Focus On... - Oxford Islamic Studies Online
Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
Chapter: verse lookup What is This? Select one or both translations, then enter a chapter and verse number in the boxes, and click "Go."

Written by leading scholars, the Focus On essays are designed to stimulate thought and enhance understanding of vital aspects of the Islamic world. New essays on specific themes, with links to related content within the site for further reading, are published throughout the course of the year. All visitors to Oxford Islamic Studies Online can access these essays, but related content links in Previous Features are available to subscribers only.

Join the discussion: If you have a question related to the topic explored in a Focus On article, please email your inquiry to the editor of Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Selected questions and the author's replies will be posted in our Focus On Forum in tandem with site updates.

Critical Thought and the Future of Islam

Ziauddin Sardar
Professor of Law and Society, Middlesex University, London
Co-Editor, Critical Muslim and Consulting Editor, Futures

A critical spirit has been central to Islam from its inception. The Qur'an is generously sprinkled with references to thought and learning, reflection and reason. The Sacred Text denounces those who do not use their critical faculties in strongest terms: "the worse creatures in God's eyes are those who are [willfully] deaf and dumb, who do not reason" (8:22). A cursory look at the life of Muhammad reveals that his strategic decisions were an outcome of critical discussions–—the way he decided, for example, to fight the Battle of Badr outside Medina, or, later on, defend the city by digging a trench. The Prophet's basic advice to his followers, in one version of his " Farewell Pilgrimage", was to " reason well"1. The scholarship that evolved around collecting the traditions and sayings of the Prophet was itself based on an innovative and detailed method of criticism. It is widely acknowledged that debate and discussion, argument and counter-argument, literary textual criticism as well as scientific criticism were hallmarks of the classical Muslim civilisation2. Roger Allen traces the Islamic tradition of criticism right back to Abu Tammam (d.846) and ibn Abd Rabbihi (d.940), two poets who also excelled in literary criticism3. Islamic philosophical theology is littered with critical works, such as those of Ibn Hazm (994-–1064) , ibn Sina (990-–1037) and ibn Rushd (1126-1198). Critical discernment is clearly evident in the work of Muslim scientists of classical period such as al-Haytham (965-–1040), who excelled in optics, the natural and social scientist al-Biruni (973-–1048), and the astronomer al-Battani (858-–929). Debate and discussion, as for example the one between al-Ghazzali (1058-–1111) and ibn Rushd, were the norm in classical Islam.

Yet, with the exception of a relatively small number of reform oriented scholars, thinkers and activists of all ages, this critical spirit is lacking in the modern Muslim world.

The reasons for the evaporation of this critical thought are many and diverse. Perhaps it was all the fault of al-Ghazali, as "a widely held view" has it: he "strongly attacked philosophy in The Incoherence of the Philosophers" and, as a result, "their role was significantly reduced in the Sunni world"4, along with the importance of criticism. Perhaps it was "the well-known decree of al-Qadir in 1017-18 and 1029", that banned the rationalist thought of the Mutazalites, the school of speculative theology that flourished in Baghdad and Andalusia between eighth and twelfth centuries, as the late Mohammad Arkoun suggests. As a consequence, "to this day, the ulama officially devoted to the defence of the orthodoxy, refuse to reactivate the thinkable introduced and developed by original, innovative thinkers in classical period"5. Perhaps it was the closure of "the gates of Ijtihad", the "sustained reasoning" that a jurist had to undertake to critically interrogate Islamic law and reach an independent decision, that sealed the door to criticism. :While no one actually closed the gate, it came to be treated, as Sadakat Kadri notes, "as a historical fact rather than a poetically pleasing way of saying that jurists were no longer as good as they used to be"6. Perhaps it was because Muslim societies could not develop "legally autonomous corporate governance", Arabic thought is "essentially metaphysical" and incapable of developing universalism, and Muslim culture and ethos is just too reverential to religious authorities, as Toby Huff has argued7. Perhaps criticism died out because of a lack of any kind of state support or protection for dissent; or maybe it was the colonization of the Muslim world. However, all of these explanations of the decline of Muslim civilisation and the disappearance of the critical spirit are partial, and some are seriously problematic, as I argued in my Royal Society lecture8.

