Carl Ernst

2004 SeasonErnst

Carl W. Ernst is a specialist in Islamic studies, with a focus on West and South Asia. His published research, based on the study of Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, has been mainly devoted to the study of Islam and Sufism. His most recent book, Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World(UNC Press, 2003), has been awarded the 2004 Bashrahil Prize for Outstanding Cultural Achievement. Current projects include Muslim interpretations of Hinduism and the literary translation of the Qur'an. His publications include Sufi Martyrs of Love: Chishti Sufism in South Asia and Beyond (co-authored with Bruce Lawrence, 2002); Teachings of Sufism (1999); a translation of The Unveiling of Secrets: Diary of a Sufi Master by Ruzbihan Baqli (1997);Guide to Sufism (1997); Ruzbihan Baqli: Mystical Experience and the Rhetoric of Sainthood in Persian Sufism (1996); Eternal Garden: Mysticism, History, and Politics at a South Asian Sufi Center (1993); and Words of Ecstasy in Sufism (1985). He studied comparative religion at Stanford University (A.B. 1973) and Harvard University (Ph.D. 1981), and has done research tours in India (1978-79, 1981), Pakistan (1986, 2000), and Turkey (1991), and has also visited Iran (1996, 1999) and Uzbekistan (2003). He has taught at Pomona College (1981-1992) and has been appointed as visiting lecturer in Paris (1991, 2003), Seville (2001), and Kuala Lumpur (2005). A faculty member of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since 1992, and department chair 1995-2000, he is now Zachary Smith Professor.



Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (2003) 

Sufi Martyrs of Love: Chishti Sufism in South Asia and Beyond (2002) 

Teachings of Sufism (1999) 

Ruzbihan Baqli. The Unveiling of Secrets: Diary of a Sufi Master (1997)

The Shambhala Guide to Sufism (1997)

Ruzbihan Baqli: Mystical Experience and the Rhetoric of Sainthood in Persian Sufism (1996) 

Eternal Garden: Mysticism, History, and Politics at a South Asian Sufi Center (1992)

Words of Ecstasy in Sufism (1984)



From Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World

by Carl W. Ernst




What images are conjured today by the word "Islam"? Walk into any bookstore, and you will initially be drawn to a stack of breathless titles that are truly frightening. These journalistic exposés reveal worlds of terrorist intrigue and plots against the United States. Alongside these instant potboilers are books with a more sober tone, delivering with masterful condescension the verdict of failure upon Islamic civilization, and the promise of an apocalyptic clash between Islam and the West. Tucked into a corner one may find a few academic surveys of Islamic theology and history, written in the tedious and excruciating prose reserved for textbooks. There may also be a couple of apologetics written by Muslims, attempting to defend Islam against any accusations. Finally, and most impenetrable of all, there will be two or three translations of the Qur'an, a foreign text that remains an enigmatic and unreadable cipher. How can anyone make sense of all this?

This book has been written to provide a completely different alternative to currently available books on Islam. What is offered here is a sympathetic yet reasoned and analytical view of the Islamic religious tradition and the contemporary issues that Muslims face. My most radical departure from conventional wisdom is to propose a nonfundamentalist understanding of Islam.


Both the difficulty and the importance of this task are illustrated by two events that took place in 2002. First, it was in the summer of that year that I delivered the completed manuscript of this book to the publisher who had initially commissioned it. To my complete astonishment, after considerable delay, the publisher informed me that the press would not be able to publish the book. There was no question regarding the quality of the manuscript; this was, instead, a matter of personal attitudes among the editorial staff, resulting from the terrorist attacks against American targets on September 11, 2001. I was told that some of the editors were now personally uncomfortable with being associated with any book on a subject that could be used to justify terrorism. The identity of the publisher is unimportant. What is most remarkable about this incident is that it demonstrates the extent to which, even in the world of publishing, the subject of Islam has become so controversial that some people cannot confront it.


