What is Islam?

The Importance of Being Islamic

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Shahab Ahmed
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , November
     624 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This posthumously published book has garnered considerable attention since its appearance in 2016. Many review symposia have appeared, and several conferences have been held in both Europe and America to mark its reception. The question I wish to address here is: “Is this monograph worth all of the hype and attention?” My short answer is “yes … and no.” In what follows I wish to highlight what this book means for religious studies, as opposed to the more specialized field of Islamic studies.

What is Islam? is, to be sure, a wide-ranging—perhaps too wide-ranging—book that is learned, informed and informative, and at close to 600-pages, perhaps 200-pages too long. Author Shahab Ahmed is well-read, eloquent, and impressively engaged with numerous fields and subfields. His early death is a tragedy for the field in that he was one of the few scholars of Islam to take seriously the concept that the study of Islam is not an insider club, but must illumine and be illumined by relevant cognate fields. This, it seems to me, is the most important part of this book—and, whether or not the argument is successful or even persuasive—this will be its legacy providing, of course, that scholars of Islam pay attention to it and not simply pick-and-choose what is important for their own particularist purposes, to wit, to show how Islam is somehow unique or sui generis.

On one level, the premise behind the book is very simple. Can one, Ahmed asks us near the beginning, be a “Muslim wine-drinker”(3)? It is an interesting question, to be sure. We all know about Islam’s prohibition against alcohol, but Ahmed asks us to suspend that knowledge, and instead imagine how the act of imbibing wine can be “positively valued in non-legal discourse” (66). Islam, on his reading, becomes more than simply a “religion”—and thankfully he has apprised himself of the theoretical literature in our field that interrogates the concept—and more than just a set of interlocking cultural forms. In this, his analysis upends a particular history of looking at or framing Islam. Instead, for him, “a valid concept of ‘Islam’ must denote and connote all possible ‘Islams’ whether abstract or ‘real’ mental or social” (104). Or, as he states in his conclusion, “this book has sought to locate the logic of difference and contradiction as coherent with and internal to Islam—that is, to provide a coherent account of contradiction in and as Islam” (542).

To be sure, this is not a book fixated on the use and enjoyment of alcohol in Islam. As Ahmed clearly states, alcohol serves as but a metaphor for other types of ideas and discourses—philosophy, Sufism, iconism—that have been marginalized over the years as somehow being “un-Islamic.”

I find myself returning time and again to this formulation. Religions qua social forms are balls of confusion and self-contradiction. In this assessment, Ahmed is certainly correct. But, and for me this is a big but, surely all of this should be obvious to the well-informed and critical scholar of religion. Who posits tidiness, consistency, or essentialism in 2017? However, that it has to be said and that many seem to find this to be one of the novel aspects of the book is surely telling of the state of our field—religious studies—and not just Islamic studies. This is certainly not Ahmed’s fault.

Although this formulation is refreshing in its orientation, and daring in its repercussions, there are problems with it. Primary is the fact that everything risks becoming “Islamic” on Ahmed’s reading. The result is that it can mean everything and, concomitantly, nothing. He is certainly correct in his assessment that to call something “Islamic” is an act of authorization, just as to label something as “un-Islamic” is an act of de-authorization (107). Related to this, however, is that his desire to remove Islam from over-determined definitions (e.g., as law, as politics, and so on) also risks reifying something called “Islam.” Ahmed’s insistence that his interest is in Islam as a “human and historical phenomenon” (81-82), then, also seems to imply that, for him, Islam is also potentially a trans-historical phenomenon. His Kantian focus on the phenomenal nevertheless implies a noumenal, if historically inaccessible, realm that guides the entire apparatus.

This is exacerbated by Ahmed’s notion of text, con-text, and pre-text, which would seem to occupy the heart of the book and drive his analysis. For Ahmed, the text is presumably Revelation broadly defined. Or, is it? That would seem to be too normative or lexocentric, something he had earlier sought to avoid. In like manner, the con-text is the “whole lexicon of meanings that is the product and outcome of previous hermeneutical engagement with Revelation which are already present in the context of a given time and place as Islam” (435). The pre-text, by contrast, is all that existed before Revelation and what the interpreter brings to the text. This is all too vague for me and, again, potentially so broad as to include anything. Is the Judaism articulated under medieval Islam “Islamic”? While I have no problem with this—who is the scholar to say what is Islam or what is not—Ahmed needed to give us more guidance, or Islam risks becoming so expansive as to be an empty container or meaningless.

In like manner, Ahmed’s “Balkans-Bengal complex” provides another heuristic device that guides his analysis (83). He uses this locution—whereas others might call it Persianate or Turko-Persian—as his “representative case study” that he then uses to illumine other areas. I am not sure how successful he is in this regard. There is very little reflection, for example, on how this case study illuminates other times and places. His Sunni-centrism is also problematic and would seem to buy into precisely the type of normativity he otherwise seeks to eschew.

Again, I keep asking myself: “What is the theoretical payoff of all of this?” “Has he succeeded, as some have argued, of extricating Islam from European categories of analysis? Is this the natural telos of the Saidian project?” I don’t think so. He has problematized terms like “religion” and “culture” in ways that, while important, are certainly not novel and, indeed, their critique has emerged precisely out of the Euro-American analysis of which he is so critical.

The other question becomes: “What is Ahmed’s goal?” “Is it to create an Islamic humanism?” Here, I think he is successful in critiquing Lenn Goodman’s understanding of that category, which pivots on a religious/secular binary. In like manner, his critique of Marshall Hodgson’s “Islamicate” is very helpful, but not unprecedented. But, if the problems I have articulated above stand, then there can be no Islamic humanism by virtue of the simple fact that to be Islamic is to be human and, presumably, vice versa.

I have frequently been critical of the paucity on the part of scholars of Islam to deal with what is habitually called “theory and method” in religious studies. I think Ahmed has adequately addressed my challenge and, in so doing, he has provided an important way to begin this conversation. So while, yes, this is an important book, much works still needs to be done.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron W. Hughes is Philip S. Bernstein professor of religion at the University of Rochester.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shahab Ahmed (1966-2015) was postdoctoral associate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University.


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