Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Book review: How Has Islamic Orthodoxy Changed Over Time?

What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic
By Shahab Ahmed
Reviewed by Elias Muhanna

Prominent Islamic scholar Shahab Ahmed laid to rest
Ahmed described what he called a sixth madhhab, or school of Islamic law, beyond the orthodox five: the madhhab of love... Ahmed never overtly called himself an adherent of the madhhab of love. But that is what he was to his very core.

When discussing the modern discipline of Islamic studies, Ahmed liked to complain that it was possible to earn a doctorate in this field from an Ivy League university without ever reading the Divan of Hafiz, the great 14th-century Persian poet. He describes that work in What Is Islam? as “the most widely-copied, widely-circulated, widely-­read, widely-memorized, widely-­recited, widely-invoked, and widely-­proverbialized book of poetry in Islamic history.” This was not merely a work of belles lettres, but a book that exemplified “ideals of self-conception…in the largest part of the Islamic world for half-a-millennium.” How could a modern student of Islamic civilization formulate an understanding of this subject without taking stock of such a work, and especially its treatment of wine drinking, erotic love, and the hypocrisies of self-righteous moralists? If Hafiz’s work is not Islamic, then what is?

In the centuries following Muhammad’s death in 632, many Christians like William Langland, the author of Piers Plowman, sought to make sense of Islam in the terms and symbols of their own faith. Was it just another schismatic sect led by a great here­siarch, as Dante portrayed it in his Divine Comedy? Or was it an ancient form of chivalry, a Saracen code of ethics? Did Muhammad’s followers think him a god? The figure of the prophet-as-trickster found in Piers Plowman was not the most outlandish attempt to explain the origins of Islam. Medieval French chansons de gestes attributed a welter of fantastical qualities to the cult of “Mahom,” including a pantheon of minor deities superimposed from Roman mythology.

University chairs in Oriental studies began proliferating in Europe in the 17th century and were soon followed by the establishment of scholarly associations and academic journals. By the late 19th century, European knowledge of the languages, histories, and customs of Muslim societies had advanced significantly beyond the scope of medieval apologetics, but the interpretation of Islam through the lens of Christianity remained a central current of Orientalist scholarship. As Shahab Ahmed writes in a major new study, the consequences of this approach and its legacy have made it difficult for moderns—­scholars and laypeople, Muslims and non-Muslims alike—to grasp the “historical and human phenomenon that is Islam in its plenitude and complexity of meaning.” Coming to terms with Islam—“saying Islam meaningfully,” as he puts it—requires making ourselves sensitive to the “capaciousness, complexity, and, often, outright contradiction” that inheres within the broadest possible range of practices, beliefs, representational forms, metaphors, and objects associated with Islam.

Ahmed, a scholar of Islamic studies at Harvard, died this autumn at the tragically young age of 48. His book is a strange and brilliant work, encyclopedic in vision and tautly argued in the manner of a logical proof, yet pervaded by the urgency of a political manifesto. It is, in a way, all of these things. For those who knew him, the peculiar ambition of What Is Islam? will not come as a surprise, because Ahmed had been at work for years on a much-anticipated and controversial study about the formation of Islamic orthodoxy. The surprise is that What Is Islam? is not that book.
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Shahab Ahmed arrived at Harvard as an assistant professor in 2005. I was a doctoral student at the time and had heard most of the hagiographical accounts of his life that flowed through graduate-student circles. Fluent in many languages, Ahmed had lived in Singapore, England, Malaysia, and Egypt before coming to America for graduate school. After completing a doctorate at Princeton, he was admitted to Harvard’s prestigious Society of Fellows, where he spent three years before joining the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Mutual acquaintances spoke of his terrifying erudition and wit, sharpened by an unrepentantly refined British accent.

