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  • Anna Bigelow

What is Islam? A Celebration and Defense of Contradiction Perplexity and Paradox

Anna Bigelow on Shahab Ahmed's What is Islam?

If Shahab Ahmed were still with us to defend the complex and sometimes overblown prose in his heartbreaking work of staggering genius, I doubt he would be bothered by the challenge the book presents to even the expert reader. Chapter Four of What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic gives us another piece of his richly prolix approach to the deceptively simple question he poses in his title. Like his favorite interlocutors – Ibn Sina, Yahya al-Din al-Suhrawardī, and Hāfiz – Ahmed is an adept and complex intellectual, establishing his authority to explore Islam through his mastery of multiple discourses, disciplines, and states of insight. What is Islam? is not for everybody, nor was it intended to be. But the book is essential reading for anyone in the field of Islamic Studies. Ahmed’s celebration of diverse thought, his challenge to the supremacy of prescriptive legalism, and gleeful upending of conventional narratives about Islam is a critical corrective at this historical juncture, and it is unfortunate that its effects on public understanding of Islam will likely be filtered through the writings of other academics due to the density of his prose and inside-baseball references. Still, Ahmed left us What is Islam? as a testament of his own virtuosity and as a bulwark against sloppy theorizing, facile classification, and selective historical interpretation. And I, for one, am grateful for it.

In Chapter 4, Ahmed continues his efforts to destabilize the comfortable tropes scholars use to avoid directly answering the question “What is Islam?” by challenging a constellation of concepts that arose themselves as challenges to previous definitions. “Culture, Meaning, Symbol System, Core and Nucleus, Whatever Muslims Say It Is, Discursive Tradition, Orthodoxy, Process” is – like his other chapter headings – an unwieldy title, but each conceptual unit speaks directly to the heart of a theoretical proposition that has held some sway in Islamic Studies in the last century. As in the other chapters, Ahmed takes on many of the luminaries in the field (here especially Clifford Geertz, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and Talal Asad) and shifts or undermines the premises of their arguments with examples that counter or exceed their models.

From Geertz, Ahmed takes forward the importance of understanding how “meaning” is made, but rejects symbol systems as the key to understanding culture and religion. Not only does Ahmed view Geertz’s theorization of how symbols actually work to be deficient, but also he derides Geertz’s tendency towards instinctive, free-associative interpretation from outside of the cultural frame, especially in Islam Observed (1968). The discussion of meaning, however, continues as Ahmed unpacks the methods by which various theorists attempt to determine and measure meaning and how it is produced, perpetuated, contradicted, and adapted by Muslims. Similarly, since Ahmed is intent upon defining the logic of contradiction and coherence constitutive of Islam, he is unsatisfied by the tendency of many scholars, such as Jacques Waardenburg, to focus on that which is universally shared by all Muslims as comprising the core of Islam. Instead Ahmed calls for us to be aware of the forceful presence of “a massive notion called ‘Islam’ that looms large in [every Muslim’s] consciousness and is present as a context of the Muslim’s life.” This massive notion has a structure, but one that is neither universal to all Muslims in space and time nor entirely self-determined.

Ahmed’s interest in the particularities of Muslim meaning-making leads him to critique one of the foundational scholars of religion – Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Smith defines Islam (and all religion) as a “cumulative tradition”, the collective work of generations of believers. However Ahmed critiques Smith’s focus on faith as the expression of that tradition since faith tends to be defined in terms that reflect the (Muslim or non-Muslim) analyst’s own views. The resulting “cumulative tradition” thus reflects an accretion of faith-based thought and action that fails to account for ideas, behaviors, institutions, or practices that are not considered “faith-based” or that exceed the theorist’s often unconscious definition of faith. That tradition often excludes or marginalizes the modalities of Islam emphasized here by Ahmed (philosophical rationalism, Sufi aesthetics and practices, etc) that fit neither the standard tropes of Islam nor the models based on other religious traditions.

However, we as theorists should not be seduced into accepting that Islam is simply whatever any Muslim anywhere in anytime claims that it is. Though it may be appealing to speak of “islams” in the plural rather than a singular Islam, the result will be that either each varying opinion on what Islam is becomes equally valid and equivalently relevant, or that ultimately the term Islam has no coherent meaning at all. As Ahmed puts it, “’whatever-Muslims-say-it-is’ may be a serviceable description, but it is an inadequate concept in that it simply does not help us to understand any better.” A further problem with this approach is that it leads to a search for the coherent, the universal, the normative, and the orthodox, thereby generating a center-periphery model and the privileging of certain types of orthodoxy as coherent and normative.

And so, as the alert reader will have expected for the preceding chapters, Ahmed finally squares up against the early twenty-first century’s most omnipresent social theorist, Talal Asad. Ahmed lauds the critical intervention made by Asad in forcing those studying religion to consider the role of power in forming the conceivable horizons of our collective understandings of the category of religion in general and Islam in particular. Yet he is not enamored of the exclusions involved in focusing on the role of religious authorities invested in generating particular orthodoxies. Ahmed is critical of Asad’s “discursive tradition” because, in his view, it privileges certain discourses and makers of discourse by empowering conceptual orthodoxies. In this vein of scholarship Muslims appear as “hopeless orthodoxizers whose individual subjectivity is constituted in the inability to recognize the validity of the individual subjectivity of other Muslims” (italics in original). But Ahmed overstates Asad’s discursive tradition construct by characterizing it as entirely orthodoxizing and prescriptive, as Asad does not deny the existence of multiple formations of Islam or multiple orthodoxies within it. Indeed, in a recent interview Asad expressed shock that he is viewed by some as a defender of orthodoxy.

