FEATURE — Fall 2003

U nderstanding Islam

Associate Professor Ahmet Karamustafa conveys a historian's sense of the diversity and depth of Islam as a religious and intellectual tradition, clarifying what is misunderstood across and within cultures.

by Judy H. Watts

On the first Monday after September 11, 2001, more than 50 scholars of Islam at major North American colleges and universities signed a statement for a Web site supported in part by the American Academy of Religion. These teachers and researchers expressed their profound grief, proffered prayers and sympathy, and emphatically condemned the vicious assaults of the previous week. They also pleaded for a halt to the verbal and physical abuse of American Muslims that began as fury and despair followed disbelief. Among the document's signatories is Ahmet T. Karamustafa.

A leading scholar of Islam, an associate professor of history and religious studies, and director of Religious Studies in Arts & Sciences, Karamustafa also has sought in the continuing aftermath to help an inquiring public separate stereotype from complex reality and Islamic extremists from the many-sided moderate majority. The eloquent, soft-spoken scholar—whose primary research focus is the evolution of pre-modern Islamic legal, spiritual, and philosophical thought—has participated in lectures, panels, press interviews, meetings, and discussions throughout the St. Louis area (ranging from Webster University to St. Timothy's Episcopal Church and MICDS High School). He also has had searching discussions with his colleagues, with the undergraduate and graduate students who pack his history and religion classes, and with other members of the Washington University community.

"In the midst of the shock and anguish, Ahmet Karamustafa and his wife, Fatemeh Keshavarz [associate professor of Persian language and literature in Arts & Sciences], devoted a tremendous amount of time talking to people who were trying to understand," says Edward S. Macias, executive vice chancellor and dean of Arts & Sciences. "In this highly charged atmosphere, Ahmet drew on his deep knowledge of the Muslim world to build understanding of the issues involved. He did a superb job of presenting the issues to audiences, both within and outside of the University community, through several timely discussions that were particularly reasonable and compassionate."

Karamustafa welcomes such opportunities to answer the questions that still "come up all the time," adding "the reality is that not many of us out there can actually mediate between the world of Muslims—in human, intellectual, artistic, and other terms—and the current social views and realities here in the United States. A large part of what I have been doing over the years as an educator is to convey a historian's sense of the diversity and depth of Islam as a religious and intellectual tradition."

This widely respected scholar brings to the classroom, his writings, and his public appearances the insights born of 25 years of exacting research conducted primarily in the three major languages of Arabic, Persian, and his native modern Turkish. Karamustafa has also drawn extensively upon his knowledge of Ottoman Turkish; German; French; Azeri or Azerbaijani; Chaghatay, a Turkish dialect; Inner Asian Turkic languages; and English. Because of his scholarly insights—informed in part by what Cornell H. Fleischer, the Kanuni Suleyman Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at the University of Chicago, calls "a desire to help people understand themselves and others"—Karamustafa tackles stubborn and widespread misconceptions that build walls between peoples.

Two of the many important points Karamustafa makes to his audiences:

• No single Islamic package on how religion and politics should relate to each other has ever appealed to a majority of Muslims across 14 centuries of Islamic history.

• Islam does not aspire to be a universal theocracy. "That is commonly considered a natural default Islamic option. I think that is the most detrimental misperception of all. Muslims have articulated in scholarly language the danger of someone who has political power also claiming complete moral or religious authority." One can choose to follow any one of numerous Islamic scholars and spiritual masters who have differing opinions on a multitude of matters, Karamustafa says—or "one can chart out an individual path."

The Trouble with Definitions

Defining and identifying Islam is difficult, says Ahmet Karamustafa. It cannot be defined as a religion, a culture or a set of cultures, or even as a civilization—if certain caricatures are heeded. One distorted view is of Islam as a cocooned civilization whose cultural center is the Arab Middle East (where Arab Islam is purported to be "true Islam") and whose Greek heritage is denied. Another views Islam in a personified sense—a civilization of people who are intolerant, perpetually engaged in strife and competition, and trying to overwhelm its opponents through jihad. "Muslim proponents of this view are an extremely small, yet highly vocal and visible minority made up largely of discontented urban youth who find themselves in deplorable economic and cultural conditions," Karamustafa says, adding that jihad is not an exclusionary doctrine but refers to "the ceaseless, perpetual attempt [of the individual] to become a true believer."

Nor can Islam be defined by the five pillars of faith but only by the first, foundational principle of shadhada, or "standing witness to the truth of the claims that there is only one God and that Muhammad is his messenger."

—From "Islam: A Civilizational Project in Progress," by Ahmet T. Karamustafa, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, (Omir Safi, ed., Oxford, 2003)

Karamustafa's contributions to the 2001 PBS documentary film Islam: Empire of Faith and to a book developed in response to the events of September 11 also represent his attempts to clarify what is misunderstood across and within cultures. In Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Omir Safi, ed., Oxford, 2003), a collection of essays for lay readers by 14 leading Muslim thinkers, Karamustafa provides a tightly reasoned analysis of what Islam is not—and why it is not—and then moves to a revelatory and useful account of what it actually is. In part, he identifies Islam as "a sprawling civilizational edifice under continuous construction and renovation in accordance with multiple blueprints (these are the numerous Islamic cultures at local, regional, and national levels encompassing innumerable individual, familial, ethnic, racial, and gender identities), all generated from a nucleus of key ideas and practices ultimately linked to the historical legacy of the prophet Muhammad. It is vital to realize that nothing about this edifice is ever fixed or frozen in either space or time and that the construction itself is in constant flux."

