More than a Religion

Malise Ruthven

  • What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic by Shahab Ahmed
    Princeton, 609 pp, £29.95, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 691 16418 2

For many years now – and especially since 9/11 – there has been much strongly felt disagreement about what Islam is. Is it a religious faith like Christianity, where theological notions such the Incarnation or the Trinity (rejected by Muslims) or the ‘messengership’ of Muhammad (denied by Christians) can be accounted for as variations between different groups of believers? Or does Islam amount – in Ernest Gellner’s phrase – to a ‘blueprint for a social order’, an alternative model to the liberal consensus, which confronts our democracies with a challenge as severe as the totalitarian movements of the 20th century? In the current climate of incoherent foreign policies, bungled interventions and sectarian wars, of humanitarian disasters and disintegrating states, with Islamist atrocities wrecking lives in European as well as West Asian cities – not to mention the ‘collateral damage’ inflicted on innocent villagers by drone strikes – the need for proper answers could hardly be more urgent. If Islam is ‘just’ a religion, comparable to but distinct from its Abrahamic siblings, Western societies may feel confident in pressing Muslims to conform to mainstream values while allowing them spaces for public worship and private conscience consistent with national loyalties. If it is much more than a ‘religion’ – a whole, alternative way of being that is at variance with the liberal consensus – then the modern nation-state may now be in deep trouble.

Shahab Ahmed, who died last year of leukaemia at the age of 48, wrestles with this question in his long, extraordinary, ungainly book, which hovers uneasily between a cultural manifesto and a reader for graduate students. Its unusual approach – there are page-long citations from an impressive repertoire of literary and scholarly works, transcriptions into Latin characters of lengthy passages in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Punjabi and other Eastern languages, argumentative footnotes, tedious repetitions and academic jargon – suggests an excess of erudition, not quite fully mastered. But it has its advantages. Knowing that his authority is certain to be questioned Ahmed lets the sources speak for themselves before marshalling them for his argument. As he explained to Elias Muhanna, his former assistant at Harvard, he aimed to erect ‘a scholarly edifice so formidable’ that no one would be able to challenge it. Though many of the ideas he puts forward will be familiar to specialists, lay readers may feel that everything they thought they knew about ‘Islam’ has been turned on its head.

By all accounts Ahmed was a scholarly phenomenon. He was fluent in more than a dozen languages, including Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi, as well as English, French and German; Muhanna in an obituary essay published in the Nation referred to his ‘terrifying erudition and wit, sharpened by an unrepentantly refined British accent’. Graduate students were faced with a ‘fearsome syllabus front-loaded with hundreds of pages of reading each week, mainly in primary sources’. Those valiant enough to stick with his courses – who weren’t put off by his tendency to be ‘prickly, arrogant, contemptuous of poor preparation’ – found the experience not just rewarding, but life-transforming, even if they were ‘stunned by the audacity of his expectations’. Having been born in Singapore to Pakistani parents, both doctors, Ahmed was sent to a boarding school in England, where – the only Muslim boy – he was very good at cricket. After graduating from the Islamic University in Malaysia, he is said to have ‘flirted’ with political Islamism before working as a journalist in Afghanistan, where he played football with a ‘six-foot-six’ Arab known as the ‘sheikh’ – Osama bin Laden. He obtained a master’s degree at the American University in Cairo, then a doctorate at Princeton for a dissertation on the ‘Satanic Verses’ – the idea (explored by Salman Rushdie) that the devil inserted phrases into the Quran praising female deities, which were subsequently redacted from the holy text.

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