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Feb 21, 2024

Islam as One Thing, Anything, or Nothing

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Caner Dagli

Caner K. Dagli

College of the Holy Cross

Caner K. Dagli is an associate professor of religious studies at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

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Islam as One Thing, Anything, or Nothing

What the Western Academy Gets Wrong

Theologian Reading the Koran, Osman Hamdi Bey, ca. 1902

Theologian Reading the Koran, Osman Hamdi Bey, ca. 1902

Does Islam exist as an ever-unchanging reality? Or is Islam whatever Muslims happen to say it is? Can Islam even be an object in the world at all?  Let us examine some significant contributions in the academic literature on the conceptualization of Islam and the Islamic: The Venture of Islam by Marshall Hodgson,1 a classic global history that deals with the “What Is Islam?” question so extensively that the relevant sections could constitute a small monograph on its own; What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic by Shahab Ahmed,2 the most thorough treatment of the subject to date; the recent Lived Islam: Colloquial Religion in a Cosmopolitan Tradition by A. Kevin Reinhart;3 and the highly influential article “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam” by Talal Asad.4 None of these describes Islam in a way that most Muslims throughout history would accept, yet we should understand that these works are significantly different from each other with regard to their inner contradictions and incoherence. They represent a range of approaches that are still very prevalent in modern scholarship about Islam.

Marshall Hodgson’s demarcation between Islam and Islamdom, and the corresponding attributes of Islamic and Islamicate—that is, between the religion and its corresponding civilization—offers one of the most sustained and influential attempts to disambiguate the concept of Islam in the history of Islamic studies. The notion of “Islamicate” as opposed to “Islamic” has become well established in several scholarly fields related to the Islamic world. He speaks of it this way: 

There has been… a culture, centred on a lettered tradition, which has been historically distinctive of Islamdom the society, and which has been naturally shared in by both Muslims and non-Muslims who participate at all fully in the society of Islamdom. For this, I have used the adjective “Islamicate”. I thus restrict the term “Islam” to the religion of the Muslims, not using that term for the far more general phenomena, the society of Islamdom and its Islamicate cultural traditions.5

But in order to draw the line between Islamic and Islamicate one must first know what makes Islam what it is, and on this point Hodgson finds himself caught between two contradictory kinds of claims. The first is this: “When we look at Islam historically… the integral unity of life it seemed to display when we looked at it as a working out of the act of islâm almost vanishes. In such ever-renewed dialogues, among settings formed apart from Islam at all, is not anything possible provided only it possess a certain general human validity? We can no longer say that Islam eternally teaches a given thing, or that another thing is necessarily a corruption of Islam.”6

But he then says: “What then is Islam? Can we study it as a meaningful whole?... Clearly, yes: but only in the way that any cultural tradition, whatever its internal contradictions, is a whole. However diversely it develops, or however rapidly, a tradition does not lend itself indifferently to every possible opinion or practice. It imposes limits which are none the less enduringly effective for being impossible to formulate in advance.”7

Hodgson recognizes the possible objections to this line of thinking, and notes, “Not every scholar, and certainly not every Muslim, will be happy with so strong a limitation as I put on the existence of any eternal ‘true’ Islam.... Perhaps my usage [of “Islam”] should always tacitly presuppose some such adjective as ‘historical’, as against ‘ideal’ or ‘metaphysical.’” But regarding the global unity of that historical Islam across diverse cultures he says,

Among Christian or Buddhist peoples, religion has indeed been very central also. But it has informed the culture of Christian Occidental and of Christian Abyssinians, for instance, almost entirely in isolation from each other, so that there is no single civilization associated with Christianity. Nor is there one civilization associated with Buddhism. But—despite the vaster areas covered—those who participated in the tradition of Islamic faith, so far as they developed any culture of their own at all, never lost contact with each other: their cultural dialogues were always intermeshed. The bonds of Islamic faith, indeed especially the irrepressible transcendent ideals implied in the root meaning of islâm, with their insistent demand for a godly transformation of all life, have been so telling in certain crucial aspects of the high culture of almost all Muslim peoples that we find ourselves grouping these peoples together across all their different regions, even apart from considering other facets of high culture. Islam offered creative impulses that ramified widely throughout the culture as a whole, even where it was least religious. It is largely around the central Islamic tradition that the concerned and the creative built and transmitted a common set of social and, above all, literary traditions; these were carried in many languages but looked largely to the same great classics, not only religious but secular, and especially to the norms which they express, applicable to all aspects of life.8

