It is a deceptively innocent, straightforward question – what is Islam? Yet, this question has invited assumptions, debates, laws, and wars that have picked up in both speed and power over the course of the last few centuries, particularly as imperialist countries saw fit to curate the world in the vision most suitable for its unchecked power. Over the course of the twentieth century in particular, the broad corpus Orientalist scholarship developed alternative depictions of Islam as either a tribe of enmity or an ally of creed. As a belief system that is fundamentally oppositional to Christianity, it became simply known in the umbra of a mortal enemy. More recently, through a scholarly push for humanistic universalism, it has been cast as a fraternal twin of the Abrahamic faiths, defined on the basis of its doctrinal similarities.
“… Shahab Ahmad’s What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic argues that both approaches – from exclusivist Orientalism to the widely inclusive practices today – leave out much of the conversation that scholars should be having about the depth of Islam. “
While it is clear that over the past century, the social sciences have developed a conscious for attending to differences as a matter necessitating tolerance and broad acceptance, Shahab Ahmad’s What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic argues that both approaches – from exclusivist Orientalism to the widely inclusive practices today – leave out much of the conversation that scholars should be having about the depth of Islam. This is because, Ahmad reminds us, Islam cannot only be defined as “meaning something” in its relationship as compared to others, and certainly not as if it is a singular practice shared by millions. In doing so, these analytical concepts have become simplified to extant categories, which cannot possibly capture the full, lived diversities of believers.
There is an intellectual legacy at play in Islamic studies that has stymied its growth in academia and popular consumption alike. As Timothy Mitchell presented in Colonizing Egypt, the invention of European objectification during the Enlightenment (to be used upon the “other”) had given Orientalists a tool to dissect Islam as if it were dead and capable of being understood by a careful separation of all its organs – a practice that continues to gloss over the vast complexities of the tradition. Over time, those pieces of evidence that scholars have discovered as aberrant to the total functionality of the organism have been cast away as senseless acts of wayward individuals. Islam, they would say, is not these things, as if Islam is already quantified and known as an ahistorical monolith.
“In What is Islam? Shahab Ahmed voices his objections to this account both by presenting his own analysis of these acts that do not fit into the normative as time-bound expressions of an evolving historicized tradition, and by unravelling the revisionist arguments of scholars writing on the Middle East in particular.”
In What is Islam? Shahab Ahmed voices his objections to this account both by presenting his own analysis of these acts that do not fit into the normative as time-bound expressions of an evolving historicized tradition, and by unravelling the revisionist arguments of scholars writing on the Middle East in particular. In response to the ongoing neglect of Islamic studies in attending to diversity, Ahmed brings into question the historical indications of widespread wine-drinking, the majority adherence to Sufi theological thought in Medieval times, the invention of Islamic philosophy, the presence of figural art, and the idolatry of Hazifian poetry, as a challenge to current frameworks in the field. He correctly points out that deliberately leaving these practices outside of Islamic studies is therefore naming Islam in liminal references to “what it is” and “what it is not.” This is, he argues, an inherently political and polemical act, enacted by those who are trying to subjugate a system that they have named for their own purposes. “It matters how we use the word ‘Islamic’,” (107) for we as scholars are bound up with the enterprise of legitimating certain preferred aspects of it by doing so, for and by no authority other than our own.
Ahmed forces the reader to take a pause and reconsider Islam as a product of no overarching institution of control, and a subject of no one individual arbiter, and thus diffusively defined by the vast geography of theologically equal practitioners. As Mitchell would note, Islam as a religion has a “meaning,” but that meaning is not static over time, and it cannot be understood as homogenous across peoples. Thus, in reading What is Islam?, readers cannot help but be drawn into asking questions about who exactly is delineating the meaning of entire religion, and why. Ultimately, we find that this question is one probing not the religion itself per se, but instead it questions the presentation of the historical heuristics of power. Power is not only bound to one culture against another, one belief system against an opposite, or a ruling class against the lesser. It also moves through social groups amongst all members, who for themselves decide what is acceptable, and what is not, as is much of the case explored in this book. In a word, power is implicated in every action of human beings, who are the focal actors of interest in Ahmed’s entire critique. Islam, in the conceptual framework used by Ahmed, establishes a meaningful relationship between these humans, but the empowered particulars and practices of the religion are given “meaning” and privilege by humans, based on particular local cultural and signifying elements that determine expression. The source of this phenomenon, particularly in how it creates a meaningful relationship between Muslims, is explored throughout the duration of the book. In fact, this book’s major push is to shed light on how religious heresy and popularity are inherently interchangeable on the basis of context, geography, social trends, and exogenous influences. After all, at delineated points in time, certain expressions such as wine drinking were acceptable and even lauded, while at others, this practice was and is again despised and reviled. However, as much as this book presents an analysis of the internal dynamics of power in Islam, it is also a massive critique of those actors, sometimes disguised as academics, seeking to contain and exactify “the Orient” and its major belief systems. The discovery within What is Islam? thus also advises how scholars of Islam can now avoid becoming inadvertent reproducers of the hierarchal relationship between the “West and the East” through mindful innovation and careful scholastic curation.
“…at delineated points in time, certain expressions such as wine drinking were acceptable and even lauded, while at others, this practice was and is again despised and reviled. However, as much as this book presents an analysis of the internal dynamics of power in Islam, it is also a massive critique of those actors, sometimes disguised as academics, seeking to contain and exactify ‘the Orient’ and its major belief systems.”
Content and Literary Context:
What is Islam? is essentially divided into three parts. The first explores six historical phenomena that seem to be at odds with Islamic orthopraxy, but yet enjoyed individual periods of collective normativity as Muslim practices. In summary, these questions are about wine drinking in social culture, the participation of many Muslims (including jurists and noblemen) in Sufi tariqas, the creation of figural art, the rise of scientific-religious blended philosophy, the proliferation of Hafizian poetry sometimes in the place of the Qur’an, and Suhrawardi’s philosophy of illumination along with Ibn ‘Arabi’s ‘unity of existence.’ These practices either skirt the edge of heresy or outright flout the literal edicts of the Qur’an and Sunnah – and yet, Muslims observed them, to little widespread ramifications. Are these Islam, Ahmad asks. If so, how can we account for them, and what makes them Islamic?
The second part of the book revolves around how, thus far, such questions have remained unanswered, detailing a vast literature review and critique of particularly popular works in the field. For the most part, Ahmed finds each of these works limited in usefulness or entirely harmful to understanding the truth of Islam. The third part, following his descriptions of the analytical weaknesses of many other frameworks, features Ahmed’s own analysis of the observed actions and beliefs of Muslims. He introduces his own theory by which both intra- and inter-Islamic religious scholars can find the underlying connection between all Muslims under a comprehensive, overarching Islam. It is the combination of a sharp critique of existing literature, and his suggestion of a new framework, that provides for scholars the space to understand how Ahmed departs from the past, and how, perhaps, he also reinforces it. Throughout, the work utilizes a multi-disciplinary approach that combines historical analysis with an anthropological one, embedded in the question of religion. Ahmed is writing about human beings and how they lived and believed, how scholars can do justice to the past and be honest in the future, and how, barring everything else, we can at least acknowledge Muslim heterogeneity.
“What is Islam? is essentially divided into three parts. The first explores six historical phenomena that seem to be at odds with Islamic orthopraxy, but yet enjoyed individual periods of collective normativity as Muslim practices.”
What is Islam? lies upon a continuum of preexisting literature that is laden with dispute and bias. In particular, today’s obsession with the “culture of meaning” (246) is one saturated in predefinition, and it is central to the intent of this book. Major Western scholars of Islamic history have often characterized the evolution of Islam as dependent on either Muslims’ close observance of the text (and therefore, per popular Orientalist literature, backwards and non-innovative) or as moving outside of it (mostly through falsafa, which they designate as the underlying cause of the successes of the Islamic Golden Age) – in other words, the broad strokes of Muslim life are always situated as a matter of polemical adherence to or ignorance of “proper Islam,” which places the the Qur’an, Sunnah and the hadith literature front and center of the daily, conscious lives of Muslims. This tenet remained true even for such careful scholars as Fazlur Rahman, who focused on the liturgical aspects of Islam and considered the tradition to be in a state of post-creativity.
Rahman held that this meant that internal, doctrinal boundaries have been imposed on how far theological innovation can be stretched. Therefore, he argued, scholars of Islam (as the central actors of intellectual activity in the Muslim World) could not and cannot extend beyond naturally-defined limitations created by the codification of the Qur’an. There are many such scholarly works similarly insisting that there are iterative “post-formative stages of being Muslim,” wherein Islamic identity is somehow solidified and entirely delineated at some point, outside of and apart from any living source material that would definitively guide the community of Muslims, such as the model found in the life of the Prophet and the rashidun caliphs. According to this conceptualization, Islam as it is understood now was defined in the distant past as a complete orthodoxy, and therefore the religious practices of Islam have become strict and are not open to interpretative changes in practice or thought. This subtly implies that, because Islam exists in a whole, untouchable state beyond influence of the ‘common culture,’ discoveries in math, science, poetry, and art that have been created amongst Muslims have happened irrespective (or by some accounts, in spite) of Islam. This mode of thought suggests that the most impressive intellectual achievements of the “civilization” have only happened outside of its mores — simply because the specifics of such inventions are not found in the Book directly. Ahmad, of course, believes differently, and argues that the religion grows to accommodate new situations within the dispersive community. He demonstrates throughout the book that the borders of Islamic orthopraxy are not bound only by what is contemporarily interpreted from the Qur’an – rather, these liminal points are permeable.
Is ISIS Islamic, and Other Questions of Consensual Belief
There is boundless evidence of the hierarchies of power privileging Western ideas about Islam over Eastern ideas. Like dark matter, the structures of modern Orientalism are often difficult to point out exactly, but the force such structures exert overtly shapes and determines how developments are interpreted. Such structures do not listen to the voices of the indigenous. This exhibits itself in contemporary approaches to Islam itself. One prominent example is found when Muslims emphasize that ISIS and other extremists are not Muslims – and are broadly sneered at by the West, who believe that Islam has already been determined holistically, and now exists externally and emphatically above the touch of anyone who describe themselves as Muslims. Muslims seemingly have no say in what comprises the nature of Islam, especially if it diverges from an underlying assumption of violence. However, the basis of native resistance to this Western-propagated ideology, who broadly refuse to allow extremism to become the most prominent feature of modern Islam, actually lends credence to Ahmed’s argument that Islam is a social contract which is semi-fluid based within their unconscious collective agreement on what constitutes normativity. In some respects, so does act the participation in extremism, whose adherents claim they are acting under the guidance of Islam. If we are to believe that Islam that the social contract that Ahmed claims it to be, their claims must be reckoned with, as well.
Both intra-Muslim communities and inter/multi-religious communities seemingly claim through the assertion that ISIS is not Islamic, that there is a uniform orthodoxy which is knowable and operable, and that being a “real” Muslim is contingent on one’s alignment to these beliefs/practices. To that point, some have ascribed the creation of ISIS entirely and directly as a product of colonialism, Western imperialism, and Arab cultural subjugation. Even this claim, which is made in an act of good faith on behalf of the vast majority of non-violent Muslims everywhere, would be problematic in the vein of the arguments of What is Islam? If these are not Muslims, yet they invoke the same God as other Muslims, what are they? This a question that reaches far into the historical expressions of power, which has the privilege of asserting what is “normal and correct” for Muslim practitioners, and forms the base of narratives attempting to define what is an identity for Islam.
