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Research, Reflections & Commentary

My Academic Blog consists of posts where I share preliminary thoughts about early stage academic research, reflections on theories and methods in the study of religion and Islamic studies, commentaries, summaries and excerpts from primary and secondary sources that are of interest, and short academic essays on topics that serve other scholars and the general public. While none of the posts are peer reviewed academic publications, they cite and comment on others' academic work.

  • Writer's pictureKhalil Andani

What is Islam? Comparing W.C. Smith, Hodgson, and Shahab Ahmed's Models

Updated: Aug 9, 2018

In this post, I comparatively discuss how three thinkers – W.C. Smith (The Meaning and End of Religion, 1962), Marshall Hodgson (The Venture of Islam, 1974), and Shahab Ahmed (What is Islam, 2015) – conceive and define “Islam.” In the course of this discussion, I suggest that the models of Smith and Hodgson could easily be combined due to their similarities and differences to constitute a “faith-grounded” model of Islam. In contrast to this, Shahab Ahmed presents a “hermeneutical” model of Islam. Smith and Ahmed both share a desire to avoid essentialisms and make Islam into more of a process than an entity, but they address this problem in different ways. One weakness of Ahmed’s model is that it risks being overly general at times and could be over-extended and abused to label anything as Islamic. Therefore, I propose that the “Islamicate” category remains valuable and should be added back to Ahmed’s conception of Islam.

W.C. Smith on Islam: Faith and Cumulative Tradition

W.C. Smith’s conception of religion, as proposed in his The Meaning and End of Religion, was a major intervention in religious studies. At the same time Smith was a scholar of Islamic studies and his general ideas concerning religion can be applied to the case of Islam. Smith’s analysis of how Western thinkers defined religion since the time of Augustine yielded at least three different definitions of religion. The first definition defined religio in terms of duties, obligations, oaths, ritual, and piety. With St. Augustine, this idea of religion was also used to generally refer to man’s bond with God. In this view, religion functioned more like an adjective as opposed to an object. The second definition of religion, which came in the wake of the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, defined religion as a complex of beliefs, practices, and codes, embodied in religious institutions and religious communities. The third sense of religion is a sui generis category of human activity, specific to each person, but distinguished from other human activities like politics, economics, social life, science, etc. Smith proposed that the second and third definition of religion be abandoned. In retaining the first idea of religion – the sense of piety, duty, obligation, and the mysterious bond of the human to God, Smith proposed a new dual framework to replace the reified idea of religion: faith and cumulative tradition. In the case of Islam, when this framework is applied, Islam consists of both a person’s faith and the cumulative tradition of Islam that they inherit in their community. In Smith’s view, faith is difficult to pin down, but it refers to an inner experience of the human being related to transcendence. In other places, Smith described faith as man’s orientation toward the infinite. Faith itself is not observable directly; it finds expression in ritual, in piety, in poetry, in statements of belief, and in theology but cannot be reduced to any of these. Cumulative tradition in Smith’s view refers to the entire array of historical religious expressions – objects and activities - of religious individuals and communities: rituals, texts, scriptures, poetry, theology, temples, art, architecture, law, etc. In Smith’s framework, every person has their own unique faith – which is an inner actuality and involvement of each person toward some transcendent reality or end. Cumulative tradition, on the other hand, is what each person of faith finds himself receiving and existing within during his life. Within cumulative tradition, a person finds his or her faith and, in doing so, constructs and reconstructs the cumulative tradition such that it expresses his own faith. The key relationship in this framing is that cumulative tradition refers to the historical observable dimension of religion whereas faith refers to the inner unobservable layer. Accordingly, cumulative tradition consists of the expressions of the faith of some persons in history. When Smith spoke of this framework in relation to Islam, he distinguished three meanings of Islam: 1. Islam as the act of self-surrender, which Smith identified as “faith” (iman in the Qur’an); 2. Islam as a complex of beliefs and practices, conceived either as an ideal or as a historical reality. The latter, the historical reality of Muslim beliefs, practices, etc. would be the cumulative tradition.

Marshall Hodgson on Islam: Islam vs. Islamicate

A second important conceptualization of Islam is found in the work of Marshall Hodgson. It must be mentioned that Hodgson’s concern was with the history and civilization of Islam, and not with religious studies. Nevertheless, Hodgson’s idea of Islamicate in contrast in Islam has become quite popular in Islamic studies scholarship. Central to Hodgson’s view is that Islam the religion is distinct from the culture of Muslims and from the society that holds this culture. Thus, Hodgson refers to the society in which Muslims are dominant as “Islamdom” and he refers to the cultures historically associated with Islam and Muslims as “Islamicate.” He uses the term “Islamic” to designate properly “religious” activity done by Muslims:

The term 'Islamic,' correspondingly, must be restricted to “of or pertaining to Islam in the proper, the religious sense... Islamicate” would refer not directly to the religion, Islam, itself but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims. (Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Vol. 1, 2009, 59)

The difference between Islamic and Islamicate is critical to Hodgson’s general vision and understanding of Islam. As it turns out, Hodgson’s definition of the Islamic hinges on his idea of “religious”. In his Venture of Islam, Hodgson offers several descriptions of what he considers to be “religious” along the lines of: a cosmic orientation toward transcendence; piety; a person’s commitment toward the transcendent; a person’s effort to transcend material life towards a higher domain of reality (The Venture of Islam, 88, 360). Hodgson therefore labels any human activity done by Muslims that is expressive of the “religious” (a cosmic orientation toward transcendence; piety) as “Islamic.” Meanwhile, the Islamicate in Hodgson’s understanding refers only to “the social and cultural complex” of things associated with the religion of Islam. For example, he would classify art, poetry, architecture, ethics, cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy, and other cultural practices as "Islamicate" instead of Islamic because these, in his view, are not expressions of a person's faith and piety (The Venture of Islam, 360). There also seems to be (in Ahmed's words) a "law of emanation" where the further one moves outward from inner piety, the more the scale shifts from Islamic to Islamicate.

Comparing Smith and Hodgson

At this point, it is important to compare and contrast Smith’s idea of Islam as faith and cumulative tradition with Hodgson’s vision of Islam and Islamicate. The common element between Smith and Hodgson is their idea of faith or religion. While Smith prefers to speak of “faith” and Hodgson speaks of “religion”, their mutual descriptions of faith/religion have much in common. For both Hodgson and Smith, faith/religion is something personal, an inner experience of a person, a sense of ultimate orientation or apprehension of transcendence, and something that finds outward expression in acts of piety. Furthermore, although they seemingly use different definitions, I believe that Smith’s cumulative tradition and Hodgson’s “Islamic” phenomena have considerable overlap. Smith defines cumulative tradition as the historical expressions of the faith of persons; similarly, Hodgson defines the Islamic as what expresses a person’s religious sense (as defined above). What Smith’s framework lacks is the concept of Islamicate present in Hodgson. However, if one accepts the equivalence or correspondence of Smith’s “faith” and “cumulative tradition” and Hodgson’s “religion” and “Islamic” phenomena, then Smith’s and Hodgson’s models could be combined and the Islamicate could be retained as the third element – referring to phenomena culturally associated with Muslims but not expressive of their faith or religious activity. In other words, Islam based on the Smith-Hodgson model would be Islamic faith, Islamic cumulative tradition, and Islamicate culture. This would be a “faith grounded” model of Islam because the deepest and defining element is faith, piety, or the religious sense. At the same time, this model integrates insights from both religious studies (Smith) and the historical study of Islam (Hodgson). Nevertheless, this model can and has been critiqued by Shahab Ahmed to whom we know turn.

