Critical Muslims, transmodern tradition

In his distinctly personal and independent style, Ziauddin Sardar wrote over 45 books, guest blogged in the Guardian and presented a number of programs for the BBC and Channel 4.

For many decades, this polymath has portrayed a relentless intellectual energy. The titles of his books varied from ‘The Future of Muslim Civilisation’ to ‘Why Do People Hate America?’ to ‘The A to Z of Postmodern Life’, and his professional life includes periods of research work for the Hajj Research Centre in the 1970s and an advisory position in the cabinet of Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia in the late 1980s.

When I met this somewhat fidgety but very welcoming man in London, his main preoccupation was editorial work for magazines like ‘Critical Muslim’ and ‘East West Affairs’. The former bundles contemporary Muslim ideas and thought, the latter is a journal of North-South relations in postnormal times.

You are known as an outspoken critic of tradition. Yet, my own ‘journey through Islam’ has, in fact, rekindled a great deal of my respect for traditions – both the Islamic tradition as well as my own Christian tradition. 

Traditions carry much beauty within themselves, but a great many problems also come from tradition. Normally, traditions are not something static. They are constantly reinvented, so to say. In fact, a tradition stays a tradition by reinventing itself. If it doesn’t reinvent itself, it can become a custom and a custom can become very oppressive. And a great part of the contemporary problem is that much of our tradition is ossified, frozen in history, very misogynist and has a great fear of ‘the other’. On top of it, certain aspects of these ossified traditions are very deathly, such as not allowing free thought, killing apostates or like traditions that are oppressive towards sexual orientation. 

Many of these traditions actually come from what I would call ‘manufactured hadiths’. Therefore, all criticism has to start with our own sources. We should never accept all the hadiths that are thrown at us, without critically engaging with them.

Is it not so, however, that the Islamic tradition normally does critically engage with them, for example, by trying to find the chain of narrators in order to figure out the authority of a certain hadith?

Sure, but we have to keep in mind that the methodologies have moved on. There are new ways of criticizing. Even within the old traditional methodologies, I do not think that the hadith criticism was good enough. Two of the premises of accepting a hadith are that it shouldn’t contradict the Qur’an and that it should be a rational hadith, yet lots of accepted hadiths do, in fact, contradict the Qur’an and are totally irrational. According to Bukhari, for example, one hadith explains, “Seeing a black woman in a dream is the sign of an oncoming epidemic.” Or what are we to make of the hadith from The Book of Nikah that tells us, “The Messenger used to visit all nine of his wives every night.” How could any man, no matter how close he was to the Prophet, have known this? And even if some men might know more about his nocturnal relationships with his wives, how could he humanly have done that, particularly when we are told elsewhere in the same collection that he used to pray all night, so much so that his feet swelled?

We can say the same about Qur’an interpretation. We have the classical Qur’anic methodology that we have to interpret the Qur’an from within the Qur’an, where we have to look at the historical context, and so on. But even that has not really been followed. Some of the classical commentaries, thus, are pretty irrational and unreasonable in terms of what they say about women, about Christians or the way they speak about belief.

Obviously, I agree that both Muslims and Christians should critically engage with their sources — certainly when traditional interpretations gave rise to certain discriminatory or suppressive situations. Yet, on the other hand, belief can never be a totally ‘rational’ or ‘reasonable’ concept. You can’t be endlessly critical and analytic about it, I would say. It is, in the end, also a matter of ‘acceptance’.

Belief certainly doesn’t have to be a totally rational thing. There is such a thing as ‘a leap of faith’. But the leap of faith is about God. In a sense, God has to remain the unseen. Because if God can be seen or if you can prove him by logical argument, everybody will believe in God and there will be no need for faith. What follows after the leap of faith, however, has to be based on some notion of rationality, objectivity, analysis and method. We can’t just believe something because people tell us they found it in the Qur’an or because they heard a particular hadith.

That’s why criticism is so important. Actually, for me, the greatness of the Muslim civilisation resides in its criticism. The early Muslim scholars were very critical, even those who canonized Islamic law. And they expected that those who would follow them would be equally critical. The whole idea of the hadith collection, for example, was based on criticism, but the generations that followed them did not pay much attention to this aspect of criticism and a lot more to following their predecessors. One person follows the previous one, and he, in turn, is followed by another, so there’s rather a chain of followers instead of critical engagement with the text.

And, of course, many feminist Muslim scholars have pointed out that most of the Qur’an and hadith interpretations were done by men and, as such, many of those interpretations have been far too patriarchal.

They’re absolutely correct on this. Even more so, they weren’t just men, but men with a very tribal outlook on life so that their tribal culture became a part of the tafsir[1] and the manufacturing of hadiths.

So, without a critical engagement with our sources, I don’t think we have much of a future. This blind faith on tradition is absolutely appalling.

But – and this is an emphasized ‘but’ – I do understand that you cannot ditch tradition completely. You do need traditions. They are very important for our sanity because they give us a sense of identity and purpose in life. Actually, this is where criticism comes in – or positive criticism at least. Negative criticism simply deconstructs and destroys. But positive criticism tries to take us forward. Positive criticism tries to preserve and promote the many life-enhancing elements of our traditions.

Nowadays, many people will turn to what they call the ‘Sufi tradition’ to find such life-enhancing elements of Islam. Throughout my many conversations, I got a more nuanced view on this matter, but how do you assess this quite modern focus on ‘Sufism’?

Lots of people are often impressed by Sufi teachings and Sufi talk on tradition, but Sufis themselves have contributed a great deal to misogynist and authoritarian thought in Muslim culture. In classical Sufi tariqas, for example, you’re often supposed to accept your shaykh unquestioningly. But why? Is he God? Why should I accept anyone unquestioningly? Of course I should learn from the shaykh, but I should be able to discuss, debate and openly criticize when I deem it necessary. I find this whole idea of a ‘guru’ and ‘disciple’ quite repugnant. Lots of Sufi’s are, however, promoting such things.

Exactly the same methodology is used by groups like Al Qaeda, by the way. In those circles, you’re also not supposed to question the authority.

All of that Sufi business is often just recycling the old traditional stuff. Now, I don’t mind that people engage with great minds like Ibn Arabi or Rumi and their illuminating thought. What I dislike is the uncritical perpetuation of certain traditional elements.

Can we really compare this type of historic ossification to the current trend of Salafi-style ossification of Islam?

The underlying process is the same. First of all it involves an exaggerated ‘reverence’. It’s about giving complete reverence to authorities, teachers or your shaykhs and idealizing them as perfect human beings who can solve all problems. This comes with a fear of failure. In the presence of such an idealized figure, you are afraid to be wrong because it feels like a sin. But, of course, questioning and criticism necessarily involves getting it wrong. Being human means that you sometimes make mistakes. If you’re perfect, you won’t, but if you’re human, you will.

So fear, idealization and over-reverence are essential in this matter, and they’re nothing new. The fourteenth century Ibn Khaldun criticized others for exactly these three things.

Today, however, these things are also strongly connected to specific economic and political realities, the spread of Petro-Islam from the Gulf being one of them.

I think the Gulf and the Saudi’s have done a lot to promote Wahhabism[2] and closing the minds of Muslims. But that’s hardly surprising. It’s a very tribal society. In fact, their construction of God is a bit like the leader of the Quraysh. He’s always angry, he’s always vengeful and he’s always protective of his tribe. The whole ‘image’ they made of God is, therefore, very problematic in my eyes. Where’s the mercy? Where’s the beauty? Where’s humanity? If you look at God’s 99 names, those aspects are among them as well, yet they tend to ignore them.

When I spoke to Dr. D. Latifa, she said: “Their work is done. They’ve created the priests, now they will claim Mecca as the Rome of Islam.”

She was right. They act quite like an empire and it’s painful to see how they’re transforming Mecca very much into a city like imperial Rome. All the cultural property has been removed. They build huge hotels, shopping malls and palaces right behind the Great Mosque. It’s not much of a sacred city anymore. It’s a pretty ugly city in many respects. Of course, the Kaaba and its surroundings will always be sacred to Muslims, but once you go outside of it, you’re greeted with much ugliness.

Your criticism of such issues is very outspoken and straightforward. Often, that type of criticism evokes a counter reaction that pushes people outside the community. Do you sometimes have the feeling you’re being pushed outside the Muslim community?

Of course people sometimes get upset by my criticism, but fortunately, I’m still seen as part of the community and I still see myself as a part of it. And what is a community in any case? You can create community in various ways. There’s also a community of critical Muslims, for example. Yet, criticism is frowned upon everywhere. It’s not a specific Muslim problem. If you’re American and criticize America, for example, you’ll experience the same thing. Those in power always despise criticism. But those in power can also only be held accountable through criticism. So criticism is essential to accountability.

The possibility to hold things accountable seems to diminish, however, as we witness a worldwide growth of narrow-minded conservatism that increasingly restricts freedom of thought and action.

I think this growth of conservatism is produced by fear. When people fear change, they look inwards and try to create boundaries.

A big part of the problem for conservatives has been the accelerating rate of change. Look at computers; their computing power doubles every six months, so to speak. It took thirty years to take the first genome out of a fly and now we can take genomes out of everything in a matter of days. How we approach the body, what we regard as life, how we need to construct society, and so on — all these things have become major issues. As a result, people come together and focus on their particular group, creating ‘us versus them’ boundaries in their effort to navigate the sea of change. Of course, fear of the others was already there, but when you bring in rapid change, it increases manifold and uncertainty becomes dominant. And people who want certainty often find it in certain literal notions of religion. They simplify things and make clear cut lists of dos and don’ts. Yet, this only creates an illusion of certainty, because, in the end, there is no ultimate certainty.

Postmodern philosophy starts from exactly this premise, that there aren’t any ultimate certainties in lives. Nonetheless, besides being an outspoken critic of ossified Islamic traditions, you’re also a critic of modernism and postmodernism. You’ve written several texts and books on the matter. In a sense, I see great similarities between the two topics of critique, because modernity as it exists today, is, in my eyes, also an ossification, but then of the secular, atheistic, scientistic idea that all value can eventually be levelled down to the preferences of the individual. You wrote about the need for ‘transmodernity’ in this respect. What do you exactly mean by it?

As you say, we know that there are lots of problems with modernism. Postmodernism is supposed to critique modernity and take us forward. But it has turned out to be a new form of Western imperialism. Everything is vanity, there are no ground narratives, nothing gives meaning, there is no sense of direction, etc. These postmodern ‘building blocks’ are absolutely untrue; they only have us staring in a void. So, we need to go beyond them. That’s where transmodernity comes in.

Transmodernity is an effort to go beyond modernity and postmodernity. We need to bring the life-enhancing aspects of tradition and the best aspects of modernity together. They need to be synthesized into a new way of looking at things. In modernity, tradition is always looked down upon. In transmodernity, tradition is critiqued, but then the best bits of tradition are kept and built upon. In postmodernism, modernism is almost seen as evil. But again, in transmodernity, modernity is critiqued and its best aspects are enhanced. So, it’s a much more critically engaging process that takes the best of what was already there. It doesn’t disconnect you from history, but builds upon elements that can take you forward.

What are some of the most valuable aspects of tradition which, in your eyes, the world needs today?

The whole idea of family as a basic unit on which the community and society is built is a good example. Or the way in which traditional societies have engaged with nature. They don’t see nature as something that needs to be conquered. Nature, to them, is something that you work and live with. So, if traditional societies are allowed to follow their traditions, they tend to be ecologically sound. Look at Fez in Morocco, for example. It’s built along a river, but in such a way that the water is not polluted as it flows downstream. Traditionally, they also allowed certain parts outside the city to be ‘haram’ so that people could not cut the trees of the woodlands.

The tragedy of the Islamic tradition is that we’ve lost the positive life-enhancing aspects of it. Sadly enough, we trap ourselves in those aspects of tradition that are often deathly.

So what does the future have in store for us?

Given the global trends, I believe that all too narrow-minded thought will become obsolete. It can, of course, do much damage in the short run, but in the long run, the fundamentalist and literalist rhetoric will eventually prove itself to be totally insufficient and disappear. There will always be fundamentalists and literalists – in fact, we need them in order to have a complete human society with all shades of opinion – but they will not be dominant. They will lose their engine. The engine at the moment is Saudi Arabia. And the engine will only be running as long as the oil is flowing — not much longer in other words. Therefore, Muslim fundamentalism doesn’t have much of a future. It’s just a bunch of slogans without many pragmatic solutions. It’s the people who produce pragmatic solutions who will eventually win the day.

Quite an optimistic outlook for a continuously critical person like you.

A religious person has to be optimistic by nature, because religion is all about hope.


[1] Tafsir is the explanatory interpretations of Qur’anic verses.

[2] A particular form of Salafism. It bases itself on the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abdal Wahhab. It eventually became the official ideology of the Saudi state. Wahhabis do not like the term ‘Wahhabism’ and, instead, will simply call themselves Salafis or Muwahhidun, the latter meaning ‘unitarians’.


A very recommended book from Ziauddin Sardar’s long list of published works is his autobiography ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim‘. For his personal website, see ziauddinsardar.com and for the website of the Critical Muslim Magazine, which he edits, see criticalmuslim.com.

Read more interviews like this in the Halal Monk book.
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