Marginalia Review of Books Forum on Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam?

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Shahab Ahmed’s masterful work, What is Islam?: The Importance Of Being Islamic (Princeton University Press, 2016), is a dynamic and complex volume that asks key questions for the study of Islam. It has already won the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book in the History of Religions award.

I had the great pleasure to co-edit a forum on the book for Marginalia Review of Books with the amazing Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst (University of Vermont). We introduce and review What is Islam? for those who have not read through it and outline the essays to come. You can read our Introduction here.

Tehseen Thaver tackles the first chapter of What is Islam?, titled: “Six Questions About Islam.” Her piece, “Three More Questions about What is Islam? asks critical questions about Ahmed’s definition–and how he goes about labeling, categorizing, and discerning Islam/Islamic.

Mohamed H. Fadel addresses the second chapter, titled: “Islam as law, islams-not-Islam, Islamic and Islamicate, Religion and Culture, Culture and Civilization” in his contribution, “The Priority of the Political: Politics Determines the Possibilities of Islam.” An expert on Islamic law, Fadel declares that finding answers to normative questions in a set of traditions so vastly multiple is impossible, and in his evaluation of Ahmed, Fadel offers insight as to the question of normativity, reading texts normatively, and (the pitfalls) of a normative argument.

Zareena Grewal addresses Ahmed’s third chapter, “Religion and Secular, Sacred and Profane, Theocentric and Anthropocentric, Total Social Fact, Family Resemblance.” In her essay, “The Problem with Being Islamic: Definitional and Theoretical Limits and Legacies,” she commends Ahmed’s great effort in grappling with disciplinary ambiguities, examines the alternative analytical tools Ahmed offers, but regrets that there is not much she can bring form What is Islam? to her own anthropological work.

Anna Bigelow offers an analysis titled “What is Islam? A Celebration and Defense of Contradiction, Perplexity, and Paradox,” which addresses chapter 4, “Culture, Meaning, Symbol System, Core and Nucleus, Whatever-Muslims-Say-It-Is, Discursive Tradition, Orthodoxy, Process.” She concludes that Ahmed’s coherent contradictions explores historical definitions, theories, and demonstrates the “faculty logics of nearly every scholar of Islam in the academy,” as well as provides a rich text upon which current and future generations of scholars can build.

Sajjad Rizvi attends to the fifth chapter in an essay titled “Reconceptualization, Pre-Text, and Con-text.” Ahmed’s lengthy title for this chapter  (“Hermeneutical Engagement, Pre-Text, Text and Con-text,  Meaning-Making for the Self Spatiality of Revelation, Hierarchy, Exteriority-Interiority, Public and Private, Language and Vocabulary, Ambivalence and Ambiguity, Metaphor and Paradox”) sets Rizvi’s tone; in this essay, he explores these terms as employed by Ahmed and offers a critique of the con-texts (texts and pre-texts) of the broad topics of the chapter.

Peter Gottschalk outlines the penultimate chapter, “Applications and Implications: Coherent Contradiction, Exploration, Diffusion, Form and Meaning, Modern” in an essay titled “The Interpretative Pivot: Hermeneutics and the Contemporary Decline of Islamic Pluralism.” He suggests that Ahmed’s stated task in this chapter requires all of its 137-pages: Ahmed, in this chapter, unpacked the historical contexts in which the modern period saw a shift to legalism, all while resisting a secular-religious binary or a normative claim to Islam (made by Muslims) or the study of Muslims (which includes Muslims and non-Muslims). Ultimately, Gottschalk offers the reader two concrete–and important–limitations of Ahmed’s conclusions and definitional schema.

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