It is perplexing to read Hodgson’s claim that “when we look at Islam historically... the integral unity of life... almost vanishes,” even as he describes a set of creative impulses, norms, traditions, and classics so coherent that they achieved a “decisive continuity” despite the “greatest diversity” of forms—greater than the diversity of Christian or Buddhist peoples, by his own estimation. Within the bounds of the “historical” as against the “ideal,” what Hodgson says about the continuity and global unity of Islam is about as close as one can get to saying that Islam “eternally teaches a given thing.” 

So, Hodgson asserts that in terms of being Islamic, anything is possible—but also that anything is not possible. One must avoid affirmation of an “ideal” Islam—but Islamic civilization also has an unsurpassed unity because of its “irrepressible transcendent ideals.” Islam as a historical reality has a vanishing unity—but also a decisive continuity. These contradictions are real. 

When we turn to other attempts to navigate the demarcations around Islam, this “ideal” or “metaphysical” thing that “imposes limits,” which Hodgson is willing to wrestle with and whose presence he cannot bring himself to erase, will be theorized in a way that denatures it until it becomes something else entirely. 

Contradiction and Islam 

One example of this latter kind of theorization is Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam?, a sprawling chronicle of Islamic cultural, intellectual, legal, and social life focused on the area he calls the Balkans-to-Bengal complex (from Eastern Europe to South Asia but significantly excluding the Arab world or Africa), which Ahmed uses to theorize Islam within a framework that relies on what he calls “inherent contradiction.” In a representative passage, he says, 

Islam as Muslim engagement with Revelation-as-Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text contains already within its very structure and dimensionality the premise and promise of multiple spatially-differentiated truths. These contradictions are not merely externally contingent; rather, they are structurally inherent. Fundamental and outright contradictions of Truth and Meaning are thus structurally and logically and objectively internal and intrinsic to Islam. Contradiction hence emerges as not merely inherently Islamic, but as coherently Islamic: contradiction inheres to and coheres with the spatial-structural dynamic of Revelation to Muĥammad.9

There are insurmountable logical problems here that no amount of empirical examples marshaled from Muslim history can overcome. To declare that contradiction as such is inherent to some “structure” of practices or ideas is precisely to declare a free-for-all in which there can be no structure at all.

A Discourse Between Muslim Sages, Govardhan, ca. 1630

A Discourse Between Muslim Sages, Govardhan, Mughal dynasty, ca. 1630

Rules or principles, by their very nature, are contradictable; there must exist examples that could violate them. If it cannot be broken, it is not a rule. If one asserts that contradiction is inherent to Islam, whatever contradicts any Islamic rule will be automatically included in Islam, and therefore there was never a rule in the first place. What Is Islam? opens with the example of a Muslim asserting, “My family have been Muslims for a thousand years... during which time we have always been drinking wine.... You see, we are Muslim wine-drinkers.” The concept of Islam developed by Ahmed—with its internal contradiction—could not rule against such an assertion. Neither could it, for that matter, exclude assertions such as “We are Muslim pork eaters” or “We are Muslim gamblers” or “We are Muslim pimps.” 

