Cliff Notes for Chapter 5 of “What Is Islam?” by Shahab Ahmed

Chapter 5 Hermeneutical Engagement

Def. Hermeneutical: theories of how to interpret esp. scripture

Quran is perceived through fiction (ex. Rumi’s “Mathnawi” = ‘tafsir’ in a different form)

Fiction is perceived through Quran (ex. Jami’s “Yusef and Zulaykha” – re-imagines Yusef story.


Modalities of Fiction (p 311)

  1. Exploration
  2. Ambiguity
  3. Ambivalence
  4. Wonder
  5. Aestheticization
  6. Diffusion
  7. Differentiation
  8. Polyvalence
  9. Relativism

Majnun (of “Layla and Majnun”): the imam of the madhab of love. Ghazal themes, Layla/God

Jihad pp 318-320, “greater jihad’ joke p 319

Ahmed’s definition p 323 “Islam is a shared language by and in which people express themselves so as to communicate meaningfully in all their variety…Islam is both means and meaning…it is located in the relationship, the field and the process of engagement with and between the source of meaning, the mode of production of meaning from the source, and the end product of meaning, howsoever this may be formulated and expressed in discourse and practice.”

Meaning as advantage (Devin DeWeese) pp 323-325

Meaning as a consequential truth i.e. consequences of accepting this as true.

ch5 figure 1

“Constituting their own self in terms of the construction of Islam itself” p 327 Commitment of the self to a meaning/value that is ultimately construed by the Self as Islam.

The Perfect Man p 333: comprises in his self the Truth and Meaning in the universe such that this is act of self knowledge reflects truth and meaning of the Universe. “Whoso knows his self knows his lord” = existentialist idea. Examples of the Perfect man in popular poetry and ethics manuals:

  1. Ibn Sina pp 330-1
  2. Al-Suhrawardi p 332
  3. Khwushhal Khan Khatak p 334
  4. Muhammad Al-Burhanpuri p 334
  5. Rumi p 335
  6. Bullhe Shah pp 336-7
  7. *”But these are Sufis…” argument = compartmentalizing a discourse that has not been historically thought of that way ; p 338


Tahqiq: discovering the haqq within the seeker’s own intelligence p 339.

Receiving revelation while asleep! P 339

Iqbal and khudi p 340

chapter 5 fig 2

Islam = Meaningful exploration IN CONTRAST TO Islam as discourses of prescriptions!

Islam of an individual = shahada (pp 344-5) “affiliating his or her self with the historical act of God’s revelation to His messenger, Muhammad”

Historical phenomenon of Islam = varied product of that engagement of human with the Divine. Seminal question: “What is Revelation?”

Engagement: role of human in meaning/Truth making, attach and commit Self to something the Self determines to be important i.e. INVESTED

Hermeneutical engagement: Source, method, truth, meaning, agency, self + process. Definition of hermeneutics in footnote 103 p 345, also def. engage in footnote 104 p 345

Islam is NOT just the scripture (Quran and hadith = too limiting) but is also Revelation : Unseen reality or truth beyond and behind Text of Reveleation + Revelation of Seen

Pre-Text of Revelation: pp 346-7 Unseen Reality is prior to and larger than textual product of Revelation.

1.?Whether and in what degree can one access the Pre-Text of Revelation? With text, without text, only  via text?

Ex1. Reason: p 348 also see footnote 111 on wisdom, philosophy pp 348-350

  1. Reason courses through cosmos
  2. Because reason is infrastructure of cosmos, it is possible to access truth of cosmos through reason
  3. Therefore, Reason is part of the Pre-Text (Revelation)
  4. Medieval philosophers thought creation of Quran from same source. Lawyers constrain their Reason to text only (not interested in Pre-Text)

Ex2. Existence p 350, Sufis

  1. Existence courses through the cosmos
  2. Because existence is infrastructure of the cosmos, it is possible to access truth by existence (spiritual ritual, discipline, and practice)


Kalam theology: seek truth about Pre-Text via the Text. Their problem: what statements in Quran should be read literally versus which ones metaphorically?