While it is important to explore the reasons why many if not most believing Muslims have developed an aversion to criticism and critical thought, it is also necessary to do something about it. The absence of a critical spirit, as well as philosophers, thinkers, writers and activists who constantly challenge received wisdom and take issue with orthodoxy has, over many centuries, allowed the advent and dominance of a singular interpretation of Islam. It has also contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and allowed extremism and obscurantism to become intrinsic in Muslim societies. Much of what goes under the rubric of "religious thought" or "culture" in Muslim societies -has thus been reduced to a set of pieties, hindering the ability to generate new and original ideas. Indeed, one can argue that many Muslims no longer have a model of living genially with Otherness, accommodating difference, or adjusting to rapid and accelerating change.

The quarterly Critical Muslim9 (, which I launched early this year, is an attempt to provide space for the critical spirit of Islam. The idea is to create a platform where criticism from all perspectives can be debated and discussed; dissent can be expressed freely and all questions and issues, however controversial, can be raised and explored. The project was inspired by the Arab Spring. But as the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa demonstrate so well, it is one thing to topple dictators, quite another to tackle a despotism and a culture of blindly following what is entrenched in Muslim thought, culture and societies. Published by the Muslim Institute (, a learned society of Fellows, and the academic publisher Hurst & Co ( as a paperback book, the quarterly journal is based on the premise that a viable future for Islam depends on looking at its history, tradition, legacy, theology, societies and cultures, critically.

The project is related somewhat to my personal quests. In my early travels and encounters in the Muslim world, from the 1960s to the end of the last millennium, described in Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim10. I met countless individuals, men and women, young and old, with a passionate, idealistic attachment to Islam. While passion can be a virtue, it can turn toxic without a modicum of critical acumen. Indeed, as the book makes clear, all varieties of Islam—or of any religion, for that matter—need a healthy dose of skepticism to avoid degenerating into authoritarian outlooks. Many readers of the book have complained that it does not have "a proper ending". The last chapter describes the initial preparation of a journey and simply concludes with the words: "But that's another story". Critical Muslim then is that journey, the continuing story.

But a personal anecdote is not a substitute for a rational explanation. One can legitimately ask: given that there are already many excellent journals on Islam and related fields, why do we need yet another journal? And what would Critical Muslim offer that would be different from the rest? Most journals, by their very nature, are concerned with conventional scholarship and have a disciplinary focus–—on theology, law, history, or anthropology of Islam, or politics and international relations of the Middle East. They cater for a diminishing academic audience—-diminishing because of the increasingly specialised nature of the modern academy. In contrast, Critical Muslim is inter and trans-disciplinary, future oriented, and is aimed at a much wider audience. Moreover, thinking and intellectual rigour is not something that is limited to the academy. Indeed, some of the best thinkers and scholars increasingly work outside the academia as writers, novelists, journalists, policy analysts, civic activists and public intellectuals. Critical Muslim is thus aimed at individuals from all walks of like who value intellectual pursuits. Conventional journals of Islam (long may they continue and prosper) have changed little over decades. But both Muslim discourses and the global context have changed, and continue to change, drastically. There is thus a need for a platform that focuses on a new, multi-dimensional critique and takes account of changing circumstances. And critique itself cannot be static; it changes too. Critical Muslim is thus all about change in its various manifestations, including the changing nature of criticism itself.

But what does it mean to be "critical" anyway? We are critical in the sense of being sceptical of orthodoxy and regard all arguments as provisional and dependent on evidence. We do not understand "Islam" as a set of pieties and taboos, that exists, or has existed in some romanticised distant past, in a pure, unadulterated form. For us, Islam is what Muslims, in all their diversity, make of it. The interpretations of the Qur'an, and the Sunnah of the Prophet, to use the words of the late Fazlur Rahman, are "essentially an ever-expanding process"11. Neither do we recognise the authority of those religious scholars who are at a loss with the modern world, issuing foolish fatwas, maintaining a stranglehold on authority, and too often giving respectability to prejudice, bigotry, xenophobia, and social and cultural malpractices. We do not label Muslims, whether they define their identity religiously or culturally and regard themselves as secular, liberal, conservatives or socialists. Rather, we embrace the plurality of contemporary Islam in all its mindboggling complexity. However, we challenge all interpretations of Islam: traditionalist, modernist, fundamentalist and apologetic, to develop new readings with the potential for social, cultural and political transformation of the Muslim world. The idea is to revive the Islamic heritage of criticism, to demonstrate the central role of criticism in reviving Muslim thought, and to emphasize that the role of criticism is to encourage debate and discussion rather than to dictate. Postive change can only be ushered by questioing authority, by wide ranging intellectual and social criticism in society, as the Arab Spring demonstrates so well.

