What is Islam (Shahab Ahmed, 2015)

First page of the manuscript of Hafez Shirazi’s Divan. Preserved in the Treasury of the National Library and Museum of Malek, Tehran

Using encyclopedic historical and theological data, Shahad Ahmed criticizes the unsatisfactory ways Islam has been taken as an object and category, and conceptualized in popular and academic discourses. According to Ahmed, a valid conceptualization of Islam must be coherent with the dynamics of contradictions that animates Islam.

Ahmed challenges the different ways in which Islam contradicts the simplistic conceptualization to which it is reduced, both in the West and in some Muslim countries that favor a more legal reading of the Qu’ran. These examples include the cultural reverence that Muslims have for the book Divan of Hafiz, despite its irreverent attitude towards Muslim ritual piety, and the contradictory attitude that Muslims have towards alcohol, which is prohibited by Islam, but consumed by Muslims.

Ahmed also demystifies the popular conception of Islam, as a set of laws and prescriptions, as religion and as culture. In all three cases, Ahmed argues, these conceptualizations are flawed because they fall into one of two traps: either they operate on essentializing some elements based on the belief of an authentic concept of Islam—marginalizing in the process the human and historical phenomena of Islam—or they define it as a broad phenomena with no real commonality, making the exercise of conceptualization impossible and rendering the term “Islam” meaningless. Having exposed the flawed aspects of the various conceptions, Ahmed dedicates the last two chapters to elaborating a better conceptualization of Islam and how this could be applied effectively. His conclusions suggests that Islamic beliefs are to be treated like continents that make meanings in the world Islam; a terra firma that emerges from insights held and offered by Muslims.

Ahmed’s critique of Clifford Geertz’s studies exposes how the esteemed anthropologist overlooks the integral quality of Islam by encouraging researchers to interpret culture almost by free association, without paying attention to the reasons that make culture meaningful to its practitioners. Ahmed maintains that Islam is what creates meaning among its followers—a fact that Geertz would have recognized had he considered the history of Muslim belief.

This is an ambitious goal and the phenomenal amount of varied sources used by Ahmed demonstrates his seriousness. The exhaustive exploration of the subject makes this book a very useful tool for any researcher with an interest in this topic. The historical approach used by Ahmed allows him to ground his critique and present an image of Islam from a perspective different from that to which academics are accustomed.

That being said, this particularity is also a double-edged sword. While it is true that any perspective that allows you to observe an object in a new way is always welcome, the fact that this perspective remains focused on the technical details of its discipline puts it at risk of being obscure. To put it another way, the structure adopted in the book does not favor its assimilation. Repeatedly describing a concept in great detail makes the reading experience overwhelming, and the writing style does nothing to alleviate the problem. The book would have been clearer if several of the paragraph-long sentences had been cut and the endless lists shortened.

This a text with an anthropological flavor, but not an anthropological text per se. This means that we don’t really find the elements often expected in these texts; for example, there is no explicit theoretical framework or research methodology other than the comparison of historical facts with contemporary conceptions, which makes its inclusion in the discipline difficult. If the content offered by What Is Islam?… is of great richness, the reader must be prepared for a strong commitment when approaching this work.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com