Monday, May 21, 2018

Book review - Tehseen Thaver: Three More Questions about What is Islam?

In many ways this book is an act of un-inheritance

The first chapter of Shahab Ahmed’s magnum opus What is Islam? titled “Six Questions about Islam” sets the stage for achieving the book’s underlying purpose: disturbing commonly held popular and scholarly understandings of what gets counted as Islamic. Ahmed’s central contention in this chapter is that the valorization of prescriptive legal discourses as most properly Islamic has seriously distorted our conception of Islam as an intellectual and lived tradition. This initial chapter represents a sustained and extensive argument for resuscitating what one might call an Islamic Humanities that in Ahmed’s view is too often marginalized as either “culture,” or as less than adequately Islamic. In its broadest sense then, this chapter, much like this book, represents a painstaking exercise in subverting commonly held assumptions regarding what does and does not count as Islam/Islamic.

Ahmed presents a lengthy meditation on his profound dissatisfaction with current conceptualizations of Islam in multiple disciplinary fields. The object of his protest is best captured in his own words: “analysts, be they historians, anthropologists, sociologists, or scholars of art or religion, are often frankly unsure of what they mean when they use the terms ‘Islam/Islamic’ or whether, indeed, they should use the terms at all.” According to Ahmed, the difficulty confronted by scholars in pinpointing what Islam/Islamic is, is symptomatic of a deeper problem. Current conceptualizations, he argues, fail to account for the variety of hermeneutical registers that cohere within the Islamic tradition and through which Muslims have sought to make meaning, produce values, and establish norms. But why is this so? In Ahmed’s view, the failure to adequately conceptualize Islam as an analytic category and historical phenomenon emerges from the pervasive assumption that prescribed law – a single
hermeneutical trajectory within the tradition – represents the only determining source for what counts as Islam.

This assumption, he insists, has blinded us to a host of possibilities and questions surrounding the question of What is Islam? In a definite sense, the objective of this chapter is to attune, reorient, and ultimately condition the reader to recognize and eventually embrace a host of alternative possibilities regarding what is Islamic. Ahmed organizes his project to establish the Islamicity of a number of traditions, discourses, and practices often left out or sidelined in most conceptualizations of Islam by presenting six case studies. To each of these case studies, he poses and then proceeds to answer the same underlying question: Is this Islamic? At the risk of some reduction, these six exemplary questions are: what is Islamic about Islamic philosophy? When Sufis claim to have transcended the strictures of law, is that Islamic? Are Suhrawardi’s (d. 1191) philosophy of illumination and Ibn ‘Arabi’s (d. 1240) concept of Unity of Existence (wahdat al-wujud) Islamic? What is Islamic about Islamic art? Is the divan of Hafiz (d. 1390) and the ethos it epitomizes Islamic? And finally, is the consumption of wine Islamic?

The bulk of this chapter is devoted to rehabilitating each of these discursive fields and practices as incontrovertibly Islamic. Ahmed’s twin arguments are: first, these traditions and practices were not marginal to Islam and Muslim societies; to the exact contrary, they were at the center of the most powerful and influential intellectual and political circles in most medieval and early modern Muslim societies. And second, the relegation of art and literature to the realm of culture as opposed to religion is conceptually and historically untenable... read more:

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