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Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? as Disciplinary Critique

Charting a Way Forward for Islamic Studies

Detail of the poet Ḥāfiẓ, from Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkenness by Sulṭān Muḥammad, illustration from a manuscript of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, Herat, Safavid period, c. 1530, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard Art Museums (1988.460.2; courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Harvard Art Museums).

Michael Pregill


My review essay on Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton, 2015) appears in Harvard Theological Review this month. The publication of Ahmed’s magisterial work in the autumn of 2015 was widely remarked, particularly on account of the poignant fact of the author’s premature death that September. Upon its publication, a number of scholars commented on the book and its significance in some rather high-profile venues.1 As time passes, this initial flurry of attention is gradually being complemented by more comprehensive evaluations of Ahmed’s work that manage to be more than merely laudatory.2

Given the circumstances of its publication, it is understandable that early appraisals were elegiac in tone; however, as the repercussions and ramifications of the book’s arguments are felt, scholars will naturally engage with the book in more critical fashion, drawing attention to the evident flaws of the work and its charismatic author.3 In my HTR review essay, I attempt to systematically evaluate Ahmed’s book, carefully dissecting the lineaments of his argument and illuminating the context of his critiques (at least as far as this might be possible in a 7,500 word review of a book totaling well over 500 pages). My goal in this review is to emphasize the work’s many important contributions to the field of Islamic Studies without shying away from honest acknowledgement of some of its most significant shortcomings. For example, despite the wide-ranging nature of his analysis, the author perplexingly neglects not only gender as a significant theoretical consideration, but the seminal work of many female scholars who have been instrumental in shaping what the field of Islamic Studies has become today. Further, a clear Sunni bias is evident throughout the work, an aspect of Ahmed’s thought deserving of its own separate commentary.

ahmedwhatisislam

Especially given that most of the HTR readership likely consists of nonspecialists in the study of Islam, my review seeks to lay out for the uninitiated, as clearly as possible, the context and implications of Ahmed’s dense argument. There are many people who will no doubt take notice of the work and be interested in the issues and questions the author raises, but may be unable to navigate Ahmed’s massive tome and plumb its depths without a guide.

However, here in this shorter post about the book, I want to undertake a different task, namely to call attention to some of Ahmed’s most important and concrete methodological or perspectival implications for scholars and students in the field of Islamic Studies. Aside from the book’s overall merit in encouraging a major theoretical shift in the way we conceptualize Islam, various aspects of Ahmed’s approach seem to me to be of particular practical significance for those of us working in the field, and thus deserve to be highlighted here.

The Argument

The thesis of What Is Islam?, stated as simply as possible, is the following. Despite many contemporary scholars’ aversion to definitions of Islam, to any attempt to reduce the beliefs, behaviors, and dispositions of the world’s billion Muslims to a single essence, Ahmed holds that Islam can be defined, indeed must be defined, for the experience of both historical and contemporary Muslims to be meaningful and comprehensible. In his view, there is surely something that all Muslims share that makes them Muslims and distinguishes them from other people; if there is no conceptual construct we can call Islam, then the idea of Muslim identity – which the author readily concedes is immensely diverse and variegated – becomes incoherent. For Ahmed, Islam is the thing that is indisputably there in the life and thoughts of every Muslim that makes them Muslim, that enables them to express themselves, understand themselves as subjects, and recognize each other as Muslim when they are – as he would put it – ‘speaking Islamically.’

Ahmed draws attention to phenomena that, though indisputably significant aspects of the culture and history of Muslims, are typically seen as outside Islam ‘proper,’ the latter typically being defined as the theological-creedal and ritual-legal ‘core’ commonly held to define orthodox Islam as a religion, at least in juristic and institutional terms. But for him, discursive and expressive forms within the Islamic fold that appear anomalous, heterodox, or plainly un-Islamic must, at least for their practitioners and exponents, have constituted ‘real’ Islam just as much as orthodox piety and mainstream ritual practice. That is, the often heterodox claims of the philosophers and the Sufis, the rich visual art produced for courtly patrons, and the openly contrarian discourses of the affective, aesthetic, and erotic expressed in classical Persian (or “Persianate”) poetry that so often are relegated to the periphery were not “alternative” formations within the religion of Islam. For those who embraced them, they were simply Islam.4

jahangirwine

(Top) Wine cup of jade made in Samarqand for the Timurid sultan Ulugh Bēg, subsequently acquired by the Mughal emperor Jahāngīr c. 1613 (inv. °328; courtesy Calouste Gulbenkian Museum). (Bottom) Coin of Jahāngīr struck in year 6 of his reign (1611), held in the Indian Museum, Kolkata (courtesy Google Cultural Institute).

To Ahmed, if scholars promote the view that ‘true’ Islam primarily or essentially consists of adherence to orthodox creed and maintenance of sharīʿah, with other imaginative enterprises necessarily judged as less Islamic or even un-Islamic – with poetry, art, Sufism, and philosophy being relegated to the sidelines – this is basically tantamount to Salafism. Indeed, it is scholars’ frequent reliance on and privileging of the ‘legal-supremacist’ discourse of the ʿulamāʾ that has led to the prevalence of such a view in academia.

