By Arshin Adib-Moghaddam (for Safe Democracy)

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam considers that instead of attempting to excavate the true, eternal essence of Islam, it is worthwile to comprehend the expanding discourses about it within specific ideational situations. This is what he believes is the real challenge posed by Islam. Adib-Moghaddam also illustrates how two transnational Islamic spaces have created a cognitive divide in which the rational majority suffers: “East” by neo-fundamentalist movement and “West”, by neo-conservative strategists. He notes that Bali, Madrid, London, New York, Baghdad, Kabul, Najaf and the Palestinian territories have been caught in the cross-fire of this divide.

 Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is the author of “The International Politics of the Persian Gulf: A Cultural Genealogy” (Routledge). Educated at Hamburg, American and Cambridge Universities, he teaches International Relations at Oxford University.

ISLAM’S REAL AND IMAGINED CLOSENESS TO EUROPE has made it a densely narrated phenomenon. Not a day passes without news reports about the supposed essence of Islam, its incompatibility with “Western” norms, its infatigability in challenging these norms and its intransigency to embrace them. Yet, since the death of the Prophet Mohammed, and in many ways during his transcendental leadership of the umma, Islam has been differentiated, translated, narrated and, ultimately, transmuted from the realm of spiritual and godly experience into the ideational spaces of empirical reality.

Thus, it seems to me, that post-Mohammadian Islam is better understood as the multiplicity of Muslim cultures immanent in that transnational episteme in which they extract themselves and which constitute the existence of the umma. Here lies the omnipresence of Islams, which is not due to Islam’s power to veil everything under one a-historical, sacred canopy, not because Islam’s central tenet, tawhid, or the oneness of god, translates into oneness of the umma; but because Islams are socially engineered, constantly reified and innovatively reinvented. Islams are everywhere not because they embrace everything, but because they come from everywhere, from the Mosque next door to the Islamically legitimated political party.

Islam understood in this pluralistic sense is the overall effect that emerges from all these sources: Islam is not a singular system bent on challenging “dar-al harb”, neither is it a cultural and political threat; it is the epithet that denotes a transnational episteme, where different spiritual cultural, religious, socio-economic and political narratives extract themselves.

Due to its central importance for the umma and the wider non-Muslim worlds, that transnational Islamic space is heavily contested: in the “East” by neo-fundamentalist movements, which claim it in its totality, and in the “West” by neo-conservative strategists, who see Muslim lands as the ultimate imperial prize. In between that cognitive divide, the rational majority suffers: in Bali, Madrid, London, New York and more disastrously (in terms of quantitative material destruction and human deaths) in Baghdad, Kabul, Najaf or the occupied territories of Palestine.

However, how much of this can be explained by recurring to the Quran? How much in terms of Islam’s attitude towards this and that? It seems to me that in order to understand contemporary developments within Muslim societies, it may be rather more satisfying analytically to appreciate Islam’s immanent plurality. The questions that we should address then are not: How does Islam legitimate war? How does it sanction political violence? How does it treat women? But rather: In a specific cultural, socio-economic and political context, how do Islams extract themselves? How do different societal settings make possible the discourses about Islam, how do they inhibit its powers? How is Islam metamorphosed into political ideology?

In short, rather than attempting to excavate the true, eternal essence of Islam, we may be better advised to comprehend the expanding discourses about it within specific ideational situations. To my mind, this is the real challenge that Islam poses.