Shahab Ahmed on Islam: Hermeneutical Engagement

Shahab Ahmed offers the most recent conceptualization and definition of Islam. He also offered a scathing critique of prior models. For the purposes of his essay, I will first summarize his critique of Smith and Hodgson before presenting Ahmed’s model. Ahmed’s critiques of Smith and Hodgson are quite similar and focus on the ambiguity and difficulty of “faith” or “religion” in their models. Ahmed’s general critique of prior attempts to conceptualize Islam in such terms is that these frameworks all end up restricting what Islam is and ignoring its diverse and contradictory manifestations. In his view, all the prior models depend on a sort of arbitrary judgment by the scholar when he determines which phenomena are Islamic and which are not. His critique of Smith lies in the definition of Smith’s cumulative tradition as that which historically expresses faith (Chapter 3). Smith also maintains that faith is not observable and not definable; it can only really be experienced by a person. Even cumulative tradition does not truly reveal all of faith. But this traps the student of Islam in a closed circle. The Islamic in Smith’s vision would be the Islamic faith and the Islamic cumulative tradition. But one can only be known through the other. But since faith cannot be directly apprehended, it becomes useless for analytical purposes. One has no choice but to “guess” or speculate what historical expressions produced by Muslims are expressions of faith (counting as cumulative tradition) and which ones are not (thus not being Islamic). This leads to arbitrary judgments left to the researcher as to which activities and expressions produced by Muslims are Islamic and which ones are not. What ends up happening is that the researcher simply picks out as Islamic what looks to him or her as an expression of faith. Similarly, Ahmed’s critique of Hodgson is that his idea of Islamic is too restrictive (Chapter 2). Based on some of Hodgson’s examples, he considers things like poetry, Islamic literature, wine poetry, Islamic philosophy, and even some forms of ritual to be Islamicate and not Islamic. This is because he evidently cannot see how Islamic philosophy’s rational investigation of the Cosmos or the wine poetry of Hafiz expresses a person’s piety or sense of transcendence. Many of Hodgson’s interpreters have concluded that all of the Muslim phenomena of South Asia are Islamicate as opposed to Islamic and that the only real Islamic things in Hodgson’s view are things like Islamic law, Qur’an, and Hadith. Hodgson’s application of the Islamic-Islamicate distinction falls into and actually exemplifies the dangers that Ahmed noted with Smith’s model.

It is with these criticisms in mind that Ahmed proposed his own conceptualization of Islam. Ahmed defines Islam as the hermeneutical engagement of the human self with the Pre-Text, Text, and Cont-Text of the Revelation to Muhammad (What is Islam? Chapter 5). Many of these terms merit explanation. To begin, by Revelation, Ahmed refers to the revelation of the Qur’an to prophet Muhammad. In Ahmed’s view, reflecting how Muslims over 1400 years engaged with revelation, the Muhammadan Revelation possesses different levels. The Pre-Text refers to the Unseen or Higher Domain of reality from which revelation issues. The Pre-Text conceived by different Muslims in history could be the Divine Intellect, the Being or Light of God, the uncreated eternal Speech of God, the archetypes of all rational truths, etc. The Text of Revelation refers to the Qur’an as scripture. In this respect, the Qur’an qua Text is said to be the symbolic manifestation of the Pre-Text. This is important because Ahmed notes that many Muslims such as Sufis and Philosophers engage with the Pre-Text of Revelation instead of or along with the Text. Thus, it would be wrong to limit “Islamic” to Qur’an and textual or legal interpretations of the Qur’an as found in tafsir or fiqh. Even those interpretations and expressions that seem to have little to do with scripture are “Islamic” in this view because they engage with the Pre-Text. Finally, the Con-Text of Revelation refers to all historical products and expressions produced by Muslims when they have hermeneutically engaged with Revelation in some sense. This includes ritual, exegesis, philosophy, poetry, art, wine drinking, ethical literature, Sufi poetry, dancing, shrine visitation, chanting, theology, law, etc. Ahmed note that for some Muslims, the hermeneutical engagement is often with Con-Text instead of text – such as how many Muslims in pre-modern times would learn the Mathnavi of Rumi before the text of the Qur’an, this being an example of engaging with Revelation as Con-Text instead of Text. It is also important to attend to Ahmed’s use of “hermeneutical engagement.” By this term, Ahmed wants to focus on “meaning”, which he describes as whatever matters or holds consequence for a person. In other words, Islam in Ahmed’s view – as Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text – serves as a pool of references and an idiom of concepts, ideas and symbols – with which a person engages in the act of meaning-making. In doing so, a person simultaneously makes “Islam” because this act of meaning-making is Islam. Likewise, the person is making meaning for themselves – so the process of Islam includes self-constitution of self-making. Consequently, per Ahmed’s model, any activity done by a person that engages Revelation to make meaning is an “Islamic” act.

