What is Islam? Forum – An Introduction

Edited by Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst and Kristian Petersen

What is IslamCoherence and Contradiction: What is Islam? Forum 

The late Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?: the Importance of Being Islamic is a thick tome, rich in analysis, primary sources, neologisms, both theoretical articulation and engagement, and thick description. It aims, in just over 600 pages, to critique the prevailing definitions of Islam, make a case for utilizing “Islamic” descriptively and beyond its current scope, and ultimately to recenter definitions of Islam around, reflexively, itself. Ahmed insists that all of the inconsistencies, debates, confluences often ignored by scholars as cultural differences or written off as multiple expressions of one message, rooted in texts, are all Islam–he insists that Islam is coherent and contradictory. Its definition must reflect coherence and contradiction.

Shahab Ahmed wrote:

A meaningful conceptualization of “Islam” as theoretical object and analytical category must come to terms with–indeed be coherent with–the capaciousness, complexity, and, often, outright contraction that obtains within the historical phenomenon that has proceeded from the human engagement with the idea and reality of Divine Communication to Muhammad, the Messenger of God. It is precisely this correspondence and coherence between Islam as theoretical object or analytical category and Islam as real historical phenomenon that is considerably and crucially lacking in the prevalent conceptualizations of the term “Islam/Islamic.” (6; emphases in original)

He added: “It is just such a coherent conceptualization of Islam that I aim to put forward in this book.” (6; emphases in original)

Ahmed wrote in sometimes dizzying and often verbose prose, but his prose itself stands to demonstrate the complexity of definition and definitional clarity. Throughout What is Islam? he parsed how current definitional frameworks for “Islam/Islamic” fail for divergent reasons–too limiting, too expansive, too centered on one set of texts, too dismissive of seemingly irregular practices. To do so, at times, requires the sort of vertiginous explanations: Ahmed’s prose serves to explain but also epitomizes the bewildering amount of history, interpretations, texts, and contexts in which Islam has been defined, deployed, and utilized, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In trying to keep up with his descriptions, the reader must also try to keep up with the sheer volume of definitional structures for the seemingly simplistic “Islam/Islamic.”

Ahmed’s contribution is to attempt to maintain how those things that seem contradictory within Islamic discourses are actually all part of Islam–crucial to Islam, Muslims, and definitions of Islam/Islamic. He dismissed, however, popular ways to deal with the problem of contradiction and coherence. He critiqued the tendency of scholars to “over-delimit” the term Islam, thereby making “Islam” a contracted idea with a “substantive core” (115). Specifically, he highlighted this type of constitution of Islam as that which highlights one major facet–often law–as primary or more authentic. Other iterations of Islam thereby become secondary or relegated to the equally amorphous “culture.” Ahmed similarly troubled the idea of multiple Islams (or “islams”), a strategy in which the many iterations, customs, interpretations, and contexts in which Muslims have made meaning of Islam are represented diffusely and pluraly (115-116). In What is Islam?, Ahmed focuses on these two conceptual issues as definitional: reigning definitions of Islam/Islamic are either too limiting or too expansive, and thus do not capture “the phenomenon at stake,” which is to say, the “human and historical phenomenon of Islam” (116).

He likewise dismissed Marshall Hodgson’s neologism “Islamicate,” a term coined in his classic series The Venture of Islam, that aimed to address the precise duality of definitional frameworks Ahmed identified. Islamicate refers to the complex ways in which Muslims and Islam shape institutions, practices, language, and spaces–among other things–that may reference Islam but are not necessarily for the sole purpose of religion, Muslims, or with express reference to Islam. Bruce B. Lawrence recently offered a retrospective review of Hodgson’s Venture of Islam for Marginalia and offers this on Islamicate:

“Underlying this central argument is an even larger premise: there is only world civilization and Islam is a part of it, not apart from it. Islamicate tradition encompasses but also projects all the elements of Islamic thought that came from pre-Islamic resources — Persian, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, by language; Magian, Jewish, and Christian by religion; Byzantine, Sassanian, Mongol by imperial domains. Islam — or, more accurately, Islamicate civilization — in turn, becomes part and parcel of the emergent West in developments that unfolded after 1800.”

Ahmed, however, disagreed, primarily on the grounds that Hodgson’s neologism is informed by a “differentiation in ‘religion’ and ‘culture’,” a fundamental problem.

Shahab Ahmed remained resolute throughout his monumental text: a definition of Islam that splits culture from religion necessarily imagines, first, that one can do that neatly and, second, that something clear within Islam (usually texts and law) maintains primary standing while other things within Muslim experience, interpretation, and practice are therefore rendered secondary, less Islamic. Ahmed not only chafes at this but demands that any definition of Islam/Islamic confront and incorporate the “both/and”: Islam, for Ahmed, is both contradictory and coherent.

What’s at Stake? Why a Forum?

Ahmed’s What is Islam? attempts to make clear histories of interpretation both within Islamic discourses and the Euro-American academy. He weaves theories within and about the study of religion with incredibly detailed, multilingual Islamic sources from a vast geographic area (what he terms the Balkans-to-Bengal complex) and an equally vast number of years. He attempts, in other words, to span academic discourses, disciplines, fields, and subfields that often do not talk to each other, that maintain their own definitional schemas, that have varying rationales for their own definitional schemas all while maintaining a balance between equally disparate Muslim interpretations that sometimes (though not always) fit into extant Euro-American academic categorizations. Ahmed tried to synthesize, order, and evaluate multiple conversations about, around, and with Islam and Muslims—without then collapsing the discourses into a monolithic, graspable whole. He both called for and maintained coherence and contradiction.

