The boundaries of the religion are wider than is often thoughtby Sameer Rahim / February 22, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: Who speaks for Muslims in Britain?
Locked in the vaults of the V&A is a beautiful brass jug that reveals a hidden history of Islam. The jug comes from Khorasan province, Iran and dates from the late 15th century. Inlaid with silver, its clover-leaf design encapsulates the harmonious aesthetic of Islamic art. Engraved round its neck are four religious invocations: “To Allah belongs might… power… victory… strength.” I recently had the privilege of holding the cool, heavy jug in my hands and could imagine a medieval Muslim lifting it to his lips, reading the holy words, before taking a deep draught of wine—for this is a mashrabe or Islamic wine jug.
Both western observers of Islam and orthodox Muslims might be surprised to see the sacred and profane overlap so brazenly. Everybody knows that Islam forbids alcohol consumption. Such is the taboo that the Iranian Ministry of Culture announced recently that to counteract a “western cultural onslaught,” it was banning all mention of the word “wine” from books. If Muslims do drink, they are seen as either ignoring or subverting prevailing religious norms. Yet our wine jug is both expressly Islamic—see the references to Allah—and a vessel for something banned by Islam. Can we account for the contradiction? And in doing so, can we learn something about the heated contemporary debates around Islam?
The Pakistani-American academic Shahab Ahmed highlights similar wine jugs in his 600-page What is Islam? (Princeton University Press), published posthumously at the end of last year. Ahmed argues for a new way of looking at Islamic history that emphasises its variety across time and space—what he calls the “Balkans-to-Bengal complex.” Too often, he says, scholars of Islam have thought that the canonical texts—the Quran and the hadith (stories about the Prophet Muhammad)—firmly seal the religion’s boundaries. If a certain cultural practice contradicts those texts—wine-drinking, for example—it cannot be truly Islamic. Ahmed acknowledges the importance of the canon. But he argues that two other sources of Islamic authority should be given equal weight.
The first source is…