[Reader-list] Talal Asad interview

Ravi Sundaram ravis at sarai.net
Wed Oct 10 00:03:02 IST 2001

Talal Asad is the author of the well-regarded, "Genealogies of Religion : 
Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam" Johns Hopkins 
Univ Pr; 1993, This is a longish and dense interview with him , somewhat 
academic,  but a reflexive piece in this time where Islam which has a rich 
diverse history of contradictory practices has been reduced to the image of 
terror and intolerance. The interview took place a few years ago, but 
remains useful even today.

Another wonderful resource on the history of Islam is Marshall Hodgson 
classic 3 vol Venture of Islam (University of Chicago Press)


Talal Asad
modern power and the reconfiguration of religious traditions
Saba Mahmood

Contemporary politico-religious movements, such as Islamism, are often 
understood by social scientists as expressions of tradition hampering the 
progress of modernity. But given the recent intellectual challenges posed 
against dualistic and static conceptions of modernity/tradition, and calls 
for parochializing Western European experiences of modernity, do you think 
the religio-political movements (such as Islamism) force us to rethink our 
conceptions of modernity? If so, how?

Well, I think they should force us to rethink many things. There has been a 
certain amount of response from people in Western universities who are 
interested in analyzing these movements. But many of them still make 
assumptions that prevent them from questioning aspects of Western 
modernity. For example, they call these movements "reactionary" or 
"invented," making the assumption that Western modernity is not only the 
standard by which all contemporary developments must be judged, but also 
the only authentic trajectory for every tradition. One of the things the 
existence of such movements ought to bring into question is the old 
opposition between modernity and tradition, which is still fashionable. For 
example, many writers describe the movements in Iran and Egypt as only 
partly modern and suggest that  their mixing of tradition and modernity 
that accounts for their "pathological" character. This kind of description 
paints Islamic movements as being somehow inauthentically traditional on 
the assumption that "real tradition" is unchanging, repetitive, and 
non-rational. In this way, these movements cannot be understood on their 
own terms as being at once modern and traditional, both authentic and 
creative at the same time. The development of politico-religious movements 
ought to force people to rethink the uniquely Western model of secular 
modernity. One may want to challenge aspects of these movements, but this 
ought to be done on specific grounds. It won't do to measure everything by 
grand conceptions of authentic modernity. But that's precisely the kind of 
a priori thinking that many people indulge in when analyzing contemporary 
religious movements.

It seems that you are using the term tradition differently here than it is 
commonly understood in the humanities and social sciences. Even the idea of 
"hybrid societies/cultures," which has gained ascendancy in certain 
intellectual circles, implies a coexistence of modern and traditional 
elements without necessarily decentering the normative meaning of these 

Yes, many writers do describe certain societies as hybrids, part modern and 
part traditional. I don't agree with them, however. I think that one needs 
to recognize that when one talks about tradition, one should be talking 
about, in a sense, a dimension of social life and not a stage of social 
development. In an important sense, tradition and modernity are not really 
two mutually exclusive states of a culture or society but different aspects 
of historicity. Many of the things that are thought of as modern belong to 
traditions which have their roots in Western history. A changing tradition 
is often developing rapidly but a tradition nevertheless. When people talk 
about liberalism as a tradition, they recognize that it is a tradition in 
which there are possibilities of argument, reformulation, and encounter 
with other traditions, that there is a possibility of addressing 
contemporary problems through the liberal tradition. So one thinks of 
liberalism as a tradition central to modernity. How is it that one has 
something that is a tradition but that is also central to modernity? 
Clearly, liberalism is not a mixture of the traditional and the modern. It 
is a tradition that defines one central aspect of Western modernity. It is 
no less modern by virtue of being a tradition than anything else is modern. 
It has its critics, both within the West and outside, but it is perhaps the 
dominant tradition of political and moral thought and practice. And yet 
this is not the way in which most social scientists have talked about 
so-called "traditional" societies/cultures in the non-European world 
generally, and in the Islamic world in particular. So this is partly what I 
mean when I say that we must rethink the concept of tradition. In this 
sense, I think, we can regard the contemporary Islamic revival as 
consisting of attempts at articulating Islamic traditions that are adequate 
to the modern condition as experienced in the Muslim world, but also as 
attempts at formulating encounters with Western as well as Islamic history. 
This doesn't mean that they succeed. But at least they try in different ways.