There is admittedly a great deal of promise in Ahmed’s model of Islam. One important and noteworthy feature of his model is how it does not feature any idea of “faith” or “religion”. Instead, Ahmed’s model is hermeneutical and premised on the activity of meaning making. This has been done to avoid a static, essentialist idea of Islam as a set of unchanging objects. Instead, Ahmed wants to show that Islam is always under construction by human actors. At the same time, one major critique of this model is that it seems over-extended. There is no room in Ahmed’s model for something like Islamicate culture. As a result, Ahmed would have to classify actions performed by non-Muslims as Islamic if they include any reference to the Pre-text/Text/Con-text of Muhammad’s revelation. He gives several examples: when a Sikh wrester says Ya Ali Madad (evoking the name of Prophet Muhammad’s cousin), Ahmed’s view is that the Sikh is engaged in an act of Islam, so he is making himself in terms of Islam. Similarly, if a Hindu group visits a Sufi shrine in order to partake in the barakah of that saint, they are engaging in Islam because the Sufi shrine is part of the Con-Text of Muhammadan Revelation. Likewise, if a certain Hindu sovereign chooses to don a traditional garb worn by Muslims, this person's act of doing so is Islamic. The Shahnama of Firdawsi, which poetizes the stories of mythical and historical pre-Islamic Persian figures, counts as "Islamic" in Ahmed's vision. Even if a self-proclaimed atheist, who sees Islam as nothing more than a cultural relic of his past, is making a joke that evokes the Qur’an or Muhammad, etc. this atheist would be performing Islam.


In my view, the models of Shahab Ahmed and the Smith-Hodgson are both viable. The essential question is whether one wants to conceptualize Islam in the terms of religion/faith or in terms of hermeneutics. Given the pervasiveness of the category of religion in both academia and in contemporary politics, there is a lot at risk when one says that Islam is not a religion - as Ahmed argues. The Smith-Hodgson model offers a useful model of Islam in this regard because it engages with the category of religion and it also avoids essentialism given that the cumulative tradition by definition is always under construction. Hodgson’s Islamicate category is also analytically useful if one frames Islam in terms of religion because the category of religion necessitates a non-religion category. At the same time, there is much to retain from Ahmed’s model of hermeneutics. If anything, Ahmed’s hermeneutical model is a good litmus test to see whether so-called Islamicate phenomena per the Smith-Hodgson model are really Islamic phenomena. In other words, Ahmed’s hermeneutic model can play the role of a safeguard and can complement the Smith-Hodgson model. At the same time, the Islamicate category remains as a safeguard against the over-extension that could occur with Ahmed’s model where almost anything - including the acts of non-Muslims that employ Muslim symbols - could be argued as being Islamic. The Islamicate category seems to be more appropriate for cases where a Sikh recites Ya Ali Madad or a Hindu group visits a Sufi shrine because in such cases, they are engaging the Con-Text of Islam but not doing so as Muslims. Thus, whether something is Islamic or Islamicate very much depends on the intentions of the agent of the action.

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