But we are also critical in a more theoretical sense: we recognise that knowledge and interpretation have a politics, culture and society have forms of authority and injustice, and dominant narratives such as modernity, postmodernism, secularism have hegemonic tendencies. Our critique thus questions all forms of knowing, ideas, structures, cultural formations and representations that seek to dominate–—within Islam and Muslim societies as well as the West. We seek to highlight the Eurocentric nature of the West's knowledge production, the double standards of its politics, its structures of dominance, and its representation of non-western people and culture. And, we aim to situate social, intellectual and religious problems in historical and cultural contexts to emphasis their complex nature.

There are two particular contexts that are of concern to Critical Muslim: what Arkoun calls the "unthought" of Islam, that is, received and accepted ideas not produced by the process of reasoning; and what I describe as "postnormal times", the specific nature, the spirit of the age, of contemporary times.

Arkoun uses unthought to describe "an Islam that is isolated from the most elementary historical reasoning, linguistic analysis or anthropological decoding"12. It is the main source of the power of the ulama and the ideological power of "Islamic states"; and is used to ensure that dogmatic, obscurantist, and authoritarian versions of Islam are protected from intellectual and critical scrutiny. A good example would be the blind reverence shown to hadith literature by some Muslims, and how hadith can be manipulated to justify all variety of unjust and unethical laws in the name of Islam. For example, the Islamic law of apostasy is based not on the unequivocable declaration of the Qur'an that "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) but on amalgam of hadith. Many books of hadith, such as Imam Malik's Mutawa 13 have in fact become texts of Islamic law. It is assumed that "Islam" would be irrevocably broken if hadith literature is subjected to the type of analysis we are familiar with in Biblical criticism, judicious judgements about the validity of religious texts. For us this type of critical analysis is essential to liberate the creative potential of Muslim thought and reformulate Islam as a more humane and human enterprise.

But unthought is not limited to Islam; it has other dimensions and applies equally to other worldviews and ideologies. It is, for example, not always unknown or unsuppressed. The "unthought known" is a familiar concept in psychoanalysis where it describes experiences known to an individual but about which the individual is unable to think. In Islamic context, this relates to the experience of openness and pluralism that we find in the early phase of Islamic history and in Moorish Spain that Muslims know but are sometimes unable to think about. In the Western context it relates to the history of Islam that contributed to the European Enlightenment and established Western institutions such as universities and learned societies and shaped such notions as reasoned inquiry and liberal humanism, which have been written off from history. The duty of modern scholars is not just to reflect on these experiences but also to operationalize them as living history with contemporary significance for all.

Certain processes of reasoning can themselves lead to unthought. Secular reason, for example, has its own unthought about the nature and function of religion. Charles Taylor locates this tendency in the worldview of secularism itself: it is "an outlook which holds that religion must decline either (a) because it is false, and science shows this to be so; or (b) because it is increasingly irrelevant now...; or (c) because religion is based on authority, and modern societies give an increasingly important place to individual autonomy; or some combination of the above"14. The end product is a reductive understanding of religion as a merely dogmatic phenomenon—-one that would evaporate with the onslaught of modernity and its late capitalist manifestation, postmodnerism—-which fails to see the motivation that religion provides in human actions.

There is yet another type of unthought we need to consider. It is not unusual for a widely accepted reasoned thought to become an unthought. In relation to the history of science, Thomas Kuhn described the process as a "paradigm shift"15: an established paradigm fails to make useful predictions, has to be jettisoned, and a new, more powerful paradigm emerges; "normal science" is replaced with "revolutionary science", the dominant orthodoxy is dethroned, and revolutionary science settles downs to become the new normalcy. But this process of change is not limited to science; it applies equally to all dominant paradigms. Many ideas that we take for granted as inherently good, such as capitalism, democracy, and free market, have become what postmodernists would call "meta-narratives", that is over-arching and oppressive ideologies that do not, or cannot, deliver social justice. To envision a better future we need to appreciate that these dominant paradigms are now dangerously obsolete; they now constitute the unthought of contemporary times. Challenging this orthodoxy is as important as challenging fundamentalist representations of religion. Critical Muslim aims to transform all variety of unthought into forethought. It is a two part process: it articulates, to rephrase Maurice Merleau-Ponty16, latent meaning and calls for further, continuous reflection; and anticipates the potential hurdles and pitfalls of the unthought of the future. The goal is to rethink Islam for contemporary times, to discover anew what it means to be Muslim in the twenty-first century.

