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What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic

What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic

by Shahab Ahmed

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What is Islam? How do we grasp a human and historical phenomenon characterized by such variety and contradiction? What is "Islamic" about Islamic philosophy or Islamic art? Should we speak of Islam or of islams? Should we distinguish the Islamic (the religious) from the Islamicate (the cultural)? Or should we abandon "Islamic" altogether as an analytical


What is Islam? How do we grasp a human and historical phenomenon characterized by such variety and contradiction? What is "Islamic" about Islamic philosophy or Islamic art? Should we speak of Islam or of islams? Should we distinguish the Islamic (the religious) from the Islamicate (the cultural)? Or should we abandon "Islamic" altogether as an analytical term?

In What Is Islam?, Shahab Ahmed presents a bold new conceptualization of Islam that challenges dominant understandings grounded in the categories of "religion" and "culture" or those that privilege law and scripture. He argues that these modes of thinking obstruct us from understanding Islam, distorting it, diminishing it, and rendering it incoherent.

What Is Islam? formulates a new conceptual language for analyzing Islam. It presents a new paradigm of how Muslims have historically understood divine revelation—one that enables us to understand how and why Muslims through history have embraced values such as exploration, ambiguity, aestheticization, polyvalence, and relativism, as well as practices such as figural art, music, and even wine drinking as Islamic. It also puts forward a new understanding of the historical constitution of Islamic law and its relationship to philosophical ethics and political theory.

A book that is certain to provoke debate and significantly alter our understanding of Islam, What Is Islam? reveals how Muslims have historically conceived of and lived with Islam as norms and truths that are at once contradictory yet coherent.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The recently deceased scholar Ahmed (Ibn Tamiyya and His Times) offers a bold notion of what Islam is, one that stands in stark contrast to popular, traditionalist, and radical notions. Taking a cosmopolitan, far-reaching approach to millennia of Muslim history, poetry, music, science, philosophy, theology, and practice Ahmed reconceptualizes Islam as a hermeneutical engagement comfortable with the contradiction of its own diversity and immense variety. The book is as imposing as it is inspiring. It dives deep into heady discussions of philology, religious studies, aesthetics, poetry, epistemology, and fiqh—Islamic jurisprudence. A book that aims to present such an audacious hypothesis is likely to be long, but one senses Ahmed could have been less repetitive and protracted. However, his deft organization and outline are helpful for the fatigued reader. The big danger is that Ahmed’s reconceptualization marginalizes voices from other geographies, perspectives, and theologies. Nonetheless, this is an enduring and timely work well worth the effort for those interested in discerning the essence of Islam beyond the seeming paradoxes of its own representations. (Dec.)
From the Publisher

Winner of the 2016 Best First Book in the History of Religions, American Academy of Religion

One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2016

"Anyone interested in exploring the intricacies and complexities of Islam as a religion, philosophical system and social text should study the new bookWhat Is Islam?… [A] perfect antidote to our present discourse."--Hussein Ibish, New York Times

"One can't but be impressed by the grandeur of Ahmed's vision."--Malise Ruthven, London Review of Books

"This is an enduring and timely work well worth the effort for those interested in discerning the essence of Islam beyond the seeming paradoxes of its own representations."--Publisher's Weekly

"A bold new conceptualisation of Islam that reflects its contradictions and rich diversity."--Bookseller Buyer's Guide

"[A] major new study … a strange and brilliant work, encyclopedic in vision and tautly argued in the manner of a logical proof, yet pervaded by the urgency of a political manifesto."--The Nation

"We can be grateful … that Ahmed managed to complete this extraordinary work. Scholars from east and west will be under his influence for years to come."--Sameer Rahim, Prospect

"In this monumental work, the late Shahab Ahmed sought new answers to important questions: How does one understand what Islam is? How does one study it meaningfully? . . . This volume will be central to the study of Islam and of religion more broadly for the foreseeable future."--Choice

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What Is Islam?

The Importance of Being Islamic

By Shahab Ahmed


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-7358-6


Six Questions about Islam

Islam, submission, total surrender (to God) masdar [verbal noun] of the IVth form of the root S L M. The "one who submits to God" is the Muslim. — Encyclopaedia of Islam

After their Prophet, the people disagreed about many things; some of them led others astray, while some dissociated themselves from others. Thus, they became distinct groups and disparate parties — except that Islam gathers them together and encompasses them all. — Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (874–936 A.D.)

