Islam in contemporary times is a concept laden with biases, preconceptions and ambiguity. It is often judged to be a strictly conservative, traditionalist and repressive religion that strictly binds its believers to an unbreakable religious codex, the Sharia. Such an opinion however is uninformed and does not at all explain the phenomenon of Islam in its profundity, complexity and openness. Shahab Ahmed in his wonderfully elucidating book ‘’What is Islam?’’ eloquently lays out these often- disregarded aspects of Islam and precisely demonstrates the tremendous complexity in trying to define or delimit Islam, showing that it might be easy to have an opinion on Islam, but very difficult to have one that is informed. In this essay I argue that Islam, instead of restricting its believers, invites them to transcend Islam. First, I argue that Islam is a phenomenon that is created, maintained and developed by human beings living it as a reality and that at the same time it is a force that transcends humans both spatially and temporally. I will examine why Islam cannot be defined by sole recourse to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the resulting body of law- the afore- mentioned Sharia and is thus not merely religious but also historical in nature. Next, I will investigate what it means to be Islamic, to relate as an individual to Islam as a multidimensional body of ideas. At last, I argue that Islam, a rich fauna of vibrant culture does not repress but in opposition nourishes the freedom of believers.
Many Jurists and scholars identified the Sharia- the Islamic system of law, legislation and personal conduct- as the sole arbiter of what is Islamic and thus as the instrument by which Islam can be defined. Such a definition of Islam is insufficient, limiting Islam to the juridical interpretation of its scriptural core. According to Shahab such a definition is fallacious since it disregards the historical reality of Islam. Islam as a cultural phenomenon growing and transforming throughout history transcends its scriptural core and the Sharia. Islamic culture, next to a complex and carefully worked out body of jurisprudence, incorporates a vast diversity of peoples, a wide array of poetry and visual arts, an elaborate philosophical tradition as well as systematic mystic tradition: Sufism. These other dimensions of Islam, especially philosophical arguments and world- views, mystical truths and poetic metaphors and elements of language influenced the basic discourse of Islamic societies throughout history. Thereby they shaped the present- day- understanding of Islam, its development and the identity of its adherents past and present. Shahab clearly demonstrates this by evoking the importance and popularity of what he calls the ‘’Sufi- philosophical amalgam’’. The idea of an ultimate reality in which the Truth- seer is one with God, far removed from all duality, which is propounded among Sufis significantly influenced the formation of world- views in Islamic societies. So did Avicenna’s definition of God as necessary being, which Islamic scholars use up to the present day. In the Ghazal, a poetic form which was widely used to express the pain of a lover who is separated from the beloved, Persian intellectuals communicated their sentiment and their self- understanding. It was common practice to criticize and evaluate legal norms manifested in the Sharia and discuss it in relation to the way of life of ascetics or preachers as viable and just as Islamic alternatives. This shows that the Sharia, even though significant and inseparable part and parcel of Islam, never constituted the whole of Islamic identity but functioned next to other discourses. Poetic language and metaphors, peripatetic and Sufi- inspired metaphysical ideas formed the common discourse among learned strata in Islamic societies and shaped the Islamic myth which served the general public as a source of understanding their world. Having this in mind it becomes clear that a well- informed understanding of Islam, lending a rigorous emphasis to the reality of undeniable phenomena, must include such heavy- weighing influences.
Acknowledging that Islam as a cultural and historical phenomenon transcends its religious core due to the appendage and intermixing of various contributions forming a vast cosmos of ideas, of (sadly mostly) great men implies that ‘’Islam’’ is not a fixed entity which can be defined by delineating its borders. Looking at its cultural development and at its spatial expansion, it seems as if Islam is animate, a living conceptual organism and cultural movement growing and changing its form over time, nourished by the creative activity of its adherents. By animate here is meant that Islam seems to function due to the creation by its members, elaborating, deepening and interpreting it. Such a definition is consistent with the movement in Islamic research that tries to define Islam as process. More systematically defined, this process would include not only the different dimensions of Islam (Poetic, Juridical, Philosophical, Mystical etc..), its spatial expansion to inherently different cultures which are spatially and culturally far removed from each other, but also the vast cosmos of ideas, exchange and discourse manifested in uncountable writings. In a sense Islam as a cultural process is the creation of Islam through time by its adherents inspired by the Muhammad’s revelation. It can thus be defined grossly as a core phenomenon incorporating Qur’an and hadith and the appendage of other influences and dimensions which came to shape the later understanding of Islam to this day.