The second example was the Summer Reading Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where I teach. Ordinarily this kind of assignment attracts little attention, except as an unwelcome intrusion on students' vacation time. This year, however, the committee in charge of the selection wanted to choose a book that would address some of the issues raised by the September 11 attacks. Having discarded several weighty tomes on Middle Eastern history, terrorism, and similar topics, they asked me whether it would be advisable to assign our first-year students to read a translation of the Qur'an. I enthusiastically recommended Michael Sells's Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations, a brilliant multimedia translation that is ideal for introducing this challenging text. While Sells's book was not designed to explain the mentalities of terrorists, it did offer our students a first encounter with one of the most influential books in world history. This assignment attracted national and international attention, as a conservative Virginia-based Christian group sued UNC, arguing that we were infringing on students' religious freedom by trying to convert them to Islam. Members of the North Carolina state legislature reacted with fury to this assignment, seeing it as equivalent to support for Muslim terrorists. Although federal courts dismissed the lawsuit, so that more than 2,000 students proceeded to discuss the book without incident, the outrage over the university assigning a book about Islam revealed once again a deep-seated fear and hostility that opposed even reading a book on the subject.


Under these circumstances—when publishers, religious groups, and politicians are opposed to an impartial and fair-minded discussion of Islam—it is painfully obvious that such a discussion is exactly what we need. The modern debate about Islam in America and Europe has been conducted primarily through sensational journalism and ideological attack. Although excellent scholarship on Islam is available, it is all too often couched in impenetrable prose and buried in obscure academic journals. Following Muhammad is designed to cut through the fog of suspicion and misinformation; it offers readers the tools to reach an independent understanding of key themes and historical settings affecting Muslims—and non-Muslims—around the world today.


This book is the result of many years of thinking, teaching, and writing about Islamic religion and culture. I was initially drawn to Islamic studies by my personal encounter with the Persian poetry of great Sufis (Muslim mystics) such as Jalal al-Din Rumi. Precisely because of widespread ignorance and misunderstanding of Islam, it occurred to me that the study of the great spiritual and humanistic tradition of Sufism, as a major aspect of Islamic thought and practice, would be an appropriate way to bridge the civilizational gap. I still think this is a good idea; years later, much to my amazement, I have observed the remarkable popularity that Rumi has attained in America, thanks to poets and translators such as Coleman Barks and Robert Bly. In the process of my education, I learned Arabic, Persian, and Urdu and got a Ph.D. in Islamic studies. I spent time overseas, primarily in Eastern, non-Arab countries, particularly India and Pakistan, with research visits to Iran and Turkey.


Like everyone else in the small group of American scholars who work on the study of Islam, I have found my humanistic goals running afoul of political events again and again. I had air reservations to go to Tehran for dissertation research in the fall of 1978, but the Iranian revolution forced me to switch to India instead. In 1985 I had a Fulbright Islamic Civilization Research grant to study in India, but someone in the Indian government thought that my research on medieval Sufis was too controversial to permit a visa; consequently, my family and I spent a wonderful year in Pakistan. For a change, I had just finished my research in Istanbul when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. In the fall of 1998, though, I was forced to postpone a research trip to Pakistan when the U.S. government fired cruise missiles into Sudan and Afghanistan in retaliation for embassy bombings in East Africa. And I began to write these lines in the wonderful city of Seville, once a center of the Moorish culture of medieval Spain, in the shadow of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.


The educational task faced by specialists in Islamic studies is enormous. There exists, on one hand, a tremendous ignorance and suspicion about Islam in much of Europe and America, now considerably enhanced by recent tragedy. On the other hand, there are extremists from Muslim countries who have used the language of Islam to justify horrific acts of mass violence. Lost in this confrontation are hundreds of millions of Muslims who inhabit the world today who have been classified as outsiders to Western civilization but who do not share the apocalyptic and fanatic vision of an Osama bin Ladin. Those of us who have studied the text of the Qur'an, the writings of the great poets, and the history of Islamic civilization feel very keenly the distortion and perversion of Islamic symbols and authority perpetrated by these modern extremists. How much more anguish is felt by the vast majority of Muslims, who loathe acts of terrorism at the same time that they deeply resent the continued imposition of neocolonial influence over their countries?


