Talal Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” originally published in 1986 as part of the Occasional Paper Series sponsored b the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Republished in 2009 by the journal Qui Parle, in Vol. 17, No. 2 (Spring/ Summer), pp. 1-30. Page numbers here will correspond to the Qui Parle version.
Key Terms: Discursive Tradition, Geertz, Gellner, Anthropology, Islam, Discourse, Tradition, Orientalism, History
When I finished reading Talal Asad’s essay, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” I turned back to the front page and wrote in big, capital letters across it, “What is at stake are the conditions of the possible questions it is possible to ask” and “DISCURSIVE TRADITION.” That is the basic take away, those two things. But I’ll go into at least a little more depth for everyone’s benefit.
Asad opens by saying that there seem to be three answers commonly given to the question “ “What, exactly, is the anthropology of Islam? What is its object of investigation?” They are:
1. that in the final analysis there is no such theoretical object as Islam
2. that Islam is the anthropologist’s label for a heterogeneous collection of items, each of which has been designated Islamic by informants
and 3. that Islam is a distinctive historical totality which organizes various aspects of social life.
He tells us that he will look briefly at the first two answers, but really, it is the third that is the most interesting and important to examine, and so, it is where the essay’s attention will focus. The answer to the third question which answers him most is Ernest Gellner’s book Muslim Society. Gellner, you may remember, along with Geertz who also gets a good talking to in this piece, was the main target of the Asad we read for class in Genealogies of Religion. In Muslim Society, Asad says “an anthropological model is presented of the characteristic ways in which social structure, religious belief, and political behaviour interact with each other in an Islamic society (Asad, 3).” Asad’s object in reading Gellner’s book is not to assess the book itself, but, he says, “to extract theoretical problems that must be examined by anyone who wishes to write an anthropology of Islam (Asad, 3).”
There’s some really great discussion of comparison in this part of the essay. Asad’s main points about it being that he does not have anything “in principle against comparisons between Christian and Muslim histories” but that it is necessary to “go beyond drawing parallels… and attempt a systematic exploration of differences (Asad, 5).” This is also a point that will repeat throughout the piece.
He goes on to argue that in comparing Islamic and Christian histories, scholars ought “to be looking for institutional conditions for the production of various social knowledge. What was regarded as worth recording about ‘other’ beliefs and customs? By whom was it recorded? In which social project were the records used? (Asad, 6).” Asad defends the importance of such inquiry on the grounds that, “forms of interest in the production of knowledge are intrinsic to various structures of power, and they differ not according to the essential character of Islam and Christianity, but according to historically changing systems of discipline (Asad, 7).” Foucault in action, ladies and gentlemen. The task of anthropologists, Asad, concludes, is thus, to find concepts that are more appropriate for describing differences (Asad, 7).”
First of all, a good point worth repeating, which is that “the argument here is not against the attempt to generalize about Islam, but against the manner in which that generalization is undertaken (Asad, 7).” Again, the terms of description, the way the questions are asked.
So now, Geertz and Gellner. Asad is very much concerned with the way they write their books about Muslims, the style of their texts. In reading them, he asks,
What are the discursive styles employed here to represent (a) the historical variations in Islamic political structure, and (b) the different forms of Islamic religion linked to the latter? What kinds of questions do these styles deflect us from considering? What concepts do we need to develop as anthropologists in order pursue those very different kinds of questions in a viable manner (Asad, 10)?
He then immediately lists the following “interconnected points” which all bear quoting in full:
(1). Narratives about culturally distinctive actors must try to translate and represent the historically situated discourses of such actors as responses to the discourse of others, instead of schematizing and de-historicizing their actions.
(2) Anthropological analyses of the social structure should focus not on typical actors but on the changing patterns of institutional relations and conditions (especially those we call political economies).
(3) The analysis of Middle Eastern political economies and the representation of Islamic ‘dramas’ are essentially different kinds of discursive exercises that cannot be substituted for each other, although they can be significantly embedded in the same narrative, precisely because they are discourses.
(4) It is wrong to represent types of Islam as being correlated with types of social structure, on the implicit analogy with (ideological) superstructure and (social) base.
(5) Islam 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 (Asad, 10).
These are clearly all important for anyone thinking about anthropology as it should be, and the fifth point seems to me to be especially salient and useful for everyone. It also introduces the concept at the center of the essay, “discursive tradition” about which more will be said.
Asad soon makes another point that struck me as especially important. He says that “Gellner’s Islamic actors do not speak, they do not think, they behave (Asad, 11).” This made me think of something I recently saw Chris Rock say on a program about comedy, where he was having a conversation with Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais and Louis C.K. Rock said that his rule for making fun of people was that he made jokes about what they did not what they were. It seems to me that both Chris Rock and Talal Asad are making the same point here, which is that drawing a conclusive line between what someone does and what someone is the problem.
