What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic 
by Shahab Ahmed.
Princeton, 609 pp., £29.95, November 2015, 978 0 691 16418 2
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For many years​ now – and especially since 9/11 – there has been much strongly felt disagreement about what Islam is. Is it a religious faith like Christianity, where theological notions such the Incarnation or the Trinity (rejected by Muslims) or the ‘messengership’ of Muhammad (denied by Christians) can be accounted for as variations between different groups of believers? Or does Islam amount – in Ernest Gellner’s phrase – to a ‘blueprint for a social order’, an alternative model to the liberal consensus, which confronts our democracies with a challenge as severe as the totalitarian movements of the 20th century? In the current climate of incoherent foreign policies, bungled interventions and sectarian wars, of humanitarian disasters and disintegrating states, with Islamist atrocities wrecking lives in European as well as West Asian cities – not to mention the ‘collateral damage’ inflicted on innocent villagers by drone strikes – the need for proper answers could hardly be more urgent. If Islam is ‘just’ a religion, comparable to but distinct from its Abrahamic siblings, Western societies may feel confident in pressing Muslims to conform to mainstream values while allowing them spaces for public worship and private conscience consistent with national loyalties. If it is much more than a ‘religion’ – a whole, alternative way of being that is at variance with the liberal consensus – then the modern nation-state may now be in deep trouble.

Shahab Ahmed, who died last year of leukaemia at the age of 48, wrestles with this question in his long, extraordinary, ungainly book, which hovers uneasily between a cultural manifesto and a reader for graduate students. Its unusual approach – there are page-long citations from an impressive repertoire of literary and scholarly works, transcriptions into Latin characters of lengthy passages in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Punjabi and other Eastern languages, argumentative footnotes, tedious repetitions and academic jargon – suggests an excess of erudition, not quite fully mastered. But it has its advantages. Knowing that his authority is certain to be questioned Ahmed lets the sources speak for themselves before marshalling them for his argument. As he explained to Elias Muhanna, his former assistant at Harvard, he aimed to erect ‘a scholarly edifice so formidable’ that no one would be able to challenge it. Though many of the ideas he puts forward will be familiar to specialists, lay readers may feel that everything they thought they knew about ‘Islam’ has been turned on its head.

By all accounts Ahmed was a scholarly phenomenon. He was fluent in more than a dozen languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi, as well as English, French and German; Muhanna in an obituary essay published in the Nation referred to his ‘terrifying erudition and wit, sharpened by an unrepentantly refined British accent’. Graduate students were faced with a ‘fearsome syllabus front-loaded with hundreds of pages of reading each week, mainly in primary sources’. Those valiant enough to stick with his courses – who weren’t put off by his tendency to be ‘prickly, arrogant, contemptuous of poor preparation’ – found the experience not just rewarding, but life-transforming, even if they were ‘stunned by the audacity of his expectations’. Having been born in Singapore to Pakistani parents, both doctors, Ahmed was sent to a boarding school in England, where – the only Muslim boy – he was very good at cricket. After graduating from the Islamic University in Malaysia, he is said to have ‘flirted’ with political Islamism before working as a journalist in Afghanistan, where he played football with a ‘six-foot-six’ Arab known as the ‘sheikh’ – Osama bin Laden. He obtained a master’s degree at the American University in Cairo, then a doctorate at Princeton for a dissertation on the ‘Satanic Verses’ – the idea (explored by Salman Rushdie) that the devil inserted phrases into the Quran praising female deities, which were subsequently redacted from the holy text.

The story of the Satanic Verses, Ahmed found from his study of sources drawn from manuscript libraries all over the world, had been widely accepted in the early centuries before Islamic orthodoxy rejected it as incompatible with the notion of Prophetic infallibility and the integrity of divine revelation. After setting aside this work – which Muhanna says was shelved in ‘hundreds of identical orange file folders, each devoted to a different historical figure’ – Ahmed started work on the introduction to his thesis, a task which, like the original work, ‘grew larger and larger, absorbing all of its author’s attention and time’. That introduction – with its six hundred pages and thousand-plus footnotes – became What Is Islam? One is reminded of the Prolegomenon (Muqaddima) to world history written by the North African polymath Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), a masterwork whose insights into Arab politics are still relevant after more than six hundred years. Ibn Khaldun is often regarded as the first historian to factor social analysis into his understanding of events, but Ahmed was even more ambitious. Through his encyclopedic wanderings in Muslim regions far beyond the Arabic-speaking heartlands, in the territories stretching from the Balkans to Bengal, he demonstrates that ‘Islam’ is much more than a religious faith in the usual Western understanding of the term. It is, he explains in his chapter on religion, ‘the name of a human and historical phenomenon whereby and wherein truth and meaning are constituted and distributed in particular ways that are not adequately captured or apprehended by the concept of religion, constituted and embedded, as that term is today, in the historical experience of the relationship of Europeans to Christianity’.