Despite these extraordinary challenges, the task of Islamic studies could also be described as minimal. In 1992 I participated in a workshop discussing images of Islam in America. The educational goal that we finally settled on in the workshop was very basic: to convince Americans that Muslims are human beings. This might sound like an absurdly simple point, but the Islamic religion is perhaps the one remaining subject about which educated people are content to demonstrate outright prejudice and bias. Ten years later a workshop on critical issues in Islamic studies came to the same conclusion, but more forcefully: the real issue is to humanize Muslims in the eyes of non-Muslims. I will discuss the nature of anti-Islamic prejudice in detail in Chapter 1, but it still amazes me that intelligent people can believe that all Muslims are violent or that all Muslim women are oppressed, when they would never dream of uttering slurs stereotyping much smaller groups such as Jews or blacks. The strength of these negative images of Muslims is remarkable, even though they are not based on personal experience or actual study, but they receive daily reinforcement from the news media and popular culture.


The arguments presented in this book are designed to bring the reader into a new relationship with the subject of Islam by providing critical and independent access to key information. In my previous books, I have developed a method of explaining unfamiliar religious subjects that avoids the jargon of specialized scholarship. I believe it is possible to write clearly and directly and to engage the reader in the subject, not by authoritarian pronouncements, but by clarifying the debates and showing what is at stake. I draw particularly on religious studies and on historical context to bring out detailed meanings and comparisons. Approaching the subject from religious studies, I draw attention to the important role of modern Christianity, particularly Protestant thought, in shaping modern interpretations of Islam. These interpretations are found in the writings of non-Muslim European and American experts on Islam (the so-called Orientalists), and they also occur in works by modern Muslim authors and critics. By paying attention to historical context, I bring out the political, economic, and social factors behind phenomena sometimes thought to be exclusively religious.


Using these methods, I initially planned for the book to revolve around major Islamic religious themes, with an emphasis on the little-understood role of the Prophet Muhammad as the central figure defining Islamic religiosity. That still remains the basic underpinning of this book. The aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, however, has created an environment in which we can no longer afford to neglect the problem of religious and civilizational confrontation mentioned above; for many people, confrontation is the only way they have ever heard Islam described. The main difference this has made for the book has been to highlight how we have constructed the notion of religion in recent history around the ideas of competition and confrontation, since all too often this modern world-imperial concept of religion is allowed to pass unexamined.


It is particularly important to clarify the interplay between religion and history, because the culture of mass media today tends to create the notion that the present is the only time worth considering. The flood of advertisements and entertainment that we all endure on a daily basis encourages amnesia about the past and reinforces contemporary ideologies as if they were eternal. Knowledge of the past, however, can be an important tool for liberating oneself from the tyranny of the current climate of opinion. Words and concepts do not simply grow on trees; they have been invented for specific purposes, and the history of their changing use reveals the crucial issues that define our world. Knowing the origins and transformations of words allows us to decide which of their implications we wish to endorse, and which of our predecessors' objectives we can still subscribe to. Approaching religion from the perspective of history also reveals that behind the apparently seamless unity of religious concepts lie major debates and differences, signs of irrevocable pluralism, and multiple perspectives within every religious tradition. Although it is tempting to listen to voices that claim undisputed authority pronouncing blanket approvals or condemnations on all kinds of subjects, that seduction is open to charges of prejudice and bias. I invite the reader to take on instead the excitement of discovering how rich and varied the changing history of a religion such as Islam has actually been.


This book is not meant to be an apologetic defense of Islam against criticisms; I myself am not a Muslim, and I am not offering preferential treatment to anyone. This book does offer the thesis that Muslims are human beings—meaning that they have history and that they live in multiple social and historical situations defined by economic class, ethnicity, gender, and all the factors that ordinary human beings have to deal with. On a very basic level, I feel personally compelled to make this minimal argument because of the profoundly human relationships I have established with Muslims over the years, with people who have invited me into their homes and welcomed me into their families. Although years ago I originally envisioned my professional task as educating non-Muslims about a foreign culture, the growing presence of Muslims in America and Europe has created a new constituency urgently committed to thinking through what it means to be a Muslim today. Muslims constitute nearly one-fourth of the human race, and that proportion is not likely to change; so it is simply a fact that non-Muslims need to come to terms with Islam as a part of our common humanity. It is also a fact that Muslims who are not satisfied with authoritative pronouncements will need to come to terms both with the history of their predecessors and with the history of the modern world. This book is written for both these audiences rather than for scholars, and it aims to be illustrative and provocative rather than comprehensive or exhaustive.