At Princeton, Ahmed had been a student of Michael Cook, the eminent historian. During his first year, he became interested in the “Satanic Verses” incident, an episode from early Islamic history in which the Prophet Muhammad was said to have mistaken some verses suggested by Satan as being part of the divinely revealed Koran. The topic intrigued him. Reading through the earliest sources, Ahmed found a widespread and untroubled consensus on the historical authenticity of the event, which stood in contrast to the doctrinal rejection that emerged centuries later. As he would argue in an award-winning dissertation, the early view of Muhammad as a man “subject to error and Divine correction” represented an outlook at odds with the later theories of prophetic infallibility. At the Society of Fellows, Ahmed began to expand his project into a larger study that would trace Muslim attitudes toward the figure of Muhammad through time and space, using the Satanic Verses problem as a way to explore the development of orthodoxy across the centuries. He assembled an enormous archive of legal, theological, literary, and historical sources on the subject in more than a dozen languages, drawn from manuscript libraries all over the world.

A faculty position interrupted the reverie of research. At Harvard, Ahmed swiftly established a reputation for teaching demanding graduate seminars. The first session of each course seemed designed to turn away as many curious students as possible. A fearsome syllabus front-loaded with hundreds of pages of reading each week, mainly in primary sources, was his deterrent of choice—and an effective one. While at Princeton, Ahmed had taken almost no courses, devoting all of his time to his own research. Michael Cook told me, “In those days, we had no rules obliging students to take courses—they were just expected to do so. Now, thanks to Shahab, we do have rules.”

Those who braved Ahmed’s courses were frequently stunned by the audacity of his expectations. He could be prickly, arrogant, contemptuous of poor preparation, and imperious. Despite this, I was enthralled by him. During my second year, I responded to an advertisement he placed for a research assistant. The job paid a pittance; about this, he was honest, but I convinced him to let me sign on. In his office were shelves filled with hundreds of identical orange file folders, each devoted to a different historical figure. This was the great collection he had put together on the Satanic Verses, an archive of everything ever said and written about the incident. Many of the folders contained transcriptions, in Ahmed’s impeccable Arabic cursive, of excerpts from manuscripts he had consulted in Istanbul’s great libraries and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

My task was to locate whatever information existed about the historical individuals in the archive, drawing on the extensive corpus of premodern biographical dictionaries and chronicles. For the rest of the year, I lived in a world of medieval authorities and onomastic wild-goose chases through the classical tradition. No figure in Ahmed’s archive was too obscure to escape his attention. We hunted for Transoxanian jurists, North African mystics, Andalusian grammarians, Iraqi logicians. Every scrap of opinion about the controversy buried in the great wall of orange files was somehow significant to Ahmed, and the most minor figures were often the most interesting. For months, I had no sense of what I was doing and how it fit into the larger project. Over time, however, things began to fall into place.


The story Ahmed was telling comprehended a tremendous braid of narratives, a pageant of contradiction and diversity in an intellectual tradition that spanned over a millennium. By historicizing the transformation in attitudes toward Muhammad’s prophetic mission, Ahmed hoped that his study might provoke an engagement with the tremendous resources of the past in confronting the questions of the present. How has Islamic orthodoxy been formulated over time, and how might it be reformulated today? As ambitious a thinker as he was, however, Ahmed also seemed to recognize that developing the full implications of his argument was a delicate business. This was the reason for the immensity of the book’s dimensions. As he confided to me one afternoon while we sifted through the mountains of references I had flagged, he was erecting a scholarly edifice so formidable that no one could challenge it.

Ahmed never fully completed the Satanic Verses project. The book grew larger in his mind, with the work accomplished occupying a correspondingly smaller portion of it. At some point, he entered a limbo between research positions and fellowships, during which time he embarked on a different project, co-authoring a book on heresy trials in the Ottoman Empire. When I saw him a year after I’d completed my degree, he seemed strangely happy, even accepting of the foregone conclusion that his chances of receiving tenure at Harvard looked impossibly slim. The new book was nearly finished; all that was left to write was an introduction.

Like the first project, however, that introduction grew larger and larger, absorbing all of its author’s attention and time. Eventually, it would become a 600-page tome with over a thousand footnotes. What Is Islam? is that book.... read more:

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