Challenged by a request from his father that he initially felt neither disposed nor capable of fulfilling, Akbar Ahmed came to this book only after he had found his voice both as an anthropologist and as a believing Muslim. It is a happy coincidence of orientations for the reader who joins him in this venture, for this is not a book to be read as a member of an audience nor even as a text from which didactic expertise is to be sought. For all its deceptive appearance as straightforward description and analysis, the book is, I believe, best approached as an opportunity to look over the shoulder of one who is unflinchingly trying to explore and assess his cultural and religious heritage. Indeed it is a book that is almost oral in nature, an attempt to engage those who are willing to walk in the author’s shoes for a while in a genuine conversation, one that teases up the readers’ own assumptions, experiences, and reactions in the hope, not of overcoming them, but of engaging and even incorporating them. ‘Part autobiography, part history, part literature, and part science’ (as the author himself describes it), ‘its aim was political’ (as he later said)1 in the sense that it engages us in imagining a world where power may indeed come to be shared through mutual comprehension. Seen in this light a strategy for reading the book necessarily suggests itself-as the sincere invitation of a host who so respects his guest as to share and attend to the exchange of honest views. For even though the reader cannot reply directly, at each point in the presentation one can hardly fail to sense, even without knowing the author, the openness for dialogue that suffuses his life and his work. From the outset non-Muslims raised in the West with an image of Islam drawn from the Arab world will be tipped slightly off centre as they find the baseline for many comparisons situated in South Asia rather than in the Middle East. This is not a matter of authorial chauvinism: rather, it is a focus that allows the reader, guided by one coming at issues from the South Asian experience, to appreciate, in ways that are neither idealized nor impersonal, that Islam as a religion is indissoluble from Islam as a series of cultures-that the peoples who embrace this faith do not do so in the abstract but as embodied communities whose diverse experiences are conjoined by engagement in a common challenge. Two crucial aspects of this approach thus engage the reader from the outset: first, that Islam and Islamic cultures may best be understood in terms of themes and variations rather than as a scattering out from some real or imagined base of purity; and second, that whatever the perspective from which one approaches Islam-as a believer or a non-believer, as a South Asian or a member of the faith from any spot on the globe-one is necessarily at the centre, drawn to the concerns of a faith that holds the vision of reality for one person out of five on the planet, and which thus places every single one of us at a central point joined to every other such point. That all who read this book are of necessity drawn together in a common enterprise is not, alas, a vision that is shared by even many well-educated people in either the Muslim or non-Muslim worlds. It is all too easy to cite those whose animosity blinds them to the simple grasp of others’ beliefs or values. How can one hear without shame an American Congressman, John Cooksey of Louisiana, following the events of September 11, 2001 say: ‘If I see someone come in and he’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over and checked.’ How without sadness can one hear Muslim commentors on Al-Jazeera, the most open of television broadcasts emanating from the Middle East, perpetuate the canard that thousands of Jews were warned away from the World Trade Towers before the terrorists attacked, thus suggesting it was all a plot by Jews rather than Muslim extremists. And reviewers of the first edition of the book displayed every stereotype and form of personal agenda imaginable.2 All of them are, however, among the voices that Akbar Ahmed wants us to understand without being forced to forgive, to place in their historic contexts without thereby justifying them, to accept as part of the landscape of a shared world while struggling to undercut their claims to acceptance. In doing so he tries to follow that most difficult of courses, the middle path. The Quran (2:137) says: ‘Thus we appoint you a midmost nation, that you might be a witness to the people, and thus the Messenger might be a witness to you.’ On its face it sounds as though positioned at the middle must be the easiest of paths: avoiding extremes one can avoid difficult choices; dodging pitfalls to either side one can easily prevaricate; eschewing attachments on either hand one can claim as the high ground an imagined neutrality. In fact, the very opposite is closer to the truth. For the middle path, whether stretching forth for believer or for scholar, is in fact the most difficult of passages: it demands decisiveness at every step; the capacity to knit together the seemingly irreconcilable without sacrificing principle; the ability to unite groups who are in need of constant attention to their own sense of injury. To see the difficulties inherent in such a middle course one need only consider, for example, the place one gives to history. In a recent interview, Bernard Lewis, the well-known scholar of Middle East history, said that people in the West ‘need to understand that people in the Middle East, unlike in this country [the United States] have a very strong sense of history. In America, if you say, “That’s history”, you mean it’s unimportant, irrelevant, of no concern. That is accompanied by a breathtaking ignorance of even recent history.’3 One does not have to agree with Henry Ford, who famously asserted that ‘history is bunk’, to suggest, however, that even here the matter is not so simple. Challenged by a request from his father that he initially felt neither disposed nor capable of fulfilling, Akbar Ahmed came to this book only after he had found his voice both as an anthropologist and as a believing Muslim. It is a happy coincidence of orientations for the reader who joins him in this venture, for this is not a book to be read as a member of an audience nor even as a text from which didactic expertise is to be sought. For all its deceptive appearance as straightforward description and analysis, the book is, I believe, best approached as an opportunity to look over the shoulder of one who is unflinchingly trying to explore and assess his cultural and religious heritage Memory, both individual and collective, is highly selective: contemporary events may not only colour one’s uses of the past but as a culture’s ideas of what constitutes a fact, a cause, or an explanation change so do the ways they relate to the past. It is thus quite common in the Muslim world, as elsewhere, for events that are no longer seen as affecting current relationships to be relegated to the attic of memory. The key, then, may be to understand what is regarded as relevant to present-day relationships, images, and identities, and how some, but not all, elements of the past are shaped