The twenty-first century makes its own demands–—not just on Muslims but the world as a whole. This brings me to the context of post-normal times.

That there is something rather unusual about the world today as compared to say mid-twentieth century seems obvious. There is globalisation, instant communication, dissolving powers of states, non-state transnational actors and much else besides. But there is something else: we seem to be beset by a string of global issues, including climate change, threat of pandemics, increasing competition for energy, growing political and financial instability, shifts in global power and increasing inequality. What is really unusual is that we are facing these threats simultaneously in a time of accelerating change, in an interconnected world of mobile phones, blogs, e-mails, and 24-hour news media, Facebook, and Twitter. All those things we have relied on conventionally seemed to be failing us from banks to the financial system, pension schemes to political structures, judiciary to international relations. Little can be trusted to have integrity, be definite or totally safe. We are moving from the certainty of yesterday's world, the old paradigm, to a radically different world of tomorrow where we will need new institutions and ideas to survive and thrive: today, the extended present, is the in-between contemporary times, when old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. It is this transitory period that I call "postnormal times"17.

The coming decades of the twenty-first century thus have special characteristics; and it is in this environment that Muslim societies have to lay the foundation of their long-term viable futures. In postnormal times almost all the problems we face are complex and interconnected; and cannot be solved in isolation. When things are interconnected and complex, they generate positive feedback, change occurs in geometric proportion, and leads to chaotic behaviour. As we are primed to react instantly–—thanks to social media and 24-hour global television–—we can easily set off new patterns of chain reactions. Even apparently trivial actions can rapidly lead to global consequences. The behaviour of a handful of unscrupulous bankers can lead to financial collapse. A vegetable vendor can start a freedom and democracy movement that can escalate rapidly -into the Arab Spring. Uncertainty becomes the norm; and we are perpetually at the edge of chaos.

This combination of complexity and chaos has two outcomes: contradictions and ignorance. There are numerous obvious contradictions around us. Despite accelerating change, vast swathes of the world, particularly the Muslim world, remain quasi-static. Despite social progress and the promotion of equality, a class of elites remain entrenched in most societies. The distribution of wealth within nations is as skewed towards the elite as it has always been. In a world of superabundant food, around 850 million still go to bed hungry every night. Even though Muslims insist that the very word "Islam" means "peace", the global television screens are full of images of Muslim violence. Contradictions, as Jerry Ravetz suggests, "also point to the fact that everything, every policy, has a cost. No matter how we may perceive progress, how beneficial we may think it is, it always has detrimental side effects. There is no achievement of good without some production of evil"18. There is no methodology to deal with contradictions; they cannot be resolved by their very nature. The only way to cope with contradictions is to transcend them.

Postnormal times have added an extra level of contradiction connected to ignorance. An obvious example is that while all societies have become more and more diverse, due to globalisation, our knowledge of other cultures seems to be decreasing and increasingly based on stereotypical perceptions. While we need openness to deal with all kinds of plurality, large segments of national populations are becoming more and more nationalist, fundamentalist and narrow-minded. There is also a futures dimension to our ignorance. Many contemporary problems, such as tackling an emerging disease like swine flu, or discovering the side-effects of GM foods, nano-materials, and synthetic biology, have an in-built uncertainty that can only be resolved sometime in the future. While we demand, and sometimes need, solutions to such problems immediately, the real answers lies years, if not decades, in the future. Rapid change in an uncertain environment also means we remain ignorant of alternatives, and the chance of gaining new knowledge is lost. Ignorance is not soluble by means of ordinary research; we therefore have no notion of its existence. We are thus confonted with ignorance, the "unthought" of the future.

