That Muslims are different is taken for granted. We are, after all, the original "other" of Europe: the darker side of the West. The terrorists and fanatics have clearly walked out of classic Orientalist paintings. But even the pious bearded ones fuel the image of inalienable otherness. The real antidote to this perception is meeting real people.
The emphasis in Meetings with Remarkable Muslims is on our shared humanity. Most of the "remarkable Muslims" in this anthology aren't remarkable in their achievements - rather, they are extraordinary in their ordinary humanity. We meet taxi drivers and porters, asylum-seekers and smugglers, cleaners and musicians. Each encounter leaves a lasting impression.
The "everyday" can be astonishing. One can only be moved by the story of "Mr F", who survives the Taliban in Afghanistan only to suffer humiliation as an asylum-seeker in Britain. Marvel at how Youssou N'Dour rises above the poverty of Senegal to wow France with his devotional Islamic songs. Be amazed by Mehmet the taxi driver from Istanbul, an expert on the flora and fauna of Turkey, and the hospitality of the brother and sister who grab Horatia Clare from a restaurant and take her on a whirlwind tour of Morocco. Or wonder at the spiritualist thirst of Munir, the Turkish Sufi and freelance spiritualist, who drives Kevin Gould to Konya.
We make surprising discoveries. For many Muslims, "Poetry", as the title of one contribution suggests, "is more powerful than death." Women who grow up in a traditional household, like the Syrian housewife Thala Khair, know how to spot a modern opportunity and make the most of it. Pakistanis are good not just at making nuclear weapons, but also giant structures - the Sears Tower in Chicago, by the architect Fazlar Khan, is one example.
There is a section devoted to historical memoirs and, at the end, "Ghosts" deals with distinguished Muslims such as Leo Africanus and Abdulmecid, the last Ottoman Caliph. Here, too, the love and compassion displayed leaves an indelible impression.
This is indeed a remarkable book, conveying the diversity and humanity of Muslims with style and grace. It proves that if we overlook, or look down on, the ordinary, we diminish ourselves and the world.
Ziauddin Sardar's 'Desperately Seeking Paradise' is published by GrantaReuse content