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  • Sajjad Rizvi

Reconceptualization, Pre-Text, and Con-text

Sajjad Rizvi on Shahab Ahmed's What is Islam?

We use categories and concepts in order to communicate something to our peers, about our objects of inquiry and ideas, about the subtleties of argument and nuance, and about what within those ideas might be of interest to them. This communicative aspect of our language is predicated upon the possibility that there are concepts that are common across different cultural and temporal contexts and that a specialist in the study of Islam engaging with a colleague in the study of Buddhism may have a common lexicon that can be used to explain certain ideas and phenomena in terms that are familiar and relate to the experience of the latter. If we assume that ideas and phenomena are incommensurable between traditions then we engage in a dialogue that is non-communicative. On the other hand, similarly we need to be aware of the possibility that we arrive at such elastic conceptions of certain key concepts, such as religion, that for all intents and purposes, they become meaningless.

This is a clearly noticeable reality in the contemporary study of Islam in which the “disciplinary” category of intellectual history is becoming ubiquitous, used for the study of philosophical traditions, legal practices and theories, modes of theological argumentation, musical praxis and transmission, themes in the history of emotions, and even the behavioural aspects of what Muslims do in a diachronically analysis of a shrine or particular sacred space. How is the term “intellectual history” a meaningful way of capturing what is being done in each of these research contexts? If we narrow down and insist that intellectual history is shorthand for the study of the course of philosophy, then we can loosen the grip by invoking a more “expansive” sense of philosophy. Insofar as philosophy for the ancients was the ultimate science, that holistic pursuit of wisdom and indeed askesis of life, then we can place all manner of intellectual endeavour and analysis in the category of philosophy. For those of us animated by the study of philosophy in Islam, an expansive sense of what the term means is clearly efficacious since we will tend to insist that philosophy, properly speaking as a mode of inquiry and forms of argumentations inherited from the Greeks and then modified by Muslims, was not a marginal activity but one at the heart of learned and written culture in the world of Islam—pervading literature, the religious disciplines and hermeneutics, as well as many other aspects of the arts and rational pursuits. The focus nowadays on what is sometimes called the “post-classical” traditions of Islamic thought with an emphasis on philosophy and science after 1200 is recognition of the poverty of previous ways of examining the question of philosophy. Of course, does this mean that everything that is an activity of the mind and articulated constitutes philosophy?

This is precisely the sort of question that the late, and much regretted, Shahab Ahmed attempts to deconstruct and reconceptualise. Importantly, he does not replace one mode of conceiving of an Islamic “orthodoxy” or “orthopraxy” with another – if anything the text expresses a healthy disdain for the very notion of orthodoxy without making the term “Islamic” meaningless. How do existing expansive and constrictive conceptualisations of Islam in the academy help or hinder our understanding, and why should we be interested in the question? He broaches the question in three steps: first, by posing six questions that problematize what we might mean by Islam and what it is important to consider whether something is Islamic; second, by deconstructing three prominent ways of understanding Islam, a normative law, a religion like others with key comparable features, and Islam as culture, as a set of symbols whose meaning needs to be decoded and is found in many manifestations. This latter is precisely what Aziz al-Azmeh famously critiqued in his Islams and Modernities when he started with the famous opening line, “There are as many Islams as there are situations that sustain it,” a phrase which in its very parsing destroys its meaning – many readers have failed to note that al-Azmeh’s argument is a monistic one about the nature of Islam as he sees it and not a manifesto for more pluralistic readings. How does one avoid essentializing Islam as a set of ideas and practices rooted in a normative tradition of law?

