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Can Islam Be More Jewish?

In his new book ‘What Is Islam?,’ the late scholar Shahab Ahmed asks if it’s time to return to an idea of the religion that prizes more than just the Quran

Mark Oppenheimer
July 05, 2016
Courtesy of Lulwah Al Homoud
Detail, Lulwah Al Homoud, 'Cube in Cube,' 2013.Courtesy of Lulwah Al Homoud
Courtesy of Lulwah Al Homoud
Detail, Lulwah Al Homoud, 'Cube in Cube,' 2013.Courtesy of Lulwah Al Homoud

I don’t have much patience for theories of Jewish superiority. I like being Jewish, but it’s pure natal chauvinism: I like being Jewish in the way my gayest friends are psyched to be gay and wouldn’t have it any other way. Or the way my blackest friends love being black, or the way out and proud female feminists dig being women. Real self-love goes so deep that it doesn’t need justification. The second a Jew starts preaching to me about the virtues of Judaism—how our culture has produced 97.8 percent of all Nobel Prize winners (or whatever bogus number she invents), or is uniquely interested in disputation and questioning and argument, or has a special kind of social consciousness—I know that she is trying to talk herself into Jewish pride. The point, as I see it, is not to love being Jewish because we’re such beacons of tikkun olam, but to love being Jewish because so few of us are. Most of us are mediocre assholes just doing our best, like those of every other religion, ethnicity, or extended family.

The only thing, in fact, that I am certain Judaism has right, besides monotheism and a deep aversion to talking about life after death, is a strong sense of what constitutes a religion—or, more precisely, what does not. Most Jews understand, even if we have trouble articulating it, that Judaism is not reducible to a belief system, or an ethnicity, or a nation. Yes, each of those descriptors has its partisans (and I have my own theory, but that’s for another essay). But in the end, Jews generally recognize that the second we name what exactly Judaism is, somebody forces us to start backpedaling. No one aspect of our tradition (is Judaism a tradition? is that what to call it?) can stand in for the whole. And most of us are pretty comfortable living in that negative space. Judaism is not this, it’s not that—it’s just, well, Judaism.

But here’s the thing: I have long felt that other monotheistic religions are more like Judaism than their adherents want to admit, or have the courage to admit. Catholicism, to take one example, is obviously not just a system of theology: The majority of Catholics don’t believe in its theology, or at least don’t believe in it enough to go to Mass, much, or to forgo birth control. Everyone knows there are “cultural Catholics,” just as there are cultural Jews. The difference is that cultural Catholics are more likely to be a little bit worried that they aren’t the real deal: Deep down, many of them suspect that the more orthodox Catholics, the real believers, with their nine kids, are the real deal. In other words, the cultural Catholics believe what the hierarchy tells them: that they aren’t as Catholic as the pope. He is truly Catholic, so are some of his clergy or nuns or monks, and then come the devout laypeople, and then, somewhere on the fringes, barely entitled to the word, are the lapsed or cultural Catholics.

Some will object that this sense of freedom to define one’s own membership is a function of modernity, entirely contingent and new. Today in the modern West, this thinking goes, we can ironize our identity—be Jews but not quite, Catholics but not in that way. But that’s not what I am describing at all! Many non-Orthodox Jews believe that they are just as Jewish, just as authentically, as the most observant black-hatters, and there are Catholic priests (I have met them) who believe that fealty to the Vatican in all matters is just a vice of the uneducated and historically illiterate, who don’t understand the very non-divine political history of the papacy. They believe that their less-obviously traditionalist Catholicism is no less valid, no less real. And of course they can point to statistics that show that most Catholics seem to agree with them, if we pay attention to the stomping sounds as they vote with their feet.

Another objection might be that capacious definitions of membership are all well and good for older religions, with developed intellectual habits—traditions with a Maimonides, or a Thomas Aquinas—but that some religions really are all-or-nothing, in a particularly authoritarian way. There’s some truth to this notion, as even people within those traditions will attest. I once said to some devout Mormons that soon there were bound to be congregations of liberal Mormons—maybe, following Jews, they could be called Reform Mormons. These Reform Mormons would be women and men who had grown up Mormon, who felt deeply Mormon, who maybe even believed in the general truth of the Book of Mormon (the original Joseph Smith story, for example) but who just thought that the official theology handed down by the leadership in Salt Lake City was, you know, bullshit. They would follow, accept, and reject official teachings as they saw fit and even proclaim some teachings of their own. Just as Reform Jews have done toward more literalist Judaism, just as liberal Protestants have done in their view of Scripture. The Mormons I was speaking to were sophisticated men, with doctorates, in fact, but they seemed to have trouble envisioning what I meant.

