Ziauddin Sardar tells Julian Baggini about his philosophical and spiritual development.
In Britain, describing yourself as a public intellectual sounds too pretentious by half. Like “polymath”, it is only an acceptable description if offered by others. But anyone who’d want to deny Ziauddin Sardar the right to ether title needs to consider how else the man is supposed to describe himself. An incomplete summary of his work is that he’s written nearly 50 books; edited the journals Third Text and Futures; been science correspondent for Nature and New Scientist and a reporter for London Weekend Television; made several documentaries; is a commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission of Britain; and is visiting professor of postcolonial studies at City University. If Sardar isn’t a public intellectual and polymath, then who is?
One label that never seems to attach itself to Sardar, however is philosopher, even though he says “almost everything serious I write has some philosophical content.” His thinking has been deeply informed by philosophy ever since his teens.
“Surprising as it may seem, there is a specific moment in my life when I realised philosophy would play a very important part in whatever I’m going to do,” Sardar told me when I talked to him in London recently. “That was when I was still in the sixth form and quite by chance I read Ibn Tufail’s Life of Hayy. It’s certainly the first novel in Islam, but probably the first proper philosophical novel, written in the 12th century.”
The protagonist of the novel “comes out of slime in the ocean and becomes a human being.” Living a solitary life on an island, he “starts thinking about the stars, the animals around him, and through this thinking he reaches the conclusion that there is a creator. So it’s a purely rational book, in that sense, and very Socratic, asking questions. I just loved this stuff.”
What was it about the book which grabbed Sardar?
“I think it was the ability to reason in a very systematic way and the ability to ask pertinent questions. I’m very interested in the issue, when is a question a legitimate question? When is a question not a question? When does a question frame an answer in such a way that there’s no point in answering, because whether you have stopped beating your wife or not, you are a wife beater if you answer the question, it’s as simple as that. So asking pertinent questions was what I wanted to do.”
When Sardar learned that Ibn Tufail lived in Granada and was a contemporary of Ibn Rushd, the great philosopher of Islam, he started to explore the other philosophical literature of Islam’s “golden age”.
“I sat down to read first of all Al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers, his attack on philosophy. And in those days I actually believed – like most Muslim intellectuals, I suppose even to this day – that Al-Ghazali killed philosophy in Islam, which is rubbish: no individual can do something like that. Al-Ghazali himself was a philosopher and if you look at The Incoherence of the Philosophers, it is a philosophy text arguing against philosophy. But it is not arguing against philosophy, it’s arguing against a specific kind of philosophy, namely, Greek philosophy.
“Other philosophers, like Ibn Rushd, argued against Al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers. His book was called the Incoherence of the Incoherence, which is the classical defence of rationality, accepting certain things that I do not, in a sense.”
This reading brought Sardar “face to face with this great debate [in Islam] between philosophers and theologians on either side and Sufis in the middle.” What he discovered contradicted received opinion about the role of reason in Islam.
“Since I wanted consciously to promote Islamic thought, right from the beginning, I was very dissatisfied with a great deal of what I read about Islam, since the Koran constantly asks the reader to be a thinker. The most common phrases in the Koran are ‘have you not thought’, ‘did you not think’, ‘look at the signs of nature’; and the interesting thing for me is that the Koran itself, although it’s a clearly a religious text, continuously asks questions. This is what Ibn Rushd and the philosophers in Islam were actually doing – asking questions. So asking questions became my methodology, in a sense.”
This was a time of real intellectual awakening for the Pakistan-born Sardar, who was at the time going to Brooke House Secondary School in Hackney. “But I hasten to add it was not the school that gave me the texts. It was my Muslim friends, many of whom were doing PhDs. I used to be very active in the Federation of Students Islamic Societies. There were lots of students from Egypt, Jordan, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, from all over the world coming here in the 60s and 70s to do PhDs, many of them in philosophy. Amongst us the discussion was about the nature of God, how do we discover the will of God, the arguments for God and all that. In a sense the philosophical method for us was essential to argument and criticism.”
By the time he left university, Sardar had become focussed on epistemology: the theory of knowledge. “Al-Ghazali’s Book of Knowledge, which is one book among his multi-volume The Revival of Religious Knowledge, became my regular study, and the classification of knowledge in Muslim philosophers, how knowledge is looked at and how knowledge is classified.”
This led directly into an interest in the philosophy of science. “It was my great fortune to meet Jerry Ravetz. Ravetz, to my mind, is in the contemporary scene the third, fourth great philosopher of recent times, probably far more important than Popper and Kuhn even though Popper and Kuhn are given more prominence. The reason for that is that Jerry has done lots of work on the mathematical philosophy of risks which I think is mind-bogglingly clever. His classic book is Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems, which came out in 1971. Jerry introduced me to a whole branch of philosophy of science – Feyerabend, Popper, and Kuhn. Through Jerry I feel that I formally studied philosophy of science, because he actually said, ‘lad, before you can talk to me go and read this.’ He forced me to read philosophy of science very systematically.”
But how did Sardar manage to do all this reading, when philosophy has never been a full-time study or job?
“One of the great blessings in my life is that I found myself working in Saudi Arabia. My first job was working on the city of Mecca, on the problem of Hajj. When I was working on Mecca, from 1974 to 1979, two million pilgrims came every year to perform the hajj. How do you accommodate them? How do you move these two million people? What impact does this have on the environment, how much pollution there is? What about traffic congestion? What does it do to pilgrims’ health? So we were working on building a model of that. And in Saudi Arabia there was absolutely nothing to do. King Abdul Aziz University, where the Hajj Research Centre was based, was a very new university, and it had an incredible library, which was hardly ever used. It was virtually in the middle of the desert, because Jeddah was not a very big town in 1974, it was like a building site. There was no television, no nothing. Well there was television but television had the most appalling Saudi programmes you could ever imagine which nobody in their right mind would ever want to watch. You had this great new university with an incredibly good library and you could get almost anything, so I just read.”
Sardar describes himself as a sceptical Muslim, and as such, he has no problem reconciling Islam and philosophy.
“Even Al-Ghazali, who was regarded as a great critical philosopher, said nobody believes unless they doubt, and philosophy begins with doubt, in a sense. I think it is true that if you look at the Muslim world today there’s hardly much philosophy. I think Iran stands out, maybe some philosophy in Indonesia, but the contemporary Muslim scene is totally devoid of philosophy and that’s part of the overall decline of Muslim civilisation. But when Muslim civilisation was at its zenith, philosophy was an integral part of Islam.”
In his own case, he finds it “difficult to separate” his pursuit of philosophy and his investigations of Islam. “I am not a conventional Muslim thinker. I’m not too interested in theology. Let me be totally honest: theology bores me. I’m not interested in how many angels there are and what are their names and exactly when to bow and not to bow and whether to raise your index finger or not during prayer. I’m interested in looking at Islamic concepts, if you like, from a philosophical perspective.
“If you take for instance the concept of halal, which basically means praiseworthy – something is good and wholesome, for you, for society, for the world. This is a central concept in Islam – Islam is built on the notion of halal. But nowadays it seems to have been reduced to meat. There could not have been a greater injustice than to reduce such a profound notion as halal to simply halal meat. And to me this is a philosophical question, in the sense of: how do we live a halal life in contemporary times?”
It’s a question that Sardar believes has several dimensions. One is ethical. “If you are slaughtering an animal, first of all you need to treat that animal as an individual creation of God. So you look the animal in the eye and say ‘I am doing this in the name of God because I am hungry.’ So you can’t apply the same principle to mass slaughter in the abattoir. Factory farming can never be halal in my notion of thought. It’s just not ethical. For me one of the most halal things you can do is switch the light off, because climate change is real. I want to open up the notion up of halal from an ethical perspective.”
Then there is an epistemological dimension: “My pursuit of knowledge as well as the knowledge I generate has to be praiseworthy and healthy. So the way I seek knowledge, the experimental methods I use, has to show reverence for the creation of God. I cannot destroy the object of my study simply because I want to study it.”
