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Princeton University Press (December 2015)
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WHAT IS ISLAM?

The Importance of Being Islamic

by Ahmed, Shahab

What is Islam? How do we grasp a human and historical phenomenon characterized by such variety and contradiction? What is "Islamic" about Islamic philosophy or Islamic art? Should we speak of Islam or of islams? Should we distinguish the Islamic (the religious) from the Islamicate (the cultural)? Or should we abandon "Islamic" altogether as an analytical term?

In WHAT IS ISLAM?, Shahab Ahmed presents a bold new conceptualization of Islam that challenges dominant understandings grounded in the categories of "religion" and "culture" or that privilege law and scripture. He argues that these modes of thinking obstruct us from understanding Islam, distorting it, diminishing it, and rendering it incoherent.

WHAT IS ISLAM? formulates a new conceptual language for analyzing Islam. It presents a new paradigm of how Muslims have historically understood divine revelation--one that enables us to understand how and why Muslims through history have embraced values such as exploration, ambiguity, aestheticization, polyvalence, and relativism, as well as practices such as figural art, music, and even wine drinking as Islamic. It also puts forward a new understanding of the historical constitution of Islamic law and its relationship to philosophical ethics and political theory.

A book that is certain to provoke debate and significantly alter our understanding of Islam, WHAT IS ISLAM? reveals how Muslims have historically conceived of and lived with Islam as norms and truths that are, at once, contradictory yet coherent.

Shahab Ahmed is lecturer on law and research fellow in Islamic legal studies at Harvard Law School.

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Comments

Lucid and compelling, beautifully constructed and powerful, important and brave. What Shahab Ahmed has accomplished in this book is to create a postcolonial ontology of Islam, one that provincializes the Euro-American categories of analysis that up to now have been applied to Islam, both by Western scholars as well as by scholars from the Muslim world who have appropriated these categories. -- Robert Wisnovsky, James McGill Professor of Islamic Philosophy, McGill University

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Not merely field changing, but the boldest and best thing I have read in any field in years. - Noah Feldman, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Harvard Law School

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... illuminating from beginning to end. I know of no book on the question of how to approach Islam that comes close to this study in its learning, breadth, and sophistication. It should be read not only by students and scholars of Islam, but by all those interested in the broad questions about conceptualizing religion, culture, and history that it raises. - Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Robert H. Niehaus '77 Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Religion, Princeton University

Quote: Blurb

Strikingly original, wide-ranging in its engagement, subtle in its interpretations, and hard-hitting in its conclusions: this book will certainly provoke debate for a number of years. Ahmed's assertions are provocative, his analysis is sharp, and his own solution is both strong and creative. The book lays out a new and capacious basis for thinking about an Islamic humanism. It reconstructs basic scholarly paradigms, ranges across all fields of the Islamic humanities--literature, history, philosophy, art, music, et cetera--and will create potentials for new streams of scholarship in all these fields. - Engseng Ho, Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Professor of History, Duke University

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