Desperately Seeking Paradise by Ziauddin Sardar

When we lived in modern times
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The Independent Culture

One of the curiosities of contemporary intellectual life is the notion that modernity and secularism go together. Thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx believed that, as science advances, religion will wither away or retreat into private life. Today, the idea that the role of religion in society declines with modernisation shapes policies in a wide variety of contexts - including, absurdly, the war in Iraq.

One of the curiosities of contemporary intellectual life is the notion that modernity and secularism go together. Thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx believed that, as science advances, religion will wither away or retreat into private life. Today, the idea that the role of religion in society declines with modernisation shapes policies in a wide variety of contexts - including, absurdly, the war in Iraq.

In reality, secularisation as a clearly defined process is confined to a handful of European countries; in a global perspective, religion has never ceased to be a potent factor in politics and war. This is notably true in the United States. In America, which sees itself, and is seen by others, as the paradigm of a modern country, the Christian right has a paralysing grip on government and dictates policies on abortion and gay marriage.

There is actually very little to support the idea that religion tends to decline as society becomes more reliant on scientific knowledge. Yet it remains an article of faith among progressive thinkers.

The brittle certainties of secular humanism are an obstacle in understanding the world today. In order to find genuine enlightenment, one needs to go beyond the prevailing secular world-view, and there can be few better guides in this journey than Ziauddin Sardar. Far from being an enemy of modernity, Sardar is one of its most passionate contemporary exponents; but he is clear that apeing the countries that boast most stridently of their modernity is no recipe for a sustainable culture. The modern problem is how to reconcile the enduring human need for meaning with the pervasive power of science. No one - least of all the armed missionaries presently incumbent in 10 Downing Street and the White House - has solved it.

Desperately Seeking Paradise is the record of Sardar's life-long inquiry into what becoming modern means for a Muslim. At once earnest and humorous, light-hearted and profound, this is a book that displays a sustained capacity for self-questioning of a kind that has few parallels in the liberal West. Western liberals tend to think secular doubt is the prerogative of secular minds. They forget Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Pascal and Kierkegaard, and know nothing of Al Ghazali. Sardar describes this great Muslim thinker as an " equal opportunity doubter", who "ends up doubting instrumental reason itself, a leap of doubt and willingness to interrogate one's beliefs secular-minded modern-day adherents schooled in scientific method are loath even to contemplate".

Sardar writes that Al Ghazali's Book of Knowledge was at his bedside for many years, and the spirit of creative doubt by which it is animated was his constant companion as he travelled the length and breadth of the Muslim world. From the uncompromising secularism of Attaturkist Turkey through the puritanical revivalism of the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, to the fanatical intensity of the Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran, Sardar has observed at first hand the attempts that have been made in Islamic countries to replicate Western modernity, and to reject it altogether. His aim throughout has been to find a modern model for the peaceful coexistence of faiths. Ironically, the closest he comes to it is not modern at all: the Islamic kingdoms of medieval Spain, where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in harmony for centuries.

This is not just a book about what modernity means for Muslims. It is also an account of a spiritual quest. At one point, Sardar turned to mysticism, and this took him to Konya, a long-standing centre of mystical practice. Despite being repelled by the authoritarian Sufi brotherhoods he observed there, he had a genuine mystical experience, which he recounts without any attempt at explanation.

A rationalist who is not afraid to doubt reason, Sardar exemplifies a kind of scepticism unknown to the anxious, certainty-seeking secular mind. This is the negative capability that Keats described, when he wrote of "being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason".

John Gray's latest book is 'Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern' (Faber & Faber)

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