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  • Mohammed H. Fadel

The Priority of the Political: Politics Determines the Possibilities of Islam

Mohammad H. Fadel on Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?

Chapter 2 of “What is Islam?” is primarily a deconstructive project in which Ahmed criticizes two common approaches to the question of defining Islam. The first is the common normative claim that Islamic law (as manifested in the doctrinal works of the schools of law) constitutes either the essence of Islam, or the central normative manifestation of Islam. The second is a reaction to the first, which it accuses of indulging in an ahistorical essentialization of Islam, and in response claims that “Islam” is an empty category lacking any universally identifiable content. Accordingly, scholars must replace the universal (but false) category of “Islam,” with an indefinite number of empirical “islams” in order to accommodate Islam’s historical reality.

Ahmed points out that both views are ahistorical. The first ignores that many historical Muslim societies not only failed to adhere to certain norms of Islamic law, but also that they did so without either denying their adherence to Islam as a normative system, or experiencing a profound sense of guilt for that failure; rather, they seemed to have some kind of normative theory (even if only implicit) by which they understood their actions to be “Islamic” despite their awareness that their conduct was not consistent with the demands of Islamic law. The valorization of wine-drinking in many Muslim societies within “the Balkans-to-Bengal complex,” despite its strict prohibition, is just one of several examples of historical practices that Ahmed cites that were constitutive of historical Muslim normativity, yet contradicted express norms of Islamic law. Ahmed argues that the tension between the demands of the law and theology, on the one hand, and other sources of normativity in historically Muslim society, on the other, exemplifies the paradoxical nature of the historical reality of being “Islamic.” The claim that Islamic law is the essential feature of being Muslim, therefore, obfuscates this reality. The second claim is also ahistorical insofar as it also an undeniable fact that empirical Muslims, the sort that anti-essentialists tell us should be the focus of our scholarly attention, understand Islam as something universal and which is common to all Muslims. Any answer to the question of “What is Islam?”, therefore, requires the scholar to confront both features of historical Islam: the paradoxes of multiple and at times contradictory Muslim normativities, combined with an undeniable claim to unity.

Ahmed is also critical of the attempt of Marshall Hodgson, the great historian of Islam, to answer this question by distinguishing “Islam” from the merely “Islamicate.” Ahmed criticizes this approach for depending on the tenuous categories of religion and culture and because it inherently privileges the legal and theological as the locus of the “Islamic” at the expense of the other manifestations of Muslim civilization. But, Ahmed argues, Muslims of the Balkans-to-the-Bengal complex understood these “cultural” manifestations, such as art and poetry, to be constitutive of what it meant to be “Islamic,” and so Hodgson makes a grave error when he treats such phenomena as though they were merely an aesthetic superstructure that sat uncomfortably on top of a “religious” core. Ahmed concludes that the only resolution to these dilemmas is to embrace these contradictions as the essential feature of what it means to be Islamic when Islam is understood as historically human phenomenon.

In evaluating his argument, I must make clear that I disclaim any ambition to answer a question as ambitious as Ahmed’s, nor would I ever claim, despite being a specialist in Islamic law, that nothing I have written has ever attempted to provide an answer to the question of “What is Islam?” Given the bewildering diversity of views preserved in the “orthodox” legal tradition, finding one “answer” to even fundamental normative questions is usually impossible. What I find attractive in studying Islamic law, however, is that legal scholars not only acknowledged normative difference, but also that they attempted to diagnose, systematically, the underlying causes of those disagreements such that we, as observers, are better positioned to evaluate the arguments of everyone participating in the debate. It is that motive – the desire to understand the point of view of the other – that led authors such as al-Ashʿarī to compose works such as The Professions of the Islamic People and the Disagreements among Those Who Perform the Prayer.

Indeed, it is not insignificant that Ahmed chose to include, in the epigraph to the first chapter of “What is Islam?,” a quote from this important doctrinal work of an arch-representative of historical orthodoxy. Ahmed translated the relevant passage as follows:

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.

It is certainly uncharitable for a review to disagree with an author’s translation, but I believe in this case my difference with Ahmed is of some interpretive significance. He rendered Ashʿarī’s phrase ḍallala baʿḍuhum baʿḍan as “some of them lead others astray.”* I would rather read this phrase as “they declared one another to be astray.” This difference in reading, although subtle, is important because it draws our attention to an important feature of the construction of pre-modern Islamic orthodoxy: rather than orthodoxy being an objective fact, orthodoxy was constructed through a dialogic conversation among the “Islamic people” through a systematic exploration of their different “professions (maqālāt).” This dialogue entailed testing those professions against all available data, including revealed, sensory and rational. Islam encompassed all these different peoples together, despite their differences, because they apparently shared a commitment to profess a true conception of Islam, even if they could not agree as to what that was. Because the desideratum of their debates was truth, they “declared” their opponents to be astray.

