Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World, by Carl W. Ernst. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xxv + 213 pages. Notes to p. 229. Refs. to p. 232. $24.95.
It has often been stated that the tragedy of 9/11 has forced Muslims of both scholarly and devotional backgrounds to deal with the profound issues in their communities with an unprecedented openness, courage, and criticism. A not dissimilar challenge has also been presented to more liminal voices, non-Muslim scholars of Islam who have spent their entire career studying Islam and Muslims from a humanistic perspective, scholars whose outlook has often been shaped through extended periods of living in Muslim countries and profound contact, relationships, and friendships with Muslim scholars, artists, and spiritual leaders. Carl Ernst is widely considered one of the leading scholars of Islam. The excellent volume Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World is Ernst's learned, profound reflection on the situation of the Islam, Muslims, and the world at large.
Conventional discussions of Islam today begin with two vastly divergent points: There is the mushrooming and uneven body of political writings about Islam that focus on the Middle East, collapsing the 1400 years of Islamic history into the last two generations, particularly since the creation of the state of Israel. The other discourse about Islam is philological in nature, focusing on "classical" (i.e., pre-modern) legal, Qur'anic, and philosophical texts usually in Arabic. Carl Ernst posits a different starting point, one so radically brilliant and simple that one has to ask why more scholars have not adopted this perspective. Ernst starts by examining Islam as a religious tradition, one shaped and understood through the human lens of practitioners of this tradition. As such, he approaches Islam not in a transcendent timeless fashion, or as one fixed eternally in the 7th century, nor yet as a variable only of interest for understanding the post-colonial trauma of the last 40 years. Instead, Ernst moves with ease and grace through the 1400 years of practices, rituals, institutions, and ideas that have been marked as Muslim. he does not focus on the Arab world exclusively, but recognizes that 82% of all Muslims are non-Arab, with the majority being South and South East Asians. He judiciously avoids the many traps and pitfalls that mar conversation about contemporary Islam. he refuses to yield the discussion of Islam to Salafis who insist that all of Islam must be collapsed to Qur'an and hadith. While probing the crucial sources of Islam, Ernst also engages Islamic ethics, spirituality, music, literature, philosophy, and piety. It is this holistic and humanistic approach that few scholars of Islam can undertake with such mastery, and here is where Ernst truly shines. No less than this is expected of Ernst, who is regarded by most today as the leading Western scholar of Sufism, the true heir to the incomparable Annemarie Schimmel, to whom the volume is dedicated.
Nor does Ernst restrict his challenge only to Muslim blind spots: he also takes on dominant Western triumphalist notions. …