Book Review: What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic

I recently wondered on Facebook how people define religious “authenticity,” meaning actions or beliefs which reflect an (or the) genuine manifestation of a religion. This is a question I frequently consider regarding Judaism, particularly Orthodox Judaism, where adherents perpetually argue over which (or more accurately, whose) opinions, interpretations, beliefs, or practices define the franchise of being “Orthodox.”  These sorts of questions are generally internal to Orthodox Judaism, where affiliates claim authority to determine the boundaries and legitimacy of a nominally shared identification.

At the same time, I have been more attuned to the similar arguments over what is “authentic” Islam,  which have become commonplace in the public sphere. It does not take much effort to find studies and screeds differentiating between “moderate” or “fundamentalist” Islam, or those who assert with confidence that there is no meaningful difference between them.

As someone who has had an insider’s view of the debate within Judaism, I have been equally fascinated and frustrated by the parallel discussions regarding Islam. Many of the same people who can identify dozens of denominations and sub-denominations within Judaism (or Christianity) can only speak of Islam as single, unified phenomenon. Many of those who see fit to define Islam based solely on English translations of selected Quranic verses would quickly dismiss anyone whose conception of Judaism was based on similarly selected English translations of the Bible. Complicating matters even further is that as I have read the works of actual scholars of Islam, my own illiteracy in the subject matter precludes me from evaluating the merits of any statement, while my experience in reading Jewish scholarship precludes me from trusting anyone at face value.

With this in mind, I am exceptionally grateful for the contribution of the late Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic, 1 an earnest attempt at not only defining Islam, but essentially reclaiming it.Shahab perfectly introduces What is Islam with this revelatory anecdote worth citing in full.

Some years ago, I attended a dinner at Princeton University where I witnessed a revealing exchange between an eminent European philosopher who was visiting from Cambridge, and a Muslim scholar who was seated next to him. The Muslim colleague was indulging in a glass of wine. Evidently troubled by this, the distinguished don eventually asked his dining companion if he might be so bold as to venture a personal question. “Do you consider yourself a Muslim?” “Yes,” came the reply. “How come, then, you are drinking wine?” The Muslim colleague smiled gently. “My family have been Muslims for a thousand years,” he said, “during which time we have always been drinking wine.” An expression of distress appeared on the learned logician’s pale countenance, prompting the further clarification: “You see, we are Muslim wine-drinkers.” The questioner looked bewildered. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Yes, I know,” replied his native informant, “but I do.” (3)

The subject of a Muslim tradition to drink wine is a recurring theme for Ahmed. Just as many non-Jews are aware of the Jewish prohibition against mixing meat and dairy, many non-Muslims know that Islamic law prohibits drinking wine. However, Ahmed meticulously documents a tradition of drinking wine by Muslims who viewed themselves as doing so not in opposition to Islam but in the name of Islam.

If the image of Muslims drinking wine in the name of Islam seems like a contradiction, it is. But Ahmed sees these contradictions as “constitutive of Islam” where, “ambiguity, ambivalence, contradiction and paradox are legitimate and enfranchising predicaments experienced and lived as a crucial part of being Muslim (lived as Islam)” (200-201). 2 More important to Ahmed is what these contradictions represent; that that practicing self-identifying Muslims differ in their core perceptions of Islam is (or ought to be).

While this point ought to be obvious and uncontroversial to any student of religious traditions, Ahmed criticizes the many popular theories which unduly privilege adherence to Islamic law as the determinant of Islamic legitimacy. Ahmed specifically points to philosophical traditions such as Sufism which prioritize truth-seeking over observance.

…Islamic philosophy subordinates the Qur’ān to the supremacy of reason— which is to say not merely that the text of the Qur’ān is read rationally; rather, the concept of the Qur’ān as the text of divine revelation is constructed and read subject to the demands of a total Truth-matrix elaborated by reason in which reason/ philosophy is the higher truth and the text of revelation the lower (97).

While there are plenty of disagreements among Muslims regarding authenticity, these discussions cannot be resolved by outsiders without biasing one tradition over the other.

Ahmed’s own approach is to avoid taking sides, essentially rejecting the “orthodoxies” of one interpretation over another.  At the same time, Ahmed is also careful to avoid relativism. He finds little use for pluralizing “Islam” as many “islams” on the grounds that doing so minimally implies the existence of an“Islam” (or idea of Islam) shared by all “Islams.” 3 How then can we account for the differing perceptions of Islam without reducing Islam to being “whatever Muslims do is Islam?” On this point, Ahmed draws a fine line between defining Islam purely by what Muslims do versus what Muslims do in the name of being Islamic.