Ahmed frequently speaks of different domains in which contradiction occurs, and he observes that Islam has been characterized by hierarchy and by an inward-outward dynamic, which he sometimes refers to as spatial differentiation and multidimensionality. This is all entirely correct. But to observe the presence of hierarchy and an inward-outward dynamic and then to jump to “contradiction” is a total non sequitur. Ahmed’s conceptualization of Islam consists of outright contradiction, but his recognition of hierarchy and an inward-outward dynamic is the very thing that will avoid outright contradiction. To say that wine drinking is halal (permissible) even though wine drinking is haram (forbidden) is an outright contradiction. To use wine as a symbol for the love of God in a poem and to also refrain from drinking fermented grapes is not a contradiction; rather, they are two realities at different levels (hierarchy), or it could be said that one pertains to the inward and the other to the outward. Instead, Ahmed seems to be arguing that hierarchy and dimensionality entail outright contradiction, which is a grievous logical error: 

To live with outright contradiction, as societies of Muslims have done, one must be able to conceive of contradiction in such a way that contradiction is coherent and meaningful in terms of one’s paradigmatic values and truths. This is not possible unless a Muslim conceives of contradictory Truth as arising necessarily and directly from the structural and spatial dynamic of Revelation to Muhammad as Pre-Text, Text, and Context—that is, un.less a Muslim conceives of contradictory Truth as coherent with and meaningful in terms of Revelation to Muhammad.10

In a strange reversal, Ahmed takes the solution to the analytical problem of contradiction in Islam (namely, the hierarchy and dimensionality in Islam that helps us make sense of apparent contradictions) and turns it into the very condition by which outright contradiction comes into being. For Ahmed, the very generation of “(Islamic) Truth and Meaning in two main spatially-differentiated trajectories, namely, hierarchy and interiority/exteriority,” is what enables Muslims “to conceptualize Islam in terms of contradictory meaning-making.”11

Taken together, despite the frequent recognition that there are levels and dimensions to Islam, what we are presented with in What Is Islam? is a notion of “contradiction” that is purely arbitrary. “You see, we are Muslim wine-drinkers” is proclaimed without reason or reasoning. Do they drink wine because of something? It seems they just do. Others just don’t. And since both are Muslims, there is a “contradiction.” 

Islam as a Discursive Tradition 

In his article “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam” (1986), which has become a touchstone for many scholars working on conceptualizing Islam,12 Talal Asad says, “Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogenous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” For Asad, a successful anthropology of Islam must use the right concepts, and for him the right concept for Islam is “discursive tradition.” But that conceptualization runs into logical trouble when he tries to define “discursive” and “tradition”: 

A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. These discourses relate conceptually to a past (when the practice was instituted, and from which the knowledge of its point and proper performance has been transmitted) and a future (how the point of that practice can best be secured in the short or long term, or why it should be modifed or abandoned), through a present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions, and social conditions). An Islamic discursive tradition is simply a tradition of Muslim discourse that addresses itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future, with reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present.13

If Islam is a discursive tradition, and if a tradition “consists essentially of discourses,” that makes Islam a “discursive set of discourses.” The modifier “discursive” adds no new information. To say “discursive tradition,” then, is like saying “unmarried bachelor.” It is redundant, or circular. Moreover, if Islam is a discursive tradition, are there nondiscursive traditions somewhere? If such nondiscursive traditions exist—traditions that do not consist essentially of discourses—then Asad’s definition of “tradition” is wrong or incomplete.

One cannot find a way out of this impasse in the temporal aspects of tradition Asad mentions regarding the past, present, and future. Any discourse will relate to a past, a present, and a future. How could it not? One could say that Islam is distinctive in being very old, being incredibly vast and variegated, and being likely to endure—that is, it has a long past, a massive present, and an open future—but these are merely differences in scope. One might say that Islam is a “long-standing discourse” or even a “megadiscourse.” But discourses are discourses, whether small or large. Reversing the phrase to say that Islam is a “traditional discourse” would solve no problems, since utilizing Asad’s own definition of “tradition,” one would produce the same result that was produced by unpacking “discursive tradition”—namely, “Islam is a discursive discourse.” 