If Islam does not consist primarily or exclusively or essentially of the universally-mandated creedal and praxial elements commonly presented as the fundamentals of the faith, then – to return to the book’s eponymous question – what is Islam? For Ahmed, the answer (to which he devotes some 150 pages in the third and final section of the book) is that Islam consists of the interpretive processes through which Muslims apprehend their particular beliefs, practices, and values as Islam, as well as the language in which they express that claim to veracity. As Ahmed puts it, not everything Muslims do is Islam, but every Muslim expression of meaning must be recognized as constituting Islam in some way. That is, Islam is the sum of the dazzling array of reflections by Muslims on meaning, all of their expressions of meaning, despite the contradictory and incommensurable nature of those reflections and expressions.

Islamic Art/Arts of Islam/Art as Islam

Perhaps the main takeaway students and scholars of Islam should derive from What Is Islam? is that instead of avoiding definitions of Islam, blithely insisting that the sheer diversity of Muslim thought, practice, and experience makes such an enterprise impossible, we should tackle the question head-on and consider what that diversity really means for the problem of definition. This is the difficult task that Ahmed calls us to take up in our teaching and research. But how to move forward? How best to explore the implications of Ahmed’s eloquent, sophisticated argument? How do we operationalize the consequences of his observations in practical terms?

One of the most compelling aspects of Ahmed’s work is his insistence on interdisciplinarity. This element emerges from his argument because of his energetic critique of the tendency of scholars to define Islam primarily from within the discourse of religion – that is, favoring an emphasis on doctrine and ritual as essential to Islam, at the expense of aesthetic, emotive, artistic, dispositional, and other sorts of orientations that are recognizably Islamic, sophisticated realms of reflection on Islam and its significance, but are much less likely to coincide with the categories typically understood as within the purview of the study of religion (law, scripture, creed, obligatory ritual, etc.)

Ahmed argues stridently for the necessity for such forms of expression as fictional literature, poetry, and the visual arts, though typically discussed and studied outside of the realm of religion ‘proper,’ to be recognized for their significance for conceiving Islam and appreciating how Muslims themselves have conceived of Islam. In practical terms, this means that we should approach, say, the poetry of Rūmī not simply as “Persian literature” or as an example of Sufi antinomianism and anti-institutionalism – as it is commonly taught and read as a counterpoint to Qur’an and sunnah and law, the stuff generally assumed to be ‘real’ Islam – but as a prime example of a deeply influential articulation of Islam, full stop.5

As has sometimes been noted in the past, scholars in the disciplines of history and religion (those disciplines in which attempts to define Islam and demarcate the boundaries between religion, culture, and civilization have usually been found) have long neglected the serious study of visual culture as an essential component of any endeavor to conceive of Islam. Thus, it is refreshing to see Ahmed making direct use of evidence from the visual arts at multiple junctures in his book.

Various commentators have latched onto one of the most novel aspects of What Is Islam?, namely Ahmed’s vivid discussion of the importance of wine drinking as a significant practice and trope within Islam. In support of this discussion, the author adduces a number of important examples from Islamic visual and material culture. These include a handful of luxury wine cups from Central Asia dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, presented as prime evidence of “the mutually-constitutive relationship between wine and Islam in history.”6 One, the wine jug of the Timirid ruler Ḥusayn Mīrzā Bāyqarā (r. 1470-1506), the patron of the poet Jāmī and the painter Bihzād, is inscribed with verses of Hāfiẓ (d. 1390) that invoke qurʾānic imagery in order to valorize wine drinking – clearly not metaphorically.

No fewer than three similar cups survive that were owned by the Mughal emperor Jahāngīr (r. 1605-1627); the inscriptions on these vessels present the emperor’s authority in clearly religious, which is to say Islamic, terms (for example by lauding the emperor as caliph). The inscription on one (perhaps the most famous example, now held in the Gulbenkian in Lisbon and formerly owned by the Timurid ruler Ulugh Bēg, r. 1411-1449), begins with Allāhu Akbar! Although Ahmed does note that the tension between public and private articulations of Islam was important and productive in the pre-modern period, there was nothing private about Jahāngīr’s embrace of wine drinking, for his coinage clearly depicts him wine cup in hand, signifying the centrality of this practice to the Islamic political order as he understood it, despite its condemnation in the Qurʾān and sharīʿah.7

sultanmuhammad

“The angel of mercy raised the cup of the pleasures of intimate company/From the draught, upon the cheek of houri and fairy, a rose-hue.” Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkenness by Sulṭān Muḥammad, illustration from a manuscript of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, Herat, Safavid period, c. 1530, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard Art Museums (1988.460.2; courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Harvard Art Museums).

An even more compelling use of visual culture in the work may be found in Ahmed’s skillful and eloquent exegesis of a masterpiece of Persian painting, Sulṭān Muḥammad’s illumination of a couplet of Ḥāfiẓ, Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkenness. The pictorial frame of the painting is structurally divided into four different planes depicting different kinds of engagement with wine – from the raucous to the contemplative all the way up to the highest level, the transcendent and angelic. Here, worldly drunkenness is not a metaphor for spiritual intoxication; rather, the structure of the painting invites the reader to conclude that these two types of drunkenness are profoundly related, or even identical. Drinking wine appears as a path from the phenomenal world, dunyā, to the sublime Unseen, ghayb; the painting suggests that in the act of drinking one finds and enacts a connection with the upper world. In short, here in this doubly ḥaram depiction (a figurative painting used to celebrate intoxication), wine appears as a means of communicating the most sublime truths; for Sulṭān Muḥammad, as for Ḥāfiẓ, indulgence in wine is not contrary to Islam, but rather epitomizes it. In all of these cases, artifacts of visual culture challenge some of our most basic presuppositions about the core values and precepts of Islam.8

Reorienting the Canon

Few if any teachers would begin an ‘Introduction to Islam’ class with a Persian miniature rather than with the Qurʾān, the Five Pillars, or the life of the Prophet. But this is exactly the disciplinary reorientation to which Ahmed summons us.

