Mark Oppenheimer reviews Shahab‘ Ahmed's What Is Islam?, in Tablet:
So we’ve been told. Even though it has no pope, and authority is radically decentralized, in any given community the authority is likely to reside with a cleric whose chief claim to authority is memorization of the Quran and knowledge of sharia law and its application. That’s Islam. Right?
Wrong, says Shahab Ahmed, in his new book What Is Islam? Last fall, Ahmed, then a research scholar at Harvard, died of leukemia at the age of 48, and it’s tempting to think that the popular attention given to this scholarly book—a review in The Nation,a column in the New York Times opinion section—owes something to his early demise. But I think that if Ahmed were alive to promote his book, it would be getting far more attention. Because what he’s saying is intriguing over 500 footnoted pages, but is downright explosive when summarized out loud. The short version of his thesis, the one he’d have given Terry Gross or Rachel Maddow, is that Islam is many things, and some of them don’t even have much to do with the Quran.
In short, Islam is a lot like Judaism, in that there’s a culture, and a context, and only a pedantic boob would think that the whole thing can be found by reading the Scriptures, let alone reading them literally.
To back up: Ahmed is very clear that most Muslims today see the Quran and the hadiths as a normative and necessary text, providing a fixed star recognizable even to those who don’t take guidance from it. But he believes that this obsession with Islamic law and religious scripture is recent, contingent, and not typical of Islamic history. And he believes—although he is a little bit coy about saying so—that the Islamic world would do well to rediscover its far more playful and rope-skipping, less doctrinaire and sober, past.