It is crucial to note that Asad speaks of “discourses” using the technical sense established and developed by Michel Foucault and his epigones: “discourse” in this sense does not refer to everyday communications or debates. No one who reads the words “discursive” or “discourse” in the general neighborhood of Foucault should think of the idiomatic meaning of these words; one is dealing essentially with homonyms. Foucauldian “discourse” refers to the assertion of power through language, to mechanisms of control that are disguised as—or appear in the form of—rational practices. Power is the cause; ideas are the effect. “Discursive” refers not to the exchange of ideas qua ideas but to the way in which power constructs ideas—constructing not only this or that idea but also constructing the very subject who is taken to be the originator of those ideas.

Asad wants neither to deny the importance of orthodoxy nor to reduce orthodoxy to a set of doctrines, simplifications that he believes other anthropologists have fallen into. He says, “Orthodoxy is not a mere body of opinion but a distinctive relationship—a relationship of power to truth.” But the power he has in mind is not the power of the ideas qua ideas. Doctrines, teachings, and communications are potentially right, and therefore they can be persuasive or coherent or inspiring or satisfying, but Asad mentions none of these possibilities. Rather, orthodoxy is about the ability of “social, political, economic etc.” power to “regulate, uphold, require, or adjust.” Orthodoxy simply is that relationship of power, and not a body of opinions held to be orthodox. 

Yet Asad also emphasizes that the arguments and ideas in Islam (whatever such things as ideas really are) do not lack nuance and complexity and that traditional orthodoxy is not merely a set of simplistic commands established by a small group of rule makers. He notes that “reasons and arguments are intrinsic to traditional practice” (and here one must assume he means “practices proper to a set of discourses”), and so an anthropologist ought to describe and analyze those reasons and arguments. He goes on, “It is here that the analyst may discover a central modality of power, and of the resistance it encounters—for the process of arguing, of using the force of reason, at once presupposes and responds to the fact of resistance. Power, and resistance, are thus intrinsic to the development and exercise of any traditional practice.”14 The primacy of power runs through Asad’s overall construction of a concept of Islam, but it is not made clearly because it is marred by the initial redundancy and confusion around the concept of “tradition.”

A thirteenth-century Mongol prince, studying the Qur’an, ca. 1300

A Mongol prince studying the Qur'an, illustration of Rashīd al-Dīn Hamadānī's Jāmiʿ al-tawārīkh (Compendium of chronicles), possibly Tabriz, ca. 1300

Asad does not deny something he calls rationality in Islam, and he firmly rejects those who see Islam as “unchanging, repetitive, and non-rational,”15 but the question arises: What precisely does he mean by rationality? Let us recall the role of power. For Asad, the relevant power relationships are not unchanging, and they are not repetitive, either in the modern West or in the Islamic world. Therefore, one should expect that the subjects who are constructed by those evolving power relationships would not be unchanging or repetitive either—either in the West or in Islam. But change that comes randomly or deterministically is different from change that comes from the free choice of rational beings. Does “rationality” simply refer to the mere existence—the mere fact—of complex, nuanced, contentious arguments existing as things in the world? If so, that bare fact still would not tell us whether rationality was the product of random processes, or deterministic ones, or instead the product of actually free rational agents. One must specify which of those three options it is. Does “creativity” simply refer to the fact that there now exist ideas that did not exist before, or does it mean that a free being thought of something new in light of something old? In short, one must know and indeed always presuppose the answer to the question: What is a human being such that one can distinguish between a person being rational and a person being nonrational? 

When Asad defends Muslims against accusations of rigidity, imitation, repetitiveness, and ossification, it seems inescapable, in light of his own conception of discourse and traditions, that his argument amounts to this: “Islam’s constructed-by-power ideas are just as dynamic, varied, and sophisticated as the West’s constructed-by-power ideas.” One might agree with Asad about the comparability of the two civilizations’ dynamism, variation, and sophistication, but that is quite separate from the question of what constitutes ideas and arguments. And this is no trivial matter, since no version of Islam in any of its historical manifestations could accept the metaphysical presuppositions about human nature, knowledge, and morality embedded in Foucault’s notion of “discourse.” Would any Muslim, at any time in history (before the twentieth century, at least), accept that his rational and moral commitments were the result of power relationships in society constructing subjects who then form those commitments as a function of that power matrix and that that is all those commitments can be?

