Cliff Notes for “What is Islam?” by Shahab Ahmed Chapter 3

Chapter 3 Rethinking “Religion”

Academics have been debating the concept of ‘religion’ over the past thirty years. They feel the concept was coined by Europeans to quarantine ‘religion’ and carve space for non-religion. Non-religion = other versions of truth outside the institutions of the Christian church. P 177.  The definition of “religion’ has implications for Islam.

chapter 3 figure 1

The Binary of Religious Vs. Secular: arising from a specific historical process, specifically Christendom ‘religion’ and the rise of 17th century thought (Age of Enlightenment)

Secular                                                             ‘Religious’

Empirical Observation                                   Empirically unverifiable faith in the supernatural

Institutions Law-based (social contract)   Institutions (buildings, scripture), authorized interpreters

Profane                                                             sacred

Higher power which is the object of piety, worship, ritual prayer

Ultimate meaning of existence questions


Historical circumstances: Christian church could not allow for competing truth claims from science, capitalism, or politics (eg. ‘divine right of kings’)

PROBLEMS = Capitalism looks a lot like animism. Enlightenment Reason forces the mind to compartmentalize religion such that public power= nation state. Public truth = natural sciences, ‘religion’ is something done in private in your spare time. ‘Religion’ reinforces modern orthodoxy pp 184-5.  Hindusim: “Hindu is Hindu…because he is member of a caste.”

“truth community” p 190

Church as institution = social, material, political, cultural                  determines/defines/express               truth

“At no point in the history of Muslims has an institution existed whose members could exercise, from their institutional locus, a claim to monopoly over the calibration and valorization of truth in society at large.” P 190

“The entire community bore the burden of interpreting the revelatory-prophetic legacy.”- Waddad al-Qadi

Institutions- no loyalty creed by Muslims, no statements by authorities which are contingent for membership and participation (just shahada) p 193

Chapter 3 figure 2

Confusion from trying to maintain binary religion vs. secular : din & dunya pp 194-5, resuscitate ‘Islamic humanism; pp 190-200, the paradox of kajkulahi (crooked-hatted-ness) pp 202-203 “For every people; its path, its din, and its qiblah”

Sacred verses profane: ‘watertight compartments’ (Roger Caillois)/ “abyss that divides modalities” (Eliade) versus “so closely mingles as to be inseperable (Evans-Pritchard)

No word in Arabic for profane!

Arabic words don’t have the binary opposite.  Ex. 1. q-d-s =holy (not used much); n-z-h  = purity (used a lot), b-r-k – blessing; h-r-m = taboo, inviolable (no opposite to taboo)

Last 20 years (in academia): Sacred (defined as separation, specialness, value) can apply to ANY domain (Stewart Guthrie). “Things fundamentally valued by a community” – Fitzgerald

Binary (religious vs. secular) perpetuates imperialism! Pp 210-211

Ahmed wants a different ‘binary’- legalistic Islam vs. crooked-hatted Islam, with a tension and dialog between these two.

Specific examples of where the religious vs. secular binary does not with respect to Islam (note: all these examples were wide-spread and quoted in madrasah curricula)

  1. Nasir-ud-Din Tusi pp 212-214: Neo-Platnoic Avincennian cosmology, Quran and Hadith quoting, importance of Prophet Muhammad in salvation, Quran as a source of truth, Quran subject to reason, secular culture = no boundaries! Unafraid to piss off religious authorities or institutions
  2. Ira Lapidus trying to explain “state and religion in Islamic Societies”: goes along with Salafi ‘golden age’ and does not question it p 219. Narrowly defines “religious’ p 221 Madrasahs are not Islamic? P 222 Created by those ‘opportunistic Seljuks in 1065
  3. Hamid Dabashi “Being a Muslim in the World”- unable to break the binary
    1. Messes up when he lumps Quran in same category as Hadith and fiqh
    2. Quran Is a foundational problem! – how to read? What does it mean? Pp 227-8
    3. Pre-determined that “Islamic” only causes loss pp 231-2 because “Islam cannot accommodate contradiction”. Law is “Islamic” p 233. “Islamic” is limited, limiting, and uncreative p 238

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s