An Extraordinary Scholar Redefined Islam
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.
Ahmed’s cosmopolitan ideas grew out of a stunningly cosmopolitan life. Raised in Malaysia by Pakistani parents, he was sent to British boarding school as a child. I had the impression that the experience was fairly brutal for the only Muslim boy in the school, many thousands of miles from home -- like something out of Roald Dahl. Ahmed sometimes said that what saved him from utter ostracism was his cricket skill as a spin bowler. He never lost the patrician English accent that he learned there, nor his love of cricket, particularly as explained by one of his idols, the West Indian Marxist historian and cricket writer C.L.R. James.
After boarding school, Ahmed studied at the Islamic University of Kuala Lumpur, flirting with the forms of Salafism and political Islamism that were nascent in the 1980s. Instead, he ended up as a journalist in Pakistan, crossing into wartime Afghanistan, where he once played soccer with, as he put it, “a 6’6” Arab whose teammates refer to him as ‘the shaykh.’” From there, Ahmed earned his undergraduate degree at the American University in Cairo and his doctorate in Islamic studies at Princeton. He came to Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow in 2000 and remained there as a professor until last year.
Ahmed’s path to his field-changing reconceptualization of Islam came through profound study of how orthodoxy was formed in early Islam. He discovered and proved that in the first two centuries of Islam, almost all Muslims believed the story according to which the Prophet Muhammad was briefly deceived by Satan into reciting the so-called Satanic verses, which described three Arabian goddesses as intercessors between man and Allah. Today, in contrast, essentially all believing Muslims reject the story as false. Ahmed charted and began to theorize the process of change.
From this study of orthodoxy, Ahmed began to consider Islamic non-orthodoxy. Specifically, more than other great world religions, Islam, as understood and practiced by Muslims great and small throughout history, seems to embody deep contradictions. Outside the Arabic-speaking world, especially in the swath of territory stretching from the Balkans to Bengal, Islam was not lived or experienced primarily as a body of laws or religious rules. Yes, there were rituals, and, yes, there were courts. But in practice Islam focused as much or more on texts such as the poetry of Rumi and on the rituals of mystical Sufi brotherhoods.
Among elites, poetry, philosophy and mysticism came together in the practice of wine drinking at parties specially designed to generate close unions that were mystical, philosophical -- and physical. Considering that the Quran prohibits the drinking of wine, not to mention some of the forms of love that go with it, Ahmed began to think that Islam must be much more than the rules in the law books.
Ultimately, Ahmed concluded that Islam is not a religion in the usual Western sense, or primarily a system of religious law or a set of orthodox beliefs, as many contemporary Muslims have come to believe. Islam is rather a welter of contradictions -- including at the same time the tradition of orthodoxy and law and the contrasting, sometimes heterodox traditions of philosophy, poetry and mystical thought.
Today’s Salafis miss the contradiction and complexity because they see Islam as only rule and creed. In fact it’s that and much, much more. It’s capacious enough to include both the prohibition on wine and the elevated practice of drinking it to achieve higher truth.
Islam is thus in some ways a kind of culture or a civilization -- but more than that, this contradictory Islam is a way for those who call themselves Muslims to make meaning in the world. Islam is made, Ahmed argued, through three things: the text of the Quran; the context of lived ideas and culture produced by actual Muslims; and the nature of the universe itself against which the Quran is revealed, which Ahmed called the “pre-Text.”
Defined this way, Islam contains multitudes. It incorporates the scientific study of nature, the philosophical inquiry into reality, and the mystical experience of seeking after the divine -- understood in its deepest sense of true love. Indeed, Ahmed described what he called a sixth madhhab, or school of Islamic law, beyond the orthodox five: the madhhab of love.
Writing as a historian, Ahmed never overtly called himself an adherent of the madhhab of love. But that is what he was to his very core.
And his broad, extraordinary vision could not be more timely given the challenges now faced by Islam. Salafis, whether peaceful or violent, claim that they alone possess the true understanding of Islam, based on their narrow and limited beliefs about the Prophet and his generation. In their violent form, they want to impose their beliefs on others. The killing and enslaving of non-Muslims and the destruction of the historic past of the Near East -- including the Islamic past -- are alike features of this single-minded narrowness.
Ahmed showed, with 600 pages of textual and historical proofs too numerous and prominent to be denied, how Islam is and has always been much greater and more capacious than that. He demonstrated, in his work and in his life, that it’s within the power of today’s Muslims to make rich and cosmopolitan meaning within their tradition -- to embrace, not reject. His legacy should extend beyond the world of scholarship to the world of thought and belief and action and love.
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