M. Bakri Musa
10th May 2016
Review of Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic
First of Two Parts
While holidaying on an island in the Indonesian Riau Province I came upon a communal graveyard. I was surprised that while the graves had markers, there were no individual identifications, no names or even dates of death. On enquiring, the villagers told me that this was to discourage ancestor worship. In Islam we worship Allah, and only Him. Any deviation would be shirk, a blasphemy.
Yet only a few islands away on Pulau Penyengat, there is an elaborate mausoleum to honor the great poet Raja Ali Haji of Gurindam XII fame. On religious days and special occasions, villagers throng the site; at other times they come to pray for their children’s success at school.
The inhabitants on both islands are devout Muslims. While we could readily comprehend and accept variations in Islam (or any faith for that matter) in different geographic areas and with different cultures, the people on both islands are all Malays. What gives?
On a more substantive level, with my Minangkabau clan, inheritance goes exclusively to daughters, a direct and apparent defiance of the Koranic injunction that daughters get only half as much as sons. Yes, we Minangkabaus are also Malays and devout Muslims.
If there are such glaring contradictions in the practice of Islam within a small homogenous society, imagine the situation across cultures and continents. The ummah (community) as a whole has failed or refuses to recognize this central and obvious reality.
Much of the schisms ravaging the Muslim world today and in the past are rooted in this fundamental failure to accept much less embrace such differences. Every Muslim feels that his or her particular version of the faith is the only true one, the rest are but bida’a (adulterations), or worse. The consequence to this thinking is that every Muslim feels a messianic urge and rage to correct those “misled.”
On the flip side, when some Muslim Nigerians and Afghanis behave like brutal savages, the entire global Islamic community gets blamed. To non-Muslims we are but a monolithic homogenous mass with the same ideals and aspirations.
Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic addresses the reality of such conspicuous contradictions, dizzying diversity, and perplexing plurality within Islam. He focused on the vast arc of Muslim land from the Balkans to Bengal to illustrate his point that such diversity, plurality and outright contradictions are very much the norm in Islam, now and then. His somewhat oxymoronic but elegant phrase “coherent contradictions” does not in any way diminish that reality.
Ahmed had a Southeast Asian connection. Born in Singapore of Pakistani ancestry, he graduated in law from the International Islamic University, Kuala Lumpur, and later blossomed in America. A Princeton PhD, he was on the faculty at Harvard where he completed his tome. He died recently in his forties.
Scholars like Shahab Ahmed, trained in modern scholarship with its emphasis on critical thinking and rigorous analyses, shine new light on our faith. The Islam that we discover from such works is much more beautiful and relevant to our present ever increasingly diverse and interconnected world. That Islam is also a refreshing departure from the one projected by our traditional scholars, obsessed as they are with their dazzling quotations of the Koran, hadith, and the layers upon layers of ancient commentaries, or the “ideal” and “true” version as projected by reformers, ancient and contemporary, mesmerized as they are by their “enlightened” hermeneutics of our holy texts.
Shahab Ahmed sought the meaning of Islam “in a manner that expresses the historical and human phenomenon . . . in its plenitude and complexity.” The book is an endeavor “to locate the logic of difference and contradiction as coherent with and internal to Islam.” Ahmed did not presume to tell readers how Islam should be practiced to ensure one’s personal salvation. As to who would end up in Heaven, well, that is, as Muslims put it, Allahu alam (only God knows!).
This book is an account of what Islam means to its followers then and now, in the Balkans as well as Bengal, not what the ulamas and legal scholars think it ought to be. It is the Islam lived by its followers, not the prescriptive and proscriptive variety, or the halal versus haram version. The book however, is not a sociological treatise either in content or style. There are no surveys, graphs or statistical analyses, and the prose is highly readable. Technical terms and strange-sounding Arabic words are kept at a minimum.
Shahab Ahmed began by posing six questions. What is Islamic about Islamic philosophy, considering that more than a few of its practitioners were non-Muslims; likewise with Islamic art? The next three questions pertain to some esoteric theological beliefs and practices of the Sufis that would rile up the Wahhabis and other conservatives.
The sixth and most striking is the issue of imbibing wine. Every Muslim knows or thinks he knows that wine is haram. Yet wine drinking was common at one time in much of the Balkans-to-Bengal arc. Rumi’s canonical Divan makes frequent celebratory references to it. There were even wine decanters inscribed with Koranic verses, and used at state functions during the heyday of the Islamic empire.
What is Islam gets great reviews. As a parenthetical aside, the snippets of glowing reviews reprinted on the book cover are from scholars whom the author had mentioned favorably in his book!
