The medieval English allegorical poem Piers Plowman described the birth of Islam as the result of a clever hoax. Muhammad, it asserted, was a former Christian who had made a failed attempt to become pope and then set off for Syria to mislead the innocents. He tamed a turtledove and taught it to eat grains of wheat placed in his ear. In a scene reminiscent of the enchantment of Melampus, the Greek oracle who was granted the ability to understand animal speech when his ears were licked by snakes, Piers’s Muhammad mesmerized audiences by having the bird fly down during the course of his preaching and appear to whisper in his ear. Staging a moment of revelation from God, the false prophet led men to misbelief by “wiles of his wit and a whit dowve.”
In the centuries following Muhammad’s death in 632, many Christians like William Langland, the author of Piers Plowman, sought to make sense of Islam in the terms and symbols of their own faith. Was it just another schismatic sect led by a great heresiarch, as Dante portrayed it in his Divine Comedy? Or was it an ancient form of chivalry, a Saracen code of ethics? Did Muhammad’s followers think him a god? The figure of the prophet-as-trickster found in Piers Plowman was not the most outlandish attempt to explain the origins of Islam. Medieval French chansons de gestes attributed a welter of fantastical qualities to the cult of “Mahom,” including a pantheon of minor deities superimposed from Roman mythology.
University chairs in Oriental studies began proliferating in Europe in the 17th century and were soon followed by the establishment of scholarly associations and academic journals. By the late 19th century, European knowledge of the languages, histories, and customs of Muslim societies had advanced significantly beyond the scope of medieval apologetics, but the interpretation of Islam through the lens of Christianity remained a central current of Orientalist scholarship. As Shahab Ahmed writes in a major new study, the consequences of this approach and its legacy have made it difficult for moderns—scholars and laypeople, Muslims and non-Muslims alike—to grasp the “historical and human phenomenon that is Islam in its plenitude and complexity of meaning.” Coming to terms with Islam—“saying Islam meaningfully,” as he puts it—requires making ourselves sensitive to the “capaciousness, complexity, and, often, outright contradiction” that inheres within the broadest possible range of practices, beliefs, representational forms, metaphors, and objects associated with Islam.
Ahmed, a scholar of Islamic studies at Harvard, died this autumn at the tragically young age of 48. His book is a strange and brilliant work, encyclopedic in vision and tautly argued in the manner of a logical proof, yet pervaded by the urgency of a political manifesto. It is, in a way, all of these things. For those who knew him, the peculiar ambition of What Is Islam? will not come as a surprise, because Ahmed had been at work for years on a much-anticipated and controversial study about the formation of Islamic orthodoxy. The surprise is that What Is Islam? is not that book.
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