My point is not that “whatever Muslims say or do is Islam,” but that we should treat whatever Muslims say or do as a potential site or locus for the expression and articulation of being Muslim/ Islam— and look at each of those statements with eyes wide open to how they are meaningfully formed and informed by the value of Islam/ Islamic (303-304).

Ahmed continues that we should “look expansively to the full gamut of genres and registers in which Muslims, speaking and acting consciously as Muslims, expressed that which they regarded as being of existential meaning, moment and value.”  In Jewish terms, this might be called whatever is done  lishmah – for the sake of heaven.

Ahmed’s own solution is to incorporate all manifestations of Islam as being one in which Muslims engage in truth-seeking through specifically defined parameters.

I conclusively propose, therefore, that we conceptualize human and historical Islam as hermeneutical engagement with Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text of Revelation to Muḥammad….It will be seen in what follows that by conceptualizing Islam as hermeneutical engagement with Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text of Revelation to Muḥammad we become able to map our concept of Islam readily and coherently onto the differentiated and contradictory landscape of human and historical Islam in a manner that locates the logic of internal contradiction, thereby allowing us to see how contradictory statements and actions made by various claimants to Islam actually cohere meaningfully to their putative object— Islam— as well as to understand how Muslims are able to entertain and live with these contradictory statements and actions as Islam (363).

Here Ahmed introduces three fundamental components for Islamic engagement: Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text. Obviously enough, the “Text” refers to Mohammedan revelation as recorded in the Qu’ran.  In order to include the philosophical traditions, Ahmed includes the category of “pre-text” which refers to universal eternal truths of revelation which existed long before Mohammed’s revelation.

But for Ahmed, for such engagement to be truly “Islamic,” it must be conducted within what he calls, “con-text,” defined as  “that whole field or complex or vocabulary of meanings of Revelation that have been produced in the course of the human and historical hermeneutical engagement with Revelation, and which are thus already present as Islam” (356).  Or, to put Ahmed’s idea in Jewish terms again, we may simply call Ahmed’s con-text, “tradition.”

I refer back to Jewish terms in part because that is my primary frame of religious reference, but also because I find Ahmed struggling with similar issues and concepts that Jews face when determining its own authenticity. Some prioritize law, others seek more universal truths, and virtually everyone attempts to ground their ideas via some sort of historical precedent.

Furthermore, Ahmed’s own conceptualization of authentic Islam is itself subject to the tautology of who gets to participate in the “hermeneutical engagement.”  The obvious answer would be, “Muslims,” but just as Jews dispute “who is a Jew?” – and in some circles, “who is a rabbi?” – I could not find where Ahmed ever defines who is considered an authentic “Muslim,” even though it is “Muslims” who are the active participants in defining Islam.There are many other points to cover from Ahmed’s 500 page book, and I am in no position to evaluate the veracity of much of Ahmed’s statements regarding Islam itself. However, it is clear to me that Ahmed was wrestling with many of the same issues Judaism has been facing regarding defining the boundaries of its own authenticity in the face of variations and contradictions, and even finding parallel solutions or concepts in the process.

There are many other points to cover from Ahmed’s 500-page book, and I am in no position to evaluate the veracity of much of Ahmed’s statements regarding Islam itself. However, it is clear to me that Ahmed was wrestling with many of the same issues Judaism has been facing regarding defining the boundaries of its own authenticity in the face of variations and contradictions, and even finding parallel solutions or concepts in the process. I will leave it to others to provide a more ecumenical conclusion, but at least in terms of its own internal struggles over the soul of its religion, Judaism and Islam may have more to learn from each other than either may realize.


  1. I came across the book via a review by Prof. Noah Feldman, a colleague of Ahmed who assisted with the final stages of the book, as Ahmed had already fallen ill before its completion.
  2. Shahab makes frequent use of italics to stress his points. Emphases in quotations are his.
  3. In chapter 3, Ahmed rejects conceptualizing Islam as a “religion” in part because “religion” itself has proved difficult to define, going as far to say, “the meaningfulness and validity of the received category of “religion” has been put into question” (176). However, Ahmed’s assumption that there must be some unified definition of Islam because its adherents claim it exists could be equally applied to “religion” as there are millions of people who claim to be “religious.” While the ancillary point of resolving “religion” is well beyond the scope of the book, I found Ahmed’s dismissal of “religion” inconsistent based on his own analytical criteria.
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