Despite the belief that their opponents were in error, however, they also maintained the belief that they were still part of the Islamic people, and that therefore, Islam continued to encompass them. The resolution of this tension, in my opinion, lies in Ashʿarī’s particular theology, which includes basic premises about the nature of God, sin, revelation, law, membership in the community and the state. These are “constitutional” questions in the sense that they literally constitute what it means to be Islamic by establishing the boundaries of Islam from non-Islam. To be Islamic from this perspective is to be willing to participate in this dialogue. Conversely, to be outside of Islam is to withdraw from this conversation or refuse to participate in it in the first place.

From the perspective of someone like al-Ashʿarī, law is central to “being Islamic” because it makes possible a universal conception of an Islamic people whose shared goal is to live in a community whose shared goal is to live a life pleasing to God mediated through the revelation to the Prophet Muḥammad. Obviously, space limitations preclude a full treatment of the diverse theologies that Muslims historically produced, and their relevance to conceptualizing an answer(s) to the question “What is Islam?”, but it ought to be clear that the six normative questions that Ahmed identifies as structuring his challenge to the normative place of orthodox “religion” or “law” as the defining feature of Islam are in a very important sense dependent on the existence of the very orthodoxy whose outlines Ashʿarī was instrumental in establishing. Both wine-drinking as an alternative Islamic ethic, and the antinomianism of philosopher-mystics depended on a synthetic view of revelation; neither ethic was, as Ahmed points out, a commitment to licentiousness, and was thus “Islamic” in a way that the wine and erotic poetry of the famous ʿAbbāsid-era poet Abū Nuwās was not.** But they would not have been able to establish themselves as an alternative “Islamic” orthodoxy unless they had also granted that the orthodoxy of the theologians and the jurists was a universal, albeit inferior, truth to that which they possessed and professed.

It is inevitable that theology, insofar as its premises answer fundamental questions regarding God, salvation, law, membership in the community, and the nature of the state, will enjoy, or ought to enjoy, a priority in structuring any inquiry into the question of “What is Islam?” If there are different “Islams,” it is only because different Muslims advocate different theologies with more or less radically different political possibilities. These different theologies “constitute” the domain in which “being Islamic” becomes possible. Al-Ghazālī affirms the priority of the political in his discussion of the Imāmate in his work theological work, al-Iqtiṣād fī’l-Iʿitqād, and the pre-eminent place of the political in constituting the possibility of being Islamic explains why Sunnīs included the topic in their theological works even though they did not consider it a proper matter of theological dogma.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that the phenomenon Ahmed used to formulate his six questions derive largely from the period that postdates the Mongol invasion of the eastern Islamic lands. These invasions not only destroyed the material institutions of the caliphate, but also its ideological symbols and representatives, who fled in large numbers to the Arab world. In the wake of these invasions, the center of Sunnī orthodoxy moved from the Persian-speaking world to the Arab Middle East. The Mongol invasions also brought about a radical disruption in the theological underpinnings of the state in the Persian speaking Islamic world by wedding pre-Islamic conceptions of divine kingship with sufi-philosophical ideals of the quest for personal perfection. It is not clear that the six questions he poses have the same historical importance in the public expressions of Islam in regions untouched by the Mongols, such as the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa.

One might ask, however, must it be the case that Muslims take theological stances? Isn’t that the very problem? I think that Ahmed and I are in agreement that “Islam” only means something because it is an attempt by persons calling themselves “Muslim” both to formulate and live a conception of life pleasing to God that is in one way or another mediated through the revelation given to the Prophet Muḥammad. The common “Islamic” commitment to living a good life is why Islamic philosophy was dedicated to a certain mode of living and was not simply an intellectual exercise. A commitment to living a good life inevitably requires taking certain theological stands, be they deistic, theistic, or atheistic, monotheistic or polytheistic, taking a position with respect to the possibility or impossibility of divine law, and so on and so forth. While it is possible, and almost certainly preferable from a political perspective to defer theological questions, it is impossible to banish them entirely. Our answers to these questions, moreover, will not lack for political consequence. Given the unsettled state of politics in the Muslim world, we shouldn’t be surprised that fundamental questions of political theology that are deferred in normal circumstances, come to the fore and become objections of deep contestation and conflict in exceptional circumstances, such as those facing the Muslim world today.

While it is not readily apparent in Chapter 2 of “What is Islam”, it is clear that Ahmed wished to excavate alternative modes of being Islamic that are not logocentric because of his opposition to modern trends in the Islamic world which, in his opinion, make Islamic law the exclusive criterion by which to judge whether a person is authentically “being” Islamic. If I am correct in surmising the normative basis of his project, I think it is mistaken insofar as it confuses the place of law and politics as a universally required enabling condition for the existence of distinctive human civilizations, and the content of that law. Accordingly, the modern Muslim focus on law is unsurprising, nor should it be surprising that they have sharp disagreements on what the positive contents of Islamic law ought to be in the modern world. This prioritization of law cannot be dismissed as simply ignorance of a richer Muslim past and a mistaken attempt at reducing what it means to be a Muslim to adhering to Islamic law.

If the historical modes of being Islamic are intimately connected with certain theologies, many of which were fundamentally incompatible, modern Muslims, if they are “to be Islamic” and “to be modern” require a theology that is Islamic and democratic. Given this historical reality, it would be shocking if modern Muslims did not gravitate toward a theology that made law central to what it means to be Muslim. Democratic modernity, whatever else it means, reflects an egalitarian ethos, and a theology that places an egalitarian system of law at its center is much more consistent with the modern democratic age than theologies that justified the alternative normative Islams which Ahmed identified. These alternative Islams are simply too hierarchical in structure to form a democratic basis for being Islamic.

Under the conditions of modernity, it seems, the only sustainable way to be Islamic on a communal scale is to provide for the simultaneous possibilities of being a Muslim and a democratic citizen. This is essentially a constitutional project that is still in the works. Such a project could fail, and if it does, a radically new concept of “being Islamic” would be required, presumably one that would be wholly private, perhaps along the line of Ibn Bāja’s Tadbīr al-Mutawaḥḥid (The Government of the Solitary Individual), which would dispense with any conception of a good life as being constituted in part by participation in a Muslim (or any other human) community. In short, it would require complete transcendence of Ashʿarī’s conception of the Islamic peoples as consisting of people who engage one another, dialogically, in an effort to elaborate the content of a life pleasing to God, simultaneously critical of one another and embracing each other. If, on the other hand, the constitutional project of creating a Muslim democratic space is achieved, it would then become conceivable to imagine alternative normative modes of being Muslim, just as the orthodox order underwritten by the caliphate enabled the rise of these other modes of being Islamic.

The untimely death of Shahab Ahmed in September 2015 has brought forth an outpouring of grief and sorrow, not only among his personal friends, but also among the wider community of Islamic Studies scholars, where his erudition, creativity, and iconoclasm will be sorely missed. I unfortunately only had the pleasure of meeting Ahmed once, when he was still a graduate student, and I had just completed my Ph.D., at the 1995 annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association. We were both placed on a panel with the ambitious sounding title of “Initiatives and Reformulations in the Construction of Islamic Law and Theology.” It was there, I believe, where he first presented his work on the Satanic Verses, a topic (one among many others) that he would pursue relentlessly for the next two decades. Shortly after I met Ahmed, however, I withdrew from the formal field of Islamic Studies to pursue the study and practice of law, a task which monopolized my time for the greater part of the next decade.

Even so, I occasionally spoke with colleagues and friends in Islamic Studies, and from time to time they would mention his name, usually in connection with the observation that his reticence to publish was threatening what ought to have been a brilliant academic career. Many of us who had encountered him personally, including myself, recognized his brilliance, and eagerly anticipated the publication of his work. I did not know, of course, that his ambitions had gone beyond the question of the Satanic Verses and the formation of Muslim orthodoxy to include an attempt to provide a synthetic account of the entirety of Muslim civilization. The fruit of that effort is the recently published “What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic.” It also appears that Ahmed had also completed at least two other manuscripts which will be published posthumously, one on the Satanic Verses and another on Islam in the Ottoman Empire. It is tragic that we will not be able to engage him directly and instead, that we are left with nothing but his oeuvre, in front of which we stand only as mere interpreters, much as the Arab poet said:

Tilka āthārunā tadullu ʿalaynā fa’nẓurū baʿdanā ilā al-āthāri These, our tracings, point to us; when we are gone, look to these tracings.”

I have been asked to comment on Chapter 2 of his “What is Islam?” I suspect that I was chosen for this honor not only because my subfield within Islamic Studies is Islamic law, but also because Ahmed mentioned my work (along with numerous other specialists in Islamic law) as indicative of the erroneous, in his opinion, privileging of Islamic law as the defining feature of Islam. It is perhaps in this regard that I felt the greatest anguish at Ahmed’s death: I had no idea he had any interest whatsoever in Islamic law, and what could have been a fruitful exchange between us, had now become impossible. I write my evaluation of his argument in Chapter 2 with the deep regret that we never had a chance to discuss his ideas directly.


* Indeed, it seems that the Form II used by Ashʿarī was itself a theological neologism, as evidenced by the ubiquitous use of the Form IV – aḍalla – but not the Form II in early Arabic literature. The Quran uses the Form IV to mean “to cause another to go astray,” and pre-Islamic and early Islamic texts also attest to the use of the Form IV with the meaning “to cause another to go astray.” Form II of the verb, however, does not receive an independent mention in the classical Arabic dictionary, Lisān al-ʿArab (“The Arabic Tongue”), while use of Forms I and IV are extensively documented in that source. The late medieval dictionary, Tāj al-ʿArūs, however, cites as a secondary meaning of the Form II “to attribute error to someone (nasabahu ilayhī [al-ḍalāl]).” The modern Arabic dictionary, al-Muʿjam al-Wasīṭ also mentions that the secondary meaning of the Form II is “to attribute error to someone (nasabahu ilā al-ḍalāl).”

** Indeed, the literary tradition itself refers to Abū Nuwās as a poet of debauchery (mujūn), an appellation that was never attached to poets such as Ḥāfiẓ which, in Ahmed’s view, articulated this alternative Islamic ethic.


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