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Saturday, August 12, 2017
Shahab Ahmed's Islam
Shahab Ahmed, to whom Harvard spitefully denied tenure, passed away almost two years ago. His books have been coming out posthumously. This year I can report that Before Orthodoxy is an instant classic. Last year, his university publisher had put out What Is Islam?. I still haven't read this one; but I've seen a few reviews. (We'll leave aside Harvard's judgement for our purposes.)
Frank Griffel has tendered to What Is Islam? a critical review. Griffel does that to many historical critiques of Sunnite Islam, usually unfairly. On this case, though, we should give to Dr Griffel his due. I don't see politically-motivated cant or talking-point in this review. Griffel instead has posted an exhaustive summary of Ahmed's take on "Islam".
Ahmed like Reilly and Starr argues for the normative Islam of its second century, especially in its Iranian "Intermezzo" form, before the Arab and Turkish Sunnites turned it into an arid and unquestionable law-code. The project was more personal to Ahmed given that he was a Muslim. Ahmed, Reilly, Starr and - we finally learn - Griffel seem to agree with each other and, for that matter, with Robert Spencer, that this law-code is inhuman. Ahmed (and Griffel) would only dispute with Spencer that this is not an indictment of Islam in its essence.
If Griffel is accurately representing this book, and I see no reason to doubt this, then Ahmed's inclusion of non-canonical practices into Islamic civilisation has led him into some absurdities. Take Moses Maimonides, the world's most famous Sephardic Jew; he lived in Islamic lands and ended up moving away from a Sunnite fundamentalist tyranny (Islamic Spain) into another Islamic land. According to Griffel, Ahmed counts Maimonides as within Islam. Er...
But this does not seem to detract from Ahmed's achievement, especially when Ahmed surveys the earlier attempts in the field of Islamic(ate) definitions.
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