Perhaps one might argue that images are too ambiguous, or the contemporary student too lacking in visual literacy, for a conversation about how Islam might be defined to begin with such evidence. But even if other types of evidence, especially the textual-literary, must necessarily remain dominant in the classroom, it is clear that we often fail to distribute our scholarly attention properly in this realm as well.

Ahmed repeatedly demonstrates the shortcomings of an approach to Islam that emphasizes early and classical Islam as definitive, or concentrates too strongly on the textual productions of the legal-juridical scholarly establishment. Such a focus on either ‘original’ Islam or on Islam as defined solely by the ʿulamāʾ is clearly shortsighted. Ahmed appears to have been an intimidatingly well-read individual, and his analysis in this book reflects this breadth. Again and again he draws our attention to works (or whole textual corpora) that many might dismiss as late or peripheral, and that are perhaps known only to specialists in particular periods or regions.

The failure of generations of scholars of Islam to come to terms with the full richness and diversity of Muslim cultural production in our work and teaching becomes evident when we consider the numerous cases of once widely-read and formerly important texts that are not commonly employed or discussed by contemporary scholars of Islam. Some of these works have never even been translated or published in reliable editions.

For example, throughout the book, Ahmed repeatedly draws attention to the importance of works of ethics for Muslim self-fashioning and articulations of the value system many Muslims believe Islam naturally and necessarily entails. The ethical corpus, epitomized by the Akhlāq-i Naṣīrī of Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī (d. 1274), is most commonly discussed by modern academics under the rubric of “Islamic philosophy,” and so typically partitioned away from broader conceptions and discussions of Islam per se. Medieval Muslim ethical thinkers juxtaposed more obviously “religious” topics such as duty, morality, and creed with others of a more “philosophical” nature such as love, justice, the state, and the nature of selfhood. For them, all of these concerns naturally fell under the rubric of Islam. Far from a rarified academic enterprise, discussions of ethics were often distilled into accessible forms and disseminated throughout all levels of Islamic society – for example in such popular works as the Book of the Turban of the Pashtun leader Khoshḥāl Khān Khattak (d. 1689), in a Javanese didactic poem, or even in popular song.9 Such evidence demonstrates the need for contemporary Western scholars to be more ecumenical in their consideration of how premodern Muslims understood themselves and their Islam by exploring realms of  articulation of meaning outside of those conventionally understood as “religious.” What prevents us from starting conversations with students about Islam with a passage from Khoshḥāl Khān’s work on love or friendship or justice as exemplifying Islam instead of Qurʾān or ḥadīth or law?

Postage stamp commemorating Khwashḥāl Khān Khattak, a Mughal-era Pashtun tribal leader, poet, and author of the Book of the Turban, a popular guide to Muslim morality and virtue. This 7 r.s. stamp was issued by Pakistan in 1994 (image courtesy of the Pakistan Philatelic Net Club blog).

Postage stamp commemorating Khwashḥāl Khān Khattak, a Mughal-era Pashtun tribal leader, poet, and author of the Book of the Turban, a popular guide to Muslim morality and virtue. This 7 r.s. stamp was issued by Pakistan in 1994 (image courtesy of the Pakistan Philatelic Net Club blog).

A complementary point that emerges from Ahmed’s work is that as scholars we should read as Muslims themselves have read, or at least understand what Muslims of different periods have read and thus that have made the greatest contributions to Muslim self-fashioning. At numerous points in his discussion, Ahmed cites the number of extant printed editions of a given work, or the attestation and distribution of manuscripts in archives, to demonstrate the underappreciated popularity and thus impact of works that are seldom central to considerations of how Islam should be conceptualized. Thus, one rapidly gains a new appreciation for the significance of book history as a subdiscipline of Islamic Studies, particularly given the high literacy rates that have been typical of Muslim societies generally throughout history.10 This is to say nothing of the necessity of taking ethnographic accounts of “local” varieties and expressions of Islam into consideration, an obvious desideratum for decades now.

The Essence of Islam and the Boundaries of Islam

Ahmed’s work seems particularly important for thinking about how ideas, practices, and symbols cross boundaries and how cultural materials of various sorts become Islamized. His reconceptualization of “syncretism” in Islam is especially compelling. If we dislodge those aspects of Islam that have generally been privileged in generic considerations of Islam – the early and classical, the Arab, and the legal-juridical – from their pride of place and become more ecumenical in our thinking about what Islam ‘really is,’ we come to realize that the Islam that is the product of more recent processes of meaning-making far from the Arab heartlands of Islam is just as genuine as the ‘original’ Islam that Salafis fetishize.

In Ahmed’s paradigm, those cultural forms that supposedly stand out as ‘syncretistic’ in newer Islamic societies, that more visibly synthesize Islam with “traditional culture,” are not to be considered somehow less Islamic, but rather only more recently Islamic. Even those forms of expression by Muslim communities that seem contrary to the ideals, values, claims, and aesthetics of ‘original’ Islam must be taken seriously as definitive of Islam if Muslims consider them as such. There is nothing ‘Islamic’ that is given value by Muslims that is less Islamic than any other expression of Islam. It is the act of valuation itself that renders something Islamic.

