Islamic Voice A Monthly English Magazine

May 2012
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Natural Born Futurist
Ziauddin Sardar
In the future, we are not going to get any new ideas from the west – all really new ideas are going to come from the non-western cultures.

I am not an easy person to pin down. I am several things; yet none of them. I was born in Pakistan but, as many Pakistanis would be eager to point out, I am not Pakistani. I am, however, an eager consumer of Pakistani culture and even retain my original Pakistani accent: it has been responsible for some serious setbacks in my career as a broadcaster, but I am proud of it. I have lived most of my life in Britain; but I am not English. Even though I was educated in England, worked for British institutions, and have voted (Labour) in every election in the past thirty years, I am an outsider; and, if Britain continues in its current trajectory, I will always be an outsider. Having spent seven years studying with a traditionalist Muslim scholars, I am sometimes a traditionalist at heart. For me tradition is a dynamic and not a static or fossilised outlook. I am, therefore, very uncomfortable in the company of puritans, romantics and those who always look backwards for inspiration. I live in the modern world, use its technology, enjoy some of its cultural products – but I am not a modernist. Indeed, I have spent most of my life arguing against the suffocating and instrumental excesses of modernity. I engage with my post-modernist friends, write about post-modernism, but I am not a post-modernist either. If one were to strip all these layers of one’s partial identity, what would be left?
The kernel of my essence is Islam. I am a Muslim. But that statement needs explanation as I am not like most Muslims. I do not see Islam as a set of rituals, a list of do’s and don’ts, a code of rigid, unchanging regulations and laws. For me Islam is not just a religion; it is a worldview based on a matrix of values and concepts. These values provide a framework within which I seek answers to some of the questions that constantly agitate my existence: what does it mean to be fully human, how does one become socially responsible, what is justice and what is the relationship between rights and responsibilities? And this is what I do: I invariably strive in all my future work for both theoretical and practical answers to these questions. One could look in the past for how these questions have been answered by previous generations of Muslims; one can look towards the present and see how these questions are being (largely) ignored by the Muslim world today; but it is in the future, indeed always in the future, that any answers to these questions have real relevance. This is why time within Islamic cosmology is largely future time: devout Muslims are always preparing for a future life, both here in this world where, as trustees of God, they are responsible for maintaining the integrity of the abode of their terrestrial journey and preserving its good health for future generations, and the Hereafter where a full account of earthly activities is due. I am thus a natural born futurist.
My futures work started with an observation that was also a glaring dichotomy. Given that Islam is perforce a future orientated worldview, why was the future so conspicuously absent from contemporary Islamic discourses? So – single-handedly for almost a decade – I tried to shape a current discourse on Islamic futures. When The Future of Muslim Civilization was first published, way back in 1979, most Muslim scholars found it difficult to comprehend. Part of the difficulty was due to the fact that there was no internal language for discussing the future of Islam: I had to invent my own language. But there was another problem: the inertia associated with thinking about the future. Considering the mountains of problems that the Muslim world faces today, why should we be concerned about the future – this was the most common comment on the book. Islamic Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come, first published in 1985, tackled this resistance by showing the sheer depth of futures consciousness within Islamic concepts and ideas that most Muslims take for granted. Hence today, we do not only have a thriving debate on Muslim futures, but my early efforts have also generated a host of new discourses: on Islamization of knowledge, Islamic science and, of course, Islamic futures itself. Even the more conservative Muslim institutions, like the Islamic Development Bank, now take Islamic futures seriously.
If I have a hero, it is al-Baruni. He could measure the specific gravity of base metals correct to three decimal places or the co-ordinates of famous cities just as accurately while providing one of the best accounts of the Hindu religion and the customs and sciences of India. He could write the text on astronomy for the Middle Ages – Canon of al-Masudi – while studying yoga, while writing a mammoth history of the world – the Chronology of Ancient Nations – while taking an active part in philosophical and theological debates of his time while travelling to and meeting people from numerous other cultures.
Like al-Baruni, I do not believe in disciplinary boundaries. Indeed, disciplines – all disciplines – are artificial social constructions. But al-Baruni has taught me something else too. One must approach the subject of one’s study with due respect and humility, he used to say.
Al-Baruni was a multi-culturalist before multiculturalism was invented. The only contemporary genuinely multicultural society is Malaysia (although it has too many other problems to make it an ideal model) where the Malays, Chinese and Indian communities share political power and have equal access to economic opportunities. I envision a world where the Malaysian or an even better, model of multiculturalism, is in vogue. But political power, like freedom, is never granted: it is always taken. Towards the end of the western millennium (almost all non-western cultures have different calendars), we are beginning to see political and economic power seeping away from the west and taken by non-western civilizations.
In the future, we are not going to get any new ideas from the west – all really new ideas of the twenty-first century are going to come from the non-western cultures. And in Asia, there are at least three civilizations – India, China and Islam – that are struggling to rediscover their own ways of knowing, being and doing.