The idea that anyone could reject the leadership of the church but lay claim to being authentic Mormons seemed absurd, almost illogical. But of course that’s what Jews—and Catholics—do every day. And the traditions, in their way, accept these facts on the ground. Even the most orthodox Jew will accept anyone with a fellow mother as a fellow Jew, and Catholic teaching holds that a Catholic is always a Catholic (even excommunication does not efface baptism, to be technical about it). Mormons will get over their Salt Lake City heliotropism, I am sure of it. The Salt Lake City kind will just be the orthodox kind.

If there is one tradition that would seem to test my thesis, it is Islam. The Islamic world is, of course, filled with lapsed Muslims, cultural Muslims, quasi Muslims, and ironic Muslims—but these days, pervasively, those Muslims cede real authority to what we might call Quranic Muslims, those who foreground strict religious observance, as inspired by one major text. Put another way, all these other kinds of Muslims have a bad case of feeling like “bad Muslims.” Bad Muslims aren’t necessarily ashamed of being bad; many are so estranged from religious observance that they don’t care one way or another, while some take a perverse, Oedipal joy in rejecting the stern father of orthopraxy. They are like Jews who say, as they eat a BLT, “Yeah, I’m a bad Jew.” They don’t mean that they’re bad, just that they are blithely non-observant. But whereas bad Jews feel in their hearts authentically Jewish—sometimes a little ashamed, or a little wistful, but still Jewish—we can’t fathom Muslims who drink wine, fornicate, and don’t pray laying claim to being true Muslims. They really are bad.

And we know that, because we know that Islam is harsh that way—right? It’s harsh, and premodern in its essence, and doesn’t allow questioning and certainly doesn’t allow irony or humor. So we’ve been told. Even though it has no pope, and authority is radically decentralized, in any given community the authority is likely to reside with a cleric whose chief claim to authority is memorization of the Quran and knowledge of sharia law and its application. That’s Islam. Right?


Wrong, says Shahab Ahmed, in his new book What Is Islam? Last fall, Ahmed, then a research scholar at Harvard, died of leukemia at the age of 48, and it’s tempting to think that the popular attention given to this scholarly book—a review in The Nation, a column in the New York Times opinion section—owes something to his early demise. But I think that if Ahmed were alive to promote his book, it would be getting far more attention. Because what he’s saying is intriguing over 500 footnoted pages, but is downright explosive when summarized out loud. The short version of his thesis, the one he’d have given Terry Gross or Rachel Maddow, is that Islam is many things, and some of them don’t even have much to do with the Quran.

In short, Islam is a lot like Judaism, in that there’s a culture, and a context, and only a pedantic boob would think that the whole thing can be found by reading the Scriptures, let alone reading them literally.

To back up: Ahmed is very clear that most Muslims today see the Quran and the hadiths as a normative and necessary text, providing a fixed star recognizable even to those who don’t take guidance from it. But he believes that this obsession with Islamic law and religious scripture is recent, contingent, and not typical of Islamic history. And he believes—although he is a little bit coy about saying so—that the Islamic world would do well to rediscover its far more playful and rope-skipping, less doctrinaire and sober, past.

Islam is many things, and some of them don’t even have much to do with the Quran.

In the early part of the book, Ahmed describes the assiduous work done by scholars of Islam over the past hundred years, trying to figure out if Islam is a religion, or a culture, or something else altogether. In the end, for reasons having to do with internal Islamic politics; the aftermath of European colonialism; the rise of the Arab world at the expense of what Ahmed calls the “Balkans-to-Bengal” complex, which includes, prominently, Persian and other South Asian Islams; the oil wealth of those Arab lands; and the general incuriosity of certain scholars (Clifford Geertz really gets the shiv), there came about a general deference to those who believed that scriptural religion was the true heart of Islam.

This deference obscured—as Ahmed argues at great length—an earlier history of Islam, lasting hundreds of years from about the 13th to 18th centuries and present throughout the Balkans-to-Bengal geosphere, in which non-juridical strains of Islam were seen as just as relevant and just as definitive of true Islam. This earlier, richer history included mystical Sufism, erotic poetry, and a general tolerance for wine-drinking. Scripture was but one part of this deep culture, and these other practices could transcend and supersede its law. “The frankly-stated goal of the Sufi,” Ahmed writes, “is to rise through the hierarchy of the truth to the Real-Truth of God—in the process becoming freed from the prescriptions and proscriptions of the law which, upon arrival at the Real-Truth, are nullified.”