Con-Text (definition) pp 356-357: “That whole field or complex or vocabulary of meanings of Revelation that have been produced in the course of the human and historical hermeneutical engagement with Revelation, and which are thus already present as Islam.” Anything made by Muslims acting as Muslims and to which Muslims acting as Muslims have attached themselves as engaging with Revelation.  OR human and historical baggage of Revelation/Islam = terms of engagement + vocabulary of Islam ( = recognition)

Con-Text is the sholw thing, but not all Con-Text is distributed to every local context. The portion of Con-Text which is active at the local level he calls Con-Text-in-context of Con-Text in loco. Complete definition of Ahmed’s terms p 363 “Islam is a hermeneutical engagement with Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text of Revelation to Muhammad.” Islam guarantees a Self that can live with contradiction p 366

Chapter 5 fig 3

Islamic Truth and Meaning p 367

  1. Hierarchy: not all people have the capacity to know truth p 370-372
  2. Interiority/exteriority
  3. Domains of truth & meaning
  4. Sources of truth
  5. Modes of production of truth, methodologies, epistemologies
  6. Meanings and values of truth
  7. Social location or social theaters for the operation of truth, meaning, value
  8. Expressive registers of truth/meaning/value discourse
  9. Language to communication truth/meaning/value discourse


  1. Law = fit for everybody. Commoners = awamm ; Elect = khawass
  2. Sufi & Philosopher knowledge = only for an elite, people capable of grasping truth
  3. This hierarchy goes against modern idea of equality, “speak to people according to the capacity of their intelligence.”
  4. Since hierarchy is based on knowledge, which is able to be acquired by all people if given the texts and education, there is an egalitarian possibility to it
    1. NOTE NMR: Although historically speaking, women have been barred from access to texts and education. Power elites retain their power by restricting access to knowledge.

Exterior = Seen = shahadah   versus Interior = Unseen = ghayb

Ex. Text    batin = unseen vs. seen = zahir

Ex. Physical and social space: sirr (private) or raz = individual’s most secret self = where Revelation/contact with Divine is made. P 379. Al-Ghazalis quote, only talk about secret self stuff with peers in an ‘invite only’ setting. Not everyone can handle the truth.

Adab: shows you have enough polish to consort with the post ‘gentlemen scholars’.

Law= prescribes for domain of Seen- public

Philosophy & Sufis: exploration projects into Unseen- private

Theology: prescribes in public, explores in private

Art: simpler and less meaningful forms are for public display, more subtle and complex in meaning in the case of objects in private sphere.


Language of Muslims: Metaphor and paradox

  1. Complexity pp 390-391 poetry: sabk-I hindi (India)
  2. Truth= multi-valent and multi-dimensional
  3. Maintains tension between meanings but does not collapse structure
  4. Ahmed’s definition of metaphor p 394
  5. Unseen World of Real-Truth identified by Seen World of Metaphor

Lower/Seen/Metaphor vs. Higher/Unseen/Truth

  1. Sufi poetry metaphors ex. poem pp 396-397
    1. Beautiful person’s beauty is a bridge to witness to pure Divine Truth
    2. Earthly wine is a metaphor for the consciousness altering experience of Real Truth
    3. Ambiguity AND meaning
    4. Ambivalence AND value
  2. Paradox: metaphor itself is paradox (see Footnote 197)
    1. Ibn Arabi; coincidentia oppositorium= only by a simultaneous affirmation of contradictions can we understand the natre of the Real World. Also “God cannot be known except as a synthesis of opposites” ex. He-Not-He; the One-the Many

??NMR: What about cognitive dissonance?



9 thoughts on “Cliff Notes for Chapter 5 of “What Is Islam?” by Shahab Ahmed

  1. Ijaz Ali June 16, 2017 / 9:24 am

    Few comments if you will…

    We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly Guard it (from corruption)” (15:9).

    “You never recited any Scripture before We revealed this one to you; you never wrote one down with your hand” (29:48).

