• Walter

Six Questions About Islam

In the first chapter of What is Islam: The Importance of Being Islamic entitled “Six Questions About Islam,” Shahab Ahmed asks six questions that take the reader on the challenging path of defining “Islam.” It is important to consider that as societies, persons, ideas, and practices become more diverse, the more difficult is to circumscribe Islam. In short, difficulties remain in “reconciling the relations between the universal and local and between unity and diversity.”[1]Ahmed lays out the conceptual nature and problem of defining one centralized-universal Islam as well as its analytical dilemma, when there is a wide spectrum of “persons, ideas, and practices.”[2] The key notes of Ahmed’s chapter pivot on the challenge that the study of Islam faces: to break down and describe how its abstract or universal principles “have been realized in various social and historical events.”[3] In other words, a meaningful conceptualization of Islam, as theoretical object and analytical category, must “come to terms with the complexity and [often] outright contradiction that obtains within the historical phenomenon.”[4]

The six questions that according to Ahmed are raised among scholars include: “What is Islamic about Islamic philosophy?;”[5] two, the “Sufis’ assertion over the experiential one-ness with the Real-Truth as no longer bound by specific forms and strictures of الشَّريعَة الْإسْلامِيَّة (al-Shari’ah al-Islamiyyah, or Islamic law) and ritual practice;”[6] three, the cross-inflections of philosophy and Sufism of “the relationship between the Divinity and the material world, the boundary between Divine transcendence and Divine immanence as whether or not are Islamic ideas;”[7] four, Ahmed ponders “the ambiguous exploration of wine-drinking[8] and (often homo-) erotic love in figurative art such as the Complete Poems of Hafiz Shirazi;”[9] and this ties into the final question with which Ahmed began the chapter: “that of wine [and] the consumption of wine prohibited by all schools of Islamic law.”[10]

What I find interesting about the author’s proposal to formulate a conceptualisation of Islam is that, on the one hand, he takes us to a broad understanding of the religion linked to the human experience, philosophy, Sufism, Islamic art, and poetry; while, on the other hand, he offers the question of whether drinking wine can possibly be interpreted as Islamic. Yes, wine is considered حرام (haram, or forbidden) in the schools of Islamic law and also vox populi; however, the reader might find the inclusion of the subject seemingly provocative. In other words, wine, within an attempt to conceptualize Islam as “theoretical object by identifying the coherent dynamic of internal contradiction[s] that enable us to understand the integrity and identity of the historical and human phenomenon,”[11] may be used to attract the attention of the reader. I would surmise that after this reflection, he did accomplish in attracting mine.

A scholar of religion can find a clear, straightforward narrative suitable for non-scholars as well. Ahmed highlights, from a non-theological standpoint, reasons for the above questions. Simply put, he seeks to tell the reader what “Islam has actually been as a matter of human fact in history, and thus [is] suggesting how Islam should be conceptualized.”[12] One can observe three challenges that result in the attempt to answer the question, ‘What is Islam?’ First is the assumption of a holistic unity in the face of diverse and contradictory positions on Islamic law that antagonise Muslims. Anyone working in the field of anthropology of Islam “will be aware that there is considerable diversity in the beliefs and practices”[13] among Muslims. Second, opposing claims within the Muslim communities who were at the very centre of socio-political and intellectual interactions. Third, to show that contradictions should not be analysed outside a historical and human experience discourse. Succinctly put, the main difficulty remains in how to reconcile a definition when there is diversity in Islam; Ahmed wishes to identify dynamics of internal contradictions within a diverse history, from local to the universal, as there is no monolithic view of Islamic law. In short, the range of differences has modelled the greatest challenge to a unified concept of Islam, but Ahmed states that “we can find unity in diversity.”[14] Ahmed is clear that, among all schools of law, there is one agreement regarding the theological definition of Islam as ‘the state of submission to God’ as well the concept of تَوْحِيد (tawḥīd, or oneness). What he proposes instead goes beyond the theological discourse to demonstrate, by using historical and cultural outcomes, that what we know about Islam is also driven by philosophical and mystical practices.