If the endowment of acts, ideas, and symbols with Islamic meaning is what renders them Islamic, logically one might wonder what it would mean for non-Muslims to perform said acts, express such ideas, or embrace those symbols? Strikingly, Ahmed is quite unambiguous here: such acts, ideas, and symbols retain their Islamic significance even when associated with non-Muslims. Thus, Ahmed insists that Maimonides is not an “Islamicate” thinker, as he has sometimes been styled (that is, as essentially Jewish in his philosophical and religious orientation, though writing in Arabic and working in an environment in which Islamic social and intellectual patterns are dominant) but rather an Islamic thinker, in that his philosophical discourse is identical to that of his Muslim contemporaries although he personally professed the religion of Judaism. Whether or not Ahmed is right on this score, this is an immensely useful example that is no doubt productive for us to consider in our teaching and research.11

The examples I have noted here are intended to highlight those aspects of Ahmed’s work that to me seem most promising as points of departure for those of us in the field to build upon, whether in our teaching or research. It is the capacity of What Is Islam? to suggest new paths for exploration and pose provocative questions that make his book so valuable for scholars, regardless of whether or to what degree one agrees with his premises and conclusions.

A free download of the author’s review essay “I Hear Islam Singing: Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic” (Harvard Theological Review 110 (2017): 149-165) is currently available here.

 

MICHAEL PREGILL is Interlocutor in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University and coordinator of Mizan.

 

[1] See Usman Butt, “Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam Turns Modern Islamic Scholarship on Its Head,” Muftah.org, April 1, 2016; Noah Feldman, “An Extraordinary Scholar Redefined Islam,” Bloomberg View, September 20, 2015; Elias Muhanna, “How Has Islamic Orthodoxy Changed Over Time?,” The Nation, December 23, 2015.

[2] See Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst and Kristian Petersen (eds.), What is Islam? Forum,” Marginalia, August 19, 2016; Malise Ruthven, “More than a Religion,” London Review of Books, September 8, 2016; Mairaj U. Syed, “The Problem with ‘What is…?’ Questions, the Literalism of Islamic Law, and the Importance of Being Islamic,” Journal of Law and Society 43 (2016): 661-671.

[3] See the admirably candid obituary notice by Sarah Eltantawi, In Memoriam: Shahab Ahmed,” Al-ʿUūr al-Wusṭā 24 (2016): 208-211.

[4] This is true even for those expressions that seem most conspicuously un-Islamic; for Ahmed, the homoerotic, libertine, intoxicated, and idolatrous are all legitimate aspects of Islam. He appears to have had little interest in contemporary Muslim popular culture, especially in the United States, but one cannot help but notice the applicability of Ahmed’s comments in this vein to contemporary iconoclastic discourses such as Muslim anarchism and punk, expressed in literary form by authors such as Peter Lamborn Wilson/Hakim Bey and Michael Muhammad Knight and musical form by groups associated with the label ‘taqwacore.’ The absence of American Islam from Ahmed’s discussion is conspicuous, and one wishes he had turned his analytical gaze to the Nation of Islam and other distinctively American varieties of Islam.

[5] For a recent discussion of the tendency for the poetry of Rūmī to be deracinated and stripped of its Islamic context and significance, see Rozina Ali, “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi,” The New Yorker, January 5, 2017.

[6] What Is Islam?, 67.

[7] For the discussion of the wine jugs, see What Is Islam?, 67-71.

[8] Ibid., 417-424. See also the poignant recent piece by Kishwar Rizvi arguing for the indispensability of the arts and culture in classroom engagements with Islam, “What’s Missing in the Teaching of Islam,” TheConversation.com, January 10, 2017.

[9] On the Akhlāq of Ṭūsī in the context of the centrality of love in articulations of Islam, see What Is Islam?, 40; for Ṭūsī’s wide-ranging influence in discussions of justice, see 453-482. On Khattak’s Dastārnāmah and the anonymous Javanese didactic poem Al-Tuḥfah al-mursalah, see 333-334, 479-481.

[10] The misprision caused by both an underestimation of what literate people actually read and an overvaluation of the early and classical is hardly exclusive to the study of Islam. The extant manuscript evidence suggests that the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (d. 1298) was likely the most widely circulated text in Europe in the Middle Ages after the Bible, yet the study and teaching of this work is generally restricted to scholars of medieval Latin literature. It hardly figures as an exemplary text in university courses on Christianity, even though it must have been tremendously influential on Christian identity and self-formation for centuries.

[11] See What Is Islam?, 435-452 for the general discussion and 447-449 on Maimonides as an exemplar of what might be called Jewish-Islamic thought. Ahmed relies here on recent literature that reflects a concerted effort to rethink Maimonides’ relationship to his milieu. Until recently, there was substantial resistance to attempts to come to terms with the Islamic(ate) aspects of his thought and religiosity, no doubt motivated by anxieties about suggesting he was somehow less than fully Jewish or less than totally original, thus impairing his status as the Jewish philosopher par excellence of the Middle Ages. See, e.g., Joel Kramer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds (New York: Doubleday, 2008) and Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

In another passage in this section sure to provoke much discussion (445-446), Ahmed remarks on Sikh wrestlers’ invocation of ʿAlī as constituting an Islamic act even though not performed by Muslims – the act is Islamic because it only makes sense as it evokes and resonates with the matrix of meaning-making and signification associated with Islam. This may be true, though one wonders how this can be squared with the Sikh wrestlers’ own conception of the meaning of their act as meaningful in terms of their own tradition and not Islam.

