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Noah Feldman

An Extraordinary Scholar Redefined Islam

Shahab Ahmed's cosmopolitan life stretched his understanding of the religion.
There's a wide world of Islam beyond the Hajj.

There's a wide world of Islam beyond the Hajj.

Photographer: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

My friend Shahab Ahmed, who died Thursday night at 48, was the most brilliant and creative scholar of Islam in his generation. Master of perhaps 15 languages -- he was too modest to name a number -- Ahmed led a remarkable, fascinating life that took him from Kuala Lumpur to Cambridge and seemingly everywhere in between. He was as comfortable chatting with mujahedeen in Afghanistan (where he was pretty sure he played soccer with pre-terrorist Osama bin Laden) and madrassa teachers in rural Pakistan as he was in the seminar rooms of Princeton and Harvard. And he left behind a 600-page magnum opus, called “What Is Islam?” that is scheduled to be published in December.

In it, he offers an original, challenging definition of Islam completely at odds with what Salafis and other radicals, not to mention many Westerners, believe. Ahmed’s vision of Islam, profoundly informed by more than 1,000 years of history, poetry, mysticism, science and philosophy, offers an authentic, sophisticated and inspiring alternative to the cramped, reductive and often violent versions that predominate today.