Can Islam Simply Be Whatever Muslims Do? 

Both Asad and Ahmed disavow the idea, common in academic Islamic studies, that “Islam is whatever Muslims do,” and they seem to recognize its incoherence (and, as we saw above, Hodgson makes statements both for and against such an idea, although most of what he says otherwise would not support such a notion). As Asad notes, 

The idea [Michael Gilsenan] adopts from anthropologists—that Islam is simply what Muslims everywhere say it is—will not do, if only because there are everywhere Muslims who say that what other people take to be Islam is not really Islam at all. This paradox cannot be resolved simply by saying that the claim as to what is Islam will be admitted by the anthropologist only where it applies to the informant’s own beliefs and practices, because it is generally impossible to define beliefs and practices in terms of an isolated subject. A Muslim’s beliefs about the beliefs and practices of others are his own beliefs.16

Yet both Asad and Ahmed salvage this fallacy’s essential impact, however unwittingly, by creating frameworks that render the fallacy not a fallacy in the first place. Their conceptions of Islam have the effect of merely changing the rules of the game, such that the fallacy of “Islam is whatever Muslims do”—that Muslims knowingly contradict each other in what counts as being normatively Islamic—no longer remains an obstacle to overcome.

Ahmed accomplishes this rule change by incorporating his expansive sense of “contradiction” into the very essence of Islam. The “inherent contradiction” of Islam means that the fact that different Muslims believe that other Muslims are wrong no longer matters, and indeed such opposition between Muslims serves as an affirmation of the fact of contradiction being inherent to Islam. “Islam is whatever Muslims do” can be recast, as informed by Ahmed’s conceptualization, as “Islam (with its dynamic of 'inherent contradiction') is whatever Muslims (who contradict each other about Islam) do.” There is no logical problem in saying that a dynamic of contradiction results from contradictory claims. In fact, contradiction is exactly what one would expect, and therefore there is no reason to even consider coherence as a factor.

Asad also changes the rules and rescues “Islam is whatever Muslims do” by casting all points of agreement and disagreement (and hence contradiction) as functions of power relationships. If orthodoxy is defined as these relationships of power, he argues, then the apparent disagreements are not really contradictions; rather, they are articulations and narratives that fulfill the needs of power and resistance. Power relationships are the province neither of agreement nor disagreement; power neither agrees nor disagrees. Rather, power is met with resistance in a push-and-pull struggle. One could call a certain collision of powers a “disagreement” but that would have to be understood through the lens of the concept of a “discourse.” Defining Islam as a “long-standing struggle of power and resistance by means of ideas” (which is what “discursive tradition” amounts to) thus paves the way for Islam to be thought of as the aggregate outcome of those relationships of power and resistance between human beings. Asad’s objection is less to a contradiction and more to what he terms oversimplification, the failure of anthropologists of Islam to account for the full nature of the power relationships and how they are expressed multifariously as “discourses.” For Asad, the manifestations of orthodoxy—which simply are those relationships of power—remain complex and nuanced. When one set of power relationships encounters resistance from other sets of such power relationships, it gives rise to formulations and narratives that themselves collide with each other, and this process, in turn, often gives rise to articulations that are extremely sophisticated. We commonly see those collisions of power and resistance as objective “disagreements” about right and wrong in which conceptions of truth and the good can have content that is not fully determined by relationships of power, but the concept of a “discourse” shows this stance to be naive. 

In short, Ahmed overcomes the fallacy of “Islam is whatever Muslims do” by baking contradiction into Islam, in essence arguing, “Not only is it Islam despite being contradictory; it is Islam because it is contradictory.” Asad overcomes the fallacy by dissolving the very concept of contradiction in a solvent of power relationships; he transcends (really, subverts) the dichotomy between contradiction and coherence altogether. Asad’s and Ahmed’s conceptualizations are logically equivalent to the formula “Islam is what Muslims do” because they both make it impossible to exclude anything a Muslim does from the category of Islam. (The necessary implication is that “Nothing a Muslim does isn’t Islam”—which is logically equivalent to “Islam is what Muslims do”—is also true.) 