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Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? as Disciplinary Critique

Charting a Way Forward for Islamic Studies


Michael Pregill


My review essay on Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton, 2015) appears in Harvard Theological Review this month. The publication of Ahmed’s magisterial work in the autumn of 2015 was widely remarked, particularly on account of the poignant fact of the author’s premature death that September. Upon its publication, a number of scholars commented on the book and its significance in some rather high-profile venues.1 As time passes, this initial flurry of attention is gradually being complemented by more comprehensive evaluations of Ahmed’s work that manage to be more than merely laudatory.2

Given the circumstances of its publication, it is understandable that early appraisals were elegiac in tone; however, as the repercussions and ramifications of the book’s arguments are felt, scholars will naturally engage with the book in more critical fashion, drawing attention to the evident flaws of the work and its charismatic author.3 In my HTR review essay, I attempt to systematically evaluate Ahmed’s book, carefully dissecting the lineaments of his argument and illuminating the context of his critiques (at least as far as this might be possible in a 7,500 word review of a book totaling well over 500 pages). My goal in this review is to emphasize the work’s many important contributions to the field of Islamic Studies without shying away from honest acknowledgement of some of its most significant shortcomings. For example, despite the wide-ranging nature of his analysis, the author perplexingly neglects not only gender as a significant theoretical consideration, but the seminal work of many female scholars who have been instrumental in shaping what the field of Islamic Studies has become today. Further, a clear Sunni bias is evident throughout the work, an aspect of Ahmed’s thought deserving of its own separate commentary.

ahmedwhatisislam

Especially given that most of the HTR readership likely consists of nonspecialists in the study of Islam, my review seeks to lay out for the uninitiated, as clearly as possible, the context and implications of Ahmed’s dense argument. There are many people who will no doubt take notice of the work and be interested in the issues and questions the author raises, but may be unable to navigate Ahmed’s massive tome and plumb its depths without a guide.

However, here in this shorter post about the book, I want to undertake a different task, namely to call attention to some of Ahmed’s most important and concrete methodological or perspectival implications for scholars and students in the field of Islamic Studies. Aside from the book’s overall merit in encouraging a major theoretical shift in the way we conceptualize Islam, various aspects of Ahmed’s approach seem to me to be of particular practical significance for those of us working in the field, and thus deserve to be highlighted here.

The Argument

The thesis of What Is Islam?, stated as simply as possible, is the following. Despite many contemporary scholars’ aversion to definitions of Islam, to any attempt to reduce the beliefs, behaviors, and dispositions of the world’s billion Muslims to a single essence, Ahmed holds that Islam can be defined, indeed must be defined, for the experience of both historical and contemporary Muslims to be meaningful and comprehensible. In his view, there is surely something that all Muslims share that makes them Muslims and distinguishes them from other people; if there is no conceptual construct we can call Islam, then the idea of Muslim identity – which the author readily concedes is immensely diverse and variegated – becomes incoherent. For Ahmed, Islam is the thing that is indisputably there in the life and thoughts of every Muslim that makes them Muslim, that enables them to express themselves, understand themselves as subjects, and recognize each other as Muslim when they are – as he would put it – ‘speaking Islamically.’

Ahmed draws attention to phenomena that, though indisputably significant aspects of the culture and history of Muslims, are typically seen as outside Islam ‘proper,’ the latter typically being defined as the theological-creedal and ritual-legal ‘core’ commonly held to define orthodox Islam as a religion, at least in juristic and institutional terms. But for him, discursive and expressive forms within the Islamic fold that appear anomalous, heterodox, or plainly un-Islamic must, at least for their practitioners and exponents, have constituted ‘real’ Islam just as much as orthodox piety and mainstream ritual practice. That is, the often heterodox claims of the philosophers and the Sufis, the rich visual art produced for courtly patrons, and the openly contrarian discourses of the affective, aesthetic, and erotic expressed in classical Persian (or “Persianate”) poetry that so often are relegated to the periphery were not “alternative” formations within the religion of Islam. For those who embraced them, they were simply Islam.4

jahangirwine

(Top) Wine cup of jade made in Samarqand for the Timurid sultan Ulugh Bēg, subsequently acquired by the Mughal emperor Jahāngīr c. 1613 (inv. °328; courtesy Calouste Gulbenkian Museum). (Bottom) Coin of Jahāngīr struck in year 6 of his reign (1611), held in the Indian Museum, Kolkata (courtesy Google Cultural Institute).

To Ahmed, if scholars promote the view that ‘true’ Islam primarily or essentially consists of adherence to orthodox creed and maintenance of sharīʿah, with other imaginative enterprises necessarily judged as less Islamic or even un-Islamic – with poetry, art, Sufism, and philosophy being relegated to the sidelines – this is basically tantamount to Salafism. Indeed, it is scholars’ frequent reliance on and privileging of the ‘legal-supremacist’ discourse of the ʿulamāʾ that has led to the prevalence of such a view in academia.

If Islam does not consist primarily or exclusively or essentially of the universally-mandated creedal and praxial elements commonly presented as the fundamentals of the faith, then – to return to the book’s eponymous question – what is Islam? For Ahmed, the answer (to which he devotes some 150 pages in the third and final section of the book) is that Islam consists of the interpretive processes through which Muslims apprehend their particular beliefs, practices, and values as Islam, as well as the language in which they express that claim to veracity. As Ahmed puts it, not everything Muslims do is Islam, but every Muslim expression of meaning must be recognized as constituting Islam in some way. That is, Islam is the sum of the dazzling array of reflections by Muslims on meaning, all of their expressions of meaning, despite the contradictory and incommensurable nature of those reflections and expressions.