The book is over 600 pages, with drawn-out but not dense sentences, paragraphs that often extend well beyond the page, and chapters (there are only five) of mini-book length. Beyond that, the ideas and revelations presented require much contemplation to ponder and absorb. Nonetheless the reader is well rewarded in the end and could appreciate why the book is getting all those accolades. They are well deserved!
The Koran asserts that Islam is “for all mankind, at all times, and till the end of time.” Our holy book also says that Allah in His infinite wisdom had created mankind in all its diversity. As such, Islam must of necessity be a very big tent. We should not be surprised then that those on the western or sun-setting side would dress and behave differently from those on the eastern cooler part, or those on the northern side would view the world differently and speak a different language, with words, imageries, and metaphors carrying entirely different meanings.
Consider language. The Koran was revealed in a language understood by the Bedouins. Its words, metaphors and imageries did not arise in a vacuum rather they were the ones frequently used and well understood by those early Arabs. The denotations and connotations however, may have changed over time and place. They may well be at variance with the original usage.
Take the word ‘poetry.’ During the prophet’s time, poets were hired to assassinate characters or ridicule them. Poets were literary whores; their words may be poetic and stir emotions, but they were whores nonetheless. Today we hold poets in high esteem. Same word but vastly different if not diametrically opposed meaning.
Likewise imagery; consider Hell as depicted in the Koran, an eternal inferno. What would be the imagery had Almighty Allah chosen not an Arab but an Eskimo to be His Last Messenger?
That brings me to the story of the priest sent to the frigid North to preach among the natives there. On his very first fire-and-brimstone midnight sermon he warned his flock of the severe punishment of Hell awaiting those who transgressed God’s laws. Imagine his horror when the very next morning his parishioners were all gleefully indulging themselves! When asked they responded, “But Father, we want to go to that place where the big fire burns all the time!”
Same imagery, but evoking vastly different emotions and meaning!
To understand the Text (Koran), we would first have to comprehend the pre-revelation language, or what Ahmed referred to as the “Pre-Text,” as with the meaning of poets. Then we would have to appreciate the “Con-Text,” as with the imagery of Hell.
Much of the discussions on Islam today, in the West and in the Muslim world, involve languages and expressions of the dominant West, as with secular versus religious. Such dichotomy, with its constricting either/or proposition, while appropriate in the West with its history of heavy Church involvement in the affairs of state, is irrelevant in Islam or alien in its history or culture. If anything in Islam, as Noah Feldman noted in his The Fall and Rise of the Islamic State, ulamas and scholars served as bulwarks against the excesses of the state and sultans.
At least that was the traditional roles of scholars and ulamas. Today as exemplified in Malaysia and elsewhere, they have been co-opted by the state to be its instruments for control and repression. Recall the wisdom of Sa’adi Shirazi’s Gulistan: Hell is full of scholars who were close to rulers; heaven with rulers who befriended ulamas.
Islam is more than a religion, our imams remind us often. It is all encompassing. An either/or dichotomy is inadequate. More relevant would be a spectrum or “axis of values,” not between religious or secular but along such lines as public and private, or state and personal. Spectrum means that boundaries are fuzzy, and would vary with circumstances. Instead of having to make a dichotomous choice, we have instead a hierarchy of values that is fluid, malleable, and changeable.
Thus what is haram or unacceptable in the public arena is very much tolerated if not embraced (pardon the pun) in the privacy of one’s bedroom. Consider this legend attributed to Caliph Omar, may Allah be pleased with him.
On one of his famous “walk-about” management routines, he came upon an unmarried couple engaged in what Malaysians would call khalwat, in the privacy of their quarters. The Caliph barged in and pronounced them guilty of adultery, and handed them the ultimate punishment, stoning to death (at least for the woman), as prescribed in the Koran.
After the Caliph had finished his ranting, the man calmly admitted that yes he and his partner had indeed committed a sin against God, as per the Koran, but the Caliph on the other hand had wronged the couple by invading their privacy, also haram as per the Koran. The great Caliph, recognizing his error, apologized and recanted his verdict.
The central point here is that in Islam, the latter – wronging your fellow man – is the far more serious offence than transgressing God’s laws. A Generous and All-Forgiving Allah may forgive you, not so your fellow man whom you have wronged.
The other and far more relevant point is the primacy of personal privacy. Even the great Caliph had to respect that. In Malaysia today we are obsessed with khalwat raids in hotels while the swindling of public funds done openly by our leaders is condoned if not considered praiseworthy. With the former you transgress God’s laws; the latter, you wronged the rakyats by robbing them of their due.
Caliph Omar recognized this hierarchy and spectrum of values implicit in Islam. No wonder he is universally held as the greatest Commander of our Faith.
Next: Second of Two Parts: Learning Islam From Muslims, and Muslims Learning Islam