Secular Knowledge Versus Islamic Knowledge and Uncritical Intellectuality : The Work of Ziauddin Sardar

Posted on October 4, 2010 by


Saeed Ur-Rehman
Published in Cultural Dynamics 2002 14: 65
DOI: 10.1177/09213740020140010501


This article examines the politics of Islamic postcolonial Occidentalism as a response to the secularizing influence of western modernity. By taking the  work of Ziauddin Sardar, a Pakistani-British intellectual, as an example of Occidentalist Islamic thought, I have attempted to problematize the binaristic division of the world into two neat categories: the secular West and Islamized Islam. Sardar’s reactionary ideas have been contrasted with the work of secular Muslim scholars such as Pervez Hoodbhoy, Fatima Mernissi and Eqbal Ahmad. The article seeks to foreground the secular and critical traditions  within Islamic societies, which are often repressed by obscurantist and reactionary intellectuals. The main argument of the article is that a valid critique of Islam is not always Eurocentric in its origin.

Modernity is generally defined as a secularizing social condition (Archetti, 1996) that produces a rationalized social sphere which, Max Weber has argued, is a distinguishing characteristic of the West (Weber, 1930: 24–7). Thus, the secularly rationalized social sphere and its Eurocentricity challenge non-western modes of knowing and being in the world. The contemporary conditions of knowledge production have become Eurocentric through the dominance of western modernity achieved through colonialist and imperialist practices, producing a westernization of knowledge production and meaning-making at a global level. As Radhakrishnan has opined, ‘for so many of us of the third world, modernity came through as a powerful critique of our existing selves and systems, ergo as a higher and superior form of knowledge’ (Radhakrishnan, 1996: xix). Modernity, as many western and non-western thinkers believe, is a western phenomenon because the West has configured the public sphere on secular rationalist ideals. This article attempts to examine, through the work of one Muslim intellectual, how contemporary knowledge production in Islam has attempted to grapple with the secularizing effects of western modernity.The argument that informs this paper is that the task of the critical intellectual in this context is to provide a critique of the dominant modes of knowledge production without replicating the monolithic structures of thought that are being critiqued. To substantiate this argument, I will analyse how Ziauddin Sardar’s work critiques the West and reproduces the same binary structures of thought that it seeks to dislodge or subvert. The analysis will be situated within the context of contemporary debates regarding the relationship between the West and Islam and will draw upon the work of other theorists whose ideas can serve as comparison or contrast.  The focus of the paper will be on the Occidentalization of the West as the secular Other of Islam by Sardar who, as will be demonstrated below, promotes an uncritically homogenized and idealized Islam as a strategy of retreat from the challenges posed by the dominance of (western) secular rationality, a combined consequence of modernity and colonialism.

Ziauddin Sardar

Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim intellectual of Pakistani origin, is a prolific writer, radio broadcaster and theoretician who has authored numerous books, journal articles and journalistic essays on the relationship between East and West, Islam, information futures of the world, and the present of the West as a manifestation or consequence of modernity.  Sardar’s work engages with the global present as it has been configured by western modernity, western colonialism and western postmodernity. His critique of the West reminds one of the polemical style of Sartre’s writings on colonialism (Sartre, 1963), Fanon (1963, 1967) Césaire (1972) and Adorno and Horkheimer (1979). Reading Sardar’s work, one often comes across categorical anti-western statements such as ‘the west is culturally,  morally and intellectually bankrupt’1 and ‘in the future we are not going to get any new ideas from the west—all really new ideas of the 21st century are going to come from the non-western cultures’ (Sardar, 1997: cybertext, original capitalization). For Sardar, the West as a civilization is a trajectory of ‘colonialism to modernity to postmodernism’ (Sardar, 1997: cybertext) constituting one exploitative and imperialistic Weltanschauung that cannot but dominate other civilizations: ‘a stronger culture always subsumes and appropriates a weaker one. This is what the west has been doing over the  last four hundred years’ (Sardar, 1997: cybertext). One way of interpreting  such categorical statements is that they represent the marginalized cultures  of the world. My contention in this paper is that Sardar’s work, despite its interventionist critique of the epistemic hegemony of the West and its power to foreground non-western systems of knowledge production, not only preserves the civilizational oppositionality it seeks to dismantle but also essentializes Islam, the East and the non-West. Effective critique of western Orientalism does not need to produce Orientocentric Occidentalism. This does not mean that abolishing the centrality of the West leads to the impossibility of having any centre at all but rather it means that critiques of oppressive structures of thought, such as western Orientalism, reduce their effectiveness when they replicate similar structures. According to Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, pointing out the arbitrariness of the signifier ‘the West’ can be a useful strategy for destabilizing the centrality of the West (1994: 13). Shohat and Stam favour the idea of polycentrism over Eurocentrism and they attempt to achieve a polycentricity in theoretical discourses by shifting the intellectual gaze from the commonly held Eurocentric semantics of the signifier ‘the West’ to the othered significations of these directional signifiers, such as East and West: for example, Shohat  and Stam point out that the Arabic word maghreb, meaning West, refers to North Africa (1994: 13). However, it is important to point out that this strategy of Shohat and Stam of disorienting the dominant linguistic and cultural significations of a term does not annul the term ‘the West’ but instead problematizes its hasty and uncritical deployment in Orientalist as well as Occidentalist thought.