Sardar’s approach to Islamic thought can sound – deceptively – almost secular.
“I don’t see Islam as a religion. As I have said, I’m not particularly interested in theology. I’m interested in Islam as a world-view, and as a world-view it is based on certain ethical concepts, so I’m committed to a particular ethical way of looking at and shaping the world, at the end of the day. My Islam is about epistemology, it’s about ethical interpretation of concepts, it’s about engaging and changing the world for the better. It’s also about prayer and fasting, but that’s only a minor component of the way I see Islam as a world-view.”
However, Sardar is only secular in a very narrow way.
“I’m secular in the sense that I believe functionally it is better that religion doesn’t interfere with the state, and the examples we have in the contemporary Muslim world – Iran, Taliban, Pakistan – are examples which show you that is the route to dictatorship, authoritarianism and totalitarian thought. Iran is an actual example: despite the philosophy, Iran is a totalitarian nightmare – and that nightmare can be traced to Plato, by the way.
“But I’m not a secularist, in the sense that I don’t believe that religion has no place in public space or that spirituality is not important. I think that spirituality is deeply important, especially for contemporary times, because it’s such an alienating time. And at the end of the day I am a believing Muslim. I am sceptical Muslim, in the sense that I believe in asking questions and I would ask those questions that many Muslims would not even dream of asking. But that doesn’t make me a non-believer. So in that sense I’m not a secularist. Religion plays a very important part in my life, in what I believe, how I look at the world, what I do and how I behave.”
Sardar is dismayed by the systematic erasure of Islamic civilisation’s contribution to science and philosophy in general. However, when it comes to the present parlous state of Islamic philosophy, his finger points not only westward.
“At the end of the day I would lay the blame on Muslims more than anybody else. It is for Muslims to revive their own traditions, or to continue their own traditions. For me traditions are not fossilised things. Traditions reinvent themselves. When traditions cease to rethink and reinvent themselves they become fossilised and the customs become oppressive. Traditions should be liberating because they give you a sense of identity and continuity but they must be rethought and reinvented constantly.”
Nevertheless, he finds philosophical educations such as the one I had, which make little or no mention of Muslim philosophers, indefensible.
“I think your education has been an unjust education. An education that says to you philosophy started with the Greeks – Plato and Aristotle and all that in Athens – and then suddenly the enlightenment happens, is telling you is that there is a dark ages when nothing happened, which is a gross distortion of history. This is where Al-Ghazali Book of Knowledge comes in very handy, because he would argue that the knowledge that has been passed to you is not true knowledge in the sense that it has a lot of distortion of history in it.
“Basically what you’ve missed is from 8th century to 17th century, so you’ve missed a thousand years of philosophy, which is a hell of a lot of philosophy. You also missed how Europe acquired all that. So in a sense you’ve been unjust to yourself because what makes Julian the self is truncated – you have no awareness of the rich Islamic heritage that shaped yourself.”
There are also specific ideas in Islamic philosophy which he thinks could and should have had more impact on western philosophy. For instance, “in the western tradition of thought, especially post-enlightenment, reason and values have been two watertight compartments. Science is supposed to be neutral, international, it has no emotions or values in it. When you study Islamic philosophy you realise that there is no such thing as neutral science. We would not have to wait until the twenty-first century to discover that science is socially constructed because Al Ghazali knew that knowledge was socially constructed.”
There doesn’t seem to be too much sign of philosophy departments in British and American universities taking Sardar’s advice and broadening their curricula. Perhaps the bigger problem they have, however, is precisely in the fact that they are philosophy departments.
“I do not believe in disciplinary boundaries, that this bit is physics and this bit is chemistry, because I don’t think nature behaves like that. So I don’t think this is philosophy and this is not philosophy. For me you pursue a question and you need to do whatever you need to do to answer that question, and if you need to go and learn geology to answer that question then you need to go and learn geology to answer that question.”
Perhaps that is the real incoherence of the philosophers: that they think they can be pure philosophers. If that’s right, then Sardar is better off remaining a polymath, and leaving the philosopher title for others.