16th May 2016
A Review of Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam. The Importance of Being Islamic
Second of Two Parts
In the first part of my essay I recalled Shahab Ahmed’s elegant albeit oxymoronic phrase “coherent contradictions” to describe the dizzying diversity and puzzling perplexities that are the norms in Islam, then and now.
As for “reforming” Islam, the current fetish among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Ahmed did not have much praise or hope for these reformers, ancient or modern. This was not out of any Islam-does-not-need-reforming sentiment, rather that those reformers limited themselves to reading only the Text (Koran) and then were consumed with their arcane legalistic and hermeneutical interpretations. They ignored the “Pre-Text” and “Con-Text,” or more crucially, how Islam is believed, practiced, and contributed to by Muslims past and present, scholars and ordinary believers alike.
Or in Shahab Ahmed’s words, “how Islam makes Muslims as Muslims make Islam.” Much can be learned about Islam, and about Muslims, from just that.
We can only learn if we do not let ourselves be trapped by the limitations of language but instead continually explore the greater, wider, and deeper meanings of those words, imageries and metaphors. This applies not only to learning the Koran but also other Revelations, and indeed any readings.
This exploration would necessitate the constant questioning and reappraising of the presently accepted. As per Sa’adi’s Gulistan, only three things have no durability without their concomitants: wealth without trade, knowledge without debate, and rulers without justice.
The rapid expansion of the knowledge of Islam and of the faith itself during its first few centuries was attributable in part to the robust and often none-too-peaceful debates among its adherents. Consider the battles between the literalist Kharijites and the rationalist Mu’tazilites that still rage to this day, or the theological argument whether the Koran was created or eternal. As for the prophet, even he was challenged, and often, to demonstrate the legitimacy of his mission and prophethood.
Followers of the various sects and fiqhs harbor profound and irreconcilable differences, yet they all profess to read and learn from the same Koran and abide by the teachings of the same Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims today look longingly to the glorious days of early Islam with the effervescence of its intellectual and other activities. We would do well to examine what was with the environment then that made those early Muslims so productively prolific and creative. Instead we are content with endlessly praising the prophet and those early Muslims while failing to emulate their sterling examples.
For one, those ancient Muslim scholars did not shy away from learning even from the atheistic Greek philosophers. To those early Muslims, knowledge is knowledge, and thus worth pursuing. They did not differentiate between secular and religious knowledge or the equally futile current pursuit of its “Islamization,” a particular fad of contemporary Muslim scholars especially those from the Third World, as exemplified by the late Syed Naquib Al Attas.
Today we shy away from learning from the so-called kafir West. Instead we are content to denigrating its evident shortcomings instead of emulating its spectacular successes.
As for dealing with our differences, Muslims have failed to learn from our own Prophet Muhammad. Legend has it he had instructed his followers who were on a journey to meet at a certain place for their Asar prayers. One group was delayed, and arguments arose within whether they should stop for their prayers or rush on so they could pray together with the prophet at their agreed-upon destination. When they later brought up their disagreement to Prophet Muhammad, his answer was simple. Both interpretations were correct. His central message was that they should stay together and not endanger themselves by separating from each other. This simple wisdom, that there could be more than one valid interpretation, still baffles many.
As per the Koran, Allah will not let his ummah go astray. Meaning, listen to the ummah. This was what Shahab Ahmed did; and we are the beneficiaries of his worthy endeavor.
When there are differences, we must first ascertain that they are real and not apparent. When you say that an object is blue and I say it is green, the difference may be with the lenses we are wearing or the light under which we view the object instead of its intrinsic color. Even where the differences are real, they may be of the blind-men-and-the-elephant fable variety, meaning only the details vary but the underlying beast or principle is the same.
The mission then should be not to denigrate or belittle our differences, or allow them be sources of strife, rather to let them be the stimulus or inspiration for us to explore and deduce the underlying unifying principle.
Consider the universal law of gravity, as demonstrated by the simplistic Newton’s apple falling to the ground observation. Expressed thus, it is readily comprehensible by the masses.
However if one were to be on a Ferris wheel and at a sufficiently high speed where the centrifugal force exceeds gravitational pull, and then let the apple fly out of our hands while at the top of the ride, the apple would “fall” towards the sky, at least for a brief moment. This is the same principle used to train astronauts where they would be momentarily weightless as the plane makes a sharp arc dive towards the ground.
The apple “falling” up to the sky contradicts Newton’s observation, but if we were to understand the underlying principle of gravitational pull expressed elegantly by the formula F=G x M1M2/r2 (where F is the force, M the masses, r the distance between the two bodies, and G a constant), then the two observations of the apple falling to the ground and to the sky are not contradictory but illustrative of the same underlying principle.
Contradictions in Islam are often of this nature, as well as that of the blind-men-and-the-elephant variety. We must continue exploring the meaning of the Koran. We may never discover the ultimate truth, for in the words of the Koran, Allahu alam (only Allah knows), but the search itself can be very enlightening.
We may not be able to discern or extrapolate exactly the shape of the elephant from the various contradictory accounts, but if we could just appreciate the fact that they are all manifestations of the same beast, then we are already far ahead.
Going back to my Minanagkabau tradition of inheritance going only to daughters, this contradicting of the Koran may be illusory and that at the core my culture and the Koran are expressing the same sentiment. That is, inheritance should go to those who would look after their ageing parents, or be in a position to do so. In Bedouin culture, as per the “Pre-Text” of the Koran, that would be the sons. With my matriarchal Minangkabau culture where sons are traditionally engaged in merantau (wanderlust) and with more than a few expected not to return, that responsibility of parental care would fall on the daughters.
As for ancestor worship, again here we are trapped by words. There is a definite difference between respecting and honoring our past heroes and luminaries by building mausoleums and monuments in their honor, versus ancestor worship. However it is also not difficult to imagine the former degenerating into the latter, again demonstrating Ahmed’s spectrum and axis of values.
Similar controversy rages among Muslims with respect to observing Maulud Nabi, the prophet’s birthday. Are Muslims “celebrating” it in the manner of Christians with their Christmas or are we “honoring” the prophet by recalling his wisdom and exemplary qualities on the occasion of his birthday?
As has been tragically demonstrated far too often, words, like sticks and stones, can really hurt you, especially words of the Revelation.
Shahab Ahmed’s greatest contribution to Muslims with this book is his message for us to continue exploring the varied meanings of the words, imageries, metaphors and other elements of language used in the Koran before those words hurt us, and others. At the pragmatic level, by learning and familiarizing ourselves with the various manifestations of Islam we would be able to get a better understanding of this great faith.
For non-Muslims, this book will enlighten them as to the vast and infinite manifestations of Islam. This appreciation will help them understand that when a Muslim undertakes an action in the name of Islam, that’s only his particular vision of the faith. The whole Muslim ummah thus should not be condemned, praised, or in any way be held responsible.
Though modestly priced and readily readable, this book is unlikely to get wide readership especially among Muslims in the Third World. There the reading culture is at best rudimentary and the oral tradition is still strong. Witness the mega crowds at sermons and religious lectures. If that is not already a severe obstacle and burden, then there is the penchant of Muslim leaders to ban books carrying views at variance to those accepted by the authorities.
The ideas presented in this book could albeit with great difficulty be compressed into an hour’s lecture and then distributed in the social media. If some enterprising soul were to do that, Shahab Ahmed’s ideas and illuminating perspectives would get a wider audience. Granted an oral presentation would not have the same impact or retentive power as a book. For that, it would be far more productive if there were to be a Readers’ Digest version of this volume, translated in the various languages used by Muslims. This book could be considerably abridged and made much thinner by dispensing with the detailed documentations and lengthy quotes. Having it in paperback edition would also make it more affordable in the greater Muslim world.
Spreading Shahab Ahmed’s ideas far and wide would be a splendid way to honor this brilliant young thinker, quite apart from disseminating a much more enlightened view of our great faith.