Ahmed isn’t the first to make this argument. In The Venture of Islam (1974), Marshall Hodgson distinguished between Islamic (properly religious) and Islamicate (broadly cultural) phenomena, which were the products of regions where Muslims were culturally dominant but weren’t necessarily religious. Thus, for Hodgson, poetry celebrating wine was Islamicate without being Islamic, and strictly Islamic or religious art was confined to calligraphy and the repetitive, infinitely extendable patterns of arabesque found in mosques and madrasas, while the ‘Islamicate’ flourished in the figurative representation found in palaces, books and miniatures. Ahmed takes issue with Hodgson and the scholars who followed him – Ira Lapidus, Chase Robinson, Aziz al Azmeh et al. There is no one ‘Islam’, he says; the word is so ambiguous, governing so many variations in religious practice and such a multitude of societies, as to be useless as a term of historical explanation. Instead, he argues, Islam is a way of being that embraces contradiction, though always remains true to itself. He has no truck with apologists, whether Western or Muslim, who see it as a ‘religion of peace’ antithetical to violent activism. ‘As long as the Muslim actor is making his act of violence meaningful to himself in terms of Islam … then it is appropriate and meaningful to speak of that act of violence as Islamic violence.’

He elaborates his idea with a discussion of the iconic issue of wine-drinking. As well as memorising the Quran, boys educated in the madrasas in all Muslim lands from Mughal India to Central Asia and Ottoman Turkey, where the elites spoke Persian as well as Arabic, were required to learn the five hundred ghazals (rhyming couplets) by the 14th-century poet Hafiz that make up his Divan, which Ahmed calls a ‘paradigm of identity’ alongside the text of revelation. Like the Quran, the Divan was a source of insight and inspiration into worlds visible and invisible, matter and spirit, but it referred to the context not so much of the mosque or madrasa as the ‘drinking assembly of the poet’s social peers where the shared individual experience of loving is configured in and expressed by the consumption of wine as the definitive medium for the intoxication (that is, deepening and heightening and expanding) of the physical and imaginal senses’.

Wine, of course, is prohibited in the Quran, along with ‘games of chance’, since Satan uses it to sow enmity among the faithful. The ban is further specified by a hadith (‘tradition’ or report) according to which the Prophet stated that of ‘a large amount that intoxicates, a small amount is forbidden’. For all these prohibitions, however, Ahmed insists that

an equally distinctive mark of the history of Muslims has been a widely held and constantly reiterated alternative evaluation of wine in non-legal discourses where wine and the consumption thereof are invested with a positive meaning expressive of higher, indeed rarified value – and this positive meaning has been enacted in society both in literary reiteration and in the physical consumption of wine in social settings.

To illustrate his argument Ahmed includes a lengthy citation from a foundational work of medical literature, The Welfare of Bodies and Souls by Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, who in the tenth century praised wine for its happiness-inducing qualities. It is

unique among all foods and drinks, for none of these have in them anything of which the pleasure is transported from the body to the soul, producing therein … an abundance of happiness, animation, openness, stimulation, self-contentment, generosity and freedom from cares and sorrows … It is wine that provides excellence to society and conversation … and there is nothing that makes possible relations of intimacy and confidence between friends so tastefully and pleasantly and effectively as does drinking wine together.

Abu Zayd’s view was shared by the great physician and philosopher Ibn Sina (c.980-1037), known in the West as Avicenna, who when ‘not engaged in the problem of defining God … routinely drank wine in good company’. More than two hundred years later the philosopher, astronomer and statesman Nasir al-Din Tusi included a whole chapter on wine-drinking in his Nasirian Ethics, a book regarded as one of the foundational texts of the Mughal rulers in India. Ahmed summarises Nasir’s view as ‘a gentleman may drink, but should never be blotto.’

In demonstrating that these writings were widely known and circulated among the Arabic and Persian-speaking elites, Ahmed demolishes what he sees as the tendency of modern analysts ‘to insist on understanding the image of wine … in purely metaphorical terms’ as symbolic of the mystic’s ‘spiritual intoxication’ in the presence of the divine. The symbolism may be meaningful, given that there is wine in abundance in Muslim accounts of paradise, where those who abstain in this world are rewarded in the hereafter. Ahmed, however, makes it clear that ‘the consumption of wine was … like the production of figural painting … prohibited in legal discourse, but positively valued in non-legal discourse – especially among those social and political elites who instituted and secured the structures of state and the very legal institutions that regulated society.’ Far from being ‘bad’ or ‘non-observant’ Muslims, wine-drinkers observed essential religious rituals. The Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi, for example, describes a party at a palace of Sultan Murad IV where wine was consumed, followed by mid-afternoon prayer and Quranic recitation. Rulers regularly exchanged wine as a gift. Wine-jugs were inscribed with epithets celebrating the glory of God and rulers claiming to be his deputies, while a magnificent gold coin struck by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1611 and displayed on the book’s cover depicts the radiant emperor holding a wine-cup in one hand and a book – probably the Quran – in the other.

Rather than seeing the contradiction between wine and Islamic practice as deeply paradoxical, Ahmed regards the relationship as ‘mutually constitutive’ within the broader frame of a ‘common paradigm of Islamic life and thought’. He cites a passage from Ibn Qutayba, a ninth-century commentator on the Quran who is thought to have been of Kurdish or Persian origin: ‘The way to Allah is not one, nor is all that is good confined to night-prayers and continued fasting and the knowledge of the lawful and forbidden. On the contrary, the ways to Him are many and the doors of the good are wide.’

Ahmed takes issue​ with the vast majority of scholars, whether Muslim, academic or indeed secular, who follow Marshall Hodgson in basing their concept of Islam on ‘a sort of fundamentalism of personal piety’. Their belief that it is ‘personal piety that is most Islamic’ leads to the strict legal enforcement of morals widely associated with sharia law, where acts deemed immoral – such as drinking alcohol or sex outside marriage – are punishable by law and the boundaries between sin and crime are obliterated. In contrast to theologies of natural law elaborated by Thomas Aquinas and other Christian thinkers, according to which God is obligated to reward the good, scholars in the majority of Islamic schools espoused the ‘divine command’ notion of ethics, holding that an act is right because God commands it, rather than vice versa. If Allah (or your idea of Him) commands you to kill women and children, so be it. If God had to conform to an independent set of moral standards, so they thought, his omnipotence would be compromised.

Ahmed doesn’t dwell on the problematic aspects of Islamic legal moralism – which have far-reaching consequences given how state and non-state authorities in Muslim countries enforce the cruel and inhuman punishments mandated by sharia traditionalists. He goes straight to the point that the ‘putative centrality’ of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is ‘historically wrong and out of place when it comes to analysing Islam as … the flexible medium of a collective identity’. This clearly puts him at odds with the majority of analysts, Muslim and non-Muslim, who see the ‘legal-supremacist conceptualisation’ of Islam as its default identity. He offers instead a complicated trifold paradigm consisting of the Pre-Text of Revelation (the semantic and spiritual realm out of which the Quran issued), the Text (the canon of the Quran and the hadiths) and the Con-Text (the field of hermeneutical and cultural engagement with the Pre-Text and Text). If Muslims adopted this model, he suggests, they would be better able to embrace the paradoxes exemplified by the contradictory postures towards wine-drinking and much else. Unfortunately, today’s Muslims

have, in making their modernity, moved decisively away from conceiving of and living normative Islam as hermeneutical engagement with Pre-Text, Text and Con-Text of Revelation, and have, instead, begun conceiving of and living normative Islam primarily as hermeneutical engagement with the Text of Revelation … Thus, when modern Muslims encounter statements of Islamic meaning that are made in terms of hermeneutical engagement with Pre-Text (the ideas of Ibn Sina, or of Ibn Arabi, the poetry of Hafiz, miniature paintings, the wine-cup of Jahangir etc), they are, by and large, unable to recognise or make sense of these statements as Islam.