In many of Sardar’s writings, one notices an ‘either/or’ move from a critical interrogation of the dominance of the western episteme to an easy justification and celebration of Islamic and religious modes of knowing and stating the world. In this way, the Eurocentric binary constructions of the Self and the Other, which celebrate the western Self while constructing the non-West as a homogeneous and uncivilized or pre-modern Other, have been reversed. The binary that the work of Edward Said attempted to destabilize in order to create an enunciative space for critical intellectuality has been inversely reproduced, leading towards the construction and preservation of the West and Islam as two cultural monoliths that exist without any marginalities, fissures, and identitarian problematics within them: for example, the Romanies, immigrants, refugees, and the Samis and other minorities in Europe and in the West; and the often precarious conditions of Christian, Buddhist and Hindu minorities in those countries where Muslims dominate the organization of the polity—the criminalization of non-Islamic religious practices by the Saudi government is one such example. However, my point is not that Sardar’s celebratory talk of Islam is of an absolutist nature. I am trying to point out that the West and the East  are not locked into a given oppositionality but rather a historically and culturally produced oppositionality—an oppositionality that is preserved and perpetuated not only by theories of civilizational hostility, such as Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order (Huntington, 1996), but also in the critique of such theories. Intellectual intervention of western epistemic hegemony does not necessarily need to subscribe to or reproduce the logic of either/or in order to launch effective critical thought. The West and the East, as Shohat and Stam have also argued, are not fixed formations (1994: 15) and need to be regarded as conceptual tools that one employs while assigning them temporary essences because there are no given essences that can be sutured to these signifiers.

Secularizing the West and Islamizing Islam

The issue of how non-western intellectuals represent the West has been a point of discussion, especially after Said’s Orientalism. In a study of Iranian intellectuals and their constructions of the West as the Other, Mehrzad Boroujerdi describes the practice of Othering the West prevalent among Iranian intellectuals as ‘Orientalism in Reverse’ (Boroujerdi, 1996: 10). Explaining his choice of this term rather than Occidentalism, Boroujerdi states that Occidentalism is supposed to abandon the epistemological apparatus of Orientalism, whereas ‘Orientalism in Reverse’ is Orientalism inverted and applied to the West in the same manner as Orientalism was/is applied to the Orient (Boroujerdi, 1996: 12). What Boroujerdi describes as ‘Orientalism in Reverse’ has been described as Occidentalism by Wang Ning in his ‘Orientalism versus Occidentalism?’ in the context of the Chinese intellectuals and their representations of the West (Ning, 1997) as well as by Xiaomei Chen (1994).

I intend to employ the concept of Occidentalism, instead of ‘Orientalism in Reverse’, to study the work of Ziauddin Sardar because the opposite of Orientalism can be better described as Occidentalism because this term recognizes the agency of the knowledge producer more than the term ‘Orientalism in Reverse’ which assigns a greater originary value to western Orientalism. Moreover, the concept of Occidentalism has also been employed by Edward Said as a descriptor of uncritical intellectual response against Orientalism. On the concluding page of the first edition of his Orientalism, Edward Said highlights the problematic of binaristic thought with the following emphatic words:

Above all, I hope to have shown my reader that the answer to Orientalism is not Occidentalism. No former ‘Oriental’ will be comforted by the thought that having been an Oriental himself he is likely—too likely—to study new ‘Orientals’—or ‘Occidentals’ —of his own making. (Said, 1978: 328)

It is precisely this attempt to preclude emotive reductions and hasty ramifications of his sustained critique of the stereotypes and imaginings of Oriental subjects that has been thwarted in Ziauddin Sardar’s work. While deconstructing totalizing views about the Orient as a place of superstitions and irrationality, Sardar has established equally totalizing and essentializing views about the always oppressive West, thereby further ossifying the civilizational chasm that essentialist thought has been producing against the Other. The manner in which an essence of a cultural artefact is constructed remains as reductive as Orientalizing practices criticized by Said in his Orientalism.

