SHAFAQNA -Â Talal Asad is anÂ anthropologist at theÂ CUNY Graduate Center.
Asad has made important theoretical contributions toÂ post-colonialism,Â Christianity,Â Islam, andÂ ritual studies and has recently called for, and initiated, anÂ anthropology ofÂ secularism. Using a genealogical method developed byÂ Friedrich Nietzsche and made prominent byÂ Michel Foucault, Asad “complicates terms of comparison that many anthropologists, theologians, philosophers, and political scientists receive as the un-examined background of thinking, judgment, and action as such. By doing so, he creates clearings, opening new possibilities for communication, connection, and creative invention where opposition or studied indifference prevailed”.
His long-term research concerns the transformation of religious law (the shari’ah) in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Egypt with special reference to arguments about what constitutes secular and progressive reform
In this discussion, Talal Asad identifies the problematic ways in which the presence of Muslim communities in Western contexts has been characterized in response to outbreaks of violence such as the recent events in Paris. Asad argues that many of the critiques to which Muslims are subjected, namely their dependence on transcendent forces, also inhabit the intellectual assumptions of secular andÂ atheist commentators.Â Â He further expresses the need to examine Islam as a “tradition” in order to avoid precisely the types of sweeping generalizations and focus instead on the complexities and particularities of the various ways in which Islam is lived. The inability to historicize Islam as a tradition has played into the calls for a “reform” of the religion and resulted in the inability to confront the underlying causes of the recent eruptions of violence.
SHAFAQNA – Â Do Muslims belong in the West? This is a question that has been asked for many years, but perhaps with no more force than today. You wrote in your essay â€œMuslims as a â€˜Religious Minorityâ€™ in Europeâ€ (2003), over a decade ago, that â€œMuslims as Muslims cannot be represented in Europe.â€ Is there something almost inevitable in the way â€œthe clash of civilizationsâ€ is being set up by certain sectors in the West?
No, I do not think there is such a thing as a â€œclash of civilizations.â€ When I said that Muslims as Muslims cannot be represented in the West, I was being ironic, and also referring to the fact that ninety percent of the time when people talk about â€œthe problem of Muslimsâ€ in the West, it is to complain about the fact that Muslims have not â€œintegrated.â€ There is very little serious discussion about what it means to be â€œEuropean,â€ what it means to be French, or British, or whatever, and what exactly â€œsecularismâ€ in Europe means for religion in general and Islam in particular. The problem is always seen as, either: We must try harder to integrate them, or: It is their fault they do not integrate, and it is because they are attached to an illiberal religion, and so to values that conflict profoundly with our secular, egalitarian society.
In other words, the problem is seen as a matter of why â€œtheyâ€ do not fit in to what is thought of as â€œourâ€ society, rather than:Â What orÂ who are â€œwe,â€ as Europe or as France or Britain, and what mustÂ we do to change aspects of ourselves in order to make it possible for Muslims (who will also need to change) to be represented in EuropeÂ as Muslims? The problem is always seen as one of assimilating Muslims into Europe (whose structure and identity are fixed) if we are well intentioned towards them, and if you are not well intentioned, then making it quite clear that they do not belong with usâ€“that they ought to â€œgo back to whereÂ they came from.â€ Europe in the sixteenth century was not what it is like todayâ€“indeed, it was not even â€œEuropeâ€ but â€œChristendom.â€ Even after the forces of secularization things did not remain the sameâ€“politically, economically, or culturally. This is one of my voices, by the way. I am now speaking as someone who has lived most of his life in the West.
Incidentally, I think the term â€œWestâ€ does have some uses: It is not always to be dismissed as nonsensical (â€œthereâ€™s no such thing as the Westâ€), but nor is it to be used in the slaphappy way many people use it when they say â€œthe West has done this, the West has done that.â€ But I think the term has legitimate uses. Think of it this way: Â if there are governments, if there are generals and politicians and bankers and even ordinary people like us, who talk about â€œthe Westâ€â€“on the European and North American continentâ€“then thereÂ is a West. Because that is what our own activities presuppose. And in presupposing it, they partly create it, for good or for ill.
I say this because I am now talking to some extentÂ to the West, toÂ people in the West, whom one considers to be oneâ€™s cultural peers, oneâ€™s fellow citizensâ€“regardless of whether they are hostile or friendly. That is part of it. I think it is important for me, certainly, to remember that one cannot or should not talk just as a â€œMuslim in Europe,â€ but also as somebody who is making a claimÂ in the WestÂ on the West, in European countries and in the United States (as Tariq Ramadan has written). And in those situations I can talk about â€œweâ€ even without any sense of incongruity.
SHAFAQNA – The recent murders of ten journalists of the satirical magazineÂ Charlie Hebdo in Paris have re-ignited fears vis-Ã -vis Muslims in Europe. Regarding the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005, in your article â€œFree Speech, Blasphemy, and Secular Criticismâ€ (2009), you point to the problems with our secular rejection of transcendence, and the ways in which the arrogance of such assumptions are rooted in the secularization of the biblical injunction that the truth will free us. Are Muslims seen asÂ blasphemers in relation to the proclamations of secularism?
Let me first of all address the question of transcendence. The irony, it seems to me, is that although self-styled atheists say they reject â€œtranscendence,â€ they are in fact subject (often willingly subject) to transcendent forces. Such as the transcendence of the market, which is a crucial part of modern capitalist society. And the transcendence of the stateâ€“the political form in which everyone lives in our world and makes absolute demands on our loyalty as citizens. And then of course there is the transcendence of â€œfree speech.â€ In liberal society we claim that it is sacred and therefore has an absolute character. But we know (or should know) that â€œfree speechâ€ inhabits a structured space: not only is â€œhate speechâ€ legally forbidden in liberal societies, but there are also laws protecting the circulation of copyrighted material, and the reproduction of trademarks and patents without explicit permission. And of course government secrets and commercial secrets cannot be breached without incurring severe penalties, which is an aspect of the transcendence of the modern sovereign state. I have discussed this point elsewhere and argued that there is a crucial distinction in liberal societies between the circulation of representations that are regarded asÂ property and those that are not. Claims to the absoluteness of â€œfree speechâ€ are not very persuasive in this context.
Another, problematic example of â€œnon-religiousâ€ transcendence is of course â€œhumanityâ€ and the worship it requires. And very closely connected with it is the modern notion of (cultural and moral) progress, which is assumed to be an open-ended movement that transcends all particularities, and stands over and above particular improvements of some particular state of affairs, the righting of something that is evidently wrong. To reject the transcendent progress of humanity is not necessarily to accept the status quo for what it is. So I think the different forms of transcendence need to be critically examined.
The notion of â€œhumanityâ€ as a form of transcendence derives, I think, from the conviction that intellectuality possesses an absolute power, from the demand that our best behavior depends on our ability to think abstractly, in terms of a universal rule, about something called humanity, that we need to understand humanity abstractly so that we can act responsibly towards those who represent it. But it seems to me perfectly possible to act humanely towards other beings, whether humans or animals or plants. One simply has to learn how to behave. To behave â€œhumanelyâ€ it is perfectly possible to do without the notion of â€œhumanity.â€ Language has multiple uses, and is embedded, as Wittgenstein pointed out, in different forms of life. It is not necessary to have this grand concept of â€œhumanityâ€ in order to behave decently.
I recall, incidentally, a striking expression from al-Ghazali: â€œAh, to have the faith of the old women of Nishapur!â€ which, as I understand it, is really a recognition of the importance of deep everyday faith, of apprehending transcendence not primarily with oneâ€™s intellect but in the way one lives oneâ€™s daily life.
You do not need intellectuality for deep faith. You do not need it for behaving humanely towards people whether fellow Muslims or non-Muslims. You do not need a concept, a theory, you do not need intellectual arguments for justifying a way of living that is already in place in order for it to proceed. Which is not to say you should never employ your intellect but only that it is not essential to exercise it in order to live a humane life. Language permeates all of life, of course, and oneâ€™s mind is essential to it, but that does not meanintellectuality should transcend all of life.
For the law, the clarity of language and the finality of judgment is crucial, because you have to decide a case one way or anotherâ€“whether it is criminal or civil or whatever. In ordinary life, you do notÂ have to decide things with absolute finality. You do not have to decide on a theory in order to behave in a certain way towards other people. Of course, one needs clarity of language in all sorts of situations. Certainly in order to understand the natural world one needs clarity, logic, and the capacity for theory building. But that understanding tends to improve because and to the extent that it is provisional, hypothetical, when it looks forÂ disconfirmation in the particular rather than final proof as a universal. The propensity to intellectualize is itself both essential and dangerous. I think in our modern world we are much more aware of its essential character than of its dangers, and that is why I think of it as being an expression of transcendence.
So let me turn to the question of blasphemy. People sometimes ask me: Are you willing to criticize religion? I would prefer to answer this question by looking at what people say and what they articulate, at how they live their life, and to the extent that the concept of religion is presented as itself transcendent, I think it is to be looked at critically and carefully.
In other words, I do not criticize religion as such, but I criticize the concept and the definition of â€œreligionâ€â€“as I said inÂ Genealogies. I am not looking for a better definition. Iâ€™m not criticizing how people experience what they might call spirituality. I am interested in looking critically at something elseâ€“at how people use their language to articulate theories about something they call religion, to say, for example, that â€œin Islam religion and politics necessarily go together,â€ or to insist that â€œviolence has no place in religion,â€ to universalize it.