So what does all this mean for a journal like Critical Muslim? It means, I think, that our criticism cannot be a free-floating endeavour. Rather, it has to be located in the context of postnormal times. In an interconnected, complex world, problems do not exist in isolation nor can they be solved in isolation. The "world of Islam" does not exist in splendid isolation; it cannot be bifurcated from "the West". The West is not just in the West; it has been globalised. Yet–—and here is another contradiction–—it is a rather parochial category with anything but "universal cultural values". Indeed, all cultures on the planet are interdependent and cannot survive, let alone thrive, without each other. As things become more complex, chaotic and contradictory, and space and time become scarcer, the need for constant and continuous critical engagement between cultures become ever more urgent. It also means that conventional historical solutions, whether from the history of Islam or the history of the West, have little meaning. Rather, we need a creative synthesis of what is best in both, as well as in new global powers like China, India, and Brazil, to find viable solutions to new and emerging problems.

The ultimate goal of Critical Muslim is to create a new space, beyond postnormal times, a space that is best described as transmodern19. Transmodernity is a condition that is beyond tradition and modernity, but synthesises the best of both by rejecting the domineering, arrogant inflexibility that has become essential features of both. It is a space where open, plural societies with vibrant civic institutions and organisations that transparently hold their political, social, cultural and economic conditions up to public scrutiny, that innovate as much they value and learn positive lessons from history and tradition, thrive. It's a place where questioning and self-criticism are the norm, and consensus emerges organically from robust open debate.

"Things change". But they don't always change for the positive. Moreover, positive change does not come overnight. It requires multi-generational effort. Critical Muslim is concerned with the continuous on-going process of changing things and shaping a more appropriate and desirable future for the Muslim world–—and beyond.


1Muhammad Husayn Haykal, The Life of Muhammad (American Trust Publications, 1976) p487.

2See, for example, Franz Rosenthal, The Classical Heritage of Islam (University of California Press, 1975; and Marshall Hodgson, Venture of Islam (University of Chicago Press)

3Roger Allan, The Arabic Literary Heritage: The Development of Genres and Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1998); see particularly chapter seven, "the Critical Tradition".

4Abdullah Saeed, Islamic Thought: An Introduction (Routledge, London, 2006) p103.

5Mohammad Arkoun, The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought (al-Saqi Books, London, 2002) p13.

6Sadakat Kadri, Heaven on Earth: A Journey Through Sharia Law (The Bodley Head, London) p87.

7Toby Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West (Cambridge University Press, 1993) 222-236.

8Ziauddin Sardar, 'Islam and Science: Beyond the Troubled Relationship', a lecture delivered at the Royal Society, London, on 12 December 2006; an abridged version of this lecture was published in Nature 448, 131-133 (12 July 2007).

9Ziauddin Sardar and Robin Yassin-Kassab, Critical Muslim 1: The Arabs are Alive; Critical Muslim 2: The Idea of Islam; Critical Muslim 3: Fear and Loathing; Critical Muslim 4: Pakistan? (Hurst and Co, London, 2012).

10Ziauddin Sardar, Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim (Granta Books, London, 2004).

11Fazlur Rahman, Islamic Methodology in History (Central Institute of Islamic Research, Karachi, 1965) p6.

12Mohammed Arkoun, The Unthought of Islamic Thought (Saqi Books, London, 2002) p. 308.

13Available from

14Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Belknap Press, Cambridge MA, 2007) p428-429.

15Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution (University of Chicago Press, 1962); see also Ziauddin Sardar, Thomas Kuhn and the Science Wars (Icon Books, London, 2000).

16Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (Routledge, London, second edition, 2002; original 1945).

17Ziauddin Sardar, "Welcome to Postnormal Times" Futures 42 (5) 435-444 June 2010; see also Merryl Wyn Davies, editor, "Postnormal Times" Special Issue, Futures 43 (2) March 2011.

18Jerome R Ravetz and Silvio Funtowizc, "Emergent complex systems" Futures 26 (6) 568-582 1994.

19On transmodernity see Ziauddin Sardar, "Beyond Difference: Cultural Relations in a New Century" in How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations selected, introduced and edited by Ehsan Masood (Pluto Press, London, 2006); "Transmodernity: Art Beyond Modernity and Multiculturalism" in Navigating Difference: Cultural Diversity and Audience Development (Art Council England, London, 2006); and "Transmodern Journeys: Futures Studies and Higher Education" in Adrian Curaj et al, editors, European Higher Education at the Crossroads, Volume 2: Governance, Financing, Mission Diversification and Futures of Higher Education (Springer, Heidelberg, 2012) pp1038-1055.

Related Content

Subject Entries

The Compatibility of Islam and Democracy
Oxford University Press

© 2022. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice