Having finished Sardar’s book (and having had time to ruminate on it a little), I thought I’d offer a thought or two…
As I mentioned previously, I enjoyed the general style of the book. Written very much as a conversation, Desperately Seeking… struck me as an enjoyable story, full of personal insights and experiences. As a reader, one of the things I enjoy most is gaining access to the author’s thoughts and feelings. On that score, the book worked for me.
Upon reflection, I think the key word here is ‘story’. Sardar presents us with his own story (naturally enough), which leaves other perspectives at a distance. This is, of course, the nature of this kind of autobiographical writing; in giving a personal account, other voices are, at best, filtered through the author’s own understandings and presentations.
What struck me, though, was two things: Sardar’s disappointments with contemporary Muslim groups and his somewhat fiery approach. Given the state of much contemporary Muslim thought, his disappointments are perhaps understandable. Having said that, on occasions Sardar seems to move from disappointment to depression. Again, an understandable reaction I suppose. However, I do think that there is an important distinction to be drawn between being disappointed/depressed and being overly critical. It seems to me that if we as Muslims are ever going to move beyond contemporary challenges, we first need to understand how to disagree with each other properly.
As I have personally observed on numerous occasions, many Muslims experience disagreement as a kind of existential crisis. Failing to understand that people are not only going to disagree (and disagree radically) but that disagreement does not mean rejection per se, many of us either give up talking – or else (and this is worse), lose our cool and start becoming offensive. If we cannot even sit together and talk about our differences calmly (whilst crediting the other with the best intentions), we will never be able to build our communities together.
The general feeling I have, having read Desperately Seeking…, is that Sardar occasionally falls into this trap. Well, let me clarify myself, what I mean is that there is a general sense that the ideas/opinions of other thinkers/writers/etc are wrong categorically. It seems that Sardar is, at times, a little too keen to rush towards judgement. Granted, having been given Islam by Allah, Muslims can sometimes be amongst the most venal, selfish, narrowminded bigots on earth. This is not, mercifully, the whole story. The world is also home to many selfless, openminded, tolerant, just and forebearing Muslims. Indeed, as I learned from my mother, most people are a complicated mixture of light and dark, or good and bad. We are all truly works in progress.
In other words, rather than reacting to venality with disappointment and anger, we should be trying to interact and challenge in a positive manner. In this vein, it is helpful to reflect on the practice of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Despite years of facing oppression, corruption and wickedness, he remained calm, peaceful, tolerant and unsullied. Even after returning to Mecca, when he could have ordered a Stalinesque purge of his opponents, he is said to have replied with the words of Yusuf (peace be upon him):
‘Today there is no blame upon you. Allah will forgive you and He is the Most Merciful of those who show Mercy’ (Quran 12:92).