Cliff Notes for Chapter 6 of “What is Islam?” by Shahab Ahmed

Chapter 6

Ahmed defines Islam as meaning making for self in terms of hermeneutical engagement with Revelation to Muhammad as Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text.

Going back to the questions in Chapter 1, Q1 is Islamic when viewed as engagement with the Pre-Text by means of reason.  Q2 is Islamic when viewed as engagement with Pre-Text by mean of existence.


“Exploratory Society”: metaphorical truth bridge to Real-Truth. Expands ‘canon’ to include poetry, narrative, music and art as means of exploratory meaning making.

  1. Islamic Art: How is this object d’art made valuable or meaningful in terms of hermeneutical engagement with Revelation as or more of Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text? Examples are Fig 5 Humay and Humayun “refinement of the commonplace” or passing from the form and go to the Meaning and Fig 6 Worldly and Otherwordly Drunkenness.
  2. Music Pp 424-430 Amir Khusraw in On the Ramification of the Roots and Branches of Music: a) “The musician is a Form of Meaning-

if he is not marred by the black mole of vulgarity:

When you remove that dot from his face,

the musician becomes True Meaning”

b)”The string of your ‘ud: O! Sage-doctor of the lute-

are in dear-ness to the lovers as is the jugular vein!”

  1. Science pp 424-430 “Natural science is, like philosophy, a rational project of knowing the rational Pre-Text of Revelation” p 432
    1. “We will show them our Signs on the horizons and in themselves-until it becomes clear to them that it is the Truth” Quran 41:53
    2. “The Qur’an led Nisaburi to observational astronomy and ….astronomy…led Nisaburi to theological reflection on how God controls the universe that he (Nisaburi) is observing. Nisaburi’s scientific successes did not depend on a bifurcation between his religious and scientific work.” P 432 from Robert G. Morrison, Islam and Science: the Intellectual Career of Nizam al-Din al-Nisaburi 2007 pp 29, 42, and 146
    3. the measure “The consonance of Natural Sciences with Divine Truth is demonstrated when science is used to help human well being and felicity.” P 437
  2. Non-Muslims in Con-Text or “Musa is not quite Moses”
    1. Artistu = Aristotle
    2. Aflatun = Plato
    3. Shanahmah: Rustam and Kay Khusraw and Alexander the Great/Iskandar = models of good kingship, even though all are non-Muslims
    4. Faridun = ‘honorary Muslim’, like an ‘honorary consul’
    5. The sikh wrestler calling out “Ya Ali!” (Ali b. Abi Talib a model of Islamic warrior/gentleman/knight)
    6. Hindu Vijayanargar court (15th century) adopts “Islamic garb”
    7. Maimonides- an Islamic Jewish thinker

Conclusion: Actor is irrelevant- does act or product of act engage with final meaning through Islamic Con-Text and/or engagement with Revelation.

Islamic violence p 452

Putting Islamic Law in Con-Text (nmr- this reminds me of that movie “Dark City” where at the end the aliens realize that to understand humans they have been ‘looking in the wrong place’)

