To begin on a personal note: Shahab Ahmed was, quite simply, the greatest Islamic studies scholar of my generation. I first learned of his work in about 1998, when he was writing his dissertation at Princeton University on the historical incident of the Satanic verses, and I was writing my dissertation at the University of Toronto on contemporary Muslim reactions to Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. On my bookshelf is an autographed photocopy of his dissertation, “The Satanic Verses Incident in the Memory of the Early Muslim Community: A Study of the Earliest riwāyahs and Their isnāds,” completed in 1999 under the direction of Michael Cook. I first met Shahab a few years later at McGill University at the Institute for Islamic Studies, which was established by my mentor, Wilfred Cantwell Smith. I was struck by the softness and politeness of his speech, and over the years learned about his incredible linguistic abilities. He spoke and worked in over a dozen languages, as did Wilfred. Shahab’s death from leukemia in 2015 was sudden and unexpected; he was only 48 years old. The first of his books to be published posthumously was What Is Islam? The book under review, Before Orthodoxy, is a tour de force, a magnificent piece of scholarship and a painful reminder of what we have lost. The project was originally intended to be three volumes examining the “history of Muslim attitudes to the Satanic verses incident” (3). Ahmed concludes that “As far as the overwhelming majority of the Muslim community in the first two hundred years was concerned, the Messenger of God did indeed, on at least one occasion, mistake words of Satanic suggestion as being of Divine inspiration” (3). In the dissertation, Ahmed analyzed thirty-seven riwāyahs (historical reports) about the incident. In Before Orthodoxy, he collects another thirteen to round the number of reports examined to fifty. Of these fifty reports, only one (number 41 in Ahmed’s collection) has a chain of transmitters (isnād) that is considered by Muslim scholars to be sound (no unreliable narrators in the chain) and complete (going back in an unbroken line to the eyewitness reporter). Since the other forty-nine reports had suspect or incomplete chains of transmission, Muslim scholars interested in the transmission of reports (hadīth) later denied the historicity of the Satanic verses incident. They were aided in their denial by the theological principle of ismat al-anbiyā, or “sinlessness of prophets,” where God was supposed to protect prophets from sin/error. However, there were other Muslim scholars, engaged in other projects, who accepted the validity of the incident: “The cultural product we are dealing with here—the historical memory of the Satanic verses incident in the early Muslim community—is truth. Since this truth was subsequently constituted and valorized differently by different societies of Muslims in different times in history, the history of Muslim attitudes towards the Satanic verses incident is a history of a changing relationship not only between those subsequent Islamic societies and the historical memory of early Islamic society, but also specifically between the culture and production of truth in those subsequent Islamic societies and their memory of the production of truth in the early Islamic society that authored and transmitted the Satanic verses incident” (15–16). There were Muslim scholars engaged in sīrah-maghāzī (epic biography of the Prophet Muhammad), as well as those engaged in tafsīr (Qur’anic exegesis), who accepted the historicity of the incident. Ahmed outlines these varied approaches in his first chapter, “How to Read the Earliest Sources?” The bulk of the book is in the second chapter, some 225 pages, where fifty of the earliest riwāyahs (historical reports) are collected, translated, and painstakingly analyzed. The chapter is a model for “showing one’s work,” collecting and laying out the information available, so that those who come to different conclusions have all the material in front of them. The chapter is a treasure for those scholars who work on early Islamic reports but is also appreciated by others, including students. I assigned the book in my upper-division undergraduate course on religion in the modern world. None of the students in my class were specialists in Islam, and all of them were undergraduates. While they struggled with the chapter, they could also appreciate what Ahmed had done in laying out his evidence, amply supported by the secondary scholarly literature. They also commented on the fact that without explanation, Ahmed used Hijri and not Gregorian dates throughout the book. Ahmed begins his third chapter with a forceful conclusion: “It has now been categorically established that the Satanic verses incident constituted a standard, widely circulated, and generally accepted element in the historical memory of the Muslim community on the life of Muhammad in the first two centuries of Islam” (265). This third chapter should be required reading for all of us interested in the study of Islam. Ahmed discusses the distinct and different cultural products of sīrah-maghāzī, tafsīr, and hadith: “The identity of the Prophet as constituted by each of these historical memory discourses is directly related to the identities of the genres, projects, and practitioners that remembered, or, to be more precise, re-membered—that is, reconstituted—him” (267). In January 2014, I sat in a theatre in Santa Monica, California, mesmerized as Denis O’Hare recited from his adaptation of Homer, An Iliad. In one scene near the end of the play, in the space of two minutes, O’Hare names the major wars from Troy to the present day. O’Hare is breathless at the end from speaking nonstop, and the audience is breathless at what they have just witnessed and heard. I had that same feeling in reading pages 270 and 271, where Ahmed recounts, in roughly one page of spare prose, the heroic biography of the Prophet. It is, to put it simply and most plainly, magisterial. It is something to be read aloud whenever anyone asks why the life of the Prophet is important to Muslims, or why Shahab Ahmed’s work is important for scholars. I will read these lines as often as I can to my students, a reminder of my friend’s brilliance and eloquence, and what we have lost with his passing. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Academy of Religion. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Journal of the American Academy of Religion – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 21, 2018
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