Islamic Art/Arts of Islam/Art as Islam

Perhaps the main takeaway students and scholars of Islam should derive from What Is Islam? is that instead of avoiding definitions of Islam, blithely insisting that the sheer diversity of Muslim thought, practice, and experience makes such an enterprise impossible, we should tackle the question head-on and consider what that diversity really means for the problem of definition. This is the difficult task that Ahmed calls us to take up in our teaching and research. But how to move forward? How best to explore the implications of Ahmed’s eloquent, sophisticated argument? How do we operationalize the consequences of his observations in practical terms?

One of the most compelling aspects of Ahmed’s work is his insistence on interdisciplinarity. This element emerges from his argument because of his energetic critique of the tendency of scholars to define Islam primarily from within the discourse of religion – that is, favoring an emphasis on doctrine and ritual as essential to Islam, at the expense of aesthetic, emotive, artistic, dispositional, and other sorts of orientations that are recognizably Islamic, sophisticated realms of reflection on Islam and its significance, but are much less likely to coincide with the categories typically understood as within the purview of the study of religion (law, scripture, creed, obligatory ritual, etc.)

Ahmed argues stridently for the necessity for such forms of expression as fictional literature, poetry, and the visual arts, though typically discussed and studied outside of the realm of religion ‘proper,’ to be recognized for their significance for conceiving Islam and appreciating how Muslims themselves have conceived of Islam. In practical terms, this means that we should approach, say, the poetry of Rūmī not simply as “Persian literature” or as an example of Sufi antinomianism and anti-institutionalism – as it is commonly taught and read as a counterpoint to Qur’an and sunnah and law, the stuff generally assumed to be ‘real’ Islam – but as a prime example of a deeply influential articulation of Islam, full stop.5

As has sometimes been noted in the past, scholars in the disciplines of history and religion (those disciplines in which attempts to define Islam and demarcate the boundaries between religion, culture, and civilization have usually been found) have long neglected the serious study of visual culture as an essential component of any endeavor to conceive of Islam. Thus, it is refreshing to see Ahmed making direct use of evidence from the visual arts at multiple junctures in his book.

Various commentators have latched onto one of the most novel aspects of What Is Islam?, namely Ahmed’s vivid discussion of the importance of wine drinking as a significant practice and trope within Islam. In support of this discussion, the author adduces a number of important examples from Islamic visual and material culture. These include a handful of luxury wine cups from Central Asia dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, presented as prime evidence of “the mutually-constitutive relationship between wine and Islam in history.”6 One, the wine jug of the Timirid ruler Ḥusayn Mīrzā Bāyqarā (r. 1470-1506), the patron of the poet Jāmī and the painter Bihzād, is inscribed with verses of Hāfiẓ (d. 1390) that invoke qurʾānic imagery in order to valorize wine drinking – clearly not metaphorically.

No fewer than three similar cups survive that were owned by the Mughal emperor Jahāngīr (r. 1605-1627); the inscriptions on these vessels present the emperor’s authority in clearly religious, which is to say Islamic, terms (for example by lauding the emperor as caliph). The inscription on one (perhaps the most famous example, now held in the Gulbenkian in Lisbon and formerly owned by the Timurid ruler Ulugh Bēg, r. 1411-1449), begins with Allāhu Akbar! Although Ahmed does note that the tension between public and private articulations of Islam was important and productive in the pre-modern period, there was nothing private about Jahāngīr’s embrace of wine drinking, for his coinage clearly depicts him wine cup in hand, signifying the centrality of this practice to the Islamic political order as he understood it, despite its condemnation in the Qurʾān and sharīʿah.7

sultanmuhammad

“The angel of mercy raised the cup of the pleasures of intimate company/From the draught, upon the cheek of houri and fairy, a rose-hue.” Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkenness by Sulṭān Muḥammad, illustration from a manuscript of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, Herat, Safavid period, c. 1530, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard Art Museums (1988.460.2; courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Harvard Art Museums).

An even more compelling use of visual culture in the work may be found in Ahmed’s skillful and eloquent exegesis of a masterpiece of Persian painting, Sulṭān Muḥammad’s illumination of a couplet of Ḥāfiẓ, Worldly and Otherworldly Drunkenness. The pictorial frame of the painting is structurally divided into four different planes depicting different kinds of engagement with wine – from the raucous to the contemplative all the way up to the highest level, the transcendent and angelic. Here, worldly drunkenness is not a metaphor for spiritual intoxication; rather, the structure of the painting invites the reader to conclude that these two types of drunkenness are profoundly related, or even identical. Drinking wine appears as a path from the phenomenal world, dunyā, to the sublime Unseen, ghayb; the painting suggests that in the act of drinking one finds and enacts a connection with the upper world. In short, here in this doubly ḥaram depiction (a figurative painting used to celebrate intoxication), wine appears as a means of communicating the most sublime truths; for Sulṭān Muḥammad, as for Ḥāfiẓ, indulgence in wine is not contrary to Islam, but rather epitomizes it. In all of these cases, artifacts of visual culture challenge some of our most basic presuppositions about the core values and precepts of Islam.8

Reorienting the Canon

Few if any teachers would begin an ‘Introduction to Islam’ class with a Persian miniature rather than with the Qurʾān, the Five Pillars, or the life of the Prophet. But this is exactly the disciplinary reorientation to which Ahmed summons us.