This implies that Islam is denotable, but indefinable in that it is continuously developing, growing and transforming, never consisting of a definite number of constituents, never delimited. Anthropologist Abdul Hamid el- Zein calls this creative process the ‘’ongoing creation of meaning’’internal to Islam. He writes that the creation of meaning isolates certain instances of meaning and transforms them into static elements which encompass a plurality of different, dynamic meanings under the umbrella of one meaning. This train of thought leads him to the argue that it is objectively senseless to talk of one Islam that encompasses the plurality of its dynamic phenomena, that it is an analytic concept that is meaningful only in denoting the structural relations of elements internal to the network of relations which it denotes. El- Zein’s Islam resembles a system, consisting of internal elements and entities which are all interconnected, never isolated and in constant flux. In such a complex system it seems that ‘’Islam’’, as an analytical concept is a term which is of pragmatic use for a general understanding of the system as well as for conceptual clarity. I would like to call this, for the sake of brevity the universal dimension of Islam. Universal in that all information that is contained within the multidimensional system or process, as a vast body of ideas, is applicable to any subject, if it be willing to engage in rigorous inquiry or study.
Ahmed disagrees with el- Zein, maintaining that there is an Islam that exists in the eye of the beholder or individual believer, who is part of the ummah (Islamic religious community). According to Ahmed it is realistically unacceptable to propose that there is no one thing which is Islam when in reality the vast majority of peoples calling themselves ‘’Islamic’’ are convinced that Islam exists in actuality. El- Zein’s approach seems to remove analytical rigour from lived phenomena. Consequently, argues Ahmed besides being a cultural, historical phenomenon- el- Zeins system or Ahmed’s matrix- a significant dimension of Islam is its lived reality by its adherents. I would like to propose that it is only due to the subjective dimension that the lively, conceptual system of Islam functions, is sustained and developed. This emphasizes the key- role that subjective belief or identification with Islam plays for the system in its conceptual totality. Only due to its believers is Islam passed on from generation to generation, remaining actively alive. It is for thinkers and fluent tongues like Avicenna, Hafiz, Ibn- Arabi and so on that Islam is so rich in intricacy, complexity, profundity and beauty.
Now, any Islamic believer conceives his/her personal belief by way of delimiting the whole of the conceptual system according to depth of study/ inquiry, its spatiotemporal and social surroundings as well as from the dimension of inquiry (Law, Poetry, Philosophy, Mysticism etc.) and the availability of information according to social rank and place in time. Thus, I would like to call subjective belief the particular- dimension of Islam, since each personal belief necessarily differs in its uniqueness from personal belief of others, both from group to group and individual to individual. ‘’Islam’’ as a proper existent, being given a certain form by means of definition by individual, subjective believers then truly does not exist in its universal but undefinable conceptual totality. However, it can be said to exist in its definable, idiosyncratic particularity. Any individual in contact with the phenomenon forms its particular conception of Islam in accordance with universally available information in its specific space and time. Since this is so, an interpretation of Islam, which considers its universal and particular dimensions, consists not only of the scriptural core but includes unique elements of believers, whether or not they are consistent with the scriptural core, which influenced the general discourse within Islam. Therefore, idiosyncrasies, regardless of whether they be poetic allusions to homo- erotic love, Avicenna’s conclusions which contradict Muhammad’s teachings, Hafiz’ celebration of wine- drinking or statements considered heretic such as ‘’I am the Truth’’ uttered by al- Hallaj, according to such a historical, cultural definition of Islam are Islamic. A definition of Islam, which denies that those thinkers were Islamic, fails to explain and account for the profound influence that these fascinating minds had on the Islamic culture at large.
In opposition to a wide array of historians and anthropologists, which tend to deny the existence of Islam altogether, Ahmed argues that the meaningfulness of the idea of Islam cannot possibly be overemphasized. Even though my distinction of Islam into a particular and a universal aspect does not occur in Ahmed’s work such a distinction is coherent with his analysis of Islam into a cultural and human phenomenon on one side and a subjective dimension on the other. To continue the discussion, the idea of Islam took a central place in the life of towering geniuses of Islamic culture. This becomes clear when one considers exclamations like those of Avicenna who claimed that no faith was founded better than his or those of Hafiz, who wrote that no one could grasp how much of a blessing the Qur’an had been to his life. Not to speak of Ibn’ Arabi who dedicated his life to the creation of Qur’anic commentary. These great individuals besides being deeply faithful and pious created their own world- views, most of them intimately related to Qur’anic tenets. Without exception, they cherished the Qur’an and Sharia as a divine revelation, a piece of undeniable truth of an underlying reality, however not as that reality itself. Thinking thus, they dared to venture into that reality, continuing Muhammad’s project, by retrieving their own portions of truth, which they found in the immersion with the reality that underlies the Qur’anic teachings.
Of course, their retrieval contained many a piece of invaluable wisdom as much as it contained falsehood. Nevertheless, the architecture of Islam was developed and elaborated through their minds. Islam, in their eyes seems to have been not a mere religion but reality as such in all its dimensions and thereby they proved in the process of their work, that Islam truly has no essence, that there is no dividing line, which separates or elevates it from empirical reality, or that its essence, if there be one, is reality.