This inability to exclude or set limits brings us to the absence of permanent moral and rational content in Islam. Rendering it impossible to exclude anything a Muslim does from Islam is an implicit declaration that Islam has no principles, and no permanent moral or rational substance, because not only is Islam whatever Muslims say it is—and Islam is whatever Muslims say it is for any reason or for no reason at all. Ahmed’s “inherent contradiction” is tantamount to a disavowal of all rational or moral principles, since principles have to include and exclude, and Ahmed’s conception excludes nothing. For Asad, the reasons are not reasons but the mere push and pull of power and resistance. Power neither has nor lacks principles; it is simply the wrong concept, like asking whether algebra is hot or cold. There is nothing independent of power that could be permanent or constant.


Whatever restraint or caution about the fallacy of “Islam is whatever Muslims do” that one finds in authors such as Asad and Ahmed pales in comparison to Kevin Reinhart’s Lived Islam, which takes the antiessentialist approach to the question “What is Islam?” to its furthest extent. Not only is Islam not treated as the domain of the believer to decide its ideal or metaphysical form (Hodgson), and not only is it not a discourse (Asad), and not only is it not something to which contradiction is inherent (Ahmed), but it simply does not exist. Reinhart claims that it is a mistake to believe that “this set of practices and even creedal commitments that we call Islam constitutes a real object in the world.”17 One is confronted with “the variety of Islamic practice that confounds any kind of essentialism.”18

Reinhart presupposes the existence of a Muslim population but provides absolutely no criteria by which people can be included or excluded from this population other than the fact that these people feel they belong together, or that Reinhart does. He allows no objective criterion outside their own intuitions about being Muslim, saying things like “Muslims believe the term ‘Islam’ to be a profoundly meaningful one, and that the term ‘Muslim’ has an actual referent.”19 For him “Muslim” does not have such a referent, even though Muslims believe it does. Reinhart doesn’t say that Muslims believe in a divinity that doesn’t exist, but rather that they hold a set of beliefs that doesn’t really exist. They believe in a belief. Astonishingly, he believes that for Muslims, “the idea of a ritualized life is more potent than the actual prescriptions of the normative Islamic life.”20 Muslims “imagine” themselves to be “religious kin,” and Islam is “conceived of as a set of symbols, principles, and practices.” Notice the distancing here: Islam is not a set of such things but at best is conceived of as such a set. This argument is akin to saying that English speakers speak English by virtue of “conceiving of” English as a language they all speak, not by virtue of actually being able to communicate with each other as speakers of the same language. 

In short, for Reinhart, Islam has no content (indeed no ontology), and it is enough that Muslims conceive of it as having content in order for them to belong together under the appellation “Muslim.” The only defining factor is that people should feel or imagine themselves to be a Muslim or believe that Islam exists and they all somehow belong to it. (They cannot even believe in some common thing. Rather, at most they all believe in the idea of a common thing.) What procedure might Reinhart use to determine that people “conceive of” Islam this way, or that they merely imagine themselves to be religious kin? What is the difference between “religious” kin and other kinds? It seems that Reinhart simply makes an assumption about who Muslims are and imputes to them these subjective states as a way of justifying his intuitions.

