Before Orthodoxy

The Satanic Verses in Early Islam

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Shahab Ahmed
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , April
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Those of us who knew Shahab Ahmed—and I count myself among that privileged cohort—always awaited two books: one on his doctoral dissertation topic, the Satanic Verses, the other about the field of Islamic studies, reconceived and redefined. 

How unfortunate that this bright light in 21st century scholarship on Islam and the Muslim world was extinguished before either of his two monographs were published! In 2015 Shahab Ahmed died at the age of 48. In 2016 Princeton University Press published his magnum opus, What is Islam? The Importance of Being IslamicThen in 2017, Harvard University Press published a portion of his revised doctoral dissertation, Before Orthodoxy: The Satanic Verses in Early Islam.

While the second book is being reviewed here, it is impossible to read one book without thinking of the other. The issues anticipated and broached in Before Orthodoxy are developed and expanded in What is Islam? If the first is a preamble to the second, the second becomes a commentary on the first. The two are as inseparable from the legacy of Shahab Ahmed as are revelation and law from any understanding of Islam.

It is in fact the puzzle of relating revelation to law that inspires Ahmed to address Text as also Pre-Text and Con-text in What is Islam? Beyond the Text, there are persons, Muslim persons, and in his view, the task of scholarship is “to conceptualize the coherence of contradictory norms in the lived ‘religious’ reality of Muslims” (What is Islam?46). His goal is “to produce a reconceptualization of Islam by which and to which difference and contradiction cohere” (152). And so he argues that Muslim heroes and epigones offer “personal engagements with the contradictory possibilities of truth and meaning” that derive from the twin core texts of Islam, the Qur’an and Hadith (What is Islam?101; italics in the original).Toward the end of What is Islam? Ahmed etches “certain definitive features of contradiction in/as Islam,” noting that because “the same sorts of contradictions exist in a large number of diverse locales—we might call these unifying contradictions of Islam” (506; italics in the original). Central to these unifying contradictions is the tension between Pre-text and Text. The tension creates two contrasting trajectories of What is Islam? For one group—philosophers, Sufis, poets, and artists—“Islam consists in underlying/Unseen/unstated/Pre-Textual general meanings,” while for the other group— those wedded to law as the defining vehicle for both Hadith and the Qur’an—“Islam consists in overlying/Seen/stated/Textual specific forms.” This contest—between forms and meanings, between Texts and Pre-Texts—has been waged across time and space within Islam, highlighting what resources and values “are potentially available at all times (and in all places) to Muslims as Con-text” (What is Islam?506). 

None of these key terms, nor the arguments invoked and developed from them, are present in Before Orthodoxy. Instead, the general query is raised about truth-claims and authoritative truth: Given the diversity of Islam, “how does a single position come to be universally established as authoritatively true?” (5) The Satanic Verses—their content, their context, their interpretation—occupy the heart of this book. Ahmed analyzes in painstaking detail each of fifty reports (riwayahs) from traditional sources that narrate the Satanic Verses incident. What becomes clear is a shift in the character of authority within the early Muslim community. While those who authored the genres of sirah-maghazi (the biography and battles of Muhammad) and tafsir (commentaries on the Qur’an) accepted the incident as part of their historical memory, hadith scholars did not. “The incident did not constitute a standard element in the third major historical memory discourse on the life of Muhammad—that of Hadith” (259). The Hadith, or what Ahmed calls the Hadith movement, and those allied to it (ahl al-hadith), were wedded to an image of the Prophet as the perfect law-giver—indeed, “the project of Hadith fused with the authoritative and prescriptive project of the elaboration of Islamic law” (267). Hadith-minded, juridical authority focused on Muhammad as the repository of “ismah” or “ismat al-anbiya” (protection, or purity of prophets, protected from evil but also untruth), and this “model for detailed pious mimesis” (269) trumped the earlier model of Muhammad as the centerpiece of a moral/historical struggle (in the sirah nabawiyyah, or Prophet biography). It also veered away from the Qur’an as a sacred text at once exploratory and multi-pronged, whose early commentary (tafsir) had required exegetes (mufassirun) “to venture forth from the template of the text into the diffuse, variegated landscape of the external context … in order to flesh out the Qur’anic text … often producing diverse, contradictory trajectories and configurations of meaning” (277).

In sum, the Satanic Verses incident emerges as more than a passage with multiple, often divergent meanings. Precisely through the genres of Muslim scholarship—sirah-maghazitafsir, and hadith—which interpreted and reinterpreted its significance, it became the testing ground for shaping, then reshaping Muslim self-perception. Hadith, but even more hadith scholarship, with its legal focus and juridical allies, charted the path to an orthodoxy that rejected ambiguity and diversity in favor of singularity and conformity. The Satanic Verses incident looms as the locus classicus of that shift.

And so the conclusions of both books elide, each reinforcing the other. At the end of Before Orthodoxy, Ahmed observes that “in rejecting the Satanic Verses incident, the Hadith project—emerging with increasing force and definition from the mid-2nd century onward—was disapprovingly at odds with the early understanding of Muhammad’s Prophethood. The logic of the Hadith project required an infallible Prophet … authorizing prescribed norms. It is that logic, and that notion of Prophethood, that would later establish itself as Islamic orthodoxy” (300). Similarly, in tracing Islam as convergent contradictions across time and space in What is Islam? Ahmed observes that “the Hadith project represents a historical attempt on the part of its protagonists … to domesticate the potentially unruly plurality and multivocality, not only of those claiming to access directly the Truth of the Pre-Text, but also of those producing multiple and differing interpretations of the Truth of the Text” (e.g., the sirah authors and mufassirun of the 1st Islamic century). “Crucially,” concludes Ahmed, “the epistemology of the Hadith movement was taken up by the prescriptive project of Islamic law, in the methodology of which Hadith became, formally, the second Textual source of law alongside the Qur’an” (507).

It is to combat this restrictivist tangent of Islam that Ahmed hypothesizes its opposite, which is also its intrinsic Other, the expansionist tangent, favored by Sufis, philosophers, poets, and artists. Precisely because the law—the notion of shari’ah or shari’ah mindedness—has been overvalued, and other versions of the Satanic Verses incident ignored or denied, there needs to be a new, higher law, a more lyrical and inclusive notion of Islam, one that Ahmed labels madhhab-i ‘ishq: literally, a way of moving, going, and traveling that is prompted and informed by deep passion or radical love, at once transcendent and immanent. But that is another story for a longer review of Ahmed’s nostalgic yet evocative analysis of the origins, and also the limits, of Islamic orthodoxy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bruce B. Lawrence is Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
August 7, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shahab Ahmed taught at Harvard University and was a fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows and the Islamic Studies Program at Harvard Law School.




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