Ziauddin Sardar (1951--)

A prolific writer, broadcaster and columnist, Ziauddin Sardar has written about many contemporary issues. He is the author/editor of thirty-seven books on topics ranging from Chaos for Beginners to Explorations in Islamic Science. His views on the relationship between Islam and science were first articulated in the early 1970’s when it seemed as if a great revival of the Islamic intellectual tradition was in the making. The unexpected windfall from the dramatic rise in oil prices, the emergence of numerous new academic and research institutions in the Muslim world and a forceful assertion of independence by many Muslim countries produced the illusion of the appearance a new and dynamic force on the international scene. Sardar rode this new wave of opportunities, joined one of these new institutions and benefited from the petro-dollars that were poured into organizations such as the Muslim World League. Acknowledging this support in his major work on Islam and science, Explorations in Islamic Science (1989), he states: “Major support for my work has come from Abdullah Naseef, General Secretary of the Muslim World League, Makkah al-Mukkaramah, who not only motivated my quest for a contemporary Islamic science, but also funded a great deal of research.”

The second most important factor in the evolution of Sardar’s thought was from his friend, Jerry Ravetz about whom he states: “[Ravetz] has been my guide to history and philosophy of science and who was always there when I needed to iron out some tricky philosophical or intellectual problems. Some of his ideas, not to mention words, appear in these essays.”

This new wave of awakening rested on petro-dollars as well as on the interest and financial resources of “intellectual political leaders” like Anwar Ibrahim, the former Minister of Education of Malaysia, about whom Sardar writes: “[Anwar Ibrahim] asked me to expose many of my half-baked ideas at a number of Intellectual Discourses held in Kuala Lumpur.”

These “half-baked” ideas also found support among certain western journalists who were then writing about the “other”, post-modernism, colonialism and who were attempting to articulate a radical new outlook on history, science, society and the relationship between cultures. In 1980, Sardar published an article in the New Scientist, “Can science come back to Islam?” (New Scientist, 88, 212-16, 1980). Two years later, this was followed by another article, “Why Islam needs Islamic science?” (New Scientist, 94, 25-28, 1982). These short articles were followed by an edited work, The Touch of Midas: Science, Values and the Environment in Islam and the West (University of Manchester Press, Manchester, 1984).

Sardar soon became disillusioned with the institutions which had emerged on the strength of petro-dollars and he found the discourse on Islamic science moving in a “strangely irrational direction, being squeezed by two strangleholds. The first arose from our difficulty in defining what we actually mean by Islamic science: different groups give their own interpretations and take the discussion in their own eclectic directions. The second results from the conventional discussion “Islam and science” being wooly, confused and not infrequently intellectually shambolic. This legacy, dating back to the early 1950s, has introduced uninformed, emotional and rather irrational elements into the discourse.” (Explorations in Islamic Science, p. 3.)

Sardar’s own views on the subject found expression by placing science and scientists in a social context. He found support for his views from a small group of like-minded people and formed a group of closely associated scholars known as the 'ijmalis'.

Sardars views are summarized by Ibrahim Kalin in his perceptive article “Three Views of Science in the Islamic World”(in God, Life and the Cosmos, edited by Ted Peters, Muzaffar Iqbal and Syed Nomanul Haq, Ashgate, 2002, pp. 61-63):

“Although the ijmalis do not accept the appellation of being 'merely Kuhnian', one can hardly fail to see the subtext of their discourse based on Kuhn, Feyerabend and others in their critique of modern Western science. (See Ziauddin Sardar, Explorations in Islamic Science, (London: Mansell Publishing Ltd., 1989), p. 155. This emphatic denial itself is quite telling for our discussion here.) Sardar's definition of science shares much of the instrumentalist and anti-realist spirit of the Kuhnian science. For him, science is “a basic problem-solving tool of any civilization. Without it, a civilization cannot maintain its political and social structure or meet the basic needs of its people and culture.” (Z. Sardar, Islamic Futures (London: Mansell Publishing Ltd., 1985), p. 157.) The ijmali's socio-cultural point of view certainly points to an important component of scientific activity, viz., the social setting in which the sciences are cultivated and flourish. It is, however, to be noted that the relegation of physical sciences, or any scholarly activity for that matter, to social utility is bound to have serious consequences insofar as the philosophical legitimacy of sciences is concerned. As we see in the case of Van Fraassen and Kuhn, the instrumentalist definition of science entails a strong leaning towards anti-realism, a position whose compatibility with the concept of Islamic science is yet to be accounted for.

“Yet, there is another paradox involved here. The most common critique of modern science has been to present it as a culturally conditioned and historical endeavor with claims to universality and objectivity. Kuhn's philosophy of paradigm, which has become the single most fashionable buzz word in the Islamic world, Feyerabend's defense of society against science, or Van Fraassen's scientific instrumentalism are all profusely used to show the utter historicity and relativity of modern science. Since every scientific, and, by extension, human activity is embedded in a historical and cultural setting, we can no longer speak of sciences in isolation from their socio-historical conditions. This implies that no account of science, be it Western or Islamic, is possible without the history and, more importantly, sociology of science, whose task is to deconstruct the historical formation and genealogy of sciences. Furthermore, this approach has been applied to humanities as well, with almost total disregard to its implications for what is proposed in its place, i.e., what is called Islamic science and methodology.

“At this point, philosophy of science becomes identical with sociology of science, and any appeal to universal validity and objectivity by physical sciences is rejected on the basis of their utter historicity, ideology, cultural bias, and so on. Even though these terms are used as household terms by many Muslims writing and thinking on modern science, they rarely appear in their defense of Islamic science, which is proposed as an alternative to the Western conceptions of science. If science, as the advocates of this view seem to imply, is culture-specific with no right to universal applicability, then this has to be true for all scientific activity whether it takes place in the 11th century Samarqand or the 20th century Sweden. This is in fact what is so clearly intended and stated by all the major expositors of the philosophy of science. If it is the modern secular science that is culturally and historically constructed, then Islamic science, as understood by this group of scholars, has to explain how and why it is entitled to universal validity and applicability. It will simply be short of logical consistency to say that Kuhn's language of paradigms is an adequate tool to explain the history of Western but not Islamic science.”

Sardar’s interests seem to have shifted to other topics and journalistic writings. But in all his writings, one can discern the proverbial voice of the angry young man who is constantly exploring news ways of expressing his anger and resentment at an unjust world. Whether it is his book on the growth of Kuala Lumpur (The Consumption of Kuala Lumpur) in which he explores Malay legends and stories for what they show about national culture, along with a discussion of events in Malaysian history up to Anwar Ibrahim's show trial and imprisonment, his critical voice is always summing up images and metaphors to express dissatisfaction. For an outsider with scant knowledge of the Muslim world, his works may seem excellent pieces of self-criticism but for most scholars, his treatment may appear to be superficial.

In his work, Postmodernism and the Other :The New Imperialism of Western Culture (Pluto Press, London, 1998), Sardar presents his definition of Postmodernism and exposes postmodernism for what it means to non-Westerns (the Other). Moving between journalistic and academic styles, he uses powerful but trendy metaphors to bring home his point: “The world has been transformed into a theatre where everything is artificially constructed. Politics is a stage-managed for mass consumption. Television documentaries are transformed and presented as entertainment. Journalism blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. Living individuals become characters in soap operas and fictional characters assume real lives. Everything happens instantaneously and everybody gets a live feed on everything that is happening in the global theatre” (p. 23)

   Catchy and satirical subheadings make the book a light reading: For instance, a chapter is called “A Grand Memory for Forgetting”. In this Sardar shows how history has been restructured to the tastes of postmodernism. Taking Disney’s animated film Pocahontas as an example, he describes how the film is very different from the true story. He then identifies the links with the colonialist and orientalist legacy and shows how the film stands for nothing more than white superemacy. Other chapter titles are indicative of the style, concerns and objective of Sardar’s work on postmodernism: “Take Me, I’m Yours”; “The Joys of Cynical Power”; “Recycling Shampoo”.

