Michael Pregill on Shahab Ahmed's What is Islam?https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/harvard-theological-review/article/div-classtitlei-hear-islam-singing-shahab-ahmedandaposs-what-is-islam-the-importance-of-being-islamica-hrefafn1-ref-typefnadiv/916DCCBB2589CB1BD7B68079688964BAhttp://www.mizanproject.org/shahab-ahmeds-what-is-islam-as-disciplinary-critique/
The thesis of What Is Islam?, stated as simply as possible, is the following. Despite many contemporary scholars’ aversion to definitions of Islam, to any attempt to reduce the beliefs, behaviors, and dispositions of the world’s billion Muslims to a single essence, Ahmed holds that Islam can be defined, indeed must be defined, for the experience of both historical and contemporary Muslims to be meaningful and comprehensible. In his view, there is surely something that all Muslims share that makes them Muslims and distinguishes them from other people; if there is no conceptual construct we can call Islam, then the idea of Muslim identity – which the author readily concedes is immensely diverse and variegated – becomes incoherent. For Ahmed, Islam is the thing that is indisputably there in the life and thoughts of every Muslim that makes them Muslim, that enables them to express themselves, understand themselves as subjects, and recognize each other as Muslim when they are – as he would put it – ‘speaking Islamically.’
Ahmed draws attention to phenomena that, though indisputably significant aspects of the culture and history of Muslims, are typically seen as outside Islam ‘proper,’ the latter typically being defined as the theological-creedal and ritual-legal ‘core’ commonly held to define orthodox Islam as a religion, at least in juristic and institutional terms. But for him, discursive and expressive forms within the Islamic fold that appear anomalous, heterodox, or plainly un-Islamic must, at least for their practitioners and exponents, have constituted ‘real’ Islam just as much as orthodox piety and mainstream ritual practice. That is, the often heterodox claims of the philosophers and the Sufis, the rich visual art produced for courtly patrons, and the openly contrarian discourses of the affective, aesthetic, and erotic expressed in classical Persian (or “Persianate”) poetry that so often are relegated to the periphery were not “alternative” formations within the religion of Islam. For those who embraced them, they were simply Islam.
To Ahmed, if scholars promote the view that ‘true’ Islam primarily or essentially consists of adherence to orthodox creed and maintenance of sharīʿah, with other imaginative enterprises necessarily judged as less Islamic or even un-Islamic – with poetry, art, Sufism, and philosophy being relegated to the sidelines – this is basically tantamount to Salafism. Indeed, it is scholars’ frequent reliance on and privileging of the ‘legal-supremacist’ discourse of the ʿulamāʾ that has led to the prevalence of such a view in academia.
If Islam does not consist primarily or exclusively or essentially of the universally-mandated creedal and praxial elements commonly presented as the fundamentals of the faith, then – to return to the book’s eponymous question – what is Islam? For Ahmed, the answer (to which he devotes some 150 pages in the third and final section of the book) is that Islam consists of the interpretive processes through which Muslims apprehend their particular beliefs, practices, and values as Islam, as well as the language in which they express that claim to veracity. As Ahmed puts it, not everything Muslims do is Islam, but every Muslim expression of meaning must be recognized as constituting Islam in some way. That is, Islam is the sum of the dazzling array of reflections by Muslims on meaning, all of their expressions of meaning, despite the contradictory and incommensurable nature of those reflections and expressions.