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  • Tehseen Thaver

Three More Questions about What is Islam?

Tehseen Thaver on Shahab Ahmed's What is Islam?

The first chapter of Shahab Ahmed’s magnum opus What is Islam? titled “Six Questions about Islam” sets the stage for achieving the book’s underlying purpose: disturbing commonly held popular and scholarly understandings of what gets counted as Islamic. Ahmed’s central contention in this chapter is that the valorization of prescriptive legal discourses as most properly Islamic has seriously distorted our conception of Islam as an intellectual and lived tradition. This initial chapter represents a sustained and extensive argument for resuscitating what one might call an Islamic Humanities that in Ahmed’s view is too often marginalized as either “culture,” or as less than adequately Islamic. In its broadest sense then, this chapter, much like this book, represents a painstaking exercise in subverting commonly held assumptions regarding what does and does not count as Islam/Islamic.

Ahmed presents a lengthy meditation on his profound dissatisfaction with current conceptualizations of Islam in multiple disciplinary fields. The object of his protest is best captured in his own words: “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.” According to Ahmed, the difficulty confronted by scholars in pinpointing what Islam/Islamic is, is symptomatic of a deeper problem. Current conceptualizations, he argues, fail to account for the variety of hermeneutical registers that cohere within the Islamic tradition and through which Muslims have sought to make meaning, produce values, and establish norms. But why is this so? In Ahmed’s view, the failure to adequately conceptualize Islam as an analytic category and historical phenomenon emerges from the pervasive assumption that prescribed law –a single hermeneutical trajectory within the tradition –represents the only determining source for what counts as Islam.

This assumption, he insists, has blinded us to a host of possibilities and questions surrounding the question of What is Islam? In a definite sense, the objective of this chapter is to attune, reorient, and ultimately condition the reader to recognize and eventually embrace a host of alternative possibilities regarding what is Islamic. Ahmed organizes his project to establish the Islamicity of a number of traditions, discourses, and practices often left out or sidelined in most conceptualizations of Islam by presenting six case studies. To each of these case studies, he poses and then proceeds to answer the same underlying question: Is this Islamic? At the risk of some reduction, these six exemplary questions are: what is Islamic about Islamic philosophy? When Sufis claim to have transcended the strictures of law, is that Islamic? Are Suhrawardi’s (d. 1191) philosophy of illumination and Ibn ‘Arabi’s (d. 1240) concept of Unity of Existence (wahdat al-wujud) Islamic? What is Islamic about Islamic art? Is the divan of Hafiz (d. 1390) and the ethos it epitomizes Islamic? And finally, is the consumption of wine Islamic?

The bulk of this chapter is devoted to rehabilitating each of these discursive fields and practices as incontrovertibly Islamic. Ahmed’s twin arguments are: first, these traditions and practices were not marginal to Islam and Muslim societies; to the exact contrary, they were at the center of the most powerful and influential intellectual and political circles in most medieval and early modern Muslim societies. And second, the relegation of art and literature to the realm of culture as opposed to religion is conceptually and historically untenable. This is because such relegation, Ahmed argues, bequeaths the mantle of authenticity to a rather reified notion of religion that undermines the complex prophetic and mystical motifs animating varied manifestations of Islamic artistic and literary artifacts. Ahmed’s employs a two-fold strategy in assembling these foundational arguments: 1) mobilizing overwhelming textual evidence from an impressive array of people, sources, and places; and 2) suggesting a hermeneutical frame through which one may wrestle with the ambiguities and contradictions that such evidence presents when contrasted with prescriptive normative rulings in sources such as the Qur’an. I will discuss the second strategy, as it is here that the most profitable aspects of this chapter can be distilled.

One must emphasize that Ahmed’s project is not limited to pushing forward the demand for making the category “Islam” more inclusive and expansive. More than that, crucial to his project of re-conceptualizing Islam is the call to account for, make space for, and give due analytical attention to what he argues is the most identifiable aspect about the multiple hermeneutical registers that cohabit the role of meaning-making in Islam, namely, the outright contradictory relationship that they have to each other. This contradictory relationship has produced, argues Ahmed, contrary values and norms for defining what counts as Islamic. And this contradictoriness is not just a part of the tradition. Rather, it represents the constitutive feature that dominates Muslim societies from the years 1350-1850 in the expansive geographical mass he terms the “Balkan-to-Bengal complex,” defined as “the vast region extending from the Balkans through Anatolia, Iran and Central Asia down and across Afghanistan and North India to the Bay of Bengal.”

Through his six exemplary questions, Ahmed presents the reader with concrete instances where textual and material artifacts from within the Muslim tradition lay claim to knowledge of a register of Divine Truth that contradict the established truths of the Qur’an, Hadith, and the legal canon. As he puts it, “in relation to Islam, we are actually talking not so much about conceptualizing unity in the face of diversity, but rather about conceptualizing unity in the face of outright contradiction.” For instance, such outright contradictions can be seen in the apparent disconnect between the explicit hostility towards figural representations in Islamic law and the celebration of such representations as normative truth in a variety of Muslim settings. Another striking example of such contradiction between scriptural prohibition and substantive affirmation is evident in the case of wine drinking. For all the legal forbiddance of intoxicants, the consumption of wine was central to the intellectual and social lives of such prominent Muslim thinkers as the preeminent philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna; d.1037). Moreover, expositions on manners of wine drinking are found in such major textual sources as the ethics literature of the famous medieval ethicist/philosopher Nasir-ud-Din Tusi (d. 1274). Most crucial here, Ahmed argues, is that the consumption of wine was not just a symbolic or metaphorical trope in Islamic texts. It was an actualized and positively valued norm. It was positively valued as Islamic, thus wine drinking is Islamic—this is the provocative outcome of his argument.

Whether one accepts this or not, it is certainly the case that bringing the problem of contradiction into sharp focus represents one of the central conceptual interventions and contributions of this chapter. It is as if Ahmed has sought to shock readers, to jolt them away from the uncritical acceptance of tired notions of what is and is not properly Islamic. He keenly observes that while we seem comfortable in associating the father of Wahhabi ideology, Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab (d.1792) with Islam, we remain hesitant to place a wine-poem by Hafiz in the same category. Ahmed’s attempt at rattling conventional understandings of the Islamic through an explicit appeal to contradiction as an underlying conceptual principle is a singularly original and potentially rewarding feature of this chapter.

Another such feature is his presentation and theorization of a crucial concept that in many ways binds this chapter together, what he calls the “philosophical-Sufi amalgam.” In Ahmed’s formulation, the “philosophical-Sufi amalgam” refers to an epistemological approach grounded in the Akbarian (of Muhyi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi) and Suhrawardian thought-paradigms, namely Unity of Existence and Philosophy of Illumination, which are in turn cross-inflections of Avicennan philosophy and of Sufism. Ahmed draws our attention to the fact that both are grounded in a hierarchical vision of the cosmos and thus in a hierarchical vision of humankind. Moreover, both these knowledge systems blur the boundary between Divine transcendence and Divine immanence and thereby flirt incorrigibly with pantheism and relativism. Here, Ahmed re-asks the question, can this be Islamic? In response to his own question, Ahmed asserts that not only is it Islamic but that during the years 1350-1850 in the Balkan to Bengal complex, the philosophical-Sufi thought-paradigm was the dominant epistemological framework that shaped Islam. To do so, he combs through and presents an extraordinary number of documentary evidence in multiple languages and genres, drawn from varied times and places, ranging from Rumi’s Masnavi to Punjabi Qawwalis and Kafis. Through this operation he establishes a central argument of this chapter: the question of what is Islam must be re-conceptualized in a manner not only attentive to the centrality of contradictory truth claims, but also to the foundational and infrastructural influence of the philosophic-Sufi amalgam to Islam and Muslims.

Ahmed’s analysis of the six questions he raises about Islam generate some further questions and tensions that I wish to briefly touch on in the remainder of my comments. First is the question of canon. At the heart of Ahmed’s project is the effort to disrupt and bring into question an extant canon of Islamic norms that seems to privilege prescriptive legal discourses over other intellectual traditions such as those encompassed by the “Sufi-Philosophical amalgam.” But is Ahmed not replacing one canon, that of legal norms, with another canon, one embedded in love, literature, art, and poetry? A sustained critique of the very notion of canonicity seems less developed in Ahmed’s analysis. The desire to establish an alternative canon suffuses the text of the first chapter. Notice as an example the following statement, “this common paradigm of the Balkans-to Bengal complex is readily manifest in and articulated through a critically overlapping discursive canon” (emphasis added). Such a desire for establishing a discursive canon is also evident in the way Ahmed approaches the category of influence.

While such a principle is not explicitly stated, it seems that for a text or discursive artifact to gain entry into the Balkans-to-Bengal canon, it has to prove the weight of its influence across time and space. It is not a coincidence that phrases such as the “most influential book,” “the most widely copied,” “the most read,” recur throughout this chapter while referring to texts such as Hafiz’s Divan, Ibn Sina’s Shifa’ and Qanun and Tusi’s Akhlaq-i Nasiri. The issue here is not whether these texts are indeed influential or not. They certainly are. Nor is it whether they are as influential as Ahmed makes them out to be. Rather, the question I wish to raise here has to do with the conceptual implications and analytical value of the very exercise of establishing influence through such yardsticks as volume of reading, circulation, copying etc. as a way to formulate and establish a distinct discursive canon. The desire to decide on a canon persists, and in so doing, the question of what a notion of Islamic normativity might constitute, in the absence of a canon, remains unanswered.

Second, in detailing an alternate way of conceptualizing Islam, the prevailing view of the Islamic – the prescriptive legal tradition – is left somewhat reified, uniform, and unaddressed. It is almost as if in establishing the centrality of the “Sufi-Philosophical amalgam,” that which was to be de-centered, the legal tradition, becomes invisible. More specifically, the set of questions I would like to raise here include: what was the relationship between the Sufi-philosophical amalgam and the legal tradition? Did the latter occupy a parallel discursive space that was largely unaffected by the former? If not, then what was the nature and scope of their encounter?

Third is the question of love. One of Ahmed’s signature arguments in this chapter has to do with the significance of love as a primary normative principle and value in Islam, best exemplified in the works of scholars associated with the “Love School” or madhhab-i ‘ishq. While Ahmed acknowledges that all practitioners of madhhab-i ‘ishq were associated with a legal school (madhhab), he does nonetheless seem to posit an apparent bifurcation between the love school and law school, with the claim to love primarily in favor of the former. As he puts it, “alongside these legal madhhabs, whose norms we might, by ingrained force of cognitive habit, be more readily inclined to call “religious” or “Islamic,” the Sufi-philosophical-aesthetical madhhab-i ‘ishq posited its own normative claims in society with Love as the primary principle and value.” But is love the sole prerogative of the madhhab-i ‘ishq? More specifically, what forms and notions of love operated in the legal tradition? For instance, in the context of training students in the methods and etiquette of engaging divine law, or in the pursuit of approximating God’s will and the Prophet’s practice while deriving new laws, or in the hope of guiding the religious lives of the masses through legal boundaries? Is it not possible to discern love in law? Or is the point that love is not a primary or positive value in the legal tradition? But then how does one determine “primary-ness”? For something to be positively valued, must it be explicitly stated, articulated, and presented as such? Is it possible for love to circulate in less explicit and undocumented forms?

I raise these questions to highlight a tension at the heart of this book. While seeking to pluralize and destabilize the question of what is Islam, paradoxically, Ahmed goes about doing so precisely by positing a definitive counter canon that forecloses the possibility of imagining a canon-less Islam. This paradox undercuts one of the central goals of this book. In many ways this book is an act of un-inheritance; it represents a manifesto for un-inheriting long running scholarly narratives and notions of the materials, canons, and histories that constitute Islam. However, as critical and urgent of an intervention this represents, it seems that Ahmed was unable to un-inherit the very desire for canonicity. Moreover, he remained captive to the empiricist presumption that canons are primarily instituted by establishing the ample documentation, circulation, and transmission of texts by great men.


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