Thus, Asad concludes this section of the essay by saying that, it is only when the anthropologist takes historically defined discourses seriously, and especially the way they constitute events, that questions can be asked about the conditions in which Muslim rulers and subjects might have responded variously to authority, to physical force, to persuasion, or simply to habit (Asad, 12).”
An interesting part here on the term “tribes.” Asad writes that,
‘tribes’ are no more to be regarded as agents than ‘discursive structures’ or ‘societies’ are. They are historical structures in terms of which the limits and possibilities of people’s lives are realized. This does not mean that ‘tribes’ are less real than the individuals who comprise them, but only that vocabulary of motives, behavior, and utterances does not belong, strictly speaking, in analytic accounts whose principal object is ‘tribe,’ although such accounts can be embedded in narratives of agency (Asad, 14).
This is a good example of how Asad reads the terms used by anthropologists and what he means by discourse. He offers that instead, “We shall then write not about an essential Islamic social structure, but about historical formations in the Middle East whose elements are never fully integrated, and never bounded by the geographical limits of “the Middle East (Asad, 15).” He drives this last point home and says that, “It is too often forgotten that ‘the world of Islam’ is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. … the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation (Asad, 15).”
Here Asad states his argument very clearly, he says, “my argument is that if the anthropologist seeks to understand religion by placing it conceptually in its social context, then the way in which that social context is described must affect the understanding of religion (Asad, 16).” I think that he wrote that line because he knew that in twenty-five years we were going to need a little kernel of a line to remember going in to our exam. I’m pretty sure I’m right. Oh, but he goes on, he says, “the anthropologist’s presentation of Islam will depend not only on the way in which social structures are conceptualized, but on the way in which religion itself is defined” and that “this is important because one’s conception of religion determines the kinds of questions one thinks are askable and worth asking (Asad, 16).” Like I said at the beginning, I think that this is one of his most important and oft-repeated points, that the thing at stakes is what questions are askable and worth asking.
He concludes this section by saying that it is “important to emphasize that one must carefully examine established social practices, ‘religious as well as nonreligious,’ in order to understand the conditions that define ‘conservative’ or ‘radical’ political activity in the contemporary Muslim World (Asad, 19).
Here we get to what Asad means by “discursive tradition.” First of all, tradition: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition (Asad, 20).” Then he breaks it down:
What is a tradition? A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. These discourses relate conceptually to a past (when the practice was instituted, and from which the knowledge of its point and proper performance has been transmitted) and a future (how the point of that practice can best be secured in the short or long term, or why it should be modified or abandoned), through a present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions, and social conditions) (Asad, 20).
And then he specifically states that “An Islamic discursive tradition is simply a tradition of Muslim discourse that addresses itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future, with reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present (Asad, 20).” While clarifying that, “Clearly, not everything Muslims say and do belongs to an Islamic discursive tradition. Nor is an Islamic tradition in this sense necessarily imitative of what was done in the past (Asad, 20).” Thus, “for the anthropologist of Islam the proper theoretical beginning is therefore an instituted practice (set in a particular context and having a particular history) into which Muslims are inducted as Muslims (Asad, 21).” Further explaining that “a practice is Islamic because it is authorized by the discursive traditions of Islam, and is so taught to Muslims – whether by an ‘alim, a khatib, a Sufi shaykh, or an untutored parent (Asad, 21).”
He then makes two important other points, one about orthodoxy, that “orthodoxy is not a mere body of opinion but a distinctive relationship – a relationship of power to truth (Asad, 22).” And the other, about tradition again, that “the idea that traditions are essentially homogenous has a powerful intellectual appeal, but it is mistaken. Indeed, widespread homogeneity is a function, not of a tradition, but of the development and control of communication techniques that are part of modern industrial societies (Asad, 23).”
In conclusion, Asad says that, “An anthropology of Islam will therefore seek to understand the historical conditions that enable the production and maintenance of specific discursive traditions, or their transformation – and the efforts of practitioners to achieve coherence (Asad, 23).” He then leaves the reader with this assessment of his subject:
To write about a tradition is to be in a certain narrative relation to it, a relation that will vary according to whether one supports or opposes the tradition, or regards it as morally neutral. The coherence that each party finds, or fails to find, in that tradition will depend on their particular historical position. In other words, there clearly is not, nor can there be, such a thing as a universally acceptable account of a living tradition. Any representation of tradition is contestable. What shape that contestation takes, it if occurs, will be determined not only by the powers and knowledges each side deploys, but by the collective life to which they aspire – or to whose survival they are quite indifferent. Declarations of moral neutrality, here as always, are no guarantee of political innocence (Asad, 24).”
And I see no reason to mess that much wisdom up with a single other word of my own.