Understanding Islam through Talal Asad’s concept of “discursive tradition”
Talal Asad argues that Islam should be conceptualized as a discursive tradition, not as a religion. He critiques the notion of religion as a Western construct and inadequate for analyzing the intricacies of Islam. A discursive tradition is a continually evolving set of discourses and practices informed by the diversity of religious sensibilities among Muslims but also recognizes the authority of foundational texts of Islam such as the Quran, Hadith and sunnah. Thus, despite the diversity among Muslims, there is a shared framework of legitimacy that allows for debate and dialogue, and guides how arguments over what it means to be a Muslim are made. The tradition accommodates for reform and argument as disagreements among Muslims occur within this framework of shared authority.
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The question of what Islam is has lent itself to relentless scrutiny and fervent debates not only among scholars interested in this conundrum but also among Muslims, who, despite having divergent and oftentimes conflicting sensibilities, unequivocally recognize the transcendental authority of Allah and the carrier of his message, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Attempts to deal with Islam as an object of critical inquiry have either ended up reifying it as a homogenous set of unchanging beliefs or have opened it up to all that Muslims believe and do in the name of faith.
The reification of Islam was perpetuated by Orientalists who located its essence in scripture and designated as un-Islamic or “cultural” those practices of Muslims that did not neatly correspond with literalist readings of religious texts. Thus, they portrayed Islam as an archaic institution, resistant to change and created a dichotomy between religion and “culture” that is inaccurate at best, disingenuous at worst. To argue that the core message of Islam lies in scripture, and religious norms that diverge from that message are merely influenced by culture is to ignore that interpretation of texts itself is a culturally mediated exercise. Therefore, there is nothing like a pristine essence of Islam unadulterated by culture and to look for one would be to indulge in a self-defeating endeavour. At the same time, however, this does not imply that there is no single Islam but “multiple Islams”, each located in the specificity of a different culture and that Islam is whatever Muslims do in its name.
Rejecting both essentialist and nominalist perceptions of Islam presents before us the question of how may the singularity and translocality of Islam on the one hand be reconciled with the heterogeneity of Muslim practices on the other? Drawing upon Alasdair MacIntyre’s theorization of tradition, Talal Asad, a leading anthropologist, has attempted to resolve this conundrum by arguing that Islam be conceptualised not as a religion but a discursive tradition. A major theme characterising Asad’s anthropology of Islam is his scepticism towards the totalizing category of ‘religion’ which he denounces as a Western construct and inadequate for dissecting the intricacies of Islam. As Ovamir Anjum (2007) writes:
Asad’s trenchant critique flies in the face of most of the earlier anthropological conceptualizations of Islam, because they tend to imagine Islam as a religion in the modern Western sense of the word. The modern enterprise of defining a universal category religion as an “autonomous essence”, which is transhistorical and transcultural, is a reflection of the liberal demand that religion be kept separate from the spheres of real power and reason such as politics, law, and science.
Thus, locating Islam as a transhistorical and transcultural “religion” divorced from the complexities of politics and society, reifies it, fails to account for its diversity, and prevents us from historicizing it as a tradition of debate, dialogue, and critique. Asad rejects Eickleman’s suggestion that an anthropology of Islam can be written only by finding a middle ground between the ‘Great tradition’ of scriptures and the ‘Little tradition’ of local Muslim rituals and beliefs. He argues that the “matter is not so much of finding the right scale but formulating the right concepts. A ‘discursive tradition’ is just such a concept” (Asad, 1986).
What is the Islamic discursive tradition?
By calling Islam a discursive tradition, Talal Asad explains that it is a continually evolving set of discourses and practices that are varied in character owing to the heterogeneous religious sensibilities of Muslims. However, despite the diversity, Muslims aspire to coherence by drawing legitimacy for their practices from the foundational texts of Islam such as the Quran and the Hadith as well as the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (sunnah) (Asad, 1986). Thus, even though disagreement happens among Muslims, it takes place within a shared framework that recognizes the authority of the Quran, Hadith, and sunnah. This, therefore, implies that Islam is neither monolithic nor completely heterogeneous but a tradition characterised by competing understanding of what the correct interpretation of Allah’s message is and how it should inform one's everyday life.
In an interview with Basit Kareem Iqbal (2017), Asad clarifies that he does not claim that the Quran and Hadith significantly influence the lives of all Muslims. He remarks:
This does not imply that all Muslims consciously try to follow the Quran and the Prophet’s sayings, still less that all Muslims are familiar with them. It is that arguments over what it means to be a Muslim (when they do occur, and whether, when they occur, they invoke “authorities” or not) are oriented towards a coherent understanding or appreciation of a divine revelation and the role of the messenger who made it available to mankind.
Can the Islamic tradition accommodate reform and argument?
When one thinks of tradition in the manner described above, it begets the question that if Islam is rooted in its formative texts and the sunnah of the Prophet then how can it be accommodative of change? Does a tradition’s loyalty to the “past” result in rigidity and an inability to evolve alongside socio-political contexts?
To answer this question, one needs to rethink modernity’s understanding of tradition as necessarily opposed to reason and change. Asad argues that Islam is not a set of archaic doctrines that undermine critical thinking. Central to his notion of “discursive tradition” is the idea of “living” the tradition which lends itself very naturally to debates about continuity and change. He remarks:
I wonder if it is better to think not of reforming the Islamic tradition but as living an Islamic tradition with the challenges which that offers. When there are challenges, dilemmas, questions, life will then require rethinking. So the idea of reform strikes me as inadequate, especially when one thinks of what MacIntyre calls a vital living tradition, because that by definition involves evaluation and requires appropriate responses to emergent difficulties. And this always brings up the question of what is essential to the tradition and what isn’t. We need to think of what it means for people to live a tradition, not just what a living tradition is. (Anjum, 2018)
Thus, portraying Islam as antithetical to modernity does not help as what one may consider as ‘reform’ or ‘modern’ may already be an important part of the tradition since its boundaries are continually drawn, redrawn, and argued over through styles of reasoning developed within the tradition itself. Therefore, tradition is not merely unquestioning allegiance to a bygone era but an active engagement with the question of how Islamic practices instituted in the past may inform the present and the future of Muslim communities.
