book reviews

An Islamic defense of free speech (a critique of Ziauddin Sardar’s views on Rushdie’s Satanic Verses)

I have had Ziauddin Sardar’s Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim since 2010, but I only got around to reading it recently. This is one of the funniest books written by a Muslim, rivaling the books of Turkey’s Aziz Nesin. In what is perhaps my favorite scene of the book, Sardar camps out in the office of a Saudi official who is refusing to let him leave the country. In order to make a point, he reads the classic Book of the Superiority of Dogs Over Many of Those Who Wear Clothes in front of him.

A cover of Ibn Marzuban’s The Book of the Superiority of Dogs

Soon after getting into the book, it becomes clear that Sardar is not engaging in a rigorous retelling of past events. The book appears to be a fictionalized memoir. The characters he disapproves of appear comical and cartoonish, while the characters he approves of jump out of the page to lecture the reader.

Many famous characters of the Islamic history of the second part of the twentieth century show up: the Pakistani Islamist Mawdudi, Said Ramadan (father of the intellectual Tariq Ramadan), Sheikh Nazim, Ian Dallas (Abdul Qadir al-Murabit), Ibn Baz (the Saudi scholar), the Palestinian-American philosopher Ismail al-Faruqi, the Pakistani president Zia-ul-Haq, Usama bin Laden (seen by Sardar from afar according to him) and the Malaysian politician Anwar Ibrahim (famous for being put on trial for sodomy by Mahathir Mohamad’s government, according to Sardar a false accusation designed to destroy his career).

We see Sardar jump from one Islamic thinker or leader to another, first worshipfully following them, then discovering that their thinking has fatal flaws that makes it impossible for Sardar to continue alongside them. Maududi seems to have great ideas about freeing the Islamic world from foreign interference, but he has a medieval attitude toward women. Speaking of Said Ramadan and other Muslim Brotherhood members:

And that was my problem with the members of the Brotherhood. They see themselves as perfect; they were certain of everything. In short, they were ideologues: Islam, for them, was an ideology that allowed for no imperfections, no deviation, and, in the final analysis, no humanity. This is why I found so many of them repugnant.

Sardar looks into Sufism and finds that organized Sufism often leads to authoritarianism, made up of Sufi masters surrounded by a zealous and intolerant inner circle of worshipful followers who demand absolute and unquestioning obedience from initiates. Sardar says that he traveled to Morocco to find out if Ian Dallas’s version of Sufism really had its origins in the authentic Sufism of that country, but he fails to make any investigations, suggesting that that may not have been the (main) reason for his trip.

Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and censorship

In one of the worst parts of the book, Sardar spends many pages trying (and failing) to convince readers that what Rushdie wrote about the Prophet Muhammad in his 1989 novel The Satanic Verses is somehow simply unacceptable. He does not bother to present a framework within which a pluralist society may decide what is and what is not acceptable to say. To a skeptical reader, it almost appears as if Sardar is saying:

We Muslims are simply too immature and uncivilized to deal with criticism and mockery, so please do not criticize or mock what is dear and holy to us or else we will flip out!

He compares the Satanic Verses to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, saying that books and ideas can be dangerous—the usual patter that today America’s democrats use to tell us why it is such a great idea to put them in charge of censoring the nation’s media.

Sardar also makes the pitiful argument that similar attacks on Jews would have never been accepted in the West. True, we all know the double standards. We have songs by a Jewish singer on YouTube calling Mary mother of Jesus a whore. We have the Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman saying she would happily crucify Jesus again without anyone batting an eye. But just because Jews enjoy an unfair advantage does not mean we should ask for the same. We should join the Christians in insisting on the rule of law and equal standards rather than clamoring for special treatment like little children.

According to Sardar, Muslims should get special protection for what they hold holy and dear because…because… they can’t handle things otherwise. This is especially bad because Sardar presents himself as a futuristic liberal Muslim who has risen above the pack. If this enlightened Muslim is so narrow-minded to be incapable of seeing the dangerous implications of his support for censorship what hope is there for the rest of us?

Sardar is unable to appreciate the fact that placing limitations on free speech will mean that politicians, with their all too obvious short-sightedness and hunger for power, will end up deciding who can say what. Whatever the harms of free speech, allowing politicians to limit it is breathtakingly naive. It is amazing that Sardar can spend a lifetime in the West and fail to get the memo on this. In Islam, when faced with two evils, we are required to choose the lesser one. It shouldn’t take a genius to recognize that free speech is the lesser evil compared to censorship. I do not want anyone, no matter how pious or wise, to decide for me what books I can and cannot read. There is no way to make censorship better than free speech. The censorship department, even if full of democratically elected people, will inevitably make decisions based on political considerations and personal alliances. You cannot neglect the human element when designing any political institution, something too many Muslim political thinkers of the past kept failing to learn.

I am sure Sardar, in his private life, would not want anyone telling him what he can and cannot read. As is typical of many 20th century thinkers and leaders, he probably thinks he personally should be free to read what he wants while also thinking he has the right to limit other people’s reading rights. Regardless of how vile Rushdie’s book was, if his work is truly worthless then he should be given no power to ruin freedom of speech for us by prompting us to create an authority that can censor books.

What exactly is the harm of Rushdie’s book?

Sardar, other thinkers, and Islamic preachers who inflame people’s feelings about anti-Islam books and cartoons promote hysteria to satisfy their own desire for revenge. Ask them why the Satanic Verses should be banned and you will hear vague phrases like the “protection of the honor and dignity of Islam”. So Rushdie wrote a book that disgusts Muslims; what exactly is its harm beyond making you feel upset if you try to read it? If you are afraid it will give people negative impressions of Islam, the reality is that people’s impressions of Islam are already as negative as they can get. If you are afraid it will cause people to leave Islam, it is actually far more likely to inflame feelings of allegiance to the ummah by making Muslims feel that their identity is unfairly under attack.

At the end of the day, what Rushdie’s book achieves is close to nothing. It will not cause people to leave Islam. It will affirm the negative views of those who already had negative views about Islam. And as for those who have no firm beliefs about Islam, it will merely be one influence among countless others on their thinking and they will soon forget most of it. And among the non-Muslims who have a positive view of Islam, they will either see it as an unfair attack or as something strange and difficult to understand. Rushdie’s book will soon be nothing more than a footnote in history, and the only reason it will keep being remembered is that too many Muslims were immature enough to make such a big deal of it as to make it a worldwide bestseller.

Metaphorical interpretation

Sardar firmly plants himself within the liberal, non-mainstream camp within Islam by supporting a metaphorical interpretation of the Quran. He seems to think, along with many Westerners, that taking the Quran too literally is bound to lead to narrow-mindedness and extremism. I understand where they are coming from. If the Quran was a man-made book like the works of Plato and Marx, then it would have been true that taking it literally would lead to serious problems, since it would mean that one man’s limited and potentially misguided thinking would control the fates of millions of people. Isn’t it so much more sensible to open the door for updating the book so that Muslims can move with the times?

Sardar thinks the Quran should be read historically, as if God was not intelligent enough to foresee that humanity could very well continue for the next 100,000 years. According to Sardar God gave humanity a book that is stuck in the mindset of 7th century Arabia. That is a rather low opinion to have of the God who invented this universe. Shouldn’t a real God be capable of giving us a book that can stand the tests of time?

The reality, as I will explain, is that the Quran is just such a book. The more literally you take it, and the more firmly you try to follow it, the more moderate you become. You don’t have to take my word for it, just look at the historical evidence. The most kind, peaceful and moderate Islamic leaders in modern history have all been ardent lovers of the Quran who treated it not as a historical artifact but as if it was sent down the very day they were reading it: the Pakistani poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, the Turkish revivalist Said Nursi, the greatly loved Egyptian scholar Mohammed al-Ghazali (not to be confused with the more famous medieval al-Ghazali), the Kurdish leader Ahmad Moftizadeh. These were not extremists. In fact many of them have been subject to constant attacks by extremists for being too liberal and open-minded. A US government officer recently published a book on how Moftizadeh’s Quran-centered version of Islam can be used a role model for fighting extremism (see The Last Mufti of Iranian Kurdistan).

The Quran has a special status which Sardar has apparently failed to grasp. He thinks that admitting that the Paradise described in the Quran is really a physical Paradise is something that can only be done by an ignorant literalist. This is a rather insulting view to have of the majority of the world’s Muslims who do believe in a physical Paradise. Unfortunately, the path he recommends, of giving Paradise-related verses a metaphorical interpretation (they are apparently really about a mystical reality that cannot be described in words) leads to turning Quran-interpretation into a free-for-all. He offers no convincing explanation for why he thinks this is a valid way of interpreting the book apart from the fact that he really wishes things to be that way. He is doing the same thing that extremists do; reading his own prejudices into the Quran rather than letting the book speak for itself.

God’s speech plainly tells me about a physical Paradise. Sardar and some others say that these are actually references to a non-physical reality. I will take God’s words about Paradise any day over any human’s.

Conclusion

Sardar is a good intellectual and his skepticism toward the Islamic thought of the second half of the 20th century was justified and necessary. He, however, is stuck in the mindset of the Muslims he despises; he believes in hurling insults and making caricatures of his intellectual opposition, rather than rising above the argument and treating those who disagree with him as full humans, to be respected and treated with an open heart. If you close your heart to those who disagree with you, you are no better than them no matter how enlightened you think you are (see my essay Consensual Communities). Sardar is a liberal who attacks the (supposedly) narrow-minded conservatives/literalists. As I explain in the linked essay, one can rise above this argument to find a third path that can actually lead to positive outcomes.