Ziauddin Sardar’s response to the material and cultural dominance of the West as a civilization evinces a binaristic will to construct the West as essentially Other to Islam. Sardar achieves this by reducing the heterogeneity of the West to an essential category. This essentialization derives its inspiration from the tradition of western critical theory as well as Arab and Muslim critiques of the West. For example, in his first book Science, Technology and Development in the Muslim World, Sardar declares that Muslims ‘should learn from others but there is no need for us to borrow their spectacles as well. This borrowing of other people’s spectacles is a result of lack of self- confidence’ (1977: 44). This lack of self-confidence can be corrected if there is no ‘cultural or scientific imperialism’ and that means becoming a practitioner of Islamic science because a Muslim can ‘only be one of two things: a completely occidentalised scientist who retains some contact with his traditional religion or a Muslim who has some contact with occidental science’ (Sardar, 1977: 46).

This view of the Muslim subject as a possessor of a unified and immutable self is problematic for many reasons. First, it does not take into account many  instances where Muslim identity itself is indeterminate: for example, this view glosses over the countless debates in different Muslim countries regarding the Islamicity of various sects within Islam—one can cite the case of Pakistan’s Nobel Laureate physicist Abdus Salam who lived in exile till his death because his sect had been declared un-Islamic in Pakistan (Hoodbhoy, 1998: cybertext). Second, this epistemically violent division of the Muslim self as either ‘occidentalized therefore not a true Muslim’ or ‘Muslim therefore not completely occidentalized’ can buttress the brutalization of Muslim polities because many of the ulema, not all, believe that Islamic punishment for apostasy is death, hence the famous fatwa against Rushdie. Third, by attempting to obliterate the amorphousness of Islamic identities, this binaristic compartmentalization of Muslim subjectivity into two formations preserves the division between the East and the West that itself was, largely, created by Orientalist scholars to make the Orient an object of study, hence Edward Said’s observation that, for the West, Orientalism maintained ‘the difference between the familiar and the strange’ (Said, 1978: 43).

Sardar also maintains the difference between Islam as the familiar and the non-Islamic and foreign West. Islam is the realm of the familiar Self, despite its internal fissures and heterogeneous formations, and the West is the realm of the Other, an imagined space of ideational and cultural alterity that can be homogenized into a totality. In another book, co-authored with Dawud G. Rosser-Owen, one can observe how the text homogenizes and occidentalizes the West, producing a monolithic civilization without any marginalities and multiplicities within itself: ‘there is little basic difference in the cultural and territorial origins of the Capitalist West and the Communist East’ (Sardar and Rosser-Owen, 1978: 2). This homogenization of the West leads to other generalizations aimed at constructing and preserving an originary and essentialist cultural oppositionality between the Occident and the Orient:

In our framework we shall refer to them as the Occident. The Occident is no longer restricted to Europe and Outremer but has its ‘outremers’ all over the place. Anything, therefore, which belongs to the Occident, whether found in Europe or in Asia, is occidental. (Sardar and Rosser-Owen, 1978: 2)

The Occident is produced as an autotelic entity which has its essence manifest in the world of objects that are identifiable as Occidental objects. After essentializing the multiplicity of objects that are supposedly united into the Occident, the text claims to know the immutable essence of the Oriental Self and any signs of exteriority in the cultural or epistemic boundaries of this Oriental self result in Occidentalization: ‘Any “Oriental” who aspires to what is occidental or who has achieved his aspirations is thus either occidentalising or has been occidentalised’ (Sardar and Rosser- Owen, 1978: 2; original capitalization). There are two recognizable moves in which Sardar’s work defines the Oriental Self: (a) the only form of Otherness is exterior to the Oriental Self and there are no schisms, fissures or sources of aporia within it; (b) the Otherness is assigned to the Occident which is defined by its essential exteriority (or foreignness) to the Oriental Self. Moreover, this exterior essence of the Occident is considered an immutable given which remains identifiable even when it has infiltrated the Occidental Self. In this way, by defining the Occident as exterior to the Oriental Self, Sardar’s work maintains the antagonistic Oriental–Occidental binary that is the hallmark of Western Orientalist thought itself. One can easily identify the conceptual similarities between Samuel P. Huntington’s Orientalism and Sardar’s Occidentalism: the desire to fix the originariness of the Occident and the Orient and to disallow any spatio-temporal permutations and heterogeneity that one finds in Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations is not very different from Sardar’s immutable constructions of the Orient and the Occident.

