top of page

What Is Islam

The nature of Islam is something that has been debated among scholars, practitioners and outsiders of the religion alike. With Islam being the world’s 2nd largest religion and the fastest growing one — it is vital for us to clearly define and understand the teachings and practices of such a rich, diverse and complex set of teachings.

Dissecting Islamic doctrine is fundamental in preserving our human civilization— since our current times have been plagued with divisions between two radically opposing ideologies — Islamic fundamentalism and anti-muslim bigotry.

Without an honest discourse regarding the nature of this complicated set of texts and teachings, our civilization risks the prospect of furthering its Islam vs the west cultural wars.

Anti-Muslim bigots, Islamic fundamentalist and Islamic apologists all have one thing in common: they do not understand that Islam is a religion. Islam, like any other religion, is complex and nuanced — it has its strengths and its weaknesses — and its open to a wide variety of interpretations.

For the most part, it seems like Anti-Muslim fundamentalists do not have a deep understanding of the richness of Islamic history — with its Sufi traditions and its philosophical and scientific innovations.

They ignore the role of western imperialism along with a diverse array of political, economic and cultural variables that gave birth to modern Islamic radicalism. Islam’s apologists ignore the fact that religions are prone to change — by not criticizing some aspects of Islam that are incompatible with modernity — Islam’s apologists are robbing Islam of the enlightenment period it so desperately needs.

Islamic fundamentalists falsely interpret the religion in a literal sense, while ignoring its metaphorical, mystical and poetic history. The solution to the growing problem of Islamic fundamentalism is to interpret Jihad as only an inner struggle between you and God.
Islamic fundamentalists should truly incorporate peaceful and mystical aspects into daily Islamic practice — such as Sufi dance and poetry. Islamic fundamentalists must understand that all religions must evolve in order to survive in a modern and democratic capacity.

This brings us to the question: What Is Islam? Shahab Ahmed attempts to answer this question by dissecting Islam as a human and historical phenomenon that is not an object or category — but is a complex phenomenon that must be conceptualized with the capaciousness, complexity, and contradictions within the context’s and frameworks of the faith and other Abrahamic faiths.

By contrast to its Abrahamic counterparts, Islam is unique in the sense that it embodies such a diverse set of people, ideas, practices and interpretations (Ahmed, What is Islam, Pg. 6).

The main challenge in answering our question “What is Islam?” is the ideological attachments involved. How are we to describe abstract and universalistic principles of belief that operate under various historical and social contexts without being ideologically fervent about Islam either being a seamless set of teachings or a set of sporadic texts (Ahmed, What is Islam, Pg. 7).

Islamic doctrine is open to a wide variety of interpretations. Islam’s subjects are scattered in varying regions under distinct historical, political and social contexts. Knowing this, we must avoid characterizing Islam as transcendent or its opposite: barbaric.

How can we truly dissect Islam if it involves such a diverse set of beliefs, practices, law codes and ethnic groups? To begin to truly conceptualize Islam’s diverse teachings and interpretations, we must begin to analyze Islamic history in terms of philosophy, jurisprudence, and poetry.

Contrary to popular belief, the Islamic world has seen rich traditions of philosophical flourishing; though they have not been as strong or influential as it’s western counterpart. It is through philosophers such as Ibn Sina and his colleagues that the Islamic world begins to make sense of the universe. Ibn Sina concludes the following:

The world is eternal, and god doesn’t know the particulars of what we do or say, there is no paradise or hell fire, and revealed truths are only instrumentally true (Ahmed, What is Islam, Pg. 12).

With Ibn Sina fearlessly contradicting the teachings of the Quran and the “divine truth” — it truly proves that Islam is open to philosophical debate and interpretation — even though Ibn Sina was called a Kafir, the Arabic word for unbeliever. When called a Kafir, Ibn Sina rightfully responds by stating:

It is so easy and trifling to call me an Unbeliever; No faith is better founded than my faith. I am singular in my age; and if I am an Unbeliever — in that case, there is no single Muslim anywhere (Ahmed, What is Islam, Pg. 13).

Such rich passages really do tell us that such philosophical paradigms are tailored for the intellectually gifted and not for the narrow-minded literalist religious believer. Ibn Sina furthers his fearless philosophical quest by coining the term Hikmah — which is the perfecting of the human soul by the conceptualizing of things and by the verification of theoretical and practical, real truths to the extent of the human capacity (Ahmed, What is Islam, Pg. 16).

Ibn Sina and his counter parts in Islamic philosophy prove to us that through an Islamic framework — discussions about truth, wisdom and God are possible without irrationality. This breaks the misconception that Islam is a religion that is incompatible with any philosophical, political, scientific and moral innovations.

Al-Farabi, a renowned Islamic philosopher, jurist, and ethicist creates rich political philosophy similar to that of Plato’s Republic. To Farabi, a virtuous city comes into fruition with the combination of the divine and the political. It becomes necessary that the ruler combines the craft of ruling with that of prophecy or philosophy (FĀRĀBĪ vi. Political Philosophy).

Farabi’s thesis is a prime example of political philosophy taking shape in the Islamic context; were the discussions that are taking place are about governance and strong institutions. Islam is not incompatible with political discussions about just institutions, governance and rulers.

Farabi is stating that just governance and Islamic teachings should not be in conflict or at odds with one another, but instead should complement each other. If Farabi’s thesis is accurate or not is beside the point — the point here is that such Islamic political philosophies can lay down the foundations for present day discussions about the relationship between Islamic value’s and democracy.

Muslim scholars should ask a vital question: Should Islamic values be separated from the democratic framework or can they somehow merge with new innovations and consensuses within the Ulama?

Islam can be compatible with modernity if the proper political, economic, and social contexts are in place —and if nations are sovereign without colonial interference. To prove this, one could look at modern Turkey or Tunisia after the Arab Spring. In regards to Turkey, leading constitutionalist thinker Namik Kemal (1840-1940) postulates the following:

“Being created free by God, man is naturally obliged to benefit from this divine gift; general freedom is protected within society because society can produce a preponderant force to safeguard the individual from the fear of the aggression on the part of another individual” (Modernist Islam, Kurzman, Kemal, Pg. 144).

This reiterates that Islam does not have to be contradictory to autonomy and freedom — and that Islam’s subjects can respect general freedoms, the rule of law, institutions and secularism. An instance of this is Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — who separates Islam from the state apparatus and gives women dressing and voting rights.

Many Muslim nations struggle to separate church and state like in the case of Turkey. This is a result of Salafist teaching’s flourishing in certain political contexts and radical approaches in forming Islamic jurisprudence.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, Sharia law is only instituted to preserve the political and religious legitimacy of the House of Saud — and also to compete with the Shia Iran — over who is more Islamic and who should be the leader of the Muslim Ummah.

In regards to Islamic jurisprudence — the jurists must first explore the meaning of the texts in order to determine what rules are contained within the meaning. Here, the jurists must not only employ a texts literal meaning but its metaphorical and implied meaning (Weiss, The Formation of Islamic law, Pg. 23).

It is obvious that the literalist approaches to Islamic law (the Hanbali school that Saudi Arabia abides by) is incompatible with a functioning Islamic law system. Many Islamic laws and rulings are based on the prophet’s teachings; but the prophet’s teachings prove to be vague and inapplicable to real world situations — so jurists should use analogy and adopt legal rulings that are compatible with the time and the social context at hand.

Perhaps religious innovation and imagination in Islam is best symbolized in its Sufi traditions and history. Generally, Sufi Islam serves as an outlet for poetic and mystical expression.

The philosophical idea that prophethood is an extraordinary kind of knowledge resulting from the presence within a given individual of an extraordinary degree of a human capacity — reason — which is in every person in varying degrees; is parallel to Sufi ideas (Ahmed, What is Islam, Pg. 19).