  1. Shari’ah or fiqh = divine law/religious law/jurists’ law
    1. Interpreted by Muslim law scholars (fuqaha)
    2. Taken from Quran & hadith + analogical & dialectical reasoning
  2. Siyasah or qanun = government law/ruler’s law
    1. Made by rulers on their own authority
    2. Typically land law, criminal law, administrative law
    3. Made with reason, ethical traditional, communal experience, custom (‘urf)/ consensus. Example: Umar b. al-Khattab took up Sasanian and Byzantine systems of taxation and continued them with some necessary modifications.
    4. Historically more important. Example: Ottomans ruled with co-dependent relationship between Divine Law and Sultanic Law.
  3. Sultan Baybars (1265) appoints judges from all four Sunni legal madhabs and creates legal culture where they agree to disagree, even in matters that are in outright disagreement!!! P 461
  4. Relationship of ruler to law-making is based on al-Farabi’s teachings and documented in Nasir ud-Din Tusi’s Akhlaq-i-Nasiri
    1. First sovereign is the Prophet (sage-philosopher-exemplar)
    2. Subsequent sovereigns’ qualifications
      1. Philosopher (hakim)
      2. Knows laws (al-shari’a) and normative practices (al sunan), precedents, and adab
      3. Excel at deducing (istanbat)
      4. Perception to figure out when to deduce new laws not covered by earlier examples because these are completely new customs
      5. Guide people to laws
      6. Physical strength for warfare
      7. Law making function of leader is broad and extensive
  1. Empirical test of leader’s success: the maslahah-welfare of the community. Metaphor of the doctor and health of his patient (doctor prescribes, patient heals) p 470 !!! Access to domains of truth in Pre-Text!!!  “Whenever a ruling entails maslahat , it is commensurate with God’s will” p 471
  1. Davvani: Ruler’s law must conform to the “universal principles of shari’at”
    1. Preserve din (obligations to God)
    2. Life
    3. Intellect
    4. Family or lineage
    5. Property
    6. (honor)
  2. Centrality of justice and human welfare to the constitution of a virtuous state p 479
    1. Pre-modern states decision-making was reached by consulting with elite connected to ruler
    2. Justice can be separated out from worship Ex. Anushirvan as the Con-Textual personification of Justice
  3. Conclusions
    1. Tradition of philosophy-based ethics and political theory of educated ruling sectors of Balkans to Bengal
    2. Law made by Fuqaha and Law made by ruler: relationship between the two found in aklaq-ethics (philosophy and political theory)
    3. Fiqh + ruler work together to bring justice for the welfare of society
    4. Ruler’s law was regarded as shari’ah as long as laws did not go against five basic values (din, life, intellect, lineage, property)
    5. Ruler worked with jurists, ruler enforced laws
    6. Justice requires Muslims to draw on sources and resources for Truth beyond the Text. “The ruler’s law represents a reversal of the jurists- the ruler’s law-making operation proceeds in a trajectory of reading God’s purpose out of the world (including the Unseen into Textual source.” P 484 (Jurists read God’s purpose from Text into world)

Maslahah (well-being)

  1. Maslahah is ancillary principle for jurists, primary principle and value for ruler
  2. Accessibility of Divine Truth by reason and custom
    1. Ibn Qataybah (828-885) Baghdad
    2. Minaykabau Malay
  3. The “case” of Qadi of Hamadan (fictional case from Sa’di’s Gulistan 1258): wild night with blacksmith boy, caught by king, Qadi begs forgiveness and King relents when Qadi makes him laugh (“Kill someone else and I’ll learn my lesson from their example.”)
    1. Homosexuality and drinking against the law
    2. King did break in to Qadi’s private room in order to “catch” him
    3. Story is deliberately open-ended: did the kind go the right thing? Conversation starter!

Tension between Islam as principle/meaning versus Islam as form

  1. Principle/meaning= any form ok as long as meaning is preserved. “Unseen”, expand, Pre-Text
  2. Form = specific forms are only legitimate and true expression of Islam/Truth, “Seen”, restrict, Text
  3. Hadith Project: “Hadith folk” = ahl al-hadith. Despite considerable opposition, by 5th century had compiled a text alongside Quran. Law took up hadith project
  4. Reform Islam: where to draw the line? “For something to be a true and valid statement of Islamic value, (to what extent) must it be concentrated in a specific delimited (and historically received) form? Or, to reverse the perspective: to what extent is the Truth of Islam reduced or depleted or demobilized by restricting the expression of Truth in a specific historically received form?” p 511 examples: women and slavery
    1. Can a Pre-Text value (hukm) be identified which abrogates the Textual form?
    2. What elements of the Con-Text are recognized and authenticated of value in any given context?
    3. Determining factor “Whether the hermeneutical trajectory adopted in any given circumstance or a give question tends more towards reading God’s purpose from Textual sources into the (Seen/Unseen) world or of reading God’s purpose out of the (Seen/Unseen) world into the Textual sources. Textual hermeneutics is not merely a focus on reading Text, it is also the reluctance to read Text in Pre-Textual mode– including to read Text non-literally (that is, other than “plain text”). P 513


Islam and Modernity: what are the differences between modern Islam and what went before it? What are the modern norms that disrupted societies of Muslims?