I am seeking to say the word "Islam" in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon that is Islam in its plenitude and complexity of meaning. In conceptualizing Islam as a human and historical phenomenon, I am precisely not seeking to tell the reader what Islam is as a matter of Divine Command, and thus am not seeking to prescribe how Islam should be followed as the means to existential salvation. Rather, I seek to tell the reader what Islam has actually been as a matter of human fact in history, and thus am suggesting how Islam should be conceptualized as a means to a more meaningful understanding both of Islam in the human experience, and thus of the human experience at large. If I hold out a salvific prospect, it is the altogether more modest but, perhaps, no less elusive one, of analytical clarity.

This book stems from a certain dissatisfaction with the prevailing conceptualizations of "Islam" as object, and of "Islam" as category, which, in my view, critically impair our ability to recognize central and crucial aspects of the historical reality of the very object-phenomenon "Islam" that our conceptualizations seek to denote, but fall short of so doing. By "conceptualization," I mean a general idea by which the "object" Islam may be identified and classified, such that the connection to "Islam" of all those things purportedly encompassed by, consequent upon or otherwise related to the concept — what is to be expressed by the word "Islamic" — may coherently be known, characterized and valorized. Any act of conceptualizing any object is necessarily an attempt to identify a general theory or rule to which all phenomena affiliated with that object somehow cohere as a category for meaningful analysis — whether we locate that general rule in idea, practice, substance, relation, or process. A meaningful conceptualization of "Islam" as theoretical object and analytical category must come to terms with — indeed, be coherent with — the capaciousness, complexity, and, often, outright contradiction that obtains within the historical phenomenon that has proceeded from the human engagement with the idea and reality of Divine Communication to Muhammad, the Messenger of God. It is precisely this correspondence and coherence between Islam as theoretical object or analytical category and Islam as real historical phenomenon that is considerably and crucially lacking in the prevalent conceptualizations of the term "Islam/Islamic." It is just such a coherent conceptualization of Islam that I aim to put forward in this book.

The greatest challenge to a coherent conceptualization of Islam has been posed by the sheer diversity of — that is, range of differences between — those societies, persons, ideas and practices that identify themselves with "Islam." This analytical dilemma has regularly been presented in terms of how, when conceptualizing Islam, to reconcile the relationship between "universal" and "local," between "unity" and "diversity." Thus, the archdeacon of Islamic studies in the post–World War II United Kingdom, W. Montgomery Watt, asked in a 1968 work entitled, like the present one, What is Islam?: "In what sense can Islam or any other religion be said to remain a unity ... when one considers the various sects and the variations in practice from region to region?" One of the most important figures in the comparative study of religion, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, observed: "'Islam' could perhaps fairly readily be understood if only it had not existed in such abundant actuality, at differing times and in differing areas, in the minds and hearts of differing persons, in the institutions and forms of differing societies, in the evolving of different stages." In considering the scale and nature of the phenomenon of variety in Islam (in comparison to that of "any other religion"), it is well to bear in mind that, as the pioneer of the study of "Islamic history as world history" Marshall G. S. Hodgson pointed out, "Islam is unique among the religious traditions for the diversity of peoples that have embraced it." It is also helpful to bear in mind that, as a leading scholar of the concept of "civilization" has noted, "among the major civilizational worlds of premodern times, Islam was no doubt the most emphatically multi-societal." As one political scientist computed, "There are at least three hundred ethnic groups in the world today whose populations are wholly or partly Muslim." It is thus not surprising that, already in 1955, in a volume entitled Unity and Variety in Muslim Civilization comprising essays authored by the Orientalist luminaries of the age, Gustave E. von Grunebaum posited "The Problem: Unity in Diversity," asking, "What does, say, a North African Muslim have in common with a Muslim from Java?" — the very question that the acclaimed anthropologist Clifford Geertz would in 1968 address in his Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia. Twenty-five years later, in a study entitled Islam and the Heroic Image: Themes in Literature and the Visual Arts, John Renard set out by underlining that "One must ask ... in what sense one can apply the term 'Islam' and its adjectival form 'Islamic' to cultures so diverse as those of Morocco and Malaysia?" while as recently as 2012, the Pew Research Forum of Religion and Public Life financed and published a massive global survey entitled The World's Muslims: Unity and Diversity that sought to determine "What beliefs and practices unite these diverse peoples into a single religious community, or ummah? And how do their religious convictions and observances vary?"

