On Desperately Seeking Paradise

354 pp. Granta UK.
I first read Sardar’s memoir of his journey in faith when I was finishing off my final year in undergraduate studies. It was lent to me by a dear close friend, who, as a perpetual skeptic, found a deep affirmation in Sardar’s experiences and sentiments.
The book resurfaced in my readerly psyche again when, almost three years later, I chose it as the next pick for my Islam(ish) book club and re-read it in advance of our meetup.

I have always recommended this book to Muslim students and critical thinkers who are uncertain as to how fulfilling Islam in its current forms fulfills its spiritual and social ideal in providing a paradise on earth for its adherents as well as the paradise of the hereafter. I still  recommend it for such people. But in this reread I was struck by it in a completely new and original way.

I am in awe of this book.In an era where instant nonfiction books with poor content, threadbare content with holes in it, are churned out in the form of fancy, time-consuming hardbacks, I am incredibly humbled by the majesty contained within its 354 pages.Don’t get me wrong. There might have been a time when I felt that I was perfectly happy for Sardar to represent Islam for me, any day, but those times are gone. The implications of some of the statements he makes in this bok—particularly about the irrelevance of Shariah law–do not sit well with me.But this is not the place to go into that problem (and even if it was, I barely have a glimmer of the intellectual prowess required to take him on).This is the place to say that this book needs to be known about, talked about, much more than it seems to be. I don’t know the standards by which ratings are judged, but I daresay that this book is highly underrated for what it has to offer in terms of understanding oneself and understanding Islam’s earthly forms.

And it is so beautifully laid out. Just the table of contents reveals the elegance of its construction. The first few chapters start out from the simpler standpoint of the author, who as a young man at first wanted nothing more but to immerse himself into the different practices of Islam. Ever so gradually, the reader is then delicately pulled through the question of how being a Muslim works with the social and political orders in existence, and others being joined. The reader grows with Zardar on his journey, as he perpetually slakes his insatiable thirst for knowledge, while, at the same time, developing a menacingly critical eye for Islam in theory and practice, the almost-always difficult process of becoming the vociferous, outspoken journalist he is today.

Yet there are two questions bring me down to earth, to crushing reality, from the heights this book took me to.
1. Do we have more Muslims in store for Islam’s future? Muslims who have the time, the resources, and, most of all, the spiritual capability, to explore and learn so much and still remain skeptical?
2. Will more books like this keep being produced?

The book ends much too soon, leaving a gaping opening between the start of the twenty-first century and the death of Osama Bin Laden. That gap stares at me, a void that in itself attests to the dire, dire need for a revised and updated version that continues Sardar’s perpetual, ongoing journey.

But just like Sardar and his counterparts are carelessly tossed aside, this book goes under the radar. And if it were not for the friend who lent it to me, I would have never experienced this memoir. I would have never come across the account of a man who is desperately trying to understand and make sense of the wasteland of a once-majestic religious heritage that he has inherited.

Yes, he may be “too” skeptical. Yes, he does get rant-y. Yes, the implications of some of his stances can be quite alarming.

But in this sphere, in my sphere, there is no room for demonizing him or criticizing him. For once, let’s just be happy that this man exists, for better or for worse. Let’s rejoice in the gift this book is for us, a book that teaches one what it means to be a skeptic, and the spirit of true tolerance and plural coexistence. And let’s pray that there are more who, in the spirit of faith-based critical inquiry, continue to serve as the vessels of knowledge that are needed to pave our Ummah’s future forward.


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