The basic method of this book is therefore descriptive and interpretive. It intends to provide the reader with the key concepts and questions necessary to understand contemporary debates about Islam. I do not wish to privilege any particular position, but an approach based on religious studies and historical context is bound to give a critical treatment to the issues. That is, as explained above, religious claims are not accepted at face value, and appeals to authority are not allowed to trump rational argument or to ignore history. Instead, everything is evaluated in terms of the elements of historical context that can be discussed by anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, regardless of background or precommitments.


To make the book more accessible, I have written it in the form of an essay, only lightly burdened by notes except to give due credit or pointers to additional sources, including materials available on the Internet. As I have discovered in the past few years, Internet sources increasingly provide access to an astonishing range of materials relating to Islam that were previously almost impossible for the average reader to find. For the convenience of readers, I have set up a website ( containing all the Internet references in this book, which will be regularly updated and expanded in an attempt to keep up with the growth of these resources. Contributions and suggestions from readers will be welcome.


While this book aims primarily to reveal the human face of Islam, it can only do so by removing the veils of ignorance that have cloaked this subject for centuries in the minds of Europeans and Americans. Restoration of anything like an honest picture involves two kinds of mental operations: one is the complication of the cartoonlike stereotypes that dominate our current perceptions, giving Muslims a full three-dimensional human complexity; the other is the revival of memory, to replace the selective amnesia that has blotted out subjects such as colonialism from our common memory even of the recent past. The method that I use is to provide real human examples, which require the reader to construct a narrative that will help to explain how such things have come to be. In this way the reader participates in the creative act of reimagining as human an immense group of people who have been demonized. The reader should not feel, however, that he or she is being blamed for the prejudices that we have inherited. Some audiences to whom I have presented this analysis have reacted with surprise, frequently commenting that they had absolutely no concept of Islam whatever, that it was a great big blank in their minds. While acknowledging the truth of these reactions, I still wish to point out the surprising ways in which the dominant self-conception of Euro-Americans is in conflict with the actual history of our predecessors' engagement with Islam. Restoring a human face to Islam also means coming to a better knowledge of who we all are.


One final admission is necessary: I hate textbooks. I have attempted over the past twenty years to avoid using regular textbooks in my classes in religious studies because they generally offer students the deceptive appearance of easy and authoritative conclusions about the subject. Religion is a very complex topic, though, and I would much rather have students experience creative doubt and questioning than have them memorize a simple answer in the hope of passing an exam. I have been particularly dissatisfied with textbooks on Islam, beginning with H. A. R. Gibb's unfortunately titled Mohammedanism (first published in 1947 and still in print; in subsequent editions, the name was finally changed to Islam). Although that book was in some ways a masterful summary, it set the pattern for subsequent textbooks on Islam by adopting a subject division taken from the scholastic curriculum of medieval Sunni Muslim theologians. To this outline, mirroring the classical bias of Orientalist scholarship, it added a brief supplementary chapter on contemporary Islamic history. The main variation on this pattern has been to give weight to certain contemporary reformist and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, in effect recognizing them as the authoritative mainstream.


What I offer here instead is an interpretive essay that attempts to view Islamic religious history as a source of the contemporary situation, with attention to major debates that frame a broad range of religious expression and opinion. At the same time, I wish to highlight the impact of Euro-American attitudes on Muslims in the colonial and postcolonial eras. This book has been written, in short, to stimulate communication between Muslims and non-Muslims in the world they have commonly inherited.