Perhaps one might argue that images are too ambiguous, or the contemporary student too lacking in visual literacy, for a conversation about how Islam might be defined to begin with such evidence. But even if other types of evidence, especially the textual-literary, must necessarily remain dominant in the classroom, it is clear that we often fail to distribute our scholarly attention properly in this realm as well.

Ahmed repeatedly demonstrates the shortcomings of an approach to Islam that emphasizes early and classical Islam as definitive, or concentrates too strongly on the textual productions of the legal-juridical scholarly establishment. Such a focus on either ‘original’ Islam or on Islam as defined solely by the ʿulamāʾ is clearly shortsighted. Ahmed appears to have been an intimidatingly well-read individual, and his analysis in this book reflects this breadth. Again and again he draws our attention to works (or whole textual corpora) that many might dismiss as late or peripheral, and that are perhaps known only to specialists in particular periods or regions.

The failure of generations of scholars of Islam to come to terms with the full richness and diversity of Muslim cultural production in our work and teaching becomes evident when we consider the numerous cases of once widely-read and formerly important texts that are not commonly employed or discussed by contemporary scholars of Islam. Some of these works have never even been translated or published in reliable editions.

For example, throughout the book, Ahmed repeatedly draws attention to the importance of works of ethics for Muslim self-fashioning and articulations of the value system many Muslims believe Islam naturally and necessarily entails. The ethical corpus, epitomized by the Akhlāq-i Naṣīrī of Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī (d. 1274), is most commonly discussed by modern academics under the rubric of “Islamic philosophy,” and so typically partitioned away from broader conceptions and discussions of Islam per se. Medieval Muslim ethical thinkers juxtaposed more obviously “religious” topics such as duty, morality, and creed with others of a more “philosophical” nature such as love, justice, the state, and the nature of selfhood. For them, all of these concerns naturally fell under the rubric of Islam. Far from a rarified academic enterprise, discussions of ethics were often distilled into accessible forms and disseminated throughout all levels of Islamic society – for example in such popular works as the Book of the Turban of the Pashtun leader Khoshḥāl Khān Khattak (d. 1689), in a Javanese didactic poem, or even in popular song.9 Such evidence demonstrates the need for contemporary Western scholars to be more ecumenical in their consideration of how premodern Muslims understood themselves and their Islam by exploring realms of  articulation of meaning outside of those conventionally understood as “religious.” What prevents us from starting conversations with students about Islam with a passage from Khoshḥāl Khān’s work on love or friendship or justice as exemplifying Islam instead of Qurʾān or ḥadīth or law?

Postage stamp commemorating Khwashḥāl Khān Khattak, a Mughal-era Pashtun tribal leader, poet, and author of the Book of the Turban, a popular guide to Muslim morality and virtue. This 7 r.s. stamp was issued by Pakistan in 1994 (image courtesy of the Pakistan Philatelic Net Club blog).

Postage stamp commemorating Khwashḥāl Khān Khattak, a Mughal-era Pashtun tribal leader, poet, and author of the Book of the Turban, a popular guide to Muslim morality and virtue. This 7 r.s. stamp was issued by Pakistan in 1994 (image courtesy of the Pakistan Philatelic Net Club blog).

A complementary point that emerges from Ahmed’s work is that as scholars we should read as Muslims themselves have read, or at least understand what Muslims of different periods have read and thus that have made the greatest contributions to Muslim self-fashioning. At numerous points in his discussion, Ahmed cites the number of extant printed editions of a given work, or the attestation and distribution of manuscripts in archives, to demonstrate the underappreciated popularity and thus impact of works that are seldom central to considerations of how Islam should be conceptualized. Thus, one rapidly gains a new appreciation for the significance of book history as a subdiscipline of Islamic Studies, particularly given the high literacy rates that have been typical of Muslim societies generally throughout history.10 This is to say nothing of the necessity of taking ethnographic accounts of “local” varieties and expressions of Islam into consideration, an obvious desideratum for decades now.

The Essence of Islam and the Boundaries of Islam

Ahmed’s work seems particularly important for thinking about how ideas, practices, and symbols cross boundaries and how cultural materials of various sorts become Islamized. His reconceptualization of “syncretism” in Islam is especially compelling. If we dislodge those aspects of Islam that have generally been privileged in generic considerations of Islam – the early and classical, the Arab, and the legal-juridical – from their pride of place and become more ecumenical in our thinking about what Islam ‘really is,’ we come to realize that the Islam that is the product of more recent processes of meaning-making far from the Arab heartlands of Islam is just as genuine as the ‘original’ Islam that Salafis fetishize.

In Ahmed’s paradigm, those cultural forms that supposedly stand out as ‘syncretistic’ in newer Islamic societies, that more visibly synthesize Islam with “traditional culture,” are not to be considered somehow less Islamic, but rather only more recently Islamic. Even those forms of expression by Muslim communities that seem contrary to the ideals, values, claims, and aesthetics of ‘original’ Islam must be taken seriously as definitive of Islam if Muslims consider them as such. There is nothing ‘Islamic’ that is given value by Muslims that is less Islamic than any other expression of Islam. It is the act of valuation itself that renders something Islamic.