For most of Islamic history, Ahmed argues, Muslims heavily drew self-identity from pan-Islamic literature, which in its lusty spirit and letter often contradicted the law. Take the “wine-drinking and (often homo-)erotic love, as well as a disparaging attitude to observant ritual piety” of the poet Hafiz’s Divan. His poems are seen as part of Islamic culture but in a sort of paradoxical way that would be impossible today, as if it hadn’t occurred to pre-moderns that their beloved poet was impious. But Ahmed argues that that’s a misunderstanding; loving Hafiz helped define being Islamic. His oeuvre “was, in the period between the fifteenth and late nineteenth centuries, a pervasive poetical, conceptual and lexical presence in the discourse of educated Muslims … from the Balkans through Anatolia, Iran and Central Asia down and across Afghanistan and North India to the Bay of Bengal”—a region “home to the absolute demographic majority of Muslims on the planet.”

Similarly, Ahmed writes elsewhere in the book, “one of the two or three most important texts (and for many, the single most important text) by which the Qu’ran was made meaningful by Muslims of the Balkans-to-Bengal complex … was a work of literary fiction—namely, the 26,000-verse magnum opus” of Rumi, the Persian Sufi mystic.

What Ahmed is pushing for Islam is analogous to an understanding of Jewish history that keeps the centrality of Torah while allowing for the massive influence on our tradition of oral Torah, Talmudic tales, the legends of aggadah, and of course the Aristotelian renaissance that nurtured Maimonides. In fact, Ahmed goes further: While Kabbalah is not very influential among Jews, except for Hasidim and New Agers, similar mystical and extra-canonical works are central for Ahmed, because they were central to Muslims for most of their history.

Ahmed never draws the comparison to Judaism—in fact, it’s conspicuous that he doesn’t. At the end of his book, Ahmed has argued for over five hundred pages, drawing on original translations from half a dozen languages, that Islam is a culture, a people, and a set of scriptures, and above all that its essence can be found in the hermeneutic, interpretive argument over time among partisans of each of the above. In short, he has argued for a multifarious, multivalent Islam that every Jew will recognize from her own crazy, mixed-up files on Judaism. Why would he avoid saying so?

One answer can be found by referring to the lone place that Ahmed does reference Judaism. It’s late in the book, on page 448, and he is commenting on Maimonides’ intellectual context, which of course was medieval Islamic Spain. “[I]t seems,” he writes, “that the only consideration that might restrain us from calling Maimonides an Islamic Jewish thinker is our ingrained scruples (if not horror) about qualifying one ‘religious’ category by another—as if to do so is somehow a violation of the necessary integrity of a ‘religious’ category.” But of course Ahmed takes a dim view of the utility of such categories. And so, “if we put aside the category of ‘religion’ and focus on meaning, then ‘Islamic Jewish’ is, straightforwardly and without prejudice, the most meaningful term.”

I have no problem with calling Maimonides an Islamic Jewish thinker. Nor do I have any problem calling Ahmed a Jewish Islamic thinker. When he finally decides on a definition of “Islam,” it has all the shiftiness and muddle that the best Jewish thinkers, from Moses to Mordecai Kaplan, bring to their definitions of Judaism. “I conclusively propose, therefore,” Ahmed writes, “that we conceptualize human and historical Islam as hermeneutical engagement with Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text of Revelation to Muhammad.

Here, of course, we get to the crucial reason that Ahmed, so attuned to the historical development of Islam, evades the Jewish question entirely. His is a normative and prescriptive project. He despairs that “Muslims have, in making their modernity, moved decisively away from conceiving of and living normative Islam in hermeneutical engagement with Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text of Revelation, and have, instead, begun conceiving of and living normative Islam primarily as hermeneutical engagement with the Text of Revelation.” And he hopes that by decentering Text, and putting it on coequal footing with what comes before the Quran and the contexts in which people read the Quran forever afterward, Muslims will think more liberally and capaciously about problems from women’s rights to slavery to political freedom.

For right now, as he admits with a strong whiff of euphemism, “it would appear that the public sphere in modern societies of Muslims has, on the whole, emerged as an intimidating and censorious space where speech-acts that contradict or challenge monovalent prescriptive norms are more likely to be persecuted by the public or prosecuted by the state for blasphemy than to be received with equanimity and explorative interest.”

That would appear to be—how do you say?—true. Islam has become very text-centered. That has been bad for people’s freedoms, above all for the freedoms of the quarter of the earth’s people who identify as Muslims. To solve this problem, Muslims will have to look to their own past, and be more like that. For contemporary models, Ahmed might have pointed out, they could look to how other religions have adopted to modernity and be more like them. Ahmed knew as much, but he didn’t want to say so, because he wanted a wide audience within the Muslim world. Good for him, I say. With this bit of coyness, this brilliant book loses none of its usefulness to scholars, or curious amateurs of other faiths, like me, and perhaps it has a world to win.


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Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.