Cliff Notes for Chapter 2 “What is Islam?” by Shahab Ahmed

Chapter 2

Current academic concepts of Islam and how they fail to account for coherence with contradictions

  1. The ‘kernel’ or ‘essence’ = over-determined and over-delimited constitution, typically prefers loudest, most apparent, or subjectively sympathetic/unsympathetic ex. Law
    1. Privileges orthodoxy “correct”
    2. Excludes contradictions (toss out or ignore history, other groups) p 122
    3. Examples of scholars who focus on law/fiqh as the ‘kernel’: Wael Hallaq, Joseph Schacht, Gotthelf Bergstrasser, Gustav Granebaum, Ernest Gellner, Brinkley Messick, Marcel Mauss, Khalid Abou El-Fadl
    4. Bias of modernity because modern nation states built on ‘law; i.e. law gives power
  2. The “islams” -expansion with no focal point / diffuse plurality with no unifying principles
    1. Shared illusion that local islam are each Islam (“projection” coined by Watt p 133)
      1. Relational terms (el-Zein): meanings are the outcome of relationship to one another p 134
      2. 5 Pillars – default way to define Islam and why it doesn’t work p 138 i.e. everyone disagrees
      3. The Shahada- a starting point to more questions! P 139
      4. The Ummah: imagined community, global from the outset (p 144). A community of disagreement over the question “What Is Islam?

Other common ways to define “Islam” and the problems with these approaches

      1. 5 Pillars – p 138 different groups disagree about pillars
      2. The Shahada- a starting point to more questions! P 139
      3. The Ummah: imagined community, global from the outset (p 144). A community of disagreement over the question “What Is Islam?

Problems with using terms religion, culture, civilization

  1. Defining culture and civilization
    1. Example 1 Karamustafa and Syed Hussain Nasr
      1. Civilization = Islam
      2. Culture = local islam
    2. Example 2 Arnason defines civilization
      1. Cultural interpretations of the world
      2. Institutional constellations (political & economic)
  • Ideologies with links to texts and elites

Therefore, culture and civilization are mutually constitutive, can’t pinpoint where one begins or ends

  1. Example 3 Marshall Hodgson

Hodgson terms:

Civilization : the sum of many cultures (shared traditions) in the form of high culture on urban, literate level

Islamdom ; Muslim majority society (like Christendom)

Islamicate; cultural and social tradtions associated with Muslims

Islam: religion of the Muslims

Islamic: only pertains to religion (restricting term to ‘religion’ only)

Religion; ultimate orientation to which is personally commiting and meaningful, personal piety hermetically sealed from society.

islam as described by a crazy amma

In Hodgson’s model, all contradictions are bulked into Islamicate/cultural. Because this is a kernel foundation (personal piety), it lends itself to Salafi radical reductionism i.e. all contradictions are not Islamic, they are ‘cultural’.

Hodgson’s model does not stand up to Hafizian literature- scale and theme does not compress into secular versus religion binary thinking

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