by larger cultural ideas that are at once common to most Muslim groups and distinctive to each Muslim culture. It is here, as in so many other ways, that Akbar Ahmed pursues his middle way. Three axial moments in Islamic history reveal the author’s approach: the early period of the Caliphate, when the death of the Prophet challenged the very existence of the Community of Believers; the Moorish renaissance in Spain, when accomplishment and tolerance appeared as a model for future ages; and the colonial period, when the confidence of Muslim cultures was undermined by political subordination and technological superiority. Ahmed’s approach to these moments may call forth hints of the romanticization of the past or even of that form of nostalgia that sees inevitable decline from ages of greater purity or from models extremists have rendered ever more distant. But a careful reading of his overall orientation shows a much more subtle theme: for to Ahmed it is the constancy of moral themes, within a framework of variable practices, that renders history a wellspring for the templates and choices that confront Muslims in every culture and every age. The Caliphate thus becomes an icon of shifting from the Prophetic moment to the institutionalization of the Message, and with it the hard decisions that must chart a course between extremes-a course the early successors did not, in their humanity, fulfill through constancy to the moral precepts laid down, with extraordinary practicality, in the Prophet’s own life and works. The Moorish moment may well have incorporated a level of tolerance, a meritocracy of accomplishment, but it was still within a framework of confessional separation that conflicts with modern Western ideas of equality, thus posing the hard question of whether some forms of segregation-by gender or religion-constitute discrimination or enablement. And in that most difficult of moments for the author’s own generation, the aftermath of colonialism, one may be forced to ask if one’s fathers collapsed in the face of outside force or resolved to preserve a core of inner solidity their successors would have to revivify through means their forbears could neither determine nor fully comprehend. History matters, but it does so not as an omnipresent entity strikingly different from experience in the West, but as just that sort of localized and personalized, culturally situated and personally integrated element all of whose contradictions Akbar Ahmed confronts in his account. To pursue the middle course is also to ask whether certain matters are indeed incompatible or capable of being reconciled. Here, too, the traveller cannot avoid taking a position as he glances to either side: he is forced both to judge (and hence to establish criteria for judgment), and to decide what is or is not incompatible such that one avoids the feckless or morally bankrupt practice of pretending that everything and everyone are really alike. The twinned questions of democracy and tolerance are examples of such concerns. Consider the following quotations. The first comes from a member of the Caliphate State, a self-declared Islamic state comprised of Turkish workers living in Germany, who said: ‘It is very simple-Islam and democracy are incompatible.’4 This stark statement is not only placed in the context of a European state that protects the speaker’s right not to believe in the system that protects his ability to make such utterances but may make it possible for him, like the Islamicists in Algeria and elsewhere, to use democracy to gain power for an undemocratic regime. The second quotation, from the New York Times columnist Thomas L.Friedman, poses the issues no less baldly: We patronize Islam, and mislead ourselves, by repeating the mantra that Islam is a faith with no serious problems accepting the secular West, modernity and pluralism, and the only problem is a few bin Ladens. Although there is a deep moral impulse in Islam for justice, charity and compassion, Islam has not developed a dominant religious philosophy that allows equal recognition of alternative faith communities.5 Ahmed’s approach to both of these positions is, again, a middle course. He certainly does not deny that to some Muslims, even those who intend no harm to the West, authoritative religious guidance cannot simply be left to each individual to determine. He shows that, although there is neither church, formal hierarchy nor authority, it comes from consistency with foundational moral doctrines, not the cultural slant given to that which lies within human control. He can, therefore, applaud the Saudis’ construction of a social welfare state in the 1960s, but he challenges them for their lack of generosity to Africans and their indulgent life-style. He appreciates the distinctive sense of injustice articulated by Shiite Muslims, but he does not mince words about political corruption or even the frequency of incest within Muslim families. His middle course is not the ‘evenhandedness’ that cites tit for tat, or one that casts a pall on everyone alike. Instead it gives us the concrete information about specific cultures on the basis of which we can converse with him about the very points of democracy and authority, tolerance and power that are raised by a wide range of believers and analysts. At the end, as the Welsh saying would have it, one must judge. Ahmed’s judgment is, however, neither that of final arbiter nor all-seeing scientist. Instead, it is the voice of one who seeks criteria for evaluation, and through these at least implicit criteria to assess the extent to which the moral principles of Islam suffuse the cultures to which they have given shape. Nowhere is this carried out more poignantly than in the contemplation of the father who inspired the book. It is not for sons to judge fathers, though sons will always judge fathers. In poetry and impassioned account, Ahmed confronts the plight of that generation absorbed by their encounter with the West, and by keeping the account at once personal and exemplary he honours both the difficult circumstances of parents who sought to retain what is most valuable in their faith without sacrificing what is most distinctive. And, where the local practices of one’s culture may seem the only reality of enacted faith, the evaluation of that culture, and the role of one’s predecessors in its design, cannot but be a painful challenge. Ahmed lets us see his criteria-and lets us think about our own- without ever letting us or himself escape into easy generalities or the simple erasure of difference. It is, I know, a veritable act of heresy to attribute to a faith a belief I know it does not hold. And yet it is hard to avoid the feeling that the author is the incarnation of those whom he has reason to most admire. Never having met Ibn Khaldun or Saladin, the great Mughal Akbar or the medieval social theorist alBeruni, one comes away from every encounter with his work prepared to believe one has indeed encountered each of them reincarnated in Akbar Ahmed himself. So let me introduce you to this most genial and enlightened of guides, and through him, as his friends and colleagues know so well, to yourself. Published in Daily Times, January 27th 2019.