Let us consider, for contrastive and illustrative purposes, how Huntington has constructed Islam as a civilization that is hostile to difference: ‘Wherever one looks at the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peacefully with their neighbours’ (Huntington, 1996: 256) and ‘Muslim bellicosity and violence are late-twentieth century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny’ (Huntington, 1996: 258). In the above statements, Huntington constructs an essence of Islam by choosing one set of events, i.e. intracivilization and intercivilization violent conflicts, and claims that set to represent Islam in its totality. We can call this totalization through selection, where one aspect of a culture is regarded as representative of the whole culture and, thereby, an immutable essence is produced by the authorial figure. Similar to the way Huntington constructs the violent nature of Islam, Sardar and his co-author construct the nature of the West as a civilization that has stolen everything from Islam through deceit and imperialism:

In the Thirteenth Century, Albertus Magnus, wearing Arab clothes, taught in Arabic at the Sorbonne, the sciences of mathematics, astronomy, and optics. He had learned these sciences at the University of Cordoba in Muslim Spain. Roger Bacon also studied in Muslim Spain and taught the same subjects at Oxford . . . This is the beginning of the story of ‘modern Western science’. (Sardar and Rosser-Owen, 1978: 30)

Similarly, in another book titled Explorations in Islamic Science, Sardar first criticizes the West for plagiarizing and expropriating the work of Muslim scientists of the Middle Ages:

. . . [the] achievements [of Muslim scientists] in astronomy, physics, biology, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, are still attributed to Western scientists . . . [and] Western historians of science have systematically and consistently played down the contribution of Muslim scientists to civilisation. (Sardar, 1989b: 11)

These historical facts are supposed, ipso facto, to prove that Western science is a ‘usurped’, ‘borrowed’ and ‘derivative’ way of knowing the world and, because of its participation in the production of the western episteme, can be invalidated as a whole. The fact that western science is part of the western episteme and that episteme has become dominant because of colonization on a global scale does not automatically validate the alternative, which in this case is the Islamic episteme. The fact that it is possible to critique one form of epistemic oppressiveness and closure does not validate another form of epistemic closure, hence Edward Said’s cautionary statement already cited. Western Orientalism cannot be replaced by Oriental Occidentalism. Because one set of constructs, grouped together into a civilizational episteme, can be criticized and analysed does not necessarily validate an alternative set of constructs. The closure of the western episteme cannot be challenged by the closure of the Islamic episteme.

The point of contention here is not the truth-value of the observations made by Sardar but how the ‘truth’ that Muslim scientific achievements have been expropriated by western scientists and historians is employed to Occidentalize the Occident in a manner not very different from the way in which Orientalists produce the essence of the Orient. In both cases, another

culture is represented by intellectuals who select and interpret ‘facts’ for the purpose of producing ‘valid’ knowledge. In his book Covering Islam, Edward Said delineates how first some Islamic image or representation is extracted from the multiplicity that is the Islamic world and then a generalizable knowledge statement is made from that singularized representation (Said, 1981: 162–73). The process of representation becomes the process of essence-making, a method for making statements rather than asking questions about what is being represented. This process of essence-making through selecting and interpreting representative facts is then used for certain purposes—to produce an object of knowledge such as the Orient or the Occident to serve a particular discourse. One can posit that the Orientalist produces representations and interpretations of the Orient for the Occident and the Occidentalist produces the Occident for the Orient. Both the Orientalist and the Occidentalist make statements on behalf of the Other culture and produce and preserve the identity of their respective culture as well as the Other cultures. In this way, representing the Other becomes an assertion of the interpreting Self, a way of subsuming the alterity of the Other under, to borrow a phrase from Robert Young, the ‘imperialism of the same’ (Young, 1990: 15). Representation seeks to homogenize the Other as well as the Self.