    “This is the Scripture in which there is no doubt, containing guidance for those who are mindful of God, who believe in the unseen…” (Quran, 2:2-3).

    This is a blessed Book which We sent down to you [Muhammad], for people to ponder over its message, and for those with understanding to be reminded. (Quran, 38:29)

    Say: “If all mankind and all invisible beings 103 would come together with a view to producing the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce its like even though they were exert all their strength in aiding one another!”.(Quran, 17:88)

    Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The example of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a pearly [white] star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow even if untouched by fire. Light upon light. Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is Knowing of all things. (Quran, 24:35)

    “And it is We who have built the universe with (Our creative) power; and verily, it is We who are steadily expanding it” (51:47).



    • firebrushblog June 17, 2017 / 11:34 pm

      As-salamu Alai’kum,
      I don’t understand why the many Quranic quotes? Is something about this book upsetting you?


      • Ijaz Ali June 18, 2017 / 10:56 am

        Dearest Ms. Nabeela,

        It is a wonderful book on Islamic philosophy and culture. The only problem is that it has been written from a liberal point of view. When Islam is observed by a liberal he/she percieves it in such a way which is not purely islamic. The only way to solve this issue is to compare your thoughts with what Quran says about it. And to take the teachings of Quran, wholly, instead of concentrating on few verses. Which is why I shared so many verses from Quran which opposes some of the ideas in the book. Take it from someone who has been in this situation for quite a while.

        I am sure that you recieved the link I sent you few days ago where it is clarified that considering Quran a work is fiction is one of the signs of Qiyama. When there will be veil placed between us and the Quran, meaning that although we will read Quran but we will not be able to properly understand it.

        Best Wishes,


  2. firebrushblog June 18, 2017 / 8:58 pm

    Dear Ijaz Ali,
    Thanks for clarifying.
    I would respectfully disagree with some of your points, but I appreciate that you feel comfortable expressing your opinions.
    You might prefer Tariq Ramadan’s “Islam: the Essentials”. Or not! I would love to hear your take on this one.


    • Ijaz Ali June 18, 2017 / 11:59 pm

      Dear Ms. Nabeela,

      I can understand your disagreement as you might have not been able to find the right type of physical evidence for some of your questions/theories. In my opinion, if you really want to grasp the true meaning of Islam, you have to be present at the heart of the religion both physically and geographically. I have been travelling all around the Middle East for the same question.

      I found the book in ibooks but having trouble downloading it on my device, will get back to you once I am able to have a quick look at it.

      Best Wishes,


      • firebrushblog June 19, 2017 / 2:56 pm

        Dear Ijaz Ali,
        I’m not quite sure what you mean by “physical evidence for some of your theories”, but that’s ok.
        What interests me more about this book (and he gets to this in Chapter 6) is why current day Muslims do not see the “Islam” (or only see “bad Muslims”) in the six questions he poses in Chapter 1.
        I don’t see him saying anything bad about Quran or hadith, I feel he just lumps them together in his “Text” designation. Does he comment on whether they are fiction or not? If so, please let me know page number.
        He does say at the end that this is a historical analysis, and he is commenting (exhaustively?) on a time period which I am, admittedly, favorably biased towards (Ottoman and Mughal empires). My take-away message from this book is that during this time period and region, society was a lot more complex, pluralistic, and contradictory- and this was all tolerated at a much higher level than the Western civilization counterpart.
        Modern Muslims (and he does talk about this in Chapter 6) react to elements of modernity, and yes this does extend to how we interpret and read Quran and hadith. We cannot escape the time into which we have been born.
        Best Regards,


    • Ayesha June 19, 2017 / 4:58 pm

      Ijaz, If you read the book you will see that Ahmed shows examples that the dichotomy between liberal and conservative in Islam is a modern take because throughout Islamic history Islam has been about incoherence.


    • firebrushblog August 3, 2017 / 2:51 pm

      I love this saying, too. I’d even take it up a notch and say that the spiritual journey of getting to know your own self is part of every one’s existence on this planet. Sadly, I do not think every one chooses to go on this journey.


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