The first chapter of the book presents an overview of Islam as part of the modern world for at least the past two centuries, including anti-Islamic attitudes from medieval times to the present. Chapter 2 considers the history of the term "religion" and how it changed from the time of early Christianity to the early colonial era. This permits a fresh consideration of how Islam is understood by scholars, how it is defined by the nation-state and by government bureaucrats, and how Muslims have conceptualized it in their own terms.


Chapter 3, "The Sacred Sources of Islam," begins with the life of the Prophet Muhammad and proceeds to an overview of the Qur'an, its structure, and its contents. Without attempting to cover every fact or detail, this interpretation emphasizes the central role of the Prophet Muhammad for Islamic religious consciousness. This chapter also provides the opportunity to reconsider the major international debates that have raged over the Qur'an in recent fictional and journalistic writing. Chapter 4, "Ethics and Life in the World," begins with the broad concept of Islamic religious ethics deriving from both authoritative texts and philosophical inquiry. After demonstrating the major role of Greek philosophical ethics in Islamic thought, it moves on to the changes in ethical thinking during the period of European colonial domination. A series of major problems for religious ethics then follows, including the concept of an Islamic state, liberal Islamic thought, gender issues and the question of veiling, and the relationship between Islam and science.


Chapter 5, "Spirituality in Practice," investigates spirituality and mysticism in the traditions of Sufism and Shi'ism, with particular attention to the role of Sufi saints and Shi'i Imams as spiritual guides and mediators; controversies such as the Wahhabi rejection of sainthood also come in for discussion. This chapter also asks about the nature of Islamic art, including sacred art, secular art with religious themes, Islamic art for non-Muslims, and the significance of fantasies of Muslim cultures in European Orientalist painting. The book concludes with "Reimagining Islam in the Twenty-first Century," a look at how ideology and technology are continually transforming the way that Muslims and non-Muslims imagine this religious tradition. Throughout, the book underlines the role of the Prophet Muhammad as the chief defining figure for the distinctiveness of Islamic experience.

Writing this book would not have been possible without the continuous interaction I have had with students in classes on Islamic studies at every level over the past twenty years; it is in part to them that I dedicate this book, as those entrusted with the task of improving our knowledge of these subjects in the future. I particularly would like to acknowledge the students in two first-year seminars on Islam at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, plus graduate student assistants Philip Hassett, Karen Ruffle, and Peter Wright, all of whom helped me work through many of the topics discussed in this book in 2000-2002.


I owe particular thanks to Elaine Maisner and the staff of the University of North Carolina Press, who had the vision to see this book as a contribution both to the academy and to public debate. It is also of considerable personal significance to me that UNC Press published in 1975 one of the most important books ever produced in America in the area of Islamic studies, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, by my former teacher, the late Annemarie Schimmel (d. 2003). This book is also dedicated to her, and I am sorry that she did not live to see it.


I would in addition like to thank my colleagues in the field of Islamic studies and related subjects, who have continually challenged me and helped me to come to new insights as we have grappled with this topic over the years. Special thanks go to the people I work with most closely here in North Carolina, at UNC (Edward Curtis, Bart Ehrman, Charles Kurzman, James Peacock, Shantanu Phukan, Sarah Shields, and Thomas Tweed), Duke University (miriam cooke, Katherine Ewing, Bruce Lawrence, and Ebrahim Moosa), and North Carolina State University (David Gilmartin, Akram Khater, and Tony Stewart), and also to Richard Martin (Emory University), Brannon Wheeler (University of Washington), Muhammad Qasim Zaman (Brown University), F. Canguzel Zulfikar, and Tahir Andrabi (Pomona College). Several anonymous reviewers of this manuscript, plus Michael Sells (Haverford College) and Frances Robinson (Royal Holloway, University of London), made valuable suggestions. A special debt of gratitude goes to Pakistani master calligrapher Rasheed Butt (<>), who generously offered to supply Arabic epigraphs for each chapter, plus the splendid hilya icon in Chapter 3. As always, thanks to my wife, Judith Ernst, for her tolerance, encouragement, and sound criticism.


From Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World. Copyright (c) 2003 by Carl W. Ernst. Published by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.