The tendency in non-western intellectuals to contain the Oriental and the Occidental formations of subjectivity into two neat categories and to repress the countless instances where only the porosity of the self is manifest reproduces an oppositionality between the West and the non-West which itself is part of the western colonial project. The task of the postcolonial intellectual is to undermine the oppositionality between the East and the West that was created to justify colonialism rather than to preserve it, hence the critical importance of Homi Bhabha’s concept of the colonial subject, as the hybrid subject, as opposed to the colonizing subject or the colonized subject (Bhabha, 1994).

Moreover, one of the ramifications of Sardar’s Islamic Manicheanism, i.e. the sustained production and maintenance of the opposition between benevolent Islam versus the malevolent West, is that, while the West is being produced as an imperialistic and oppressive Other, Islam is not critiqued but rather idealized. The central argument of most of Sardar’s books is that western modernity has produced the dominant episteme because of colonialism and exploitation of non-western cultures and it has suppressed the always benign Islamic episteme. The problem with this argument is that the historical condition of the dominance of the West is employed to homogenize Islam as an ideal episteme. A critical genealogy of the dominance of the western episteme does not automatically validate Islam as an idealized community. Islam has its own sources of critique within it that have existed from the earliest days of Islam to the present. From Al-Hallaj who was executed for claiming to be the Truth himself to Al-Afriki who produced resistive discourses against the Islamic edict of compulsory prayers (Braudel, 1993: 76), from Ibn-e-Sina who did not believe in the Quranic notion of the resurrection of the body after the Judgement Day (Braudel, 1993: 83) to Salman Rushdie (1988), Fatima Mernissi (1993) and Eqbal Ahmad (2000), there is a tradition of resistance to the epistemic closure that is generally considered Islam.

To attribute this vast body of resistive and critical discourses within Islam to the influence of the secular West is a manifestation of the Occidentalism of Sardar. In his book Distorted Imagination: Lessons from the Rushdie Affair, Sardar and his co-author seek to empty Islam of its own critical heritage and resistive discourses and attribute all secularist influences to western modernity: ‘modernity is the abandonment of traditional meaning where secularism may have no coherence or conceptual validity . . . Modernity is the end of authenticity, the assumption of another self’ (Sardar and Davies, 1990: 10). Terms such as ‘traditional meaning’ and ‘authenticity’ are employed as the binary opposites of ‘modernity’ and ‘secularism’. This opposition between secularism and tradition is misplaced because Islam has never been constituted of a unified cultural tradition in the past or in the contemporary era. Only essentialist ideologues have desired it to be so.

Islam has been and still is a multiplicity. One can cite countless examples of debates and ideas within the Islamic civilization in its present formation to support this claim. For example, Aziz Al-Azmeh, a Syrian Muslim intellectual, opens his book Islams and Modernities with the following statement ‘the contention [of this book is] that there are as many Islams as there are situations that sustain it’ (Al-Azmeh, 1993: 1). And Javed Iqbal, a Pakistani Muslim intellectual, cites verses from the Quran—such as ‘If thy Lord had pleased, All those who are in the Earth would have believed, all of them. Wilt thou then force men till they are believers?’ (10: 99)—to prove that Allah likes difference (Iqbal, 1967: 30). In another book Anouar Abdallah has collected about 100 essays from contemporary Muslim intellectuals who support free speech (Abdallah et al., 1994). All the scholars whose essays are collected in this volume employ different methodologies and epistemic inspirations to support their claim for freedom of speech within Islam. The sources of their inspiration are heterogeneous: Sufism, western and Islamic traditions of rationalism and, among many others, the idea of basic human rights.

The effort to impose the closure of singular meaning on the multiplicity that is Islam by Sardar is a dangerous enterprise because this kind of reaction by Muslim intellectuals fortifies the media representations of Islam as fundamentalist and violent (El-Baghdadi, 2000) but also places the sanctity of human life in jeopardy. According to the authors of Distorted Imagination, secularism is absolutely western and its sole justification derives from the dominance of western modernity and colonialism:

‘Secularism remains the product of Europe: its concepts of liberty and freedom are to be assessed and comprehended’ (Sardar and Davies, 1990: 31). Secularism, Sardar and Davies argue, is always external to the Islamic world and therefore secular ideas only inhabit Islamic subjectivities when western modernity has been internalized: ‘secularism is not a choice, certainly not a choice that arises from within’ and ‘internalizing modernity means renunciation of a distinct history and culture’ (Sardar and Davies, 1990: 10). There are two assumptions at work in the argument propounded above: (a) cultural practices that are ‘external’ to Islam need to be rejected and, in this way, the ‘purity’ of Islam can be preserved, (b) without internalizing western modernity, Muslim subjectivities cannot enter the domain of the secular.