From Ahmed’s view, we can see that (historically speaking) Islam brings about contradictions that are an intrinsic part of its groups and for that, what counts as Islamic or what falls under Islamic implies a wide spectrum of colours, so to speak. The author offers an insightful way of understanding the past to evaluate and conceive philosophy, art (poems, music, paintings), and cosmopolitanism as intrinsic part of Islam. Also, Ahmed’s analytical statement notes that the word ‘Islam’ clearly encompasses those who consider themselves as such. On that note, the presence of differences between the theological and the analytical part of the Islam (what counts as Islam or not), remains as a proposal that he aims to underline. By examining historical chains of events, he asserts that Islam has been extraordinarily influenced by فلسفة (falsafa or philosophy) and تَصوُّف (Tasawwuf or Sufism). Furthermore, Ahmed claims philosophy and Sufism as two of “the most predominant part[s] of the Islam.”[15] Regarding the first assertion, the conceptualization of God as the sole required existent for which all other existents are necessary came as a result of a philosopher’s conceptualization; in the end, it “became the operative concept of the Divinity taught in madrasahs to students of theology from the Balkans to Bengal.”[16] On the second claim, Ahmed sustains that it was Sufism that came to “provide the conceptual vocabulary that brought the experiential knowing of Real-Truth including the most profound of all, Muhammad’s revelation.”[17]This assertion offers a deeper identity beyond the already-known identification of Islam as the Holy Qur’an plus the Shari’a. As Ahmed argues, if we really wish to understand Islam’s historical role, we must look at how these various forces have affected one another. To this end, he calls for a “suspension of received categories of distinction”[18] in English academic discussions of Islam. He tries to re-conceptualize Islam as a “human and historical phenomenon”[19] that is sensitive to contradictory normative claims of what constitutes Islam throughout history.

Sufism, a subject Ahmed fixates on quite extensively, is “a way of life where identity is discovered and lived among Muslims in harmony with all that exists around,”[20] and therefore, this can only be achieved through the diverse scope of Islamic traditions. However, the reader questions that, if Islamic traditions that shape societies differ from country to country and social-environmental conditions that circumscribe them, the diversity seems to imply no unity where “relationship between universal and local [stands] between unity and diversity.”[21] There is one piece in Ahmed’s proposal that I find missing. While he is seeking (to a certain extent) to pluralize and dispute the question of what Islam is, Ahmed paradoxically seems to postulate a sort of possibility of imagining a canon-less Islam. As the core of any of the world major religions is precisely the existence of a canon that sets a standardization of foundational sources of guidance, I ponder how this can be achieved when the historical phenomena are characterized by contradictions in a vast and diverse circle of faith. Although, I do assent Ahmed’s notion that by joining contradictions conceptualizing Islam, it “might prove instructive for the study of other experiences that present contradiction on a similar or lesser scale.”[22]

Ahmed’s “What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic” offers a very ambitious effort to understand what Islam means within its historical scholarship and the mystical experience of Muslims. By offering a broader view that connects to Islamic mysticism and philosophy, I must recognise that Ahmed’s efforts must be understood as more than simply re-conceptualizing Islam; he is attempting to see a more comprehensive and more inclusive and expansive definition (if there is one) of the term. More so, he calls Muslims to review the most crucial aspects about the multiple hermeneutical registers that are an implicit part of meaning-making in Islam. In fewer words, contradictions of values and norms have produced Islam, and contradictions are constitutive features of the foundational elements that dominated Muslim societies from the years 1350-1850, in the era he defines as the “Balkan-to-Bengal complex”[23] or the post-formative stage and condition in the history of societies of Muslims. He cleverly identified the different dynamics and contradictions within Islamic traditions, to closely comprehend this phenomenon where Philosophy and Sufism are undoubtedly present within the cosmological concept of Islam.

[1] Shahab Ahmed, “Six Questions About Islam,” in What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, edited by Michael Jones (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 6. [2] Ahmed, “Six Questions About Islam,” 7. [3] Ibid., 8. [4] Ibid., 6. [5] Ibid., 10. [6] Ibid., 19. [7] Ibid., 26. [8] “O beautiful wine-bearer, bring forth the cup and put it to my lips [;] Path of love seemed easy at first, what came was many hardships. With its perfume, the morning breeze unlocks those beautiful locks [;] The curl of those dark ringlets, many hearts to shreds strips. In the house of my Beloved, how can I enjoy the feast. With wine color your robe, one of the old Magi’s best tips [;] Trust in this traveler’s tips, who knows of many paths and trips.” Hafez Shirazi (1326-1390). Hafez Shirazi, and Shahriar Shahriari (translator), “Ghazal 01” in All Poetry, April 9, 1999 (accessed January 20, 2022), [9] Ibid., 32. [10] Ibid., 57. [11] Ibid., 109. [12] Ibid., 5. [13] Ibid., 8. [14] Ibid., 47. [16] Ibid., 21 [16] Ibid., 18-19. [17] Ibid., 21. [18] Ibid., 73. [19] Ibid. [20] Ibid., 98. [21] Ibid., 6. [22] Ibid., 72. [23] Ibid., 75.


Ahmed, Shahab. “Six Questions About Islam.” In What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, edited by Michael Jones. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Shirazi, Hafez, and Shahriar Shahriari (translator). “Ghazal 01.” All Poetry. April 9, 1999. Accessed January 20, 2022.