The Problem with Being Islamic: Definitional and Theoretical Limits and Legacies – by Zareena Grewal

The third essay in a forum on Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?

Zareena Grewal
Zareena Grewal

Last semester I began my graduate seminar, “Interrogating the ‘Crisis’ of Islam,” by assigning Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. I paired it with Graeme Wood’s viral Atlantic article, “What ISIS Really Wants,” which paraphrased Bernard Haykel at Princeton with its provocative pull quote: “The reality is the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” We benefitted from having Wood join us as an invited guest for a lively discussion about ISIS and how to define Islam and Islamic but, sadly, we could not extend such an invitation to Shahab Ahmed who had recently passed away. We could only speculate about how he might have responded to the many questions provoked by his insightful and brilliant—if unruly—meditation on the ways we speak about Islam in the academy and beyond, itself an introductory chapter gone rogue.

What is IslamUnlike many of Wood’s critics who implicitly or explicitly hold historical and/or Arab Islam to be true Islam, Ahmed’s conception of the Islamic is capacious enough to account for ISIS (or those making meaning within ISIS) as well as those Muslims and objects ISIS deems heretics and beyond the pale. Importantly, the term Islamic as Ahmed conceives of it cannot be modified; there is no “very Islamic” because it is never a matter of degree or distance from a center pegged down by texts nor does he assume the simplistic nominalist position in which everything Muslims do or say is Islamic simply because they do it or say so. In our seminar discussion, Wood declined to address the question of whether the literary production of ISIS is coherent, citing his status as an outsider, an answer that would not have satisfied Ahmed. Coherence is a driving question in Ahmed’s book: he roots the source of the sense of a pervasive existential crisis in modern Muslim societies in “the inability of modern Muslims to come to terms with the norms of historical Islam-to come to terms with the constitution and meaning of their past-and from the incoherences of the various attempts to address this incoherence” (245). What is Islam? is not a historical work in any rigorous sense though it draws on historical examples, largely from what Ahmed terms the Balkans to Bengal complex, in order to theorize Islam “by identifying the coherent dynamic of internal contradiction [which] enables us to comprehend the integrity and identity of the historical and human phenomenon at play” (109).

Chapter three of “What Is Islam?” is one of the least original and provocative chapters in what is, overall, an incredibly rich scholarly work. However, it is foundational to the new re-conceptualization of Islam Ahmed posits in the larger narrative arc of the book. Ahmed forcefully, at times insistently, argues that terms such as “religion,” “secular,” “sacred,” and “profane” have been applied to Islam in analytically incoherent ways; his critique inherits the work of two generations of post-colonial studies scholars across fields such as religious studies, history, anthropology, area studies, comparative literature and what has more recently been dubbed the emerging sub-field of secularism studies. It is difficult to follow why, or for whom, Ahmed decided to plod so carefully through these particular elements of the argument when, by his own admission, such critiques of the category of religion are widely available.

For example, he spends a few pages building up to this point: “ A crucial problem, however, with the concept of ‘religion’ is that it is not at all clear what it is that distinguishes those things which we commonly include in the category of religion-Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etcetera-from those things which we commonly do not identify as religion, such as Capitalism, Communism, Atheism, Secularism, Liberal Democracy, the Nation State, etcetera.” (180-1) Ahmed suggests that while the scholarly suspicion of the category of religion is widespread, there is an equally widespread misconception that Islam is “the most naturally equivalent non-Christian candidate to the modern Western category of religion.” (188) He argues that it is the superficial resemblance of Islam to Christianity that makes the consequences of analytical missteps more dire than in cases of comparative work with Buddhism and Hinduism which engender a healthy bit of skepticism in the scholar applying Western concepts. Perhaps this is why Ahmed feels the need to insert in square brackets “[Islam]” or “[Islamic]” alongside the word “religion” in a long passage he quotes from Hent de Vries widely read essay “Why Still Religion?” Ahmed rails against his readers’ presumed comfort with what they think they know about Islam and the degree to which Islam and Christianity are “mutually intelligible or mutually translatable . . . primarily the same and only secondarily different” (189). The intended audience appears to be both non-specialists as well as specific sub-fields in the academic study of Islam, insofar as we can take Ahmed’s quibbles with eminent scholars to represent subfields. The scholars he takes issue with for ultimately re-inscribing the secular-religious binary even as they consciously attempt to break out of it are strikingly diverse, from Orientalist scholar W. Montgomery Watt to the postcolonial studies scholar and cultural critic Hamid Dabashi.

Ahmed’s ultimate aim is to produce an analytical framework for the study of Islam which avoids falling into many of the scholarly fault lines often framed as binary oppositions:  insider/outsider, religious/secular, modern/pre-modern, authentic/inauthentic, orthodox/heterodox, sacred/profane, core/periphery and so on.  Thirty years ago, Talal Asad’s classic essay, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, which Ahmed characterizes as a “the single most important [work] since Hodgson in regard to the conceptualization of Islam,” offered a framework in which Islam is conceived as an unbound, discursive tradition as an alternative to analytical categories such as religion and culture in order to sidestep precisely the kinds of unproductive lines of analysis which Ahmed also pinpoints as problematic and persistent trends in his book. (270) As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of the most common mischaracterizations of Asad’s essay is in his conceptualization of orthodoxy; when applied as intended as an ethnographic analytic, this tool can be an incredibly illuminating way to analyze religious debates, claims to authority, and shifting constellations of power. Asad says explicitly in his essay that in his formulation orthodoxy is ethnographic and not prescriptive, defining it as the domain in which “Muslims have the power to regulate, uphold, require, or adjust correct practices, and to condemn, exclude, undermine, or replace, incorrect ones” but the power to define the terms of being correct and incorrect are always in flux and not necessarily fixed in texts. This point is fleshed out in more detail by my esteemed colleague Anna Bigelow in her review of chapter four of this forum.

Ahmed’s glaring misreading of Asad in chapter four is consequential for his argument in chapter three because he introduces one of the key analytic tropes, crooked-hatted-ness, as an alternative to the orthodoxies grounded in legalistic moralism, “a different mode of making meaning and value to that which the legalists prescribed as Islam-a mode of meaning-making that is locates precisely in aesthetic models” (202-3).  Just as in the other schools, the madhab-i ‘ishq (school of love) still depends on passing knowledge about what is correct and incorrect (in the realms of taste, pleasure, style, form, aesthetics, consumption) from teacher to student and generation to generation over time, and particular practices are assigned stigma and prestige. All of this is to say, crooked-hatted-ness has its own orthodoxy in Asad’s sense. The latent and undeveloped question which haunts Ahmed’s formulation of Islam/Islamic is the question of power; what is the relative power of one claim to orthodoxy, made perhaps in legal-moral terms, relative to another claim to orthodoxy, made in aesthetic terms. Ahmed, of course, insists at various points that the nature of the claims of the crooked-hatted are not exclusionary, but that is not to say those claims are not intended to be persuasive. This is where the works of scholars across fields who have adopted and applied Talal Asad’s model have been so productive and rich, and not only in anthropology.  If we understand Islam as a discursive tradition, we can see how tradition claims are always embedded in dynamic relations of power. In other words, we need not presume an orthodoxy at the center or at the heart of a bounded Islam if the scholarly inquiry is ethnographic.

As a historical anthropologist, ultimately, I do not find the analytical tools Ahmed presents as alternatives to be compelling enough to apply in my own scholarship when compared to the kinds of interventions anthropologists of Islam have made and are making, including revisiting and recuperating philology, one of Ahmed’s themes. What is Islam? may speak to scholars differently depending on our disciplinary location but in my view the book’s virtues are distinct from Ahmed’s ambitions for it as its author. I benefitted tremendously from Ahmed’s generative work and his many lucid insights; many of my favorite parts of the book are quietly hidden in the footnotes, such as his sharp reading of an elliptical Punjabi joke or his detailed argument with a particular interlocutor and these are the parts I will likely cite again and again.  These arguments focused on the specificities of his archive are likely to be overshadowed by the splashy, clunky theoretical argument of the book in which Ahmed distinguishes his conceptual tools from other theorists like Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Talal Asad and many others.  Still I left the book inspired, energized, and emboldened to think big, to take risks, and with renewed purpose to write with care about Islam.