Both of the assumptions mentioned above are informed by an essentialist position on Sardar’s behalf regarding Islam and the West. Sardar’s essentialism informs his portrayal of Islam as immutable and ahistorical as well as the West being opposed to Islam because of its secular modernity. Before discussing Sardar’s essentialist ideas of Islam and its values, the West, modernity and secularism, I would like to outline how essentialism operates in philosophical arguments. According to Diana Fuss, essentialist statements often ‘make recourse to an ontology which stands outside the sphere of cultural influence and historical change’ (1989: 3). If we examine Sardar’s ideas about Islam and the West in his various books, we encounter a cluster of statements that posit an unchanging essence to these two conceptual categories. The essence of Islam is posited to be divine and ahistorical and to be something to which the worldly culture of Arabia had nothing to contribute. Islam is an expression of Allah’s unchanging agency whose ontology is outside the Arabian culture. For example, in his introduction to An Early Crescent: The Future of Knowledge and the Environment in Islam, Sardar states that, when it comes to dealing with change, Islam wants believers to form ‘social consensus’ with the help of ‘the participation of the total community’ because ‘Islam wants its followers to approach and study change with awe and humility’ (Sardar, 1989a: 1). Though Islam wants to accommodate change with the participation of a mythic ‘total community’, Islam itself, for Sardar, is beyond change and therefore ahistorical—Islam is extraneous to history. It is the unified voice of God in the multiplicity of worldly texts. Islam has a singular eternal origin, whereas the text of the world is profane with its beginnings, middles and ends. And this divine singularity of Islam, in the contemporary world, has been challenged by the West which has achieved epistemic dominance because of colonial and imperial exploitation.

In Sardar’s work, the only challenge that appears to the Islamic episteme is the dominance of the western episteme. In his book Explorations in Islamic Science, Sardar critiques western science for its ideological content.

He traces the origin of western science to the Enlightenment: ‘the Enlightenment was the intellectual and scholarly tradition which is responsible for shaping the character and style of contemporary Western science and technology’ (Sardar, 1989b: 52). The Enlightenment, Sardar argues, separated the pursuit of knowledge from the pursuit of values. Sardar, in the tradition of western critical thinkers such as Adorno and Horkheimer, holds industrialization responsible for what he describes as the ‘environmental devastation’ (Sardar, 1989b: 54). He does not subscribe to the Enlightenment point of view that there can be objective and value-free knowledge. For him, it was colonialism that installed ‘the myth of neutrality’ of western science in the world (Sardar, 1989b: 55). He employs Thomas Kuhn’s (1962) idea of ‘paradigm’ to support his arguments against the ‘myth of neutrality’ of western science and to establish that scientific knowledge is ‘socially constructed’ (Sardar, 1989b: 56). For him, ‘ideological forces’ determine ‘that which is desirable to know and that which is undesirable’ (Sardar, 1989b: 57).

As far as a critique of the scientificity of western science is concerned, Sardar’s ideas are similar to the ideas of Foucault and Said. Foucault, especially in his earlier works, specifically in Madness and Civilisation (1965) and Discipline and Punish (1977), established the relationship between knowledge and power and sought to undermine the myth of objectivity.

In his The Order of Things, Foucault established how various objects of analysis are produced by different discourses that assign centrality to the category of Man. Inspired by Foucault’s theory of the inseparability of knowledge and power, Edward Said launched the project of undermining western knowledge of the Orient and implicated the entire western civilization in the racialist project of Orientalism: ‘My contention is that Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West’ (Said, 1978: 204). But Said was critically astute enough not to subscribe to the notion of nativist authenticity as a strategy of resisting Orientalism, hence his warning that Occidentalism is not the solution to the problems generated by Oriental- ism. But Sardar not only produces Occidentalist discourses but also promotes Islamic nativism.

For Sardar, the critical premise that western scientific knowledge attained dominance because of colonialism ipso facto moves to substantiate the Islamic episteme. Sardar offers Islam as an alternative way of producing knowledge of the world and describes it as Islamic science. The western scientific project, Sardar argues, has disenchanted the world because of the value system that inspires it (Sardar, 1989b). Each civilization, according to Sardar, produces a system of knowledge production that is conducive to its development or dynamicity: for China, Chinese epistemology, for Islam, Islamic epistemology (Sardar, 1989b: 70–81). Because the universality of western science is not autotelic or a priori but is a result of historical contingencies, Islamic science becomes a tenable option for Muslims (Sardar, 1989b: 81–109).

While the first part of the Sardarian critique of western science and post-Enlightenment rationality is tenable—in the sense that a materially dominant civilization moulds the world in its own image, the second part is what I seek to problematize here. Sardar’s argument operates in the following way: the myths of neutrality and objectivity as prevalent in the western post-Enlightenment episteme can be critiqued because one can attribute their dominance to western imperialism and colonialism; therefore, the Islamic way of knowing the world is valid a priori and beyond critique. There are problems in the prescriptive part (i.e. the part that suggests an alternative to the dominance of western episteme) of the Sardarian thesis. First of all, Sardar’s critique of the dominant western episteme validates itself within a structure which does not step outside of ‘myth of neutrality’ itself. In this sense, his critique of western rationality is accessible to his readers from different cultures because of the rational content of his arguments. In this sense, his critique of modernity operates within the epistemic structures globalized by western modernity but also existing in non-western cultures even if not in politically dominant formations, such as Avicenna’s critique of certain Quranic beliefs. The critical aspect of the Sardarian thesis is similar to what Anthony Giddens describes as ‘reflexivity of modernity’. Reflexivity of modernity, for Giddens, signifies modernity’s doubt and critique directed at itself: ‘[the] reflexivity of modern social life consists in the fact that social practices are constantly examined and reformed’ (Giddens, 1990: 38).

The prescriptive part of the Sardarian thesis (i.e. the part that prescribes Islamic science as an alternative to the dominance of the western episteme) is problematic for the following reasons. First, Sardar idealizes and homogenizes the Islamic episteme as one unified set of internally coherent statements. In Islam, for Sardar, ‘all forms of knowledge are interconnected and organically related by the ever-present spirit of the Quranic revelation (1989b: 82). Second, Islamic science is different from western science in the sense that Islamic science seeks to produce knowledge for the ‘pleasure of Allah’ whereas western science is ‘science for science’s sake’ (Sardar, 1989b: 95). The set of statements that Sardar produces in order to outline what Islamic science is is informed by the notion that reason should be subject to revelation and it is only because of western dominance that reason has been secularized.

Sardar’s thesis is Occidentalism in the sense that critique is only applied to the West and Islam and other non-western formations are idealized and exoticized. According to Pervez Hoodbhoy, Sardar’s thesis does not take into account the hostility that Islam has directed against rational inquiry within the social spaces in its jurisdiction:

. . . [the] writings of all the major [Muslim] philosophers—Al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, Ibn Rushd, etc.—simultaneously show contempt for, and fear of, ignorant masses . . .because it was not hard for fanatical mullahs to incite the masses against the philosophers. (Hoodbhoy, 1991: 94)

If one were to apply the insights of Said’s Orientalism uncritically to the account of Muslim ecclesiastical hostility to scientific rationality in Islam, one could posit that Hoodbhoy’s position was informed by an internalization of  Western Orientalism. But, to borrow a critical insight from Aijaz Ahmad, suppression of criticism is not an ideal way of expressing solidarity with those whose projects and conditions one wants to promote (Ahmad, 1992: 160). It means that all critical enunciations by Muslim thinkers against closure in the Islamic episteme against scientific modes of inquiry are not informed by western Orientalism. Muslim subjectivities can attain self- reflexivity without the West, and without participating in the process described by Sardar as ‘Occidentalisation’. It is the totalizing arguments of Sardar that are as epistemically reductive as Orientalist descriptions, from Hegelian to Huntingtonian, of the inability of Muslims to attain self- reflexivity and to conduct rational inquiry. For Abdus Salam, the Pakistani scientist who won the Nobel prize but still remained persona non grata in ‘the land of the pure’ (the literal meaning of the word ‘Pakistan’) because his sect had been declared un-Islamic, one of the causes of the decline of scientific rationality in Islam, other than external influences and invasions, is ‘discouragement to innovation’ (Salam, 1987: 82). This ‘discouragement to innovation’ and its concomitant absolutism within Islamic cultures do not receive any critical attention from Sardar.

Sardar’s prescription for scientific inquiry to remain within the limit of the Quranic revelation is not only a reductionist answer to the challenge of secularism, rationalism and modernity but also displays a disregard for the potential of Islam as a faith to survive within the realm of the ethical and the spiritual. The present inequalities that exist between cultures and nations, Hoodbhoy argues, can be critiqued from within modernity because ‘there is no law of nature confining scientific and technological progress to the developed nations of the West’ (Hoodbhoy, 1991: 138). Hoodbhoy’s strategy of appropriating the claim of universality to assert the claims of Islamic and Third World emancipatory projects is similar to Fatima Mernissi’s demand for secular legal and state structures in the Islamic world.

According to Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan theorist of Islam, the veil and the modern world, there is a need to acknowledge that the current prevalence of irrational authoritarianism in the domain of knowledge production in Muslim countries is a result of the despotism of the national/postcolonial elite, for ‘rational analysis would not serve the purposes of the despots (Mernissi, 1993: 24). For Mernissi, modernity, rationality and freedom of thought have always been present in the Islamic world as sources of aporia that the Islamic world has not contemplated. The dominance of western modernity, democracy and the secular state in the contemporary world, Mernissi argues, makes the problem of freedom of thought and modernity more urgent not foreign (Mernissi, 1993: 21).

If one analyses Sardar’s work from Said’s definition of an intellectual, one can establish that Sardar is not a critical intellectual in the Saidian sense. In his book Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said illustrates his vision of the intellectual by citing the example of Theodor Adorno and describing him as a ‘quintessential intellectual’ because Adorno critiqued ‘all systems, whether on our side or their side, with equal distaste’ (Said, 1994: 41). Drawing upon Adorno’s critical distance for all homogenizing systems and master-texts, Said constructs the figure of the critical intellectual as a generator of a ‘destabilising effect’ (1994: 41). In another essay in the same book, Said links his figure of the intellectual with secularism: ‘the intellectual has only secular means to work with’ and argues that theological or revelationist modes of knowledge production are more suitable for ‘private life’ because in the public sphere they can produce disastrous and barbaric results (1994: 65). This is not to suggest that Edward Said is uncritical of the disastrous or barbaric consequences of secular rationality when applied for the purposes of subjugating entire populations of Third World countries. It is, rather, to foreground, for contrastive and illustrative purposes, the nuanced and rigorous modes of analysis with which Said deploys his critical acumen against essentialist generalizations whether they are informed by the secular or the sacral.

Sardar’s critique is limited to the material and epistemic dominance of western civilization over Islam but his work on Islam is contained within the parameters of exoticization and homogenization. For example, in his book Science and Technology in the Middle East, Sardar does not address the cultural and theological constraints placed on modes of thought that seek to transcend the sacral. Instead he first mentions a process of ‘Arabization’ of science and then seeks to promote a nativist construction of ‘Islamic science’ which will be ‘a true embodiment of the values, culture and civilisation of Islam’ (1982: 18). The problem whether science needs to be Islamized or Arabized is left unexamined and Sardar moves on to celebrate another construct ‘Turkish-Islamic science’ (1982: 19). The basic problem that remains unacknowledged in Sardar’s work is the heterogeneity within Islamic cultures and how one can represent their specificities without reverting to easy self-congratulatory essentializations of a multiplicity that is Islam. For other Muslim scientists, such as Pervez Hoodbhoy, the Sardarian project of Islamizing science ‘seeks to capitalize on the science practiced by early Muslims’ without sharing ‘any qualities which immortalized the achievements of scientists in Islam’s Golden Age’ (Hoodbhoy, 1991: 149).

By declaring rationality and secular inquiry as ‘western’ and therefore oppressive concepts, the Sardarian project becomes an uncritical enterprise that further compounds the problems of Third World and Muslim societies. Pervez Hoodbhoy, in his book Islam and Science, has listed a number of examples that illustrate how the Pakistani academic and bureaucratic establishment has attempted to deal with the secularizing effects of modernity (Hoodbhoy, 1991). Secular and scientific inquiry in Pakistan has been seriously curtailed through official policies that discourage members of general public and academia from debating the validity of concepts authorized

by Islamic/divine injunctions. Recently, one has also learnt of a medical teacher being sentenced to death for discussing the bodily customs of pre-Islamic and Islamic Arabia. The secular project in Pakistan has suffered because of the Occidentalism prevalent in anti-colonial/critical knowledge production as well as obscurantism of the rulers.


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SAEED UR-REHMAN, MA Honours (Wollongong), is working on his doctoral thesis on postcolonial knowledge production from Pakistan at the Department of English, Australian National University. His academic writings have appeared in Kunapipi, New Literatures Review. His journalistic writings have been published in The Frontier Post. Some of his poems are available in the on-line South Asian magazine Chowk ( [email:]