The parallel Sufi idea is that every individual has the potential to develop his or her capacity to attain immediate personal revelatory experience of some measure of the Higher truths of the Divine (Ahmed, What is Islam, Pg. 19).

The point here is that the contrast’s and meeting point’s between Islamic philosophy and Sufism are an example of the Muslim ability to reason and to reinterpret pre-conceived notions. Sufism — the experimental knowing of the divine truth is in fact incorporated into daily Islamic practice.

This tells us that Islam does not consist of literalist dogma’s as many in the west want you to believe — but instead, there are aspects of the faith such as Sufism that celebrate mysticism, love and art.

A prime example of Sufi Islamic beauty is the Diwan of Hafiz (Diwan meaning a collection of poems by an author). The Diwan of Hafiz illustrates beauty, tolerance and love between people — and this is illustrated best in one of his poems in which he states:

“Since the wine-bearer was a moon-faced beloved, and a keeper-of-secrets, Hafiz drank from the wine-cup, and so did the shaykh and the jurist” (Ahmed, What is Islam, Pg. 37).

This passage symbolizes that Sufism promotes love in the Islamic context. Sufi Islam adds layers of compassion to Islamic doctrine. Here, Hafez is saying that the Sheikh and the Jurist need to loosen up and stop calling him an infidel for drinking wine.

They need to share a drink of wine with Hafez and understand that Islam is about love and coexistence. Many Sufi Islamic poems incorporate themes of dance, erotic love and the beauty of wine drinking.

These practices are often called haram (forbidden) by many traditional Ulama and Imam’s; but who are they to judge? Perhaps the mystical and peaceful Sufi’s are correctly interpreting Islam.

In the Sufi context, Islam is not always to be taken literary — it is to be taken in a poetic, mystical and compassionate context. Another example of the beauty of Sufi Islamic poetry comes from Jalāl-ud-Dīn Rūmī. When the jealous jurists of the time ask Rumi if the wine-drinking of his beloved Shams-i Tabrīz is Halal (permitted) or Haram (forbidden), he postulates:

“Mawlana answered with a metaphor, saying, it depends on who drinks it. For, if a wine-skin is poured into the river, the river remains unchanged and will not be polluted — and it is permitted to perform ablutions for prayer with that water, and to drink it. But in the case of a small basin, even a drop of wine will certainly render it impure. In the same way, whatever falls into the salty sea is overcome by the rule of salt.
The straightforward answer is that if Mawlana Shams al-Din drinks it, for him everything is permitted, since the rule of the river applies” (Ahmed, What is Islam, Pg. 100). Rumi believes that there is a hierarchy of truth whereby the claims to universal authority of the legal discourse of halal and haram simply do not apply universally: the value-rule of the small basin does not apply to the flowing river! (Ahmed, What is Islam, Pg. 101).

Rumi believes that the Jurist, Imam and the wine drinker have the same spiritual status. This approach challenges the practice of takfir (declaring someone as Non-Muslim). Rumi and other Sufi Muslims rightfully conclude that Islam is a subjective spiritual experience.

Islam encompasses a wide range of conceptions and literature that make defining Islam as one ideology a dangerous game. The mere diversity of interpretations, denominations and approaches in forming Islamic jurisprudence make it impossible to characterize Islam as a single phenomenon.
We cannot rightfully judge who is interpreting the faith correctly for the following reason: there are so many possible interpretations of the faith that we can never know which one is operating under the Prophet’s original intentions.For instance —when Islamic scholars form law codes —they never agree on what the prophet would have intended on in regard to legal and civil matters.
The Hanbali legal school takes radical approaches based on Sharia law while the other schools integrate more reasonable and civil approaches. Islam must be viewed as a subjective inner experience; one in which the subjects must interpret the religion in a way that is compatible with modernity, democracy and women’s rights. Taking a Sufi approach to Islam will add more poetic depth and flavor to Islamic religious belief.


bottom of page