Islam, in the end transcends itself by merging with reality. This leads me to conclude that the core values cherished by the intellectual and creative elite in Islam: Love and Knowledge, have a self- transcending function. The towering role that Knowledge played in Islam is observed in the Qur’anic verse: “He gives wisdom (hikmah) to whom He wills; and he who is given hikmah is given an abundant good […]”. Wisdom here is portrayed as an invaluable gift that is given to seekers as the result of an epistemic quest for truth, their creative and intellectual labour being rewarded by God with the revelation of universal truths. Systematic philosophy in the eyes of Muslims was the science of hikmah, cherished and valued as the revelation of divine truths by means of reason. Philosophers came to be known under the name of hukama, which translates as “those who practice wisdom” Love on the other hand was valued as an epistemology superior to reason in intellectual Persian circles. It was an object of admiration, a sanctified state of being in which the lover experienced higher truth. A whole body of literature, the madhab i’ ishq was dedicated to the poetic discussion of that most exalting of sentiments. These most precious of values- Love and Knowledge are values inviting, nay even calling the believer to transcend the borders of the scriptural framework and to delve into reality to experience those values as lived realities. The great mystic Ibn’ Arabi expressed this in his al- Futuhat al Makkivva by saying that there is no reality but God, that every name is a name of God and that God is the very existence of all beings.
Additionally he wrote that every human could find in the scripture what suited its nature and personal understanding of reality. He implied that there is an unlimited multiplicity of fruitful interpretations of the Qur’an. Seen in such a light it seems that the scripture relates intimately and meaningfully to situations and problems in the life of the individual which is contact with it. Consequently the Qur’an would be guidance, endowing the reader with suggestive advice as to their conduct and the nature of reality, not however as a rigid imperative. Such a hermeneutic of the Qur’an is perfectly consistent with the reality of Islam as described above and is closer to the phenomena- the practice of Islam in Islamic cultures throughout history, than the legalist interpretation which postulates Islam as a system of Law that applies to each individual equally, regardless of their unique and personal circumstances. Ahmed clearly demonstrates how all throughout Islamic history, believers lived and embraced the freedom to interpret the prophetic teachings according to their own, rigorously reasoned understanding and used them in their lives and inquiries into reality. He shows that the Qur’an was thought of as uncompromisingly binding only in very limited and minor circles. Instead, Islamic intellectuals and common people found delight, advice and enhancement of freedom in the profound wisdom of the Suras. Ibn’ Arabi observed that one’s interpretation of the scriptures was dependent on one’s personal perspective and angle of observation. Never in Islamic society has it been the case that one prevailing perspective dominated all others. Clearly, Islamic cultural reality is distinguished by a flourishing multiplicity of worldviews in which Muslims were encouraged to investigate reality on their own terms and to contribute their findings to the ongoing creation of Islam.
In this essay, I have opposed the common collapse of Islam into the body of laws that the Sharia poses with an interpretation of Islam that is closer to its historical and phenomenological reality, strongly inspired by Ahmed’s fascinating research. In the course of discussion, it became clear that a well- founded understanding of Islam must, to pay homage to its phenomena, include the vast influences of Sufis, Poets and Philosophers and other great minds had on the cultural soil of Islamic culture. Responding to Ahmed’s depiction of Islam, I discussed the universal and particular dimensions of Islam, especially the influence that one has on the other. The purpose of this discussion was to demonstrate that Muslims in their time and place, realistically related to Islam not as a strict set of laws but as a cultural, multidimensional body of ideas discussed from a multitude of different angles and perspectives. At last, I discussed the implications that this way of relating to Islam has on the freedom of individual believers concluding that Islam, in its cultural reality, cherished freedom, free inquiry into reality and the sweet- tongued expression of the all- cherished sentiment Love. Thus, I argued that the essence of Islam is reality and that therein it transcends itself, inviting seekers of truth to plunge into the Sea of a vast reality yet unknown.
Ahmed, Shahab. 2016. What is Islam: The importance of being islamic. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Chittick, William. 1989. The Sufi Path of Knowledge . New York: State Unversity of New York Press.
el- Zein, Abdul Hamid. 1977. “Beyond Ideology and Theology: Searching for the Anthropology of Islam.” Annual review of Anthropology 227- 254.
Qur’an 2:269 al- Baqarah
 Shahab Ahmed: “What is Islam: The importance of being islamic” Princeton University Press, Princeton (2016, 124)
 Ibid., 31
 Ibid., 19
 Ibid., 35-37
 Ibid., pp. 125
 Abdul Hamid el-Zein,
“Beyond Ideology and Theology: The Search for the Anthropology of Islam” in Annual review of Anthropology, 1977 (Vol. 61, 227-254)
 Ibid., pp. 251-251
 Ahmed 2016, 138
 Ibid., 139
 Ibid., 141
 Ibid., 13
 Ibid., 34
 Qur’an 2:269 al- Baqarah
 Ahmed 2016, 16
 Ibid., 42
 William Chittick: “The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn’ Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination” State University of New York Press, New York (1989, 94)