Tradition and the religiosity of ordinary Muslims
In his later works, Asad expands the concept of tradition to include embodiment arguing that tradition does not only consist of debates and discourse but also includes everyday rituals and bodily practices through which Muslims cultivate virtues that enable them to uphold the Islamic tradition (Asad, 2015). These practices may not necessarily be rooted in intellectual reflection.
In his theorization of embodiment, Asad takes issue with Geertz’s idea that belief is central to religion. His experience of growing up in a strict religious household makes him question the assumption that people follow religion because belief in God gives meaning to their lives. In an interview with Irfan Ahmad (2015), Asad remarks that ideas like meaning, purpose, and belief are not the first things that are taught to a child in most Muslim households. Rather, Islam is usually introduced as a specific modality of inhabiting one’s body, of performing specific rituals, engaging with other people, and simply as a way of life. In other words, what he is trying to imply is that Islam is not something a child ponders over, cultivates a relationship with, decides to believe in and thus becomes a Muslim. Rather, she inherits it as an embodied way of being. One may grow up and choose to intellectualise one’s faith but most Muslims live Islam with an ethical certainty that does not lend itself to philosophical doubts.
Asad sees this “unthinking religiosity of ordinary people” not as an inferior sensibility but as a capability that allows them to fashion their ethical lives in a manner that remains elusive to most philosophers and theologians. This capability was also possessed by Asad’s mother whose religiosity helped him concretize his ideas on embodiment. In an interview with Ovamir Anjum (2018), he recalls:
I have found that I underestimated what I got from my mother. She was barely literate. In her youth women in Saudi Arabia did not go to school. But she read the Quran regularly, and one of my earliest memories is waking up from a nightmare in the early hours and hearing my mother read Quran which was incredibly reassuring. I came to realize slowly that whereas my father was an intellectual (for him Islam was an intellectual system) for my mother Islam was just an embodied condition of being, and it was gradually over the years that I began thinking about her and her Islam. My mother’s Islam was a way of being, an attitude, a range of sensibilities, a physical condition. She said her prayers regularly and read the Quran and fasted, and all of that somehow permeated her ordinary life. This was how my mother lived and this is what she believed made her Muslim.
This unreflective religiosity of Asad’s mother invites us to perceive the limits of intellectual inquiry itself. As the famous theologian Al-Juwayni remarked on his deathbed: “If truth does not find its way to me through His mercy, I die adhering to the faith of my mother.” It is in the certainty of his mother’s faith that he finds an alternative to the never-ending pursuit of truth, a pursuit he considers to be futile.
In her article, ‘Mothers, Islam, and Inborn Faith’, Rula Jurdi Abisab (2022) explores faith nurtured by the mother-child relationship through an analysis of statements like the one made by Juwayni. According to the Quran, every child is invested with a fitra that consists of unadulterated faith in God. She terms this as the child’s “primary faith” that is closely attached to the mother’s. She writes:
The mother’s faith is sensed, not explained, and emulated, not thought out. It is present and seems unshakeable. To exert the effort to verify one’s faith to others as the Truth seems irrelevant to this mode of belief. Thus, a luminous scholar who declares, “I die adhering to my mother’s faith”, is one lamenting the loss of this state of primary faith, enriched first and foremost through the mother. Death seems to loom large over these declarations.
Thus, this helps us reflect on how the fitra of an infant is nurtured by the mother whose faith seeps into the body of the child, a body that is inextricably tied to and an extension of her own. Through an intimacy both physical and emotional, a mother unconsciously shapes the ethical sensibilities of her children, helping them forge a relationship with Islam that is not embedded in thought but feeling, not in critical inquiry but affective attachment. This is not to say that women are incapable of having intellectual religious discussions with their children but to argue that a child’s relationship with a believing Muslim mother preserves the sanctity, the innocence, and the beauty of the fitra. This faith is neither argued over nor explained. It is not enmeshed in the quest to ‘know’ but is a distinct form of knowledge itself.
Thus, by revising his concept of “discursive tradition” to include embodiment, Talal Asad opens a window into understanding that intellectual reflection is not the only modality of being religious, that everyday, embodied religiosity is as important to the Islamic tradition as is discourse and argument. Therefore, in order to comprehensively understand what Islam is, both historically and anthropologically, one needs to explore how these two modes of tradition interact with, diverge from, support and undermine each other.
Abisab, R. J. (2022). Inborn faith or knowledge: Mothers and the old women of Nishapur. SSRC the Immanent Frame. Retrieved January 19, 2023, from http://tif.ssrc.org/2022/05/25/inborn-faith-or-knowledge/
Ahmad, I. (2015). Talal Asad. Public Culture, 27(2 76), 259–279. https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2841856
Anjum, O. (2007). Islam as a Discursive Tradition: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 27(3), 656–672. https://doi.org/10.1215/1089201x-2007-041
Anjum, O. (2018). Interview with Talal Asad. American Journal of Islam and Society, 35(1), 55–90. https://doi.org/10.35632/ajis.v35i1.812
Asad, T (1986). The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam. Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University
Asad, T. (2015). Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today. Critical Inquiry, 42(1), 166–214. https://doi.org/10.1086/683002
Iqbal, B. K. (2017). Thinking about Method. Qui Parle, 26(1), 195–218. https://doi.org/10.1215/10418385-3833800