The scholarly literature produced in sundry disciplines over the past half-century is rife with statements such as that of a representative art historian who wrote recently: "Academics and practitioners at the beginning of the twenty-first century remain at a loss to define with any clarity, let alone unity, what may be the best strategies for understanding the multiple phenomena that may be gathered under the aegis of an Islamic art and its history," and that of a representative anthropologist who expressed a problem especially vexatious to his tribe: "The main challenge for the study of Islam is to describe how its universalistic or abstract principles have been realized in various social and historical contexts without representing Islam as a seamless essence on the one hand or as a plastic congeries of beliefs and practices on the other." As another put it, "The problem for anthropologists is to find a framework in which to analyze the relationship between this single, global entity, Islam, and the multiple entities that are the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims in specific communities at specific moments in history ... to reconcile, analytically rather than theologically, the one universal Islam with the multiplicity of religious ideas and practices in the Muslim world." In sum: "Anyone working on the anthropology of Islam will be aware that there is considerable diversity in the beliefs and practices of Muslims. The first problem is therefore one of organizing this diversity in terms of an adequate concept."

That this challenge has, unfortunately, not yet been met successfully — which is to say that the existing conceptualizations and uses of "Islam/Islamic" do not express a coherent object of meaning (or an object of coherent meaning) — is readily reflected in the fact that analysts, be they historians, anthropologists, sociologists, or scholars of art or religion, are often frankly unsure of what they mean when they use the terms "Islam/Islamic" — or whether, indeed, they should use the terms at all. As Ira M. Lapidus, the author of a panoramic History of Islamic Societies, once said, "We write Islamic history but we cannot easily say what it is." More recently, Chase F. Robinson, the author of a state-of-the-art monograph, Islamic Historiography, lamented: "Surely I am not the only Islamic historian who, though recoiling at the use of 'essentializing' definitions, practices his craft without a clear understanding why the history made by Muslims is conventionally described in religious terms ('Islamic') while that of non-Muslims is described in political ones ('late Roman,' 'Byzantine,' 'Sasanian')." Robinson's solution is to issue the call "Let us abandon 'Islam' as a term of historical explanation" — a view, as we will see in Chapter 2 of this book, that is shared by analysts from different fields, and with which I disagree.

This lack of coherence between the term "Islam" and the putative object-phenomenon to which it refers is seen in the continuing inability of the scholarly discourse to provide answers about the relationship to "Islam" of a range of basic historical phenomena. In what follows, I will summarily lay out the nature and extent of the conceptual problem by presenting six straightforward questions (though many more could be adduced at length).

* * *

First, there is the hoary question raised repeatedly by scholars: "What is Islamic about Islamic philosophy?" In a classic study entitled, "The Islamic Philosophers' Conception of Islam," Michael Marmura asked: "In what sense are we using the term 'Islamic' when referring to them? ... the need for clarification becomes particularly pressing." Some thirty years later, in his introduction to an Encyclopaedia of Islamic Philosophy, Oliver Leaman noted that "The obvious question ... is why are the thinkers who are discussed here classified under the description of Islamic philosophy? Some of these thinkers are not Muslim, and some of them are not philosophers in a straightforward sense. What is Islamic philosophy?" Marmura answered the question "in two senses": "'Islamic' refers normally to those philosophers who professed themselves adherents of Islam, the religion," and "in a general cultural (and chronological) sense" also for non-Muslim philosophers, "indicating that they belong to the civilization characterized as 'Islamic.'" A recent authoritative volume, however, answers the question by deeming it "sensible to call the tradition 'Arabic' and not 'Islamic' philosophy" (and thus calls itself The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy rather than to Islamic Philosophy) for which nomenclature two reasons are offered: "First, many of those involved were in fact Christians or Jews ... second, many philosophers of the formative period ... were interested primarily in coming to grips with the texts made available in the translation movement, rather than with putting forward a properly 'Islamic' philosophy." The widespread recognition of the problem is summed up in the chapter title of a recent work by Rémi Brague: "Just How Is Islamic Philosophy Islamic?"