  1. Modern European colonialism
  2. Capitalist world-system
  3. Nation-states
    1. Emphasis on LAW as fundamental value
  4. Religious-secular binary: makes people think Islam is LAW. “All this has ultimately resulted in a diminished modern capacity to conceptualize contradiction and difference as Islam and thus to live with contradiction and difference in Islam.” P 531
  5. Modern science
    1. Made people turn away from the Unseen World as an object of real knowledge
    2. Only Seen world is valid and accessible to real knowledge
    3. Muslims react by denying knowability (and actionability) of Unseen by means other than Seen/Text of Revelation = same view of fiqh jurists, law, and kalam theology
    4. Text has monopoly of meaning ex. Islamic economics, Islamic banking, and Islamic finance are all derived from Quran and hadith in context of fiqh discourse instead of akhlaq-ethics
    5. Sufism reduced to private pietism, no more exploration “Basically, modern Textual reasoning views philosophical Pre-Textual reasoning as insufficiently Textual (and thus, excessively rational) and Sufi Pre-Textual reasoning as both insufficiently Textual and insufficiently rational to be Islam(ic).” P 520
  6. Focus on empiricism
  7. Entzauberung= driving out the magic of things/disenchantment = driving out of the Pre-Text from knowledge (no philosophy or Sufism)
  8. Mass education
    1. Loss of Pre-Text and Con-Text from mass education
    2. Emphasis on Western modern
    3. Loss of language, particularly Persian
    4. Modern educated elite- no sense of Pre-Text, diminished Con-Text
    5. Only Con-Text that seems to matter is 1st century Islam (=Salafs): an attempt to do away with all other Con-Text
  9. Mass communication= printing press, internet
  10. Commoditization of information

a.not easy in this day and age to ‘cage’ information but public sphere in Muslim societies is intimidating and censorious space where speech that contradicts prescriptive norms is persecuted or prosecuted by state for blasphemy- not received with equanimity and explorative interest pp 520-522

  1. Emphasis on “rational & objective public sphere” vs. “emotional & subjective private sphere”
    1. Public norms privileged over private norms
    2. Cognition decrease
    3. Inability to process metaphor and paradox, both necessary to express ambiguity
  2. The (mythic) emphasis on egalitarianism over hierarchy
    1. The myth of human equality and the idea that the public sphere is the only space which holds the promise of the capacity of reason to convince the general public of truth” p 520
    2. Egalitarian public discourse especially with internet
    3. “Speak to the people according to the capacity of their intelligence” versus “The din is simple”.
    4. Elitism as a positive and negative quality
  3. Strategic and lucrative importance of fossil fuels
    1. Rise of Wahhabism (anti Pre-Text and anti Con-Text) allied to Saudi royal family and petrodollars.
    2. Oil money allowed for propagation of anti Pre-Text creed worldwide
    3. Bulldozed Khadija’s house to build the Burj al-Bayt
    4. Wahhabi Year 0 = 23 madrasahs destroyed, 59 Sufi ribats demolished, graveyard of Salafs razed
  4. Pre-Text has been delegitimated and delimited, nearly eliminated
  5. Con-Text is depleted, particularly Con-Text that involves Pre-Text p 515chapter 6 figure 1
  6. Text is read in highly-depleted Con-Text
    1. Authoritarian hadith-folk project pp 529-530: discourses on prescription rather than exploration
    2. Ignores other texts (sirah, maghazi, tafsir and tarikh)
    3. Attempts to make-over early Muslim community as “uncomplicated”.

SUMMARY of Modern Muslims:

  1. Text only (no Pre-Text, diminished Con-Text)
  2. Law only (no philosophy, Sufism, aesthetics, literature)
  3. Prescription only (no exploration, contradiction, paradox, ambiguity)
  4. Public, “Din is simple” (no private, no “speak to each at his level of understanding”
  5. Egalitarianism (no hierarchy)
  6. Literal thought (no paradox, no metaphor)



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