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Book Reviews What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic Shahab Ahmed Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. 609 pages. With Shahab Ahmed’s untimely death in 2015, the scholarly community of Islam has lost an energetic and productive intellectual. This posthumous publication in 2016 titled What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic is the culmination of nearly a lifetime of work by Shahab Ahmed. After reading the 600 plus pages of engaging and stimulating writing, the reader necessarily pays tribute to his captivating scholarship and his compelling analysis filled with treasured sources related to current research in religious studies and the social sciences. Ahmed’s work is deeply grounded in a rare field of Islamic theory and cultural studies. Being an extremely bold critical thinker, a conscientious scholar, and an unmatched writer, Ahmed had an ambitious project in this book. Defining Islam has itself posed a challenge in recent religious and cultural discourses, but the very attempt to locate its place in modern studies is an even larger mission. It would be a painstaking journey from the classical times to the contemporary, and he has to traverse several expansive and complicated fields of research. Ahmed’s work demonstrates his profound and intense insights into the making of Islam and its implications with local and translocal networks. Focusing on a key question in the existing research and discourse, Ahmed’s wide-ranging study successfully 78 Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies, Vol. 1.1 exposes us to many dimensions of Islam and Muslim cultures. Written in a lucid and readable prose, this book not only introduces the reader to various visions and revisions of Islam, but provides a comprehensive understanding of each of those paradigms. Creatively blending the data and perspectives, Ahmed walks us through different fields such as literature, history, philosophy, art, and music to show the impact of Islam and its impressive yet intriguing footprints on scholarship and everyday life. Well-structured and deftly presented, this book has three parts and six chapters dealing with the main questions in Islamic studies, the conceptualizations of Islam in various discursive traditions and fields, and finally the re-conceptualizations as guided by contemporary social, cultural and literary theories. Due to the wide coverage of the media, both locally and globally, Islam is now surrounded by a tsunami of questions at various levels. Ahmed organizes these queries and presents them in six scholarly-framed and critically-taken questions. Part 1 focuses on six major questions about Islam that encompass diverse debates in current research. Ahmed first provides the summary of each question and then leads the discussion addressing the implications of those questions . This method at once introduces the field while facilitating the reader to comprehend the progression of the intellectual history of Islam. This is itself a major accomplishment of the book. In addition, Ahmed draws the reader into scholarly debate in Islamic studies through anecdotal evidence. Furthermore, most questions unavoidably revolve around legal (shar ī) implications and their relevance to modernity. Ahmed’s take on Sufism, too, asks new questions about its relevance to Islam and contemporary Muslim cultures. Ahmed realizes the importance of considering Sufism as an integral dimension of Islam rather than as a “specialized activity.” For the ethnographers who focus on the field of Muslim cultures and living Islam, Ahmed’s theoretical observations provide a greater impetus to further their studies. Part 2 has three chapters that discuss key concepts and their implications in theocentric and anthropocentric aspects, cultural meanings, symbolism, and various internal and external manifestations of Islam. In Chapter 2 of Part 2, Ahmed discusses three key concepts – Islam as law, islams-not-Islam, Islamic and Islamicate – that shape the contours of the current status of Islamic studies . Critiquing the existing conceptualizations, Ahmed offers fresh insight into the “inherent dynamic of internal contradiction which lies at the crux of any successful conceptualization of Islam as a human and historical phenomenon.” (p.113). Contesting the parameters constructed by “Islam-proper,” like several scholars working on the idea of living Islam (Mohammad, 2013; Marsden, 2005), he opens up a wider possibility to interpret the locally-produced plurilingual and multicultural Islams. Along similar lines, Chapter 3 complicates the theoretical...


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pp. 77-79
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