The scholarship with which Karamustafa seeks to bridge chasms springs from his own intellectual curiosity about fundamental questions of life, ranging from an individual's "inner core and reality" to the cosmic context. He maintains a longstanding interest in broad, metaphysical questions while he focuses on the brilliant tapestries of intellectual exploration in Islamic societies between 1000 and 1500 C.E. In those interdisciplinary times, scholars were expert in at least one or two disciplines. To immerse himself in the sophisticated intellectual exchanges among thinkers from extremely different ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, Karamustafa had to become a proficient textual historian—and he established his credentials early on. While preparing his doctoral dissertation at McGill University, in Montreal, he determined that a work written in 1522 by the little-known Turkish scholar Vahidi merited further study and proceeded to sift through the 20 extant manuscript copies of the work preserved in European and Turkish libraries. Harvard University Press published his critical edition of Vahidi's text in 1993.

Karamustafa's absorption in the critical study of primary sources handwritten in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, and in the mystical dimensions of Islam, popularly known as Sufism, continues to this day, along with a historical interest in far-ranging, fundamental social questions. In that spirit of inquiry he sought to make sense of the many groups of dervishes in Islamic urban centers from Turkey to India—counter-cultural types who from the 13th to the 16th centuries took hallucinogens, danced ecstatically to the sound of drums and tambourines, and wore strange clothes (or few or none) and bizarre adornments as a way of protesting the assimilation and co-option of Sufism by respectable Islamic society. He published his findings in the book God's Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200-1550 (University of Utah Press, 1994).

"Ahmet has extraordinary chronological and cultural breadth, and he believes everyone can learn from everyone's experience," says Fleischer, a former professor of Islamic history at Washington University. "One reason he is unequalled in his treatment of medieval and early modern Islamic studies is that he is equally conscious of both the salience and the mutability of similar issues in the very different universe of the 21st century."

Reflecting the breadth and the focuses of his scholarly quest, Karamustafa keeps up with contemporary scholarship in philosophy, anthropology, the social sciences, and the humanities; pursues his serious interest in music; and has developed expertise in such fields as cartography, which have expanded his knowledge of geography and the history of science and graphic representation of all kinds—and his understanding of how people experienced their world across space and time. His chapter, "Introduction to Islamic Maps," in the book Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies (University of Chicago Press, 1992), which he helped edit, reinforces some of the broad themes of his scholarship by demonstrating what the editors call the "striking heterogeneity of mapping traditions due to the diversity and periodic discontinuity of Islamic culture ... ."
Associate Professor Ahmet Karamustafa teaches Islamic History 1200-1800, which is a survey of the major Islamic polities and societies of the Nile-to-Oxus region during that time period.

Karamustafa's newest projects are ambitious, innovative, and of enormous potential value to scholars, students, and the public. Extending his interest in "pre-modern peoples' deep questions and intellectual searches, which are so relevant to us today," Karamustafa has just signed a contract with Edinburgh University Press to write a broad history of Sufism from the beginning of Islam to the present day.

He is also enthusiastic about a project that has evolved from his teaching, which in the past five years has included theory and methodology in religious study. "I want to explore the history of concepts that are akin to the idea of religion from within Islam and Islamic history," he says. An additional book project is tentatively titled Islamic Perspectives on Religion—a sampler of Muslim thinkers' perspectives in different eras and cultural contexts. Still another work in progress involves concepts of self and the individual in Islam.

Karamustafa's many worlds become part of his teaching, which over the years include courses titled Islamic Civilization; Islamic Religious Traditions; Sufism: God's Friends in Islam; Islamic History 600-1200; Islamic History 1200-1800; Islam and Modernity; Theories of Religion; and Religion in Global Context. "One of the joys of my religious studies classes has been the students' intense interest and personal involvement. I have truly enjoyed this over the years and wouldn't give it up for anything!"

Says Edward Curtis, M.A. '97, who wrote his doctoral dissertation under Karamustafa's guidance, now assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: "Ahmet Karamustafa dedicates himself to helping his students. He gives students the freedom to develop their own intellectual positions and accords to others the same respect he engenders in them. I was honored to be his student; there is no voice I trust more."

In much of the world outside Busch Hall, religious and cultural misunderstanding seem calamitously entrenched—reinforced around the globe by narrow national and factional self-interest, and fear tactics and flash phrases from hard-liners on all sides. Although Karamustafa acknowledges that "it will take a long, long time before popular perception changes in significant ways," he pursues through his research and teaching an entirely different reality—of mutual respect, compassion, cultural discovery and understanding, and an appreciation of humanity's common quest on Earth. "What I like about scholarship," he explains, "is that it enables me to question all the things we take for granted—then come beautiful discoveries."

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.