Tuesday, June 28, 2016



Is violence by ISIS and similar jihadi-salafist groups Islamic?  Is wife -beating Islamic? Is the killing of homosexuals Islamic? Is subjugation of non-Muslims Islamic? Is the resistance to abolition of slavery Islamic ? (the list can go on). These and similar kinds of questions (and accompanying ethical aporias) confront Muslims perhaps more than ever before and have elicited different and at times symmetrically opposite responses. For the proponents of the Islamic State and their intellectual sympathizers across the world the answer to these questions is a clear ‘yes’.  For many other Muslims it is a clear ‘no’(although many would struggle to justify this view hermeneutically).  How is this possible? Of course, what is or isn’t Islamic depends to a significant extent upon how Muslims have been not only defining but also conceptualizing the concept of Islam itself.
Shahab Ahmad’s book under review is a major step forward in assisting us to coherently conceptualize in descriptive and analytical terms the full array of complexities involved in Muslims living and assigning meaning to their Islam and making normative claims about it in various and often conflicting ways.
The book is divided into three parts (questions, conceptualizations and re-conceptualizations) and consists of six chapters and a conclusion.
The aim of the first chapter is to demonstrate that the only manner in which we can coherently conceptualize the human and historical phenomenon of Islam is by analytically and conceptually accommodating not only the diversity of responses of Islam meaning making by Muslims themselves but their absolute and complete contradiction. Ahmed provides many relevant examples of this coherent contradiction from a period of time in Islamic history (approximately 1350-1850 CE) that is the most representative of centrality of this phenomenon, a period of time in Islamic history which was a major intellectual paradigm for Islam meaning-making for over half a millennium for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  He refers to this historical epoch as ‘the Balkan to Bengal complex’ which was “the most powerful and influential social group in Islamic history” (p.80) and included the thought, conduct, behaviours, values and ideals of both  educated and cultivated Sunnī and Shīʿī elites ( which were  also diffused among the masses) of that time and geographical space.
Ahmed uses the Balkan to Bengal complex methodologically also to assess and critically evaluate existing scholarly writings on the theme of conceptualizing Islam in the second part of the book. The second, third and fourth chapters are a tour de force  in that regard. Ahmed in this author’s view convincingly  demonstrates why the existing and most influential conceptual and analytical tool paradigms premised on the conflation of Islam as Islamic law, the distinction between  Islam and Islamicate ( Hodgson), Islam as religion and  Islam as culture, Islam as  civilization, the binary between the religion and secular ,sacred and profane, Islam as orthodoxy and Islam as discursive tradition ( Asad) are all inadequate in conceptualizing the full gamut of meanings and contradictory normative claims that permeated Islam as a human and historical phenomenon within this intellectual paradigm.
In the third part of the book Ahmed makes his case for re-conceptualizing Islam that is conceptually able to coherently capture the entire edifice of the human and historical phenomenon that is Islam characterized by enormous complexity of meanings, ambiguity, ambivalence, polyvalence, diffusion, relativism, exploration   and importantly outright internal contradiction in terms of Truth making claims.
The cornerstone of his re-conceptualization is a novel and in this author’s view brilliant theory of the nature and function of Revelation. It is beyond the purview of this review to do full justice to it but to highlight those aspects which are of particular interest to this author. The point of departure for Ahmed’s  reconceptualization of what is Islam/Islamic is the  idea of the centrality of a hermeneutical engagement of (the Muslim) Self with Revelation for the process of meaning making (p.345) where Revelation is its object or source. Ahmed emphasizes how the idea of a     ‘ hermeneutical engagement’ has important implications for meaning making purposes of the Self by bringing into focus the questions of  source, truth ,agency, self , method, interpretation, understanding and process (p.345). Importantly, Ahmed underlines the fact that the source-object of meaning of the hermeneutical engagement is not restricted to scripture alone because “ the act of Revelation to Muḥammad plus the product of text of Revelation to Muḥammad does not encompass and is not co- extensive or consubstantial with the full idea or phenomenon or reality of Revelation to Muḥammad” (p.346). This is so   because what he terms Unseen reality or reality of Revelation (ʿālam al- ghayb) is the source of Revelation from which the text of Revelation proceeds and is ontologically and alethically prior to it. It is the Pre-text of Revelation to use Ahmed’s terminology.  Importantly, the truth of Revelation is not only a subset of a larger Truth of Pre-text but is also contingent upon the truth of the Pre-text. While there is no disagreement among all Muslims concerning this point there is disagreement about the epistemologies and methodologies of accessing and knowing the Truth of the Pre-text, namely without a text , via the text  or only in the Text. Muslims, past and present, have made normative hermeneutical claims using all three of these approaches when conceptualizing their concept of Islam giving rise to a particular structural relationship between Pre-text and Text. Islamic philosophers and Sufi, for example, deemphasized the Text in their hermeneutical engagement with Revelation whereas Islamic jurists emphasized the Text and theologians where caught in between ( i.e. search Truth about Pre-text but confine it to the hermeneutical engagement to Text).
Conceptualizing Islam as hermeneutical engagement of the Self with revelation as both Pre-text and Text is, however, incomplete unless one adds an additional element, namely what Ahmed terms Con-text. It is defined as a ‘body of meaning’, ‘an entire vocabulary’ of meanings of Revelation engendered over the course of Islamic history. In other words, it is a product of historical outcome of the hermeneutical engagement with Revelation at any point it time (p.356). Con-text includes “epistemologies, interpretations, identities, persons and places, structures of authority, textualities and intertexualities, motifs, symbols, values, meaningful questions and meaningful answers, agreements and disagreements, emotions and affinities and affects, aesthetics, modes of saying, doing and being, and other truth- claims and components of existential exploration and meaning- making in terms of Islam that Muslims acting as Muslims have produced, and to which Muslims acting as Muslims have attached themselves during the process of hermeneutical engagement with Revelation”(p.357). As such Con-Text is not restricted to texts or textual discourse alone as it includes practices, both individual and collective, that have meaning in terms of Islam to those who engage in them ( e.g. prayer, fasting etc.). Importantly, the contents of Con-Text are not somehow to be viewed as extraneous to Islam but can be genealogically traced back to a particular Pre-text- Text  structural  dynamic. Moreover, both hermeneutical engagement with Pre-text and Text is only possible from a vantage-point of a particular Con-text (at any point in time and place) which is by default  constitutive of them. It is a ‘built environment of meaning’ (p.357) in which an individual meaning-making person is embedded. Finally, Ahmed distinguishes between Con-text in toto and Con-text in loco. This distinction is premised on the idea that not all Con-text is actively present in a particular context ( in sense of space and time). That which is actively present is called Con-text in loco (p.361) and inactive element although  potentially present and available is  Con-text in toto .
Ahmed’s theory of revelation includes additional elements such as multidimensionality, hierarchy, exteriority-interiority, the distinction between the private and the public dimensions of Revelation, ambiguity and ambivalence etc. which due to space contains I am unable to comment on at any length.
In what follows I would like to return to the questions I raised at the very start  in the light of  Ahmed’s  reconceptualization of the concept of Islam and some of the work I did previously on making sense of how two contemporary communities of interpretation ( in the sense of theorized and employed by Stanley Fish  ) I term neo-traditional Salafis and progressive Muslims make normative but outright contradictory claims about what it means to be a religiously ideal ‘Believer’ and ‘Woman’ in Islam (Duderija 2011)on the basis of their respective methods of interpretation (manahij) .
While it is true that Ahmed’s book does not aim to provide a prescriptive answer to questions of normative Islam in the name of Islamic ‘orthodoxy’, it nevertheless successfully analyses and brings into focus the idea of accommodating the competing normative claims surrounding the question what is Islamic (or more precisely qualifies to be termed ‘Islamic’) as being constitutive of conceptualizing Islam as a human and historical phenomenon adequately.
Ahmed clearly states that one can meaningfully speak of Islamic violence (as one can of American or Israeli violence) as an outcome of a hermeneutical engagement of Self with the Pre-text, Text and Con-text of Revelation not in a sense that Islam causes such violence but that “that the violence is made meaningful by the actor in terms of Islam”. Although Ahmed makes note that Muslims would disagree whether this violence is indeed legitimate (i.e. coherent with its source), a question that Ahmed  (and many others who engaged the question of is ISIS ‘Islamic’ ) does not pose is whether the kind of violence perpetrated by jihadist -salafi groups like ISIS is hermeneutically reasonable given the textual discourses present in the Context in toto  on this question.  I emphasize the textual discourses element of the Con-text in toto since it is evident that the salafi-jihadist groups hermeneutical engagement with Revelation  is very much restricted to the Text in relation to not just the question of violence but also other questions I outlined above. The same can be said about the pre-modern juristic discourses which reached their  hermeneutical stability in the late fifth or early sixth century hijri  (Duderija,2011).  Importantly, as noted by Ahmed, in the modern period ( for various reasons such as the rise of the nation state ) in particular there has been a shift in reorienting historical consciousness of Muslims with respect to their hermeneutic engagement with Revelation in which Islam meaning making in terms of Pre-text only has become unrecognizable. On top of this, a significant depletion of the Con-text also took place (p.515-516) resulting in dominance of Text based hermeneutical engagement with Revelation . Ahmed terms this phenomenon aptly the Downsizing of Revelation from that of pre-Text, Text and Con-text to Text only or Text read in a highly depleted Con-text.
 In other words what we are witnessing is a further increase of hermeneutical affinity between jihadist Salafist approach to Revelation and how Islamic law is conceptualized and applied today by those who have a Text oriented hermeneutical engagement with Revelation for the purposes of conceptualizing Islamic law. This increase in hermeneutical affinity operates in the context of an existing hermeneutical affinity between pre-modern Text oriented juristic discourse and that pre-modern salafi -jihadist approaches ( on pre-modern see Mourad and Lindsay,2013 with reference to jihad and  Adang, Schmidke, Ansari and Fierro,2015 with reference to takfir) .
Drawing upon my previous work (Duderija, 2011) I want to do now is to identify levels or points of hermeneutical affinity between (pre)-modern Text oriented hermeneutical engagement with Revelation  of the jurists and that of salafi-jihadist ( I will refer to them collectively as ‘traditional’)  and the kind of implications this has in terms of describing the  actions of ISIS as Islamic or not.
The first one is at the level of the nature of language and the nature of revelation. Traditional approaches to interpreting the Qur’an are heavily philological, with interpretations largely restricted to observable linguistic features of the Qur’an text. According to this methodology, readers retrieve the text’s meaning through analysis of the Arabic grammar, syntax, and morphology. At the same time, the Qur’an text is considered as the verbatim Word of God essentially different from human language. Moreover, its meaning is completely independent of the psychological make-up of the Prophet Muhammad and his prophetic experience. Qur’anic language is thus considered to be operating outside of history and possessed of a fixed meaning that is, in principle, not dependent on human modes of perception and analysis.
The second level is in terms of location and breath of meaning. Traditional approaches largely consider that readers can perceive authorial intent and recover some objective meaning of the text. Since the meaning of the text is fixed, the role of the reader in determining or influencing meaning is minimal. Belief in the objective existence of meaning in the mind of the author, which is readily accessible in a similarly objective fashion to the reader, contributes to the idea that there is only one correct interpretation of the text.
The third level concerns the relationship between text and context. Because of the affinities at the first level outline above philological hermeneutics tends to marginalize the historical context in which the Qur’an text was revealed. Although there is recognition of the historical character and development of the Qur’an when speaking of “occasions of revelation” (asbab al-nuzul) and “abrogation” (naskh), there are no clear hermeneutical models for fully integrating and utilizing these aspects in interpreting the language of the Qur’an. To the extent that historical context is considered, traditional philologists do not systematically distinguish between historical and ahistorical dimensions of meaning to the text. As a result, there is a strong tendency to universalize what, from a contextualist perspective, would be a historically particular meaning.
The fourth level is with respect to textual coherence. Both exegetical approaches downplay the essentially oral and kerygmatic nature of the revelation and mainly take a word-by-word segmental and sequential analysis of the canonical text. Thus this approach fails, among others, to fully appreciate the Qur’an’s thematic coherence and has a tendency to interpret the general in terms of particular instead of other way around. It also renders didactic and ethical elements of Revelation under the purview of the legal.
The fifth level is about the role of reason in ethico-legal interpretations of the Qur’an. Traditional exegetes heavily restrict the role of reason to its analogical form, so that all ethico-legal interpretations must be linked to textual evidence. If there is no directly pertinent text, then every effort is made to identify an indirectly pertinent text with a common underlying principle and to interpret it in light of its significance to the new case. The underlying assumptions are that ethico-legal knowledge must always derive from revelation and that humans cannot know what is ethically or legally right by independent reason. As such any discussion of underlying values and objectives of revelation can be only identified on the basis of a text based hermeneutic and their conceptualization as well as application is not to be extended beyond it.
At the sixth level the affinity is with respect to identifying universal vs contextually /historically contingent elements of revelation. As a result of the above five (and the one below) both approaches for example consider the various hadd punishments, the institution of slavery, polygamy, forms of divorce ( e.g talaq) and gender roles and norms mentioned in the Qur’an to be in principle beyond negotiation, universal and immutable aspects of revelation.
The finally seventh level is regarding the nature and the conception of the Prophetic Sunna. For traditional approaches, recourse to the sunnah as an exegetical device is necessarily constitutive of, and constrained by, the textual corpus of Hadith. One noteworthy implication of this textual conception of sunnah is that interpretive reasoning, while to some extent important in selecting and evaluating individual hadith reports, is not constitutive of the concept of sunna itself as an exegetical device. When coupled with the above outlined hermeneutical tendencies (especially levels three and five) it renders the concept of sunna dependent on that of ‘sahih’ hadith.
So given the above, my contention is that because of these hermeneutical affinities between (pre-) modern conceptualizations of Islam ( or Islamic law in particular) the interpretations of scholars affiliated with ISIS on a range of issues including  burning of gays,  subjugation of non-Muslims, wife beating  and use civilian non-combatants as human shield  to name but a few ought to be conceptualized as ‘Islamic’  from the perspective of those who subscribe to (pre)modern conceptualization of Islamic law centered on a Text based approach to a hermeneutical engagement  with the Revelation whose delineating features were outlined above ( if they are to remain true to their hermeneutical  approach and keep their hermeneutical integrity ).
Consequently, for approaches to Islamic law of the (pre)-modern jurist to be rendered  hermeneutically unreasonable vis a vis those of the jihadist -salafis would require some fundamental shifting of the hermeneutical  tendencies identified above as embodied by progressive interpretational approaches. From a perspective of a progressive or modernist  approach to Revelation which is based on a markedly different approach to the seven hermeneutically delineating features outlined above ( see Duderija 2011) the same  practices identified above  are  rendered hermeneutically unreasonable and hence are rightfully considered as unislamic.


Duderija, Adis (2011). Constructing a Religiously Ideal 'Believer' and 'Woman' in Islam :Neo-Traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslim Methods of interpretation (manahij), New York:Palgrave.

Suleiman A. Mourad and James E. Lindsay (2013), The Intensification and Reorientation of Sunni Jihad Ideology in the Crusader Period: Ibn ʿAsākir of Damascus: The Forty Hadiths for Inciting Jihad, Leiden:Brill.

Camilla Adang, Hassan Ansari, Maribel Fierro and Sabine Schmidtke (ed.) (2015) Accusations of Unbelief in Islam, A Diachronic Perspective on Takfīr, Leiden: Brill

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