Resisting the Confinement of Existing Literature
As an act of Shahab Ahmed’s own literary resistance to this appropriative trend, What is Islam? instead proposes a comprehensive cultural study, in which the diverse lived traditions of Muslims somehow always account(ed) for contradictions posed between partaking in acts considered outright sins – more than simply radically heterodox – according to the text.
“As an act of Shahab Ahmed’s own literary resistance to this appropriative trend, What is Islam? instead proposes a comprehensive cultural study, in which the diverse lived traditions of Muslims somehow always account(ed) for contradictions posed between partaking in acts considered outright sins – more than simply radically heterodox – according to the text.”Aside from reclaiming the diverse historical expressions of Muslim identity and actions under Islam, Ahmed is also unconditionally rejecting the underlying premise of, for example, Marshall Hodgson’s Venture of Islam schema at length, by disputing the insertion of an artificial, separate dichotomy between the religious sphere and the secular sphere in the Muslim, “Bengal-to-Balkan complex” (67). Islam, according to Ahmed, does not always experience these divisions as a function of its unique, joint cultural and religious system. The drinking of wine, the synthesis of Avicennian philosophy, the foundation of Sufi Real-Truth (al-haqiqa) art and ecstatic expressions, all have had their moment as expressions of normative Muslim life. Explicitly, all of the practices which could be considered secular products – or the perversion of religious orthodoxy – in the Western understanding of religion/secularity dualism are actually given meaning for Muslims directly by their association with Islam. Wine drinking, for example, was a social practice among Muslims which gave meaning to Hafizian humanistic poetry (62), the figural art depicted on the coin of the Muslim King holding the wine cup (71), and in elucidating higher truths within Sufi tariqas through the lived example of seminal figures such as Rumi.
Yet, as a byproduct of inherently skewed power hierarchies embedded within knowledge production, Islam as a historical continuity has constantly been entangled in the essentialisms borne by three axes of authority in academia. These entanglements function to explain the tensions that exist between those who interpret Islam and the real-lived diversity of Muslims. The first entanglement is the one that occurs between popular understandings of the doctrinal assertions based on the Quran-Sunna-hadith trilogy, and those jurists that have interpreted the works. Most importantly, it considers where jurists created techniques specifically to expand the texts to apply to all aspects of Muslim life, through jurisprudential sciences and fiqh. Or in other cases, to corroborate the Qur’an as the unquestionable word of God through naskh and other such techniques. The second entanglement occurs between understanding the diverse and often contradictory expressions of individual practitioners, despite the presence of law. The third entanglement lies in understanding the impact that Western scholars have had in reconciling the relationship between this diversity and the law, which has confused the study of Islam as stagnant, when is fact it has always been evolving. Further complicating these tensions is the presence of scholars in the conversation about lived versus codified Islam. It inextricably involves the interfering phenomena of the dominant narrative, which scholars have wielded to effectively change the expressions of Muslims as well.
Ahmed argues that the constant mistreatment of these historical contradictions of Muslim activities and practices has been partially the fault of classical Orientalism
“Ahmed argues that the constant mistreatment of these historical contradictions of Muslim activities and practices has been partially the fault of classical Orientalism…”, which treated the earliest communities of Muslims as the only truly authentic ones, while reducing the following generations’ engagement with Islam to “pale imitations” (81). Similarly, modern scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are fundamentally constrained by the nature of our understanding of the modern state, which is founded on the basis of strict and fairly predictable codes of law, and not divine ordinance or patrimony as it has been for the majority of civilizational history (137). Ahmed criticizes modern scholars such as Khaled Abou El Fadl, for ahistorically over-emphasizing the role of law in pre-modern societies, overly defining the prerogatives of violence, war, and battle as being subjected to and constrained by juristic interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah. According to Ahmed, these scholars are implicated in defining law as “the normative discourse in Islam” (126). If, as Ranajit Guha would say, classical Orientalist scholars and contemporary Middle Eastern scholars alike are not able to break away from the conceptual confinements of their minds, and can only understand Islam in conjunction to the familiar landscape of Christendom, given all of these religions’ separated spheres, they cannot conceive Islam with enough accuracy to know what – and how – to ask the right questions in the first place. Dominant narratives rarely recognize diversity in the subject dominated.