In the final analysis, one can say that Sardar is a journalist with some academic interests who has moved from subject to subject in search of a modus vivandi, which is both intellectual and financial. His other works include:

 

Publications

Third Text Reader on Art, Culture and Theory, 2002

Why Do People Hate America?

Introducing Science Studies

Introducing Learning and Memory

Introducing Islam

Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway

Introducing Muhammad, 2nd Edition

Introducing Chaos

Introducing Media Studies

Thomas Kuhn and the Science Wars

Orientalism (Concepts in the Social Sciences)

Beyond the Disease Model of Mental Disorders

Introducing Mathematics

Rescuing All Our Futures: The Future of Futures Studies (Praeger Studies on the 21st Century)

Postmodernism and the Other

Barbaric Others

Blinded Eye

Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair

An Early Crescent: The Future of Knowledge and the Environment in Islam

Explorations in Islamic Science (Islamic Futures and Policy Studies)

The Revenge of Athena: Science, Exploitation, and the Third World

Information and the Muslim World: A Strategy for the Twenty-First Century

The Future of Muslim Civilization (Islamic Futures and Policy Studies)

Islamic Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come (Islamic Futures and Policy Studies)

Touch of Midas: Scientific Values and the Environment in Islam and the West

Science and Technology in the Middle East

Muhammad: Aspects of His Biography

Islam, outline of a classification scheme

Science, technology, and development in the Muslim world

The future of Muslim civilization

 

Yashab Tur

(November 2002)

 

Excerpt from Islamists in Postmodern Times

One of the reasons we have post modernism today is due to what is called the de-mystification of science which is mainly to certain historians and philosophers of science like Thomas Kune, on whom I have a small book called Thomas Kune and the Science War, and people like Farbach and so on. We assumed that science was this objective, neutral phenomenon. It was something that contained facts everyone could believe in. But Kune, Farbachand most of the philosophers showed that in fact that science is not something that can be taken as a clinically removed, objective phenomenon. In fact scientists work within paradigm which are belief systems and science moves from paradigm, which basically means that science and religion are not all that different. This demystification of scientific objectivity has played a very important part in post modern thought in sciences like quantum mechanics, abstract mathematics and so on where determinism has been knocked out. Starting from the 19 20s when Hazenburg introduced his uncertainty principle right down to modern times with chaos theory, complexity theory and so on, indeterminacy has become the norm. That means things cannot be determined, almost everything is uncertain.

When you combine these ideas with something like Farbach's idea of history where history exists essentially to be interpreted not as lumps of facts and data that we have conventionally believed history to be. But history exists substantially as something that is constantly interpreted. It constantly changes because we put new interpretations on it. Then you combine all that and you produce a certain kind of thought which occasionally manifests itself as a kind of fiction, magical realistic fiction is the most major example and the one which impinges on us most is the Satanic verses where you have history presented as a particular kind of interpretation and where the facts of history are consistently doubted and consistently challenged.

Apart from that, there is just one other aspect of contemporary thought which has produced most modern ideas and that is the "notion of the other", that is that somebody apart from us, the notion of other in disciplines like anthropology and also history but also in politics and international relations. How do we represent the other? Those who are not us and those who are outside us. Conventionally the others are the non-West, Muslims, the Hindus, the developing countries and so on and so forth.

If you combine all  this brew, these new intellectual developments you end up with certain things that provide an accent to post modern thought, to the way the world is being shaped. One of the main accents is that is we have so much determinancy where even science has been demystified to a certain extent in that even its objectivity cannot be questioned. Things like Popper's objective knowledge for example are virtually laughed at today because of what contemporary history and philosophy of science has actually shown us. So if we have a world like that the idea of truth doesn't really stand up. And postmodern scholars have been particularly good at demolishing meta narratives, that is anything with the idea of truth in it, things like reason or objectivity, science, all that has been undermined in a sense.

 

 

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