Durbar of Emperor Akbar Shah II, ca. 1820-30, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Durbar of Emperor Akbar Shah II, ca. 1820–30, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anticipating the most obvious objection to this line of reasoning, he says, “To say, glibly, ‘Islam is universal, because Muslims all believe in the Qur’ān,’ is to miss the fact that the Qur’ān is variously understood and appropriated. It is affirmed by all Muslims and that affirmation unites Muslims, but it is also, like South Indian or South Alabaman English, locally inflected.”21 The statement of fact that all Muslims believe in the Qur’an cannot be dismissed as “glib.” To say that “the Qur’an is variously understood” and is “locally inflected,” which Muslims know already, and which has been known for centuries by anyone with even a passing knowledge of tafsīr (systematic Qur’an commentary) is one thing. But it is quite another matter to infer that this multivalence means the Qur’an fails to be universal for Muslims. Many passages of the Qur’an have been understood in a multitude of ways, while other passages have been understood in only a limited number of ways, and still others have been understood in one way only.22 This range of ranges of opinion—spanning unanimity and different degrees of disagreement—belies any assertion that the Qur’an can be understood in just any way whatsoever, which is a proposition that the antiessentialist must commit himself to. If one believes the Qur’an cannot mean certain things, then one has just espoused an essence. The Qur’an cannot mean simply anything, and even if some people wish to say it can, no one actually believes it can, including those who utter that claim. Reinhart himself essentializes the Qur’an when he speaks of its “austere God.”23 Can “austere” mean whatever anyone wishes it to mean? 

Reinhart in fact points over and over to an essence—albeit a rather skimpy one in his view. He sees certain “core” Islamic practices and beliefs that “structurally give rise to, provoke, and create a space within which the rich dialect features of local Lived Islam can thrive.”24 How can something that does not exist provoke anything? And if it “gives rise to” something, then it must precede, either temporally or logically, the thing to which it gives rise. Even so, Reinhart is mindful to emphasize how paltry “the Islam of texts” really is. He calls it a “religious Lean Cuisine” that is “really quite sparse.” Its “ritual thinness” is so thin, in fact, that it results in a “featureless plain” around which people can happily fill right in.25 Textual Islam is “thin gruel,”26 and a “lowest-common denominator.”27 Whether these evaluations of cosmopolitan Islam’s “thinness” and “sparseness” hold up to the slightest scrutiny is beside the point, because they show that the antiessentialist assumes some stable core, however insubstantial it is imagined to be. That is all that is necessary to puncture antiessentialism. “The core is very small” is decisively different from “The core does not exist.”28

Who Gets to Say, and Why? 

Despite often impressive erudition and empathy, Western academics attempting to “conceptualize Islam” fail, not usually on factual grounds (although that happens) but, crucially, on logical and even metaphysical ones. They miss something significant: that the only analytically tenable starting point (or at least necessary condition) for “conceptualizing Islam” is to identify the group of Muslims one takes to be standard—either globally or locally—and to theorize their practice and their legacy. This is not an insider-outsider question but a matter of understanding the nature of the realities idiomatically called religions, civilizations, cultures, or traditions. By their very nature such metaphysical institutions can only be fully theorized by identifying the authoritative community and how its members transmit a legacy through their lived practice—much the same way a living language’s correct use relies ultimately on the normative speakers of that language and not on any outside authority. What the approaches discussed above have in common are different degrees of avoidance of the unavoidable—namely, reliance on a standard community of Muslims to conceptualize Islam, however broadly or narrowly one conceives of that community. This avoidance is coupled with a presupposition that Muslims lack the ability to adequately conceptualize themselves and need to have it done for them by outsiders. 

This situation is akin to an English speaker conceptualizing German and also presuming to adjudicate correct and incorrect German, not by relying on some German-speaking authority but by articulating a “theory.” Not only is it logically impossible to theorize something called “Islam” without reference to what one considers a standard Muslim, but it is also highly questionable to presume that after fourteen hundred years one can come along and “conceptualize” it successfully where all others—especially Muslims themselves—have failed. English speakers tend not to have generations-long debates about the correct way to conceptualize German because they assume—and why would they not?—that the Germans have conceptualized their own language just fine. That Islam is believed to stand in need of being conceptualized at all, and for the purposes that are implied, thus raises serious intellectual and moral questions.

Metaphysical Institutions: Islam and the Modern Project

Caner K. Dagli

State University of New York Press, 2024

This is an adapted selection from chapter 8 (“One Islam, Many Islams, or No Islam?”) of the author’s forthcoming monograph Metaphysical Institutions: Islam and the Modern Project (State University of New York Press, 2024).

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