- What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic by Shahab Ahmed
One rarely reads as exciting a book as Shahab Ahmed's What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Written as a manifesto against "restrictivist" and "legal-supremacist" renderings of Islam, such as the Wahhabi-Salafi one, What is Islam? undertakes a much needed but difficult task of conceptualizing Islam in its incoherent trajectory in the early modern period, that is between 1350 and 1800 in what Ahmed calls the "Balkans-to-Bengal complex," an area which comprises the Balkans (under the Ottoman rule), the Middle East, Central Asia, India, Bangladesh, and related predominantly Muslim areas. In nothing less than a brilliant attempt based on an impressive bibliography spanning nearly fifty pages (pp. 547–91) in more than ten languages, Ahmed delivers a new language and a toolkit to define inconsistencies and contradictions in the history of Islamic societies in its post-formative stage.
At the beginning of his book, Ahmed opens his arguments by exploring six questions that historically puzzled Muslims and their definitions of Islam: What exactly is Islamic about Islamic philosophy, love poetry (especially of Hafiz), figure painting and art, Sufism, philosophy of illumination, and wine-drinking? Ahmed argues, all schools of law forbid Muslims from drinking alcohol. However, there exists a long tradition of drinking in Muslim societies, which not only allows but also valorizes this formally "forbidden" act. Similarly, Islamic philosophers argue that in principle reason is superior to the text of the Revelation, and Sufis suggest that there exists an experiential truth about God and the universe, which is knowable by an individual independently from the Revelation and prescriptions of it. These ideas, Ahmed argues, were not at the margins of the Islamic intellectual universe, on the contrary, they were internalized and transmitted by generations of Muslims in the early modern period especially within the Balkans-to-Bengal complex.
Previous attempts to define these internal inconsistencies within Islam, Ahmed argues, failed to define Islam coherently. Some defined Islam as a religion, some as a culture, and others as civilization. Still others argue that there is no Islam to be known, but rather many "Islams" and that Islam is whatever Muslims say it is. The favorite definition among Muslims, on the other hand, has been to define Islam as law. Ahmed demonstrates one by one why these definitions all fall short of providing an accurate conceptualization of Islam, including the most famous of those, Hodgson's Islamic and Islamicate differentiation. He argues that Hodgson, due to his Quaker background, saw Islam as personal piety and everything else as Islamicate, thus reducing Islam to an almost Salafi understanding of devotion void of culture. The term religion, [End Page 198] on the other hand, he posits, is inadequate and misleading to conceptualize Islam because not only did a term like religion not exist in Arabic, but also the term carries heavy post-Enlightenment European baggage imbued with the conceptualization of Christianity. A select group of Muslims, at the other end of the scale, define Islam with reference to the law and what they deem as orthodoxy, almost as a "cult of regulation, restriction, and control" (p. 120). Ahmed argues that Islam should be understood as a historical and human phenomenon, not as a prescriptive and proscriptive compound and that it should be conceptualized as a process; "a process of human discursive and social activity. . . characterized by a multiplicity of voices" (p. 297). The Balkans-to-Bengal complex provides him with such an opportunity to describe Islam in its "expansive, capacious, and contradictory" forms in its "post-formative stage." In his conceptualization, the law is just part of what Islam is, and not Islam itself: The bulk of "normative discursive tradition of Muslims is non-prescriptive and non-orthodoxizing—instead, it is explorative of multiplicity of truths and values" (p. 286).
Ahmed's solution to the question of "how to conceptualize Islam as a unity in light of diversity" is coming to terms with Islam, as it is lived and...