The fulcral nature of the dilemma is readily evident in the question of whether, for example, it makes sense to call the philosopher, Ibn Sina/Avicenna (d. 1037) — undisputedly one of the most seminal sources of foundational and orientational ideas for the civilization and history we call Islamic — an "Islamic" philosopher, when his Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic rationalism led him to the fundamental idea that there is a superior Divine Truth that is accessible only to the particularity of superior human intellects, and a lesser version of that Truth that communicates itself via Prophets, such as Muhammad, and is prescribed by them to the commonality of lesser human intellects, and that, as a logical consequence, the text of the Qur'an with its specific prescriptions and proscriptions is not a literal or direct expression of Divine Truth, but only what we might call a "Lowest Common Denominator" translation of that Truth into inferior figures of speech for the (limited) edification of the ignorant majority of humankind. As Ibn Sina said in a famous passage on the Real-Truth about God and existence:

As for Divinely-Prescribed Law [al-shara'], one general principle is to be admitted, which is that the Prescribed Law and doctrines [al-milal] that are brought forth upon the tongue of a Prophet are aimed at addressing the masses as a whole. Now, it is obvious that the Realization-of-Truth [al-tahqiq] ... cannot be communicated to the multitude ... Upon my life, if God the Exalted did charge a Messenger that he should communicate the Real-Truths [al-haqa'iq] of these matters to the masses with their dull natures and with their perceptions tied down to pure sensibles, and then constrained him to pursue relentlessly and successfully the task of bringing faith and salvation to the multitude ... then He has certainly laid upon him a duty incapable of fulfillment by any man! ... Prescribed Laws [al-shara'i'] are intended to address the multitude in terms intelligible to them, seeking to bring home to them what transcends their intelligence by means of simile and symbol. Otherwise, Prescribed Laws would be of no use whatever ... How can, then, the external form of Prescribed Law [ahir al-shara'] be adduced as an argument in these matters?

Ibn Sina (and just about all the philosophers with him) arrived hence at the "higher-truth" conclusions that the world is eternal, that God does not know the particulars of what we do and say, that there will be no bodily resurrection on a Day of Divine Judgement, that there is no Paradise or Hellfire, and that the specific prescriptions and proscriptions of Revealed law are not intrinsically true, but only instrumentally so (meaning that they are not necessarily any truer or more valid than other forms of truth).

These views of the nature of Divine Truth are in direct contradiction of the letter of the graphically and painfully reiterated theology and eschatology of the Qur'an that is taken as constitutive of general Muslim creed, and were, as such, famously condemned as definitive Unbelief/Denial of Divine Truth (kufr) by the great "Proof of Islam" (Hujjat al-Islam) Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), in his landmark work The Refutation of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-falasifah) — a denunciation which, Michael Marmura notes, "was not uttered for sheer rhetorical effect" but "was an explicit charge made in terms of Islamic law."

Are these definitive philosophical ideas Islamic or un-Islamic? Ibn Sina, who spoke of "the true shari'ah [al-shariah al-haqqah] which was brought to us by our Prophet, our lord, and our master, Muhammad — God's prayer be upon him and his family," himself clearly thought of the truths at which he arrived by philosophical-rational means as being true to Islam, and, in answer to those who thought otherwise, proclaimed of himself:

It is not so easy and trifling to call me an Unbeliever;
No faith is better founded than my faith.
I am singular in my age; and if I am an Unbeliever —
In that case, there is no single Muslim anywhere!

Robert Hall is thus quite correct when he says that the Muslim philosophers put forward philosophy as "the version of the Muslim faith that is best for the intellectually gifted believer."

The relationship of philosophy to "Islam" is further complicated by the fact that Avicennan philosophy constituted — and was acknowledged by Muslims as constituting — the basis of post-Avicennan Islamic scholastic theology ('ilm al-kalam). At the same time that some of Avicenna's most crucial philosophical conclusions were denounced by the practioners of Islamic theology, the philosophical method that led him to these conclusions was incorporated into the standard textbooks of scholastic theology that were taught in madrasahs down to the twentieth century. Thus, in the thirteenth century (seventh century of Islam), the great North African intellectual, Ibn Khaldun (d. 1405), complained in his Introduction to History (al-Muqaddimah):

The problems of theology have been confused with those of philosophy. This has gone so far that the one discipline is no longer distinguishable from the other.

Ibn Khaldun's statement (and we should remember that he was a hostile witness to philosophy) confounds, several centuries in advance, what that most erudite historian of the natural sciences and philosophy in Islam, A. I. Sabra, has criticized as the "widely-held" but "downright false" "marginality thesis" put forward by modern students of Islamic philosophy, namely, the notion

that scientific and philosophical activity in medieval Islam had no significant impact on the social, economic, educational and religious institutions ... that those who kept the Greek legacy alive in Islamic lands constituted a small group of scholars who had little to do with the spiritual life of Muslims, who made no important contribution to the main currents of Islamic intellectual life, and whose work and interests were marginal to the central concerns of Islamic society.


Excerpted from What Is Islam? by Shahab Ahmed. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Shahab Ahmed (1966-2015) was postdoctoral associate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University.

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