There are two obvious problems with the questions that Ahmed poses. First, he assumes that these are somewhat timeless questions. Would premodern Muslims, and do all Muslims, Arabs, Africans, Europeans and others, ask such questions? Is not the interrogation, “Is x Islamic?”, a modern phenomenon that arises out of the process of what Eickelman and Piscatori famously called “objectification”? How does that question relate to other questions such as: “is it right,” “is it proper,” “is it ethical,” or “is it culturally authentic”? The second problem is that it focus on the Islamic and not the Islam – the question of what is Islam and what is Islamic are not the same. The former may be an attempt at the purely descriptive-analytical while that latter is far more prescriptive and judgemental – it entails finding warrant for thinking, but more likely behaving in a particular way. As such it is continuous with that other modern malaise of seeing the Qurʾan as a shibboleth to which one ought to genuflect in an unreflective and uncontextualized sense (ignoring what Ahmed rightly calls even the pre-text) in order to answer definitively what is authentically Islamic about drinking alcohol, or fasting 21 hours in the day, or women leading the prayer, or the punitive and administrative acts of Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

It is difficult not to agree with elements of Ahmed’s critique – the success of the marketing of the idea and of good leadership is to convince the other not only to adopt your ideas but also to think they were the ones would first insinuated them. The critiques of Islam as law, as religion, as culture are ones which many will agree with, as well as the specific critiques of Cantwell Smith and Talal Asad among others, not least given the growing hegemony of the latter’s notion of Islam as a discursive tradition. Ahmed proposes a conception of a human and historical phenomenon that decenters the Arab experience in favour of what he calls the ‘Balkans-to-Bengal’ complex in which the centrality of key Persian texts such as Rūmī’s Masnavī and Ḥāfiẓ’s Dīvān are as significant as the Arabic Qurʾan. Central to the reconceptualisation are the coherences and the contradictions of Islam as sets of interpretative practices. Are Ahmed’s concerns and questions purely that of the academic scholar, albeit one with a rather withering dismissal of the Orientalist nomocentrism of the law, of the symbolic cultural anthropologist’s approach and what nowadays is emerging as the critical Muslim studies or the Talal Asad school? How does one avoid Ahmed’s own reconceptualization becoming a new orthodoxy? Can it really provide us with coherent understanding of the different historical and cultural situations that sustain the categorical inquiry of the “Islamic”? How does one avoid lapsing into a consideration of Islam as a sui generis phenomenon in which all that we may wish to categorise as Islam should be identified and imagined purely in those terms and not others?

He addresses my questions towards the end of Chapter 6, where he lists ten points that clarify what he is not arguing. Ahmed is aware that Islam is comparable, and that there may well be other terms in which one can explain a particular phenomenon such as the ubiquity of the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ or the extraordinary success of Jāmī’s epic poem Yūsuf u Zulaykhā. He is also careful to warn that he is not advocating that whatever Muslim interprets and makes sense of Islam is Islamic or even privileging a premodern over a modern manifestation. Nor, again quite significantly, is he advocating a new orthodoxy or a new prescriptive set of discourses and hermeneutical engagements with text.

But most instructively, his own reconceptualization recognises its limitations – as he insists upon his focus upon the Balkans-to-Bengal complex, his understanding of Islam may well be only true of the interpretative practices within this complex and not beyond. And one can quibble with elements of it – I personally think the role of Suhrawardī is exaggerated within it. Furthermore, and he pre-empts the critique, the conceptualisation of Islam is rather elite and while I share his trickle-down approach or the sense that elements of the learned culture were widely shared, he does not provide much evidence for that (except perhaps Bullhe Shah and even then one wonders about the question of his subalternity). One also wonders how ‘Arab’ Islam would respond, or even other cultural and historical phenomena from South-East Asia, China and the developing modes of what constitutes Islam in North America and Europe (the new and the old).

Another objection concerns his other protest – his desire not to present a ‘soft’, pluralistic and sophisticated Islam of love and poetry and wine in contra-distinction to the Islam of Daesh one supposes. However, historians often fail to escape their present-mindedness. The battle for what constitutes Islam and how it is defined, controlled, and deployed is a critical one in which one cannot hold back nor feign innocence. If one studies the Sufi, the philosopher, the wine-poet or the millennial sovereign as historical phenomena, one is engaging, whether consciously or not, in that contemporary battle to define what is Islam. There is no refuge in history.

