Cliff Notes for “What is Islam?” by Shahab Ahmed Chapter 4

Chapter 4

This chapter is about culture and how it has been defined by major anthropologists and why their definitions fall short of defining Islam (+ can’t take contradictions into account).

Culture defined by Clifford Geertz pp 246-7; context of meanings. Religion = cultural system

  1. Ethos = moral + aesthetic style + mood
  2. Worldview: picture of how things are in actuality
  3. Goal of religion: harmonize people’s conceptions, especially what is real with appropriate way to live, by imposing authority on a complex of symbols. Authority is essential to religion (for Geertz)

What is the “Continent of Meaning” for Muslims? P 250

Culture defined by Jacques Waardenburg pp 250-257  Signs of significance to ALL Muslims:

  1. Quran
  2. Prophet Muhammad
  3. Hadith, specific Quranic texts
  4. Social data especially ritual
  5. Concept of ‘ummah’ and interpretations of Islam
  6. Certain words & deeds of certain religious leaders.


3-6 are debatable

Interpretative authority of jurists (ulema, fuqaha): scripture = Quran and Hadith.  This makes Waardenburg fall into the legal supremacists trap.

Remember: “Highest Truth”. For philosophers = Reason, Sufis = existence/experience, law & theology = Quran. Modes of reading Quran treated as different sign for philosophers/Sufis vs. theologians/jurists.

Culture defined by Wilfred Cantwell Smith pp 259-266 : cumulative tradition = man’s participation in an evolving context of observable actualities.  Faith = man’s participation in something not directly observable by historical scholarship while the link between the two in the living person in the now. Critique p 263- his definition of faith is too limiting.  According to Smith, Muslims must see Islam as uniform, divine, and stable because they have faith. Outsiders can only see Islam as multiform, human, and unstable because they have no faith. For Smith, there are Three Islams:

  1. Individual, personal submission to God
  2. “Platonic” ideal
  3. Empirical reality

Culture defined by Albert Hourani p 266 “Islam is what Muslims everywhere say it is.” This gets back into the the “islams”, lack of coherence. Also Bernard Lewis and Benjamin Braude. Critique by Talal Asad p 268= Muslims disagree about what Islam is!

Talal Asad p 270: Islam as a discursive tradition or the desire to establish orthodoxy. Islam is whatever Muslims say it is authoritatively. It is prescriptive (because authoritative?)

  1. Formation of moral selves
  2. Manipulation of populations (or resistance to it)
  3. Production of appropriate knowledge
    1. Instituted practice into which Muslims are inducted as Muslims
    2. Orthodox doctrine = correct process of teaching
    3. Orthodoxy = relationship of power p 270
  4. Islamic tradition is formed by argument and conflict over the form and significance of practices, examples: reason and argument, power and resistance, practioners’ desire to achieve coherence despite different historical context.
  5. Authority = discursive traditions of Islam and what is taught to Muslims

Ahmed’s critique of Asad p 273: Orthodoxy (a truth claim) does not welcome or accommodate contradictory claims. Contradictions are condemned, excluded, undermined, and replaced. Orthodoxy connotes prescription and restriction of truth. Orthodox binary: powerful = orthodox, dynamics of coercion and restriction; less powerful = heterodox, dynamics of accommodation and expansion. ((but maybe Islamic orthodoxy is just inefficient at ‘editing out’ unorthodox?))

P 276 The orthodoxy of one; “There can be only one true Islam, and that is usually the believer’s own”- Loeffler

“Un-orthodoxing” Elements

  1. Katib Ḉelebi p 277: all positions contain a measure of truth
  2. Perplexity or hayrat p 278: non-resolution of truth i.e. confusion is the appropriate and positive response for a Muslim to have to Divine Truth ex. “you are a puzzle lock” poem pp 279-280

Are there other forms of authority than prescriptive?

What of the authority to explore? P 282 Exploration itself is of value and meaning p 286.

Islam as an exploration of the meaningful p 287 ex. the fatwa of the Turkish jurist p 289

“A community of discourse”, a “discourse based world system”; emphasis on meaning, not ideas and practice.

Pros and Cons of Asad’s concept

  1. Pros
    1. Discursive tradition
    2. Relationship between production and communication of meaning
    3. Human community
    4. Mutual intelligibility (not the same as mutual agreement)
  2. Cons
    1. Too much emphasis on orthodoxy as prescriptive, resistance, scripture, law
    2. No ‘exploration’



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