the 20th century? Remarkably, Ziauddin Sardar's book is all these things and more. Far from staggering under its own weight, it bounds forth with extraordinary energy and lightness, propelled at all stages by a passion for knowledge and inquiry.
Sardar opens his account in London in the early 1970s , when he is a questioning twentysomething. Two bearded men knock on his door and tell him to join in tabligh - travelling around the country, bringing lapsed Muslims back into the fold. This, they tell him, is the route to paradise. So off he goes - more out of curiosity than anything else. This is the first of many physical-spiritual journeys through the UK, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan. Sardar comes closest to find- ing the paradise he seeks in Malaysia, before the imprisonment of the deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim forces him to leave (an event so damaging that he compares it to the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492). These journeys allow Sardar to slip between the roles of observer, raconteur, participant, commentator and, ultimately, amalgamator, as he attempts to see how his knowledge of different parts of the Muslim world can augment his understanding of the whole.
And the whole, he does not shy away from pointing out, is a mess. One after another, with very few exceptions, the religious scholars and self-proclaimed reformers he encounters reveal themselves to be incapable of enlightened thought, always falling back on the crudest form of literalism in their interpretation of religion. Yet Sardar's own upbringing and his questioning mind convince him that Islam is, at its very root, steeped in the nuances of metaphor; he is wonderfully eloquent as he explains that any attempt to read the Koran with strict literalism is to be deliberately blind to its self-awareness of the limitations of language.
This problem is directly tied to that central issue in contemporary Muslim societies - living one's life according to sharia, or Islamic law. Sardar insists that "sharia is a human construction; an attempt, formulated 150 years after the death of the Prophet, to understand the divine will in a particular context - and that context happens to be eighth-century Muslim society". Yet one of the great triumphs of the Islamist hardliners has been to conflate sharia with the Koran, allowing them to level accusations of blasphemy and heresy against any who dare question it. Until the sharia can be regarded as mutable - not merely capable of, but necessitating, constant re-examination - there can be no true progress in Muslim societies.
Frighteningly, however, Sardar suggests that contemporary political events are moving many people further toward the most rigid interpretations of sharia. As Asma Barlas, a Pakistani feminist scholar, explains to him: "The sharia and veiling for women have become the quintessential symbols of Islam . . . The more Muslims have felt ideologically attacked and threatened by western secularism and, prior to that, colonialism, the more deeply wedded they've become to an unthinking veneration of certain symbols they associate with their religion. It all adds up to a totalistic notion of Islam."
In his discussion with Barlas, Sardar is somewhat hoist by his own petard. Her keen intelligence (she is one of the few scholars who seems capable of a transforming vision of Islam) draws attention to the absence from his book, except in this one section, of feminist scholars. Although Sardar claims early on, and rightly so, that a religious thinker's views on women are "the infallible indicator of a writer or thinker's position on the scale of reformative thought", he himself gives no space to the work of female religious scholars such as Fatima Mernissi or Riffat Hasan.
I would also question Sardar's claim that Islam and modernity are incompatible - a line which has become increasingly popular in the past few years. It transpires that modernity is a deeply pejorative word in Sardar's vocabulary. He sees it as a western construct that privileges greed over morality, the desires of the first world over the needs of the third. Perhaps the problem here has to do with the limitations of language, but when Sardar speaks of the need to move from a modern understanding of science to an Islamic one he seems merely to be talking about the need for a system of ethics within scientific research, rather than a battle between modernity and Islam.
And yet, although I found myself questioning some of Sardar's contentions, this invariably drew me further into the book, forcing me to re-evaluate or properly articulate my own views. Sardar is not seeking a congregation to preach to; he seeks companions to argue with, learn from, and laugh with. The effect is intoxicating. Upon finishing the book, I turned back and started reading it all over again, just for the pleasure of going another round in the company of Sardar's iconoclastic, worshipful mind.
Kamila Shamsie is the author of Kartography (Bloomsbury)