Islam as a historical phenomenon is defined for Ahmed as internal contradiction. To put it simply, the problem with the existing conceptualizations of Islam is that they are too neat, while human phenomena tend to be more messy. Islam in that sense is not simple; as we often say as academics it is complicated – or messy. Or as Ahmed puts it, it involves exploration, relativism and internal contradiction. The function of chapter 5 is to begin the reconceptualization by borrowing elements from Asad’s discursive tradition and Cantwell Smith’s cumulative tradition but taking them further and into greater depth. I cannot help but smile while reading this chapter as most elements speak to me. I could not conceive of any course on Islam and its culture which failed to present and mention the Qurʾan along with the Masnavī, the Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ, the poetic narratives of Joseph, the arguments of Avicenna, the jokes of the hadith tradition, the verse of the Indo-Persian poet Bēdil, and the Sufi concern or care for the self. Central is the notion of contradiction and how Muslims have lived with it, found revelation in the most expansive sense of the word, and engaged with the text of revelation not on its own orthographical level but bringing into the equation one’s own sense of revelation and the wider elements of what Ahmed describes in chapter 5 as the pre-text and the con-text.

The pre-text is not just all that has come before in a cumulative sense of what is made meaningful by the text (such as the commentaries and exegetical traditions of the text) but also all that the interpreter brings to that text in terms of his or her own training and the wider textual palate of what goes into informing the text ontologically and in terms of ‘truth’. The pre-text of the Qurʾan therefore is not just the idea of its heavenly exemplar and the rich exegetical traditions but also all that goes into giving the text the force of a truth-giving and meaning-rendering agency including the existential horizon of the self and the force of reason. Ahmed, rightly to my mind, links (albeit not so explicitly) this pre-text to the relationship between natural, revealed and rational theology as modes in which the hiddenness of God is made apparent and demands to be read. Thus the intellectual traditions in Islam often talk about the homologies between the books of the cosmos (macrocosm), of scripture, and of the human as intellecting being (microcosm) and the need for believers and interpreters to understand themselves and their relationship to God through a reading of these three books.

For Ahmed, con-text is not just the historical but the whole range of meanings and interpretations borne of the text and in that sense is more continuous with what we normally call “the intellectual context” or the interpretative communities of the text as well as the sources and authority of the text. It is therefore a synchronic and diachronic snapshot of the world of Islam at the time of the interpretation of the text, the entire architectonics of meaning. Therefore the main reconceptualization of Islam for Ahmed is the rather messy sets of contradictions that arise when we seek meaning making for the self in terms of hermeneutical engagement with the revelation of Islam in the light of their pre-texts, texts and their con-texts. One cannot avoid the sense of the influence of Ricoeur’s approach to reading and the emergence of the self and of Pocock’s version of the Cambridge school and its linguistic conventionalism.

Even within this mix, Ahmed still begs the question of what we mean by text – how expansive a concept is it? And if so, then once again it seems that the bounds of “what is Islam” begin to stretch into the rather elastic. How far removed from Asad’s discursive tradition is this really? And it remains equally elitist – which is fine if one is primarily a “textual” scholar. But what of the anthropologist – does the notion of the spatiality of the revelation help here? Ahmed does not provide any pointers, and despite his earlier insistence, again, a premodern bias is evident as there is little by way of modern analysis provided to resolve the problem. Ahmed does not necessarily provide solutions and his reconceptualization may not be well received. However, there is little doubt that his critiques force us to be far more self-reflective about what we are doing and to interrogate not just our texts but our hermeneutical practices with respect to the text and to our contexts. At the most basic level even if a reader takes away three key messages, they would be sufficient: Islam is more than the Arab articulation and practice, Islam is not simple but complicated and messy, and perhaps we should not be so prescriptive about what Islam is. I suspect the last is too sceptical a spin to put on his arguments but it’s one that I would be happier with not least because the conception of truth presented in the book is somewhat reflective of a naïve realism. But then an engagement with Ahmed’s conception of truth and method would require another article.


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