Yet, Ahmed demonstrates that he does know the right questions to ask; both for critiquing the vast corpus of knowledge produced about Islam from a knowledgeable position, and for inquiring further into the interior characteristics of human expression within Islam, in order to elucidate its coherent diversity. His expressed goal is to critique, “not demolish” (117) the conclusions of Islam-focused literature, in order to propose a new framework that accounts for – and fills in – those gaps left by previous scholarship. With this in mind, the second half of the book is entirely based on the premise presented in the first chapter: how do the obvious contradictions that are evident throughout Islamic history – the practice of wine-drinking, the Sufi claims of transcending the Shari’a, the high praising of Hafiz’s erotic and hedonistic poetry – somehow fit coherently within normative Islam? Ultimately, Ahmed argues that Muslims can make their contradictions and beliefs meaningful according to their faith only if “contradictory Truth… aris[es] necessarily and directly from the structural and spatial dynamic of Revelation to Muhammad as Pre-Text, Text, and Con-text… meaningful in terms of the Revelation to Muhammad” (404).
“In other words, he argues that meaning in Islam is not solely created by the Text…”In other words, he argues that meaning in Islam is not solely created by the Text, but rather by the holistic “entire phenomenon and matrix of the Revelation,” (405) which makes every contradiction hermeneutically meaningful simply because it engages the Revelation. Ahmed gives the example of the King holding the wine cup in one hand and a Qur’an in the other. The King is presenting the wine as being meaningful in his experience as a Muslim, with an authority similar (but not necessarily equal) to the Book – and even more importantly, that this is not an aberrant practice, but a normative expression of a Muslim living and believing at a certain time and place in history. While this argument does not claim that every aspect of Islam is open to interpretation, the depiction of this King exemplifies that the periphery of Islamic engagement is moving and flexible, that Islam’s meaning is determined changeably and preferentially on the basis of what Muslims believe it means.
This argument helps clarify the entire central question in Ahmed’s book, which deals with the question of power and the relationships between human beings who practice Islam: there was a mutual understanding between Muslims in these certain times and locales that practices such as wine-drinking, the Sufi claims of transcending the Shari’a, the high praising of Hafiz’s erotic and hedonistic poetry were a regular and acceptable practice in being a Muslim. Islam is not, therefore, a force that binds its believers through immutable doctrinal shackles, but is something that rather relates one to another in a looser recognition between all believers as having a similar faith in the same God and his messenger. After all, Ahmed argues, Islam has historically resisted becoming institutionalized, and therefore there has never been a monopoly on truth-claims; on the contrary, historically Islam has been rife with a diffuse, non-regulated conversation about what is right and wrong in the life of Muslims (177). Just as Hamid Dabashi claims in his book, The World of Persian Literary Humanism that the great cosmopolitanism of Islamic art and poetry were not constrained by borders and language, especially as Islamic empires expanded and proliferated in art, and while all societies found a common medium of expression through Islam (p.195), neither could Islam be contained by the borders imposed by jurists and their strict laws.
As a formulaic expression of lived tradition, the following argument is extremely sensible and simple: if Muslims believe that they are invoking Islamic mores in their activities and mutually recognize one another, they belong to a greater community, regardless of whether it exists in contradiction with literal edicts of the Book. Again, evidence of this argument exists today in the presence of headscarves: some scholars argue nowhere in any sura in the Qur’an is it explicitly mentioned that donning them is a requisite for pious, modest Muslim women, yet they are recognized pervasively as meaning exactly that. Such a practice has not always been a normalized aspect of certain locales of Muslims, but the headscarf is made meaningful now because hijabis believe that they are encountering the pleasure of God by wearing it.
“Through the book, Ahmad highlights that a number of factors erroneously present Islam as monochromatic. The evident and observable phenomenon of a celebrated diversity in contemporary Muslim societies has often been obscured by Western media and…”Through the book, Ahmad highlights that a number of factors erroneously present Islam as monochromatic. The evident and observable phenomenon of a celebrated diversity in contemporary Muslim societies has often been obscured by Western media and other forms of popular coverage, which have its own political interests in mind when relegating the adherents to a disorganized – even chaotic – state of bitter infighting, liturgical violence, and pervasive human suffering. In turn, the politically-charged focus on the “backwardness” of Muslim-majority societies has depleted the value of today’s scholarship, which has frequently engaged in a deliberate doctrinal neglect by not conducting a phenomenological analysis when speaking on behalf of Islam. Combined with popular media and governmental enterprises that would erase the lived traditions of Muslims past, the most available work on Islam only presents an entirely non-nuanced, time-bound confinement of the study, which does no favors to finding the truth of what Islam is.
For all of the book’s length, Shahab Ahmed’s major claim is comprehensively simple: it insists that, contrary to past scholarship from both within and outside the Muslim community, Islam is not encumbered by its contradictions and diversity, but it is in fact enriched and made coherent by an overall “Revelatory-rooted paradigm.” Such a paradigm incorporates all practical differences within a vast mosaic of shared identity across history. It is neither simply “what Muslims say it is,” nor is it divided into individual, tribe-like “Islams.”
Strengths and Weaknesses
This claim alone does not make this book a major innovation on past literature, but Ahmed’s fastidious methodology and careful inclusion of a multi-disciplinary, polyglottic, cross-national scholarship, along with his incorporation of the religious literary corpus, makes this book a singularity of its kind. However, troublingly, it is notable that Ahmed’s sources do not include the works of many non-Western Muslims – those scholars who live outside the West and write upon their own religious experience – in his discussions involving both ancient and more modern eras in the Bengal-to-Balkan complex.
In any discussion about Islam, the deliberate leaving out of such voices is concerning, and is actually unusual in any respectable work surveying the breadth of post-Oriental literature on Islam. Additionally, Ahmed himself experiences some apparent difficulties in expressing his new framework for conceptualizing Islam in a simple and understandable precept.
“Additionally, Ahmed himself experiences some apparent difficulties in expressing his new framework for conceptualizing Islam in a simple and understandable precept…”As much as he criticizes Islamic studies for being stuck in a binary that either too rigidly defines what Islam “is,” or casting the net so broadly that everything could potentially be explained as if it were “Islamic,” there are times in his extensive literary review where he is caught up in a similar problematic. Throughout Chapter Three, wherein he is tasked with exploring and critiquing the major works of scholarship, Ahmed seems guilty of implicating that Muslims are in every moment reproducing Islam in whatever act they are engaged in, by implying that every act that a Muslim does can necessarily be related to Islam. Is this ultimately different than the claim he critiques, in which Islam is defined so broadly that it could mean anything – and thus, nothing? It is understandable when he insists that there is no space between the secular and religious in Islam, but it is difficult to believe that Muslims are (and were) always actively harkening to God – in social wine-drinking, for example. Would it not be more accurate to say that some Muslim artists, such as Hafiz and Rumi, sometimes utilized wine drinking as a metaphor for connecting to God, and yet that it did not necessarily mean that all Muslims everywhere in the Bengal-to-Balkan complex considered the act religiously meaningful at all times?
Furthermore, when attempting to mend together the complicated pieces of evidence in substantiating his argument, there are moments where Ahmed’s claims are lost within the fecundity of his syntax. Perhaps his major claims could have been made more profoundly and had they been worded more directly, with more impact. After all, the arguments he extrapolates both from exposing the weaknesses of Islam-centric literature, and from his own analysis of the religion as a lived tradition of many different people, are strong and sensible. They resonate well with the known cosmopolitanism of Islam, and account for all differences without bothering to become absorbed in the same polemical quagmire of jurists (and those scholars that would see themselves act as jurists), by arbitrating on what are the ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ practices of Islam and forfeiting all others to backwardness or hellfire. In doing so, Ahmed successfully picks apart the modern binary of “right and wrong” Islamic practices, as moot constructs across the history of Muslim cultures, variating and yet familiar across the wide geography of Islam.
“Ahmed’s rigid insistence that Islam’s diversity is a product of its diffuse or absent authority structures is redolent of his own efforts to impose a kind of orthodoxy in Islam.”
There are further fallacies to consider in the arguments developed in What is Islam? Ahmed’s rigid insistence that Islam’s diversity is a product of its diffuse or absent authority structures is redolent of his own efforts to impose a kind of orthodoxy in Islam. The diverse Shi’i groups, for example, have clearly-defined hierarchies of religious authority, as well as Sufis (although more prevalently in Medieval times). How can we as scholars account for the continued diversity of these sects, even when each adherent occupies a place on a hierarchical ladder? Furthermore, in his literature review, Ahmed consistently insists that Islam is entirely unique from any Abrahamic faiths – a diversity borne from many factors, but mostly due to its individual spatial diffuseness. There is some merit to this argument, as it inherently resists becoming passively reliant upon a Eurocentric paradigm that has done – and perhaps would do here, in this book – further injustice to Islam, which deserves to be at the center of its own story. Yet, by becoming caught up in enforcing his own boundaries between all lived faiths, there exists an unintentional political statement that says, “You are not alike, you have never been alike,” which can only shore up the opinions of those cultural parasites feeding off divisions. If Ahmed can, on one hand, problematize the boundaries between concepts pre-set by Western scholarship – such as his claim that secular adherence to economic theory and “the invisible hand,” nationalism with its idolatry of patriotism, and the rigid loyalty to capitalism, all reek of a kind of religion – why is it impossible to reconcile the classical religious traditions with one another? There is a dawn of a new era on-hand for historical studies on Islam, in which creative and breakthrough works such as Walter G. Andrews and Mehmet Kalpaki, and Giancarlo Casale are, in their own slightly sensationalist ways, doing innovative work by pushing into historical intellectual territories previously owned and dominated by European thought. Other scholars will continue to follow that trend. However, voices such as Mohammed Arkoun, Angelika Neuwirth and Stefan Wilde, who are arguing for a joint religious community amongst the Abrahamic faiths, which maintains each of their unique characteristics and yet has no interest in pitting them against each other, similarly deserve to be recognized. They are as critical in mending the wounds that the dominant narrative has wrought upon the cosmopolitan nature of the Abrahamic faiths. Such a pursuit would have been well attended to in What is Islam?
Nevertheless, Ahmed’s call for scholastic innovation is well-heard. That it explicitly deviates from past scholarship such as Hodgson in The Venture of Islam, whose postulations about the separated realms of Islam (as in, proper religion), and Islamicate (cultural products of Islam that are not “properly” defined by direct Islamic beliefs), implicates the dynamics of Western power more than Muslim experience.
“Nevertheless, Ahmed’s call for scholastic innovation is well-heard…”In that same vein, his argument disputes the claims of Fazlur Rahman’s Islamic Methodology in History, which is a comprehensive analysis of the doctrinal and discursive infighting that occurred between jurists and commentators attempting from early on to establish a normalized, broadly acceptable orthodoxy to which all Muslims were expected to comply. His major claim was that the basis of creative reasoning was driven by the analysis of the text, and authority was diffused for epochs as Qur’anic commentators and jurists argued amongst one another about what, exactly, the authority was – until the invention of orthodoxy inevitably robbed Muslims from the ability to innovate upon their tradition. This has impacted and influenced the analysis of countless religious scholars who have followed in his tradition. Ahmed’s analysis directly contests this by insisting that normative practice has continuously evolved since Umayyad and Abbasid times, and has grown to alternatively embrace or reject certain practices at various times as a result of a new kind of ‘ijma – as a social cult that normalizes practices amongst themselves. The jurists, the commentators, the ‘umma, kings, noblemen, the Sunnah, and even the Qur’an (in the case of Sufis, particularly) never claimed a monopoly on authority – that it was a collective, not uniform, and dynamic process that happened amongst differing social groups, who still recognized one another as harkening to the same God and Prophet. Ahmed’s pursuit is perhaps closest in type to Talal Asad’s, who throughout his many works attempted to navigate incomplete or outright erroneous anthropological analyses that would have Islam be everything (“Islams”), or nothing (as a pale imitation of Christian-Judaic theologies), while contending with the internal diversity of Islam in order to find its true heart. As an anthropologist, Asad holds similar misgivings as Ahmed by way of considering certain practices and expressions of Islam as one being “more real” than any others, both in a locational sense (urban versus rural Muslims) and a chronological sense (medieval Islam versus the modern version). Asad argues in his seminal essay “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam” that Islam is variable, but can be made analytically coherent if considered a general “concept for organizing historical narratives,” rather than a “social totality” that subsumes every interaction (p.14).
Asad, like Ahmed, insists in “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam” that scholars approach the conceptualization of Islam as Muslims do, starting from its discursive core, bound together by the Revelation. This is what Asad calls “tradition,” and Ahmed calls the “revelatory-rooted paradigm.” Where Ahmed departs from Asad is in Asad’s claim that “not everything Muslims say and do belongs to an Islamic discursive tradition.” Throughout the book, Ahmed laboriously details exactly the opposite: everything that Muslims do can consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or passively, be made meaningful by the social relationships fostered under Islam. Ultimately, both Asad’s and Ahmed’s analyses focus on the human dimension of Islam, who were not bound in identity to liturgical doctrine, nor to any kind of orthodoxy, but instead to mutual recognition and at variating levels of tolerance across time and space.
“By seeking to account for the human adherents at the center of Islam, Ahmed is providing a way forward for scholars to pursue a theological question and make Islam an analytical category through the vector of a historical and anthropological methodology, which marks a departure from traditional queries of research and academic frameworks to pursue them.”
In all this, it is clear that the intellectual confinement in Islamic studies has been slower to shed off than in other subjects dissected by the same disciplines of history, anthropology, sociology, and literature. Ahmed’s careful and yet forceful argument that insists on including every discrepancy, variation, and outright contradiction within Islam is his own act of scholastic revolt against classical academics who built their own imagined nations in the studying of Islam, which insist that “these things are the property of the religion, while these things are not.” By seeking to account for the human adherents at the center of Islam, Ahmed is providing a way forward for scholars to pursue a theological question and make Islam an analytical category through the vector of a historical and anthropological methodology, which marks a departure from traditional queries of research and academic frameworks to pursue them.
It is critical and meaningful to open new doors in the conversation about the inherent politics of meaning and the dynamics of power that have become embedded in Islamic studies. If our models of Islam cannot account for all the things we can see Muslims do and believe, we must tear down the old frameworks and institute new ones, closer to reality, more flexibly accommodating, and recognizable to those who live within. Having not been in the business of being Prophets ourselves, What is Islam? reminds us that we have no monopoly on interposing our intellectual theories as law on a static model of the tradition – Islam has always, and will always, continue to grow. It is given meaning, and makes other concepts meaningful, on the basis of its changing relationship with adherents, who are all in their own ways seeking to find God by practicing Islam.
 Which is, of course, not to claim that any claim in the genealogical family of ISIS is the (or rather, only) normative claim in Islam.
 Al-haqiqa, as used here, is how the author refers to Sufi artistic and ecstatic expressions.