Both some Muslims as well as some non-Muslims have claimed that I seek to describe the essence of ‘real’ Muslim experience, that I imply orthodox religious beliefs are more important than economic and political life, and that I don’t allow for secular experiences, for religious doubts, etcetera. But that’s nonsense. What I say is that Islamic tradition is part of the life of Muslims and that thinking through ‘tradition’ is a way of addressing questions of power and temporality. But fundamentally tradition is a concept, and as empirical phenomena traditions are multiple, often inhabited by a single person, sometimes broken or ignored.

Still, for Ahmed the emphasis by Asad and others on the constitutive function of power in shaping Islam as a discursive tradition leads to an overemphasis on prescriptive modalities, leaving no space for non-exemplary concepts and practices to possess a contextual normativity. It is at this point that Ahmed turns to key examples of the “Avicennan philosophy, Akbarian Sufism, Suhrawardian Illuminationism, Hafizian poetics, figural painting and wine-drinking” formations of Islam with which he began the book. The producers of these discourses often deliberately reject the idea that religious authorities’ recommendations should be followed or that their own actions and beliefs are always appropriate models for others.

In these sections Ahmed sometimes seem lost in a nostalgic reverie for what he terms the “Balkans-to-Bengal complex” of Islam before it was challenged by the rise of Wahhabi and Salafi thought that has come to be one of the most relentless intellectual and social forces in Islam in the last century. At times his own prose evokes that of the cosmopolitan Ottoman intellectuals he studied for so long. His finely tuned sensibilities identify resonance and dissonance in the composition of an Islam that works in multiple registers simultaneously. Ibn Sina, Suhrawardi, and Hafiz lived in times and worlds where different registers were appropriate and normative in different contexts – but remained processually related to one another. Not through some sort of facile essentialism, but through the “mutually intelligible language in which they are able both to agree – and to disagree meaningfully” in spite and because of contradictions and variations. This cosmopolitan and complex Islam did not see contradiction, perplexity, and paradox as problematic, but as the strength of Islam as an “undertaking to explore the meaningful.” Here Ahmed quotes from the scholar Kātib Çelebī who in the 17th century dismissed the stupidity of being uncomfortable with ideological disagreement, “Other men are fools: they do not understand the wise purpose of disagreement and hold the absurd notion that all mankind ought to be of one madhhab [school of thought] and one disposition.” Ahmed embraces disagreement and perplexity. Indeed Ahmed and his evidentiary sources laud perplexity as an appropriate – and normative – response to the paradox of God.

This leads Ahmed to his final insight for this chapter, a case for the inclusion of explorative authority in the analysis of Islam. What concepts, techniques, literatures, and skills must be acquired to authorize a Muslim to explore and not just to prescribe? Ahmed celebrates the spiritual and philosophical adepts who rise above (or openly flout) legalistic and prescriptive authority – a common trope in Sufi writings of the Balkans-to-Bengal complex. As the 17th century Punjabi poet Sultan Bahu put it,

They are neither Hindus, nor Muslims, nor do they bow down in the mosque. With every breath they see the Lord, those who have never missed a prayer. They came sages and became madmen, those who truly understood God’s essence. My life goes to those, Bahu, who have chosen the gamble of love.

Labels and laws, categories and commandments, sobriety and drunkenness – all are limitations to the capacious minds of those who see temporality and restrictiveness in the prescriptive authority of orthodoxy. Adepts like Sultan Bahu, Hafiz, and Rumi exemplify an explorative authority that is comfortable with contradiction, perplexity, unfixity, and puzzlement. As Ahmed argues, “the historical bulk of the normative discursive tradition of Muslims in non-prescriptive and non-orthodoxizing – instead, it is explorative of a multiplicity of truths and values… the basic expressive tenor of its discourse is the exploration of ambiguity, the celebration of ambivalence, the fascination of contradiction.”

Finally, instead of looking at shared nomenclature or phenomena to define Islam, Ahmed asks us to look at the shared elements in processes by which claims about Islam are made. He rejects the position taken by some, such as Aaron Hughes, who posit that the variations and contradictions among those who seek to explicate Islam in the academy indicate that ultimately the object of study – Islam – does not exist except in its construction. To Ahmed, this misses the point that it is the processes of construal themselves that constitute Islam and that are themselves open to sustained theoretical attention. He closes the chapter with three points: “Islam is a process, that it is a process of human discursive and social activity, and that the discourse is characterized by a multiplicity of voices.” The remainder of the book then turns to the challenge of conceptualizing the process.

What is Islam is at heart a contrarian masterpiece that simultaneously draws out the best insights and exposes the faulty logics of nearly every scholar of Islam in the academy. In demonstrating that Islam in its fullness exceeds the narrow confines of legalism, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and textualism that have dominated the study of Islam, Ahmed still desires to produce a theoretical matrix that not only allows for coherent contradictions, but accounts for them. In his rousing defense of a capacious, exploratory Islam, Ahmed has left a provocative legacy for future scholars to engage, argue with, and build upon.


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