So transcendence is not entirely absent for people who are â€œnonreligious.â€ Indeed, I think that most of the thingsâ€“not allâ€“that such peopleÂ accept as transcendent are dangerous, because they are damaging to thought and life.
SHAFAQNA – As I see it, part of the problem is the result of a reification of Islam; and I think Muslims are as guilty of this as their counterparts. Your 1986 essay â€œThe Idea of an Anthropology of Islamâ€ (republished in 2009), has played a significant role in reshaping scholarly discourse on Islam. You write that â€œIslam as the object of anthropological understanding should be approached as a discursive tradition that connects variously with the formation of moral selves, the manipulation of populations (or resistance to it), and the production of appropriate knowledges (10).â€ Can you describe for our readers how this approach may help us toÂ de-reify Islam?
First of all, in that paper I am talking about Islam as â€œan anthropological object,â€ that is as a way of approaching the question â€œWhat is Islamâ€ more productively in anthropology.
Reification? It is worth thinking about why one uses the word â€œreification.â€ Reification means making something that was not a thing (but what is â€œa thingâ€?) into a thing. There are many philosophical theories of reificationâ€“especially Marxist theories of society and economy. When people say that Islam has been reified what do they mean?
I suppose one of the reasons people are suspicious of â€œreificationâ€ is that it implies a certain kind of closure, a certain kind of fixity and unchangeableness. What is oneâ€™s concern about the â€œreificationâ€ of Islam? Is it that the notion closes off the possibility of change and generalizes too much? In that case, what are the alternatives? How should one talk about it? This is why I think the approach to Islam as a tradition is helpful. Tradition helps us to focus on questions about authority and temporality, and about the language used in relation to the two. The idea of tradition helps us to understand the questions and arguments held to be importantÂ within a tradition, as well us to formulate productive questionsÂ about the tradition from outside. â€œTradition,â€ in other words, can be made to yield a double sense: as a theoretical frame for asking questions, and as an empirical phenomenon to be described and analyzed even as it develops.
As I have said, the question is how to approach the object of oneâ€™s enquiry. When speaking about Islam as a tradition one is not saying â€œAll people do this, or believe this.â€ One is not saying that all people who identify themselves as MuslimsÂ do follow the Quran and hadith (orÂ must follow them to beÂ real Muslims). One is suggesting that thereâ€™s a certain kind of coherenceâ€“which may or may not be realized in particular situationsâ€“where people are trying to talk about Islam as a distinct intellectual object. Iâ€™m thinking about intellectuals, especially anthropologists, for whom this is an important concern. So how should one try to ask interesting questions about Islam asÂ an anthropological object and not confuse that with â€œthe realityâ€ (actual experience) for different Muslims? How should one relate their sense of following or not, having â€œstrong faithâ€ or not, to authority and temporality.
By the way, I have increasingly preferred, for a number of years, to use the term â€œfaithful,â€ wherever possible, instead of â€œbelievers.â€ This is basically whatÂ muâ€™minin are, â€œthe faithful,â€ rather than â€œbelievers,â€ a word that has acquired strong but often confusing modern senses. Believers are often thought of as people who have some kind of private conviction or repudiation of something, whereas Â â€œthe faithfulâ€ refers to a relationship, which was also incidentally the earlier sense of â€œfaithâ€ in premodern, preliberal Christianity. This is not to say, incidentally, that â€œfaithâ€ refers simply to external behaviorÂ as opposed to internal belief but that it refers to anact. Thus even if you think of the declaration ofÂ niyya when you say your prayers, that is in a sense itself a kind ofÂ act, part of the tradition that you have to learn. By this I do not mean that it do notÂ really have to be believed. Itâ€™s that one needs to get away from the modern idea of religious belief as something that is â€œpurely private,â€ something one is entitled to holdâ€“so long as it does not make (political) claims in the public sphere.
So, I think we need to think about Islamic tradition as a way of asking questions that cut across (and transgress) the assumptions of a purely secular world in which we already know how things stand for individual subjects as well as for societies. I think one must try and think of tradition in that way, as well as using it in other ways, as I have been using it, to describe empirically how some people follow such and such a tradition or donâ€™t.
SHAFAQNA – What I am interested in examining in my own research is how competing discursive traditions within Islam (take Salafi and Sufi as two polar examples) interact with one another, thereby reshaping each other, without necessarily altering their core logics. In a similar vein, Islam and secularism (two other polar examples) have been reshaping each otherâ€“and continue to do soâ€“for a very long time. Could you speak a little to the inner complexities of Islam as a group of competing â€œdiscursive traditions,â€ together with secularism being thrown into the mix?
Well, I think that MacIntyreâ€™s very fruitful discussion of tradition, which opened a whole new area of thinking about the world, and which I found very helpful in thinking about Islam. He talked about a living tradition being characterized by debate, and I found that crucial. To the extent that a tradition is a living tradition, and there is dispute within itâ€“there is argument also as to what is essential to the tradition, to what belongsÂ essentially to that tradition, to the way an account (whether oral or written) of behavior, attitudes, principles, etc., belongs or does not to that tradition, and to how its context is defined. I think that that notion is absolutely central. Arguments about which texts, accountsâ€“other than founding discoursesâ€“belong or do not belong, can be drawn on or not because of the way they affect what the core of the tradition is, all that is absolutely central to what a living tradition is. And part of those arguments is of course over what is â€œsecularâ€ in an acceptable or unacceptable way.
The notion that there is nevertheless somethingÂ essential about a tradition is precisely what generates argument within a tradition, and it also provides the possibility of having conversations (not just arguments) both within given traditions as well as between them. Traditions such as the different schools (Hanafi, Shafiâ€™i, Hanbali, Maliki and so on) and between Shia and Sunni, salafi and sufi, not only just intellectually to one another but also define themselves by reference to what they are not. (Which is why, incidentally, I find appalling the kind of mutual antagonism and violence that is occurring in so many Muslim countries.) But I am not sure I would describe all this, whether violent or not, as competition. Competition as a metaphor carries too much of a commercial load (accumulating profit, for example) that may misdirect one.
I am also not sure that the stereotypical contrast between salafi and sufi is always useful, if only because each of these terms has covered a number of shifting positions. â€œSalafisâ€ in the Arabic speaking world at the end of the nineteenth century (such as Abduh) as opposed to â€œsalafisâ€ in early twenty-first century Egypt (influenced by wahhabism) are not the same. So too the different â€œsufiâ€ brotherhoods. If salafis and sufis are polar opposites, how is one to understand Ibn Taymiyya, say, who is an important inspiration for contemporary salafis, and yet was the member of aÂ tariqa?
Everyone, is to some extent placed, in one way or another, in what I have called a â€œnarrative relationâ€ to a tradition, for whom the continuity or disappearance of that tradition is either of importance or of indifference. So, I would say that â€œthe religiousâ€ is involved precisely in attempts at either enriching or reforming a particular tradition in relation to the challenges it faces, or defendingâ€“or destroyingâ€“it. And those possibilities apply to â€œthe secularâ€ too. The secular is as much a part of the ensemble and the space of the spiritual as anything elseâ€“that is, â€œthis worldâ€ is important to both in multiple ways. It is the attitude one has to this world, the way one inhabits it, that is sometimes confused with the question of belief (or disbelief) in â€œanother world.â€
SHAFAQNA – The issue of being Muslim and being Othered in and by the West is a longstanding one. What I have recently been finding productive to think about is the ways in which Muslims themselves internalize this narrative of Otherness. What is the way forward for Muslims living in the West?
The fact that one is an Other does not mean that no productive relationship can be had with the Other. I don not know that â€œinternalizingâ€ what â€œthe Westâ€ says to/about one that is ipso a bad thing; it depends on howthat internalization takes place, what it does to one. The question really is: Whether and if so to what extent and how is the Other connected to oneself.
There is a thought provoking statement, not very well known, by Wittgenstein, where he says: â€œTradition is not something a man can learn; not a thread he picks up when he feels like it; any more than a man can choose his own ancestors. Someone lacking a tradition who would like to have one is like a man unhappily in love.â€ Tradition is an aspiration to connect the Self with the Other. One â€œinternalizesâ€ the Other as one acquires a sense of what oneâ€™s own tradition is, what one belongs to and what gives valid shape to oneâ€™s life.
What is the way forward for Muslims living in the West? I do not think there is a single answer to that question because Muslims in the West are not a single homogeneous group, sociologically or theologically. Nevertheless they are seen, and will continue to be seen, as a minority within the Western nation state. And given the widespread violence perpetrated by heavily armed Western states and lightly armed jihadists (a symbiotic relationship if ever there was one) Muslim minorities in the West will continue to be the object of suspicion and discrimination. Our concern in this matter should not be to find someone to blame but to try to understand the limits of action facing Muslim minorities. The very common suggestion that Muslims should undertake a reform of their own religious tradition to help prevent â€œIslamic extremist violenceâ€ assumes that Muslims constitute a single political subject, that they are entirely self-contained, and that reform has not in fact been continuously undertaken in Islamic history. Those who urge theological reform to enable the effective condemnation of jihadism (especially after the Paris murders atÂ Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket) should first inquire into the recency of this phenomenon: the Islamic tradition in all its variety has been around for centuries, and mainstream Muslim authorities have condemned such killing for ages. Why has the phenomenon of jihadism appearedâ€“and proliferatedâ€“only now?