One can’t but be impressed by the grandeur of Ahmed’s vision. He presents a panorama of human societies spanning centuries and covering a vast portion of the globe, embracing a great range of human attitudes and behaviours, many of which contradicted the formal teachings of religion without challenging the fundamentals of faith. This long period was both comparable and complementary to the world of the pre-Enlightenment West, the era of Rabelais, when – as Lucien Febvre put it – ‘Christianity was the very air one breathed in what we call Europe and what was then Christendom.’ But under the impact of modernity, and what Weber called the ‘disenchantment of the world’, Muslim societies have buckled just as Christianity did. Ahmed argues that the Muslim response to disenchantment and the ‘empiricisation of reality’ has been different from the Enlightenment. Rather than restructuring the premodern ‘sacred canopy’ that encompassed religion, myth, law and morality by separating them into distinct spheres, Muslims tactically seized on those elements of revelation ‘that most cohere with the dominant forms of the modern’. Photographs displaying the destruction of Mecca and Medina by Saudi real-estate developers in collusion with Wahhabi iconoclasts are eloquent visual testimony to this process: the holy places of the Prophet Muhammad, his family and companions have been denuded of their historical and spiritual resonances, taking ‘the Muslim back to the year zero of the Wahhabi present’. ‘Wahhabism,’ he says, ‘is not merely a cause, but also a symptom of the broader condition of the Islamic modern.’

There is a problem, however, with presenting all this as a wholly modern phenomenon. Ahmed neither acknowledges nor explains the defaulting of Islamic tradition towards sharia-based orthodoxy in pre-modern times too. It may be the case that aristocratic elites in the past never felt themselves bound by sharia injunctions, just as modern Muslim princes and the cosmopolitan elite think nothing of drinking champagne at international gatherings or in their palaces and private jets. But centuries ago in the Muslim heartlands the public realm became populist and puritanical in ways that continue to persist. This had as much to do with the dynamics of Islamic culture – with the absorption of restrictive sharia-based behaviour by militarily dominant incoming tribes, for example – as it did with the limitations of theological orthodoxy. Although Ahmed quotes extensively from Nasir al-Din Tusi – one of the greatest Shiite thinkers – he is silent on the sophisticated hermeneutics of Shiite Ismailis, such as Qadi Numan, Nasir Khusraw and Abu Yacoub al-Sijistani. Their vast intellectual output is dismissed in a single footnote with a disparaging quote from an exiled Pakistani scholar who died in 1988. There are no references to the edifice of Ismaili scholarship produced in recent decades, or to anthropological studies showing that holy Islamic figures including Muhammad and his family travelled through the Indic religious landscape as avatars in Gujarat, Bengal and regions further afield. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a Sunni-oriented bias in his selection of topics and sources. A more inclusive approach might have shown how the imaginative dynamism of the original Islamic vision was forced to protect itself from the populist gaze by using coded languages and esoteric rituals.

This gulf in Ahmed’s thesis points to a larger question. The Islamic field may be even broader than he acknowledges in his attempt at comprehensiveness. But there has always been a default position in terms of norms of appearance and social behaviour, and those deemed to have transgressed it have been subject to legal sanctions, or even castigated as infidels. This tendency towards a culture of ‘normatisation’ where details of permissible food and drink, gender relations, costume and other imperatives are believed to have been issued by the deity, is far from being universal – witness the millions of Muslims living in Europe and North America who have no problems with the quintessential modern values of individual freedom under secular systems of law. These are the Muslims – the vast majority – of whom it can be said that Islam has become a religion in the modern sense of being a matter of individual choice. However, the culture of Salafism or normatisation, in which certain sorts of behaviour are banned and others enjoined by supposedly divine imperatives, has been supercharged by petrodollar-wealthy princes who prefer to see this arcane style of religiosity exported to the prospect of facing down potentially disruptive clerics on their home turf. So long as this unholy alliance persists, a substantial reservoir of fanaticism will remain.

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