If the endowment of acts, ideas, and symbols with Islamic meaning is what renders them Islamic, logically one might wonder what it would mean for non-Muslims to perform said acts, express such ideas, or embrace those symbols? Strikingly, Ahmed is quite unambiguous here: such acts, ideas, and symbols retain their Islamic significance even when associated with non-Muslims. Thus, Ahmed insists that Maimonides is not an “Islamicate” thinker, as he has sometimes been styled (that is, as essentially Jewish in his philosophical and religious orientation, though writing in Arabic and working in an environment in which Islamic social and intellectual patterns are dominant) but rather an Islamic thinker, in that his philosophical discourse is identical to that of his Muslim contemporaries although he personally professed the religion of Judaism. Whether or not Ahmed is right on this score, this is an immensely useful example that is no doubt productive for us to consider in our teaching and research.11

The examples I have noted here are intended to highlight those aspects of Ahmed’s work that to me seem most promising as points of departure for those of us in the field to build upon, whether in our teaching or research. It is the capacity of What Is Islam? to suggest new paths for exploration and pose provocative questions that make his book so valuable for scholars, regardless of whether or to what degree one agrees with his premises and conclusions.

A free download of the author’s review essay “I Hear Islam Singing: Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic” (Harvard Theological Review 110 (2017): 149-165) is currently available here.

 

MICHAEL PREGILL is Interlocutor in the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies and Civilizations at Boston University and coordinator of Mizan.

 

[1] See Usman Butt, “Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam Turns Modern Islamic Scholarship on Its Head,” Muftah.org, April 1, 2016; Noah Feldman, “An Extraordinary Scholar Redefined Islam,” Bloomberg View, September 20, 2015; Elias Muhanna, “How Has Islamic Orthodoxy Changed Over Time?,” The Nation, December 23, 2015.

[2] See Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst and Kristian Petersen (eds.), What is Islam? Forum,” Marginalia, August 19, 2016; Malise Ruthven, “More than a Religion,” London Review of Books, September 8, 2016; Mairaj U. Syed, “The Problem with ‘What is…?’ Questions, the Literalism of Islamic Law, and the Importance of Being Islamic,” Journal of Law and Society 43 (2016): 661-671.

[3] See the admirably candid obituary notice by Sarah Eltantawi, In Memoriam: Shahab Ahmed,” Al-ʿUūr al-Wusṭā 24 (2016): 208-211.

[4] This is true even for those expressions that seem most conspicuously un-Islamic; for Ahmed, the homoerotic, libertine, intoxicated, and idolatrous are all legitimate aspects of Islam. He appears to have had little interest in contemporary Muslim popular culture, especially in the United States, but one cannot help but notice the applicability of Ahmed’s comments in this vein to contemporary iconoclastic discourses such as Muslim anarchism and punk, expressed in literary form by authors such as Peter Lamborn Wilson/Hakim Bey and Michael Muhammad Knight and musical form by groups associated with the label ‘taqwacore.’ The absence of American Islam from Ahmed’s discussion is conspicuous, and one wishes he had turned his analytical gaze to the Nation of Islam and other distinctively American varieties of Islam.

[5] For a recent discussion of the tendency for the poetry of Rūmī to be deracinated and stripped of its Islamic context and significance, see Rozina Ali, “The Erasure of Islam from the Poetry of Rumi,” The New Yorker, January 5, 2017.

[6] What Is Islam?, 67.

[7] For the discussion of the wine jugs, see What Is Islam?, 67-71.

[8] Ibid., 417-424. See also the poignant recent piece by Kishwar Rizvi arguing for the indispensability of the arts and culture in classroom engagements with Islam, “What’s Missing in the Teaching of Islam,” TheConversation.com, January 10, 2017.

[9] On the Akhlāq of Ṭūsī in the context of the centrality of love in articulations of Islam, see What Is Islam?, 40; for Ṭūsī’s wide-ranging influence in discussions of justice, see 453-482. On Khattak’s Dastārnāmah and the anonymous Javanese didactic poem Al-Tuḥfah al-mursalah, see 333-334, 479-481.

[10] The misprision caused by both an underestimation of what literate people actually read and an overvaluation of the early and classical is hardly exclusive to the study of Islam. The extant manuscript evidence suggests that the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (d. 1298) was likely the most widely circulated text in Europe in the Middle Ages after the Bible, yet the study and teaching of this work is generally restricted to scholars of medieval Latin literature. It hardly figures as an exemplary text in university courses on Christianity, even though it must have been tremendously influential on Christian identity and self-formation for centuries.

[11] See What Is Islam?, 435-452 for the general discussion and 447-449 on Maimonides as an exemplar of what might be called Jewish-Islamic thought. Ahmed relies here on recent literature that reflects a concerted effort to rethink Maimonides’ relationship to his milieu. Until recently, there was substantial resistance to attempts to come to terms with the Islamic(ate) aspects of his thought and religiosity, no doubt motivated by anxieties about suggesting he was somehow less than fully Jewish or less than totally original, thus impairing his status as the Jewish philosopher par excellence of the Middle Ages. See, e.g., Joel Kramer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds (New York: Doubleday, 2008) and Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

In another passage in this section sure to provoke much discussion (445-446), Ahmed remarks on Sikh wrestlers’ invocation of ʿAlī as constituting an Islamic act even though not performed by Muslims – the act is Islamic because it only makes sense as it evokes and resonates with the matrix of meaning-making and signification associated with Islam. This may be true, though one wonders how this can be squared with the Sikh wrestlers’ own conception of the meaning of their act as meaningful in terms of their own tradition and not Islam.

Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? as Disciplinary Critique

Charting a Way Forward for Islamic Studies

Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? as Disciplinary Critique

Charting a Way Forward for Islamic Studies