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What Is Islam?

What is Islam? How do we grasp a human and historical phenomenon characterized by such variety and contradiction? What is "Islamic" about Islamic philosophy or Islamic art? Should we speak of Islam or of islams? Should we distinguish the Islamic (the religious) from the Islamicate (the cultural)? Or should we abandon "Islamic" altogether as an analytical term? In What Is Islam?, Shahab Ahmed presents a bold new conceptualization of Islam that challenges dominant understandings grounded in the categories of "religion" and "culture" or those that privilege law and scripture. He argues that these modes of thinking obstruct us from understanding Islam, distorting it, diminishing it, and rendering it incoherent. What Is Islam? formulates a new conceptual language for analyzing Islam. It presents a new paradigm of how Muslims have historically understood divine revelation--one that enables us to understand how and why Muslims through history have embraced values such as exploration, ambiguity, aestheticization, polyvalence, and relativism, as well as practices such as figural art, music, and even wine drinking as Islamic. It also puts forward a new understanding of the historical constitution of Islamic law and its relationship to philosophical ethics and political theory. A book that is certain to provoke debate and significantly alter our understanding of Islam, What Is Islam? reveals how Muslims have historically conceived of and lived with Islam as norms and truths that are at once contradictory yet coherent.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi Preface xiii Part One Questions What Is Islam? 3 Chapter 1 Six Questions about Islam 5 Part Two Conceptualizations Chapter 2 Islam as Law, islams-not-Islam, Islamic and Islamicate, Religion and Culture, Culture and Civilization 113 Chapter 3 Religion and Secular, Sacred and Profane, Theocentric and Anthropocentric, Total Social Fact, Family Resemblance 176 Chapter 4 Culture, Meaning, Symbol System, Core and Nucleus, Whatever-Muslims-Say-It-Is, Discursive Tradition, Orthodoxy, Process 246 Part Three Re-Conceptualizations Chapter 5 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 301 Chapter 6: Applications and Implications: Coherent Contradiction, Exploration, Diffusion, Form and Meaning, Modern 405 The Importance of Being Islamic 542 Works Cited 547 Index 593


About the Author

Shahab Ahmed (1966-2015) was postdoctoral associate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University.


Winner of the 2016 Best First Book in the History of Religions, American Academy of Religion One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2016 "Anyone interested in exploring the intricacies and complexities of Islam as a religion, philosophical system and social text should study the new bookWhat Is Islam?... [A] perfect antidote to our present discourse."--Hussein Ibish, New York Times "One can't but be impressed by the grandeur of Ahmed's vision."--Malise Ruthven, London Review of Books "This is an enduring and timely work well worth the effort for those interested in discerning the essence of Islam beyond the seeming paradoxes of its own representations."--Publisher's Weekly "A bold new conceptualisation of Islam that reflects its contradictions and rich diversity."--Bookseller Buyer's Guide "[A] major new study ... a strange and brilliant work, encyclopedic in vision and tautly argued in the manner of a logical proof, yet pervaded by the urgency of a political manifesto."--The Nation "We can be grateful ... that Ahmed managed to complete this extraordinary work. Scholars from east and west will be under his influence for years to come."--Sameer Rahim, Prospect "In this monumental work, the late Shahab Ahmed sought new answers to important questions: How does one understand what Islam is? How does one study it meaningfully? ... This volume will be central to the study of Islam and of religion more broadly for the foreseeable future."--Choice "Remarkable."--Damian Howard, The Tablet

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