Predictably, in some places in his lengthy work, he was rather successful and in others, less so. We have created this forum in order to slowly and plainly parse Ahmed’s contributions, arguments, successes and failures. This may not be a book for the casual reader–it is rather obviously geared toward scholars of Islam, religion, and the histories of particular regions. Yet it contains rather vital sets of complicating ideas that nuance how its titular question is addressed beyond the academe, in common parlance. We asked a number of scholars to address one chapter–his chapters were, in some cases, well over one hundred pages! By doing so, we hope to make sense of the broad scope and far-reaching implications of What is Islam? in a manner that is comprehensible and accessible. What is Islam? remains a worthwhile question even if we can’t answer it–and as you’ll see, our contributors on the whole do not believe Shahab Ahmed answered it himself. Nevertheless, it is a question that resonates in contemporary scholarship and media, that is on the lips of academics in disparate fields as well as politicians across the world. It is a question we cannot seem to escape, and one that Ahmed attempts to answer fully, without hesitation, and with an eye toward theoretical and evidentiary rigor.

Essays to Follow

Tehseen Thaver tackles the first chapter of What is Islam?, titled: “Six Questions About Islam.” Her piece, “Three More Questions about What is Islam? asks critical questions about Ahmed’s definition–and how he goes about labeling, categorizing, and discerning Islam/Islamic.

Mohamed H. Fadel addresses the second chapter, titled: “Islam as law, islams-not-Islam, Islamic and Islamicate, Religion and Culture, Culture and Civilization” in his contribution, “The Priority of the Political: Politics Determines the Possibilities of Islam.” An expert on Islamic law, Fadel declares that finding answers to normative questions in a set of traditions so vastly multiple is impossible, and in his evaluation of Ahmed, Fadel offers insight as to the question of normativity, reading texts normatively, and (the pitfalls) of a normative argument.

Zareena Grewal addresses Ahmed’s third chapter, “Religion and Secular, Sacred and Profane, Theocentric and Anthropocentric, Total Social Fact, Family Resemblance.” In her essay, “The Problem with Being Islamic: Definitional and Theoretical Limits and Legacies,” she commends Ahmed’s great effort in grappling with disciplinary ambiguities, examines the alternative analytical tools Ahmed offers, but regrets that there is not much she can bring form What is Islam? to her own anthropological work.

Anna Bigelow offers an analysis titled “What is Islam? A Celebration and Defense of Contradiction, Perplexity, and Paradox,” which addresses chapter 4, “Culture, Meaning, Symbol System, Core and Nucleus, Whatever-Muslims-Say-It-Is, Discursive Tradition, Orthodoxy, Process.” She concludes that Ahmed’s coherent contradictions explores historical definitions, theories, and demonstrates the “faculty logics of nearly every scholar of Islam in the academy,” as well as provides a rich text upon which current and future generations of scholars can build.

Sajjad Rizvi attends to the fifth chapter in an essay titled “Reconceptualization, Pre-Text, and Con-text.” Ahmed’s lengthy title for this chapter  (“Hermeneutical Engagement, Pre-Text, Text and Con-text,  Meaning-Making for the Self Spatiality of Revelation, Hierarchy, Exteriority-Interiority, Public and Private, Language and Vocabulary, Ambivalence and Ambiguity, Metaphor and Paradox”) sets Rizvi’s tone; in this essay, he explores these terms as employed by Ahmed and offers a critique of the con-texts (texts and pre-texts) of the broad topics of the chapter.

Peter Gottschalk outlines the penultimate chapter, “Applications and Implications: Coherent Contradiction, Exploration, Diffusion, Form and Meaning, Modern” in an essay titled “The Interpretative Pivot: Hermeneutics and the Contemporary Decline of Islamic Pluralism.” He suggests that Ahmed’s stated task in this chapter requires all of its 137-pages: Ahmed, in this chapter, unpacked the historical contexts in which the modern period saw a shift to legalism, all while resisting a secular-religious binary or a normative claim to Islam (made by Muslims) or the study of Muslims (which includes Muslims and non-Muslims). Ultimately, Gottschalk offers the reader two concrete–and important–limitations of Ahmed’s conclusions and definitional schema.

The final chapter—“The Case for Being Islamic”—is a comparatively and remarkably short five pages in which Shahab Ahmed recapitulates his primary argument. It offered little new, so we did not ask for it to be reviewed independently.

However, that is not to suggest it should be left unexplored. It seems fitting to allow the late Ahmed the final word in this introduction to the forum; we quote at length a thought-provoking and summatory excerpt, the closing lines of What is Islam?:

“This book has sought not so much to define, as to bring into definition–to bring into view, to discern and to descry–Islam in its plenitude of meaning. Islam, meaning-making for the self by one-fifth of humanity, is Islam–it is not anything else–and should be conceptualized, understood and appreciated as such; in terms which cohere with its meanings and by which its meanings cohere. By not employing language appropriate to the meaning at stake, and thus by not recognizing Islam for what it is, we–Muslims and non-Muslims–at best misrepresent, and at worst commit an outright injustice to the human and historical existences and endeavours of one-fifth of humanity. We also do an injustice to ourselves by preventing ourselves from apprehending and benefiting from what those existences and endeavours have to offer us by way of understanding and experiencing the human predicament, as well as from apprehending and benefitting from what those existences and endeavours have to offer us by way of making meaning for ourselves. Let us understand, apprehend and benefit from the importance of being Islamic.”

Let us now turn to the six scholars who will help us understand, apprehend, and—ideally—benefit from Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic.