When discussing the modern discipline of Islamic studies, Ahmed liked to complain that it was possible to earn a doctorate in this field from an Ivy League university without ever reading the Divan of Hafiz, the great 14th-century Persian poet. He describes that work in What Is Islam? as “the most widely-copied, widely-circulated, widely-read, widely-memorized, widely-recited, widely-invoked, and widely-proverbialized book of poetry in Islamic history.” This was not merely a work of belles lettres, but a book that exemplified “ideals of self-conception…in the largest part of the Islamic world for half-a-millennium.” How could a modern student of Islamic civilization formulate an understanding of this subject without taking stock of such a work, and especially its treatment of wine drinking, erotic love, and the hypocrisies of self-righteous moralists? If Hafiz’s work is not Islamic, then what is?
This might as well be the central question of What Is Islam?The medieval world in which Hafiz’s Divan was a best seller was also a world suffused with the traditions of Avicennan rationalism, Sufi experiential mysticism, the celebration of figural representation, a taste for literary ambiguity, a distinction between public and private selves, and one between legal discourses and other measures of normativity. It was, in other words, a world crowded with variation and contradiction.