In discussing different historical experiences of modernity, are you 
suggesting that there are also different kinds of modernities? There is a 
certain centrality to the project of modernity that scholars like Foucault 
have described and analyzed. How does one reconcile the European model of 
modernity, that modernization theorists and their critics alike pose, with 
different historical and cultural experiences of modernity?

In the first place, given that we are situated in contemporary Western 
society, and given that we are in a world in which "the West" is hegemonic, 
the term modernity already possesses a certain positive valence. Many of 
its opponents-- for example, the so-called postmodernists--to some extent 
have a defensive strategy towards what they think of as the central values 
of modernity. Very few postmodernist critics of modernity would be willing 
to argue against social equality, free speech, or individual 
self-fashioning. In fact, the very term "postmodernity" incorporates 
"modernity" as a stage in a distinct trajectory. So it may be a tactical 
matter in some cases to argue that there are multiple forms of modernity 
rather than contrasting modernity itself with something else. In other 
words, the equation of a specific Western history (which is specific and 
particular by definition) with something that at the same time claims to be 
universal and has become globalized is something that to my mind isn't 
sufficiently well thought out. An ideological weight is given to modernity 
as a universal model, even when it is merely a form of Westernization.

I think that at one level there is the problem of conceptualizing modernity 
as a term that refers to a whole set of disparate tendencies, attitudes, 
traditions, structures, and practices--some of which may be integrally 
related and some not. At times, people think of modernity as a certain kind 
of social structure (industrialization, secularization, democracy, etc.), 
and sometimes as a psychological experience (e.g., Simmel on "The 
Metropolis and Modern Life"), or as an aesthetic posture (e.g., Baudelaire 
on "The Painter of Modern Life"). Sometimes modernity is thought of as a 
certain kind of a philosophical project (in the Habermasian sense) and 
sometimes as a post-Kantian universal ethics. Do they all necessarily hang 
together? There is an implicit assumption that they do--that just because 
certain aspects of "modernity" ("modern" science, politics, ethics, etc.) 
have gone together historically in parts of Europe, all of these things 
must and should go together in the rest of the world as well. A curious 
kind of functionalism is actually at work in this assumption. Whereas in 
other contexts social scientists have become skeptical of functionalism, 
this doesn't seem to be the case here.

Part of the problem is deciding whether "modernity" is a single tradition, 
a singular structure, or an integrated set of practical knowledges. And if 
things go together, then does this mean that what we have is a moral 
imperative or a pragmatic fit? In other words: what criteria are we using 
when we call a person, a way of life, or a society, "modern"? Where do 
these criteria come from? Are they simply descriptive or normative? And if 
they are descriptive, then do they relate to some immutable essence? If 
they are normative, then on what authority? Such questions need to be 
worked through before we can decide meaningfully whether there are 
varieties of modernity and, if there is only one kind of modernity, then 
whether it is separable from Westernization or not. I have not encountered 
a satisfactory answer to this question, either by social scientists or 

Now, when Foucault talks about modernity, he is speaking quite specifically 
about a development in Western history. He is really not interested in the 
history of the non-Western world, of the West's encounter with that 
heterogeneous world. And he is not interested in different traditions. As 
you know, his emphasis is on breaks rather than continuities. It is 
possible to think of these breaks, of course, as occurring in certain kinds 
of continuities, and to some extent Foucault understood that. Otherwise, he 
would not have pushed his investigation into modernity back to early 
Christian and Greek beliefs and practices. This inquiry brought him to a 
conception of the Western tradition, with all its ruptures and breaks, 
although he didn't think systematically about "tradition" as such.

You also argue in your book Genealogies of Religion that modernity, by 
definition, is a teleological project in its desire to remake history, the 
nation, and the future. You argue that "actions seeking to maintain the 
local status quo are therefore always resisting the future." Could you 
please speak to what you meant by this?

I meant that ironically, of course. I think what I said was that actions 
that only maintain the status quo--to conserve daily life--are not thought 
of as "making history," however long such efforts take. And movements which 
could be branded as "reactionary" were by definition trying "to resist the 
future" or "to turn the clock back." The point is that the advocates and 
defenders of Western modernity are explicitly committed to a certain kind 
of historicity, a temporal movement of social life in which "the future" 
pulls us forward. The idea is that, in some measure, "the future" 
represents something that can be anticipated and should be desired, and 
that at least the direction of that desirable future is known. The "future" 
becomes a kind of moral magnet, out there, pulling us toward itself. On the 
one hand, humans are thought of as having the freedom to shape their own 
(collective) destiny. On the other hand, "history," as an autonomous 
movement, has its own momentum, and those who act on a different assumption 
are thought of as being either morally blameworthy or practically 
self-defeating--or both. The concept of history-making relates to this 
grand and somewhat contradictory idea. And all societies--including non- 
Western ones--are judged by the phrases you quote. I briefly mentioned the 
frequent derogatory references to the situation in what has happened and is 
happening in Iran, to cargo cults, etc. My point is not that one should not 
criticize--or even denounce--what has happened and is happening in Iran, 
say. My point is that most people who do so are also employing a very 
peculiar notion of "history" and "history-making."

In discussing the relationship between Western and non-Western experiences 
of modernity, two different traditions of argument come to mind: the school 
of dependency theory in the 1970s and post-colonial theory more recently, 
of which the Subaltern Studies project from South Asia is an important 
part. It seems that whereas the dependency theorists had emphasized how 
Western modernity had effected and arrested the development of non-Western 
societies, post-colonial theorists (like Chatterjee, Prakash, and 
Chakrabarty) focus on the cultural and historical specificity of 
non-Western experiences of modernity. Chatterjee, for example, makes the 
point that privileging the Western-European liberal experience often 
occludes conceptions of polity and community that are an integral part of 
non-Western societies but remain untheorized in both radical and liberal 
analyses of modernity. How do you see the relationship between these two 
traditions of thought and their implications for understanding culturally 
and historically specific experiences of modernity?

Well, of course, the West is what it is in large part because of its 
relationship to the non-West, and vice versa. And if by Western modernity 
one means the economies, politics, and knowledges characteristic of 
European countries, then much of this is incomprehensible without reference 
to Europe's links with the non-European world. In its own way, this point 
was made by the so-called dependency theorists concerned with Third-World 
development. But one must not exaggerate this point. What I mean is that 
there are certain experiences that have nothing to do with the 
West/non-West relationship. After all, the term "non-West" is simply a 
negative term. It's important to keep this relationship in mind, but in 
itself it tells us very little about all the things it covers. There are 
experiences that have to do with other kinds of relationships, such as the 
relationship of a given people to a distinctive past.

I think whether certain societies can or cannot develop economically was an 
argument that was carried on by dependency theorists on the basis of 
certain economic models that had certain indicators, so that one was clear 
what the aim was supposed to be. So, many of the people who argued against 
modernization theorists said that economic development was not possible in 
the peripheral countries given their links with the core capitalist 
countries. People who belonged to the dependency tradition tended to argue 
over whether it made sense to try to break those links, skip the capitalist 
stage, and go straight for socialist development, or to make a strategic 
alliance with national capitalists, which was necessary for full economic 
development. (This was a repeat, of course, of the old Bolshevik/Menshivik 
dispute.) But the argument, anyway, was not about where all the countries 
should end up. The common assumption was that there were several roads to 
Rome but there was, of course, only one Rome. When one got to moral and 
cultural issues, this assumption became more difficult to sustain.

Whereas in the West political debate about liberal-democratic states more 
or less takes for granted where things are now, discussion about the Third 
World tends to be about where politics and morality ought to be heading. 
This is what needs to be noticed. Even when it is agreed that there are all 
kinds of changes that would improve conditions in Western societies (urban 
poverty, racism, etc.), it is usually assumed that this is the best of all 
possible political systems. The claim seems to be: yes, we do have racism, 
but where isn't there racism? At least we in the West have a system in 
which some kind of political fight for racial equality is possible, whereas 
other political systems don't allow this. The assumption, you see, is that 
even if the changes needed to eliminate the massive poverty, 
institutionalized racism, international power-play, etc. were effected, it 
would still be the same political system. And if a radically new future is 
desired, it is assumed that this is reachable only through the present 
Western "modern" system. Western "modernity" is, therefore, thought to be 
pregnant with positive futures in a way that no other cultural condition 
is. That wasn't explicit in the old argument about dependency, because the 
focus there was on the conditions for a productive industrial economy, 
which would, therefore, increase the possibilities of general wealth and 
material welfare. That was what "modernity" meant to dependency theorists 
(or to those who deliberately used this concept). Now it tends to mean a 
system of government (representative democracy, periodic elections, 
parliamentary pressure groups, continuous polls, controlled media 
presentations, etc.) and individualism in morality, law, aesthetics, etc. 
The emphasis on the individual as voter, moral personality, and 
consumer--whether of state or market goods--is certainly central to the 
liberal version of modernity. But so, too, is a faith in a boundless 
future. (That is not, by the way, the same thing as saying "a faith in 
limitless growth," which is not fashionable anymore.)

Chatterjee is absolutely right in pointing out that liberal modernity 
doesn't pay adequate attention to the idea of community. That has been the 
complaint of socialists (and of conservatives, of course). Even some 
liberals who were influenced by Hegel argued against unfettered 
contractarian individualism (Green and Bosanquet, for example). But I think 
we need to historicize the idea of community. At any rate, we shouldn't 
allow ourselves to be locked into the binary "individualism versus 
communitarianism" argument. This confrontation of principles sounds 
fundamental only because the language of liberalism has already acquired a 
hegemonic status.

Are different options really possible in this matter? Or will today's 
powerful countries force the rest of the world to adopt the only "sensible" 
and "decent" model--i.e., political, economic, and moral liberalism? I 
don't know. It's one thing to say that we ought not to accept their 
definition of "modernity" as binding on us. It's another thing to claim 
that we possess the material and moral resources to resist effectively and 
to create our own options--regardless of whether we wish to call these 
options "modern" or not.

In studying specific cultures, you have emphasized the necessity of using 
theoretical concepts that are relevant to the practices and assumptions of 
those cultures. Your work on religion, in this regard, is similar to the 
subalternist historian Dipesh Chakrabarty's work on Indian working-class 
movements, insofar he has criticized the concept of class consciousness in 
its inability to account for non-liberal solidarities and alliances that 
are not hegemonically structured by the ideology of liberal-humanism. To 
what extent do you think the task of analyzing politico-religious movements 
(such as Islamism) is hampered by a similar problem of deploying inadequate 
conceptual categories?

One of the valuable things that post-modernism has done is to help us be 
skeptical of "grand narratives." Once we get out of the habit of seeing 
everything in relation to the universal path to the future which the West 
has supposedly discovered, then it may be possible to describe things in 
their own terms. This is an eminently anthropological enterprise, too. The 
anthropologist must describe ways of life in appropriate terms. To begin 
with, at least, this means terms intrinsic to the social practices, 
beliefs, movements, and traditions of the people being referred to and not 
in relation to some supposed future the people are moving towards. These 
"intrinsic terms" are not the only ones that can be used-- of course not. 
But the concepts of people themselves must be taken as central in any 
adequate understanding of their life. This is why Chakrabarty rightly 
criticizes the use of categories, such as class-consciousness, where they 
don't make sense to the people themselves.

I repeat: That's not to say that we should never employ terms that don't 
immediately make sense to the people being studied. The trouble with using 
notions like "class-consciousness" for explanatory purposes is that you 
take for granted that a particular kind of historical change is normative. 
Political opposition, political activity is "more developed" if it is 
organized in terms of class-consciousness and "less developed" if it is 
not. Marxism tends to see class politics as essential to modernity and 
"modernity" as the most developed form of civilized society.

Once we set that grand narrative, that normative history, aside, we can 
start by asking not, "What should such-and-such a people be doing?" but, 
"What do they aim at doing? And why?". We can learn to elaborate that 
question in historically specific terms. This certainly applies to our 
attempts to understand politico-religious movements, especially Islamic 
movements. It is foolish, I think, to ask: "Why are these movements not 
moving in the direction History requires them to?". But that is precisely 
what is being asked when scholars say: "What leads the people in these 
movements to behave so irrationally, in such a reactionary manner?".

Given our discussion about polity and community, in what ways do you think 
the contemporary Islamist movements represent a vision of polity that is 
distinct from regnant conceptions of the nation, political debate, and 

A different vision of polity. That is an aspect of Islamist thinking that 
requires much more original work. I feel that there is a need to rethink 
the nature of the political in a far more radical way than Islamic 
movements seem to have done. To a great extent, there has been an 
acceptance of the modernizing state (and the model of the Western state) 
and a translation of its projects into Islamist terms. Often Islamists 
simply subscribe to the parameters of the modern nation- state, adding only 
that it be controlled by a virtuous body of Muslims. A much more radical 
idea is needed before we can say that Islamists have a vision of a 
distinctive kind of polity.

However, I don't want to exaggerate the homogeneity of these movements. 
There have been some interesting schematic attempts at rethinking. For 
example, the Tunisian Islamic leader Ghannushi, who is banned from Tunis, 
has recently argued for the political institutionalization of multiple 
interpretations of the founding texts. In one sense, the 
institutionalization of divergent interpretations is already a part of the 
Islamic tradition (both Sunni and Shi`a). But, if I understand him 
correctly, Ghannushi is trying to politicize that traditional arrangement 
and make it more fluid, more open to negotiation. Starting from the classic 
distinction between the essential body of the text, on the one hand, and 
its commentaries (i.e., "consequences"--what follows), on the other, he 
argues that the latter be brought into the political arena. This would 
involve the electorate being asked to vote for or against the policies that 
flow from given interpretations--and always having the option of changing 
its mind about them. In other words, the political implications of an 
interpretation (not all "the meanings" of the text itself) would be open to 
acceptance or rejection like any other proposed legislation or project. 
This clearly needs to be much more elaborately developed and clarified if 
it is to make political sense.

Are elements of this kind of thinking part of the Islamic discursive 

I certainly think they are. That's what ijtihad, the principle of original 
reasoning from within the tradition, is all about. There is a lot of talk 
about ijtihad nowadays among Muslims, but too often it's used as a device 
to bring Islamic tradition in line with modern liberal values for no good 
reason. I believe it ought to be used to argue with other Muslims within 
the tradition and to try to formulate solutions to problems that are 
recognized as problems for the tradition by other Muslims.

You discuss in your work the practice of nasiha in Saudi Arabia, as an 
example of public critique within the Islamic tradition, which is quite 
distinct from the liberal notion of public criticism. Can you speak to 
that, given your comments on the limits and possibilities of specific 
traditions of thought?

Yes, nasiha is different from liberal notions of public criticism. For 
example, it doesn't constitute a right to criticize the monarch and/or 
political regime but an obligation. Similarly, the business of criticism is 
not restricted only to those expressly qualified--the educated and 
enlightened few. It's something that every Muslim has the duty to 
undertake, and whose theory the `ulama must continually reconsider and 
discuss for each time and place. It is, therefore, a form of criticism that 
is internal to a tradition. That is to say, only someone who has been 
educated in that tradition, who has been taught what "appropriate Islamic 
practices" are, can undertake it properly. This is not a criticism that 
anyone coming from the outside, a total stranger, say, armed with a fine 
sense of logical argument and a set of universal moral principles, can 
carry out. So it is quite different from the notion of abstract and 
generalized criticism that has to be confined to the enlightened, literate 
members of a polity.

So are you suggesting that there are traditions that can continue their own 
trajectory of debate, without necessarily coming into conversation with 
other parallel traditions--in this case the Western-liberal tradition of 
political and public critique?

No, that is not what I'm saying. My point, first of all, is that nasiha, in 
the way that I described it in my book, is a form of criticism that can 
only be mounted if the critic is familiar with the relevant tradition that 
provides the standards defining Islamic practices and also with the 
specific social conditions in which those standards are to be applied. But 
when social conditions change, the standards often have to be extended or 
modified. In the case I discuss, this process is closely connected with the 
development of the modern Saudi state. Many of the practices in that state 
are modeled on the practices of the modern nation-state. This also applies 
to various aspects of "private life." In other words, the new social 
conditions are beginning to include aspects of Western political 
traditions. Wahhabi religious discourse is, therefore, involved in a 
complex process of appropriating and rejecting parts of those traditions. 
Thus, even though the principles of nasiha still remain distinctive, and 
quite different from Enlightenment principles, the scope and objective of 
nasiha has changed very significantly. That's not exactly what I would call 
a "conversation" with another tradition, but it is certainly an engagement 
with it. I can't see how any non-Western tradition today can escape some 
sort of an engagement with Western modernity. Because aspects of Western 
modernity have come to be embodied in the life of non-European societies.

Do you think that the post-Reformation Protestant conception of religion, 
as an internal belief system that has little to do with arranging political 
and social life, influenced or transformed the character of Islamic debates 
in this century? If so, in what ways?

Well, I think to some extent they have--where Islamic reform movements have 
adopted standards of rationality from modern Western discourses or even 
where Muslim apologists claim that Islam does quite well when properly 
measured by Western standards of justice and decency. This influence is 
also evident whenever the shari`a is made compatible with Western law and 
practice and is subjected to institutions of the modern state. And the 
modern state gives rise to two quite distinct movements--those for whom 
religious faith is something that fits into "private space" (in both the 
legal and the psychological sense), and those for whom the "public 
functions" of the modern state must be captured by men with religious faith.

It has often been argued that the tradition of liberalism is based upon 
principles of pluralism and tolerance in ways that Islamic tradition is 
not, and that the concept of plurality remains foreign to Islam. How would 
you respond to that?

Well, I would say that it is certainly not a modern, liberal invention. The 
plurality of individual interests is what the liberal tradition has 
theorized best of all. On the other hand, the attempt to get some kind of 
representation for ethnic groups and minorities in Western countries has 
been difficult for liberalism to theorize. Liberalism has theories of 
tolerance by which spaces can be created for individuals to do what they 
wish, so long as they don't obstruct the ability of others to do likewise. 
But these aren't theories of pluralism in the sense we are beginning to 
understand the term today. Liberalism has theories of multiple "interests," 
interests which can be equalized, aggregated, and calculated through the 
electoral process and then negotiated in the process of formulating and 
applying governmental policies. But that is a very different kind of 
pluralism from the different ways of life which are (a) the preconditions 
and not the objects of individual interests, and which are, (b) in the 
final analysis, incommensurable.

Now the Islamic tradition, like many other non-liberal traditions, is based 
on the notion of plural social groupings and plural religious 
traditions--especially (but not only) of the Abrahamic traditions [ahl 
al-kitab]. And, of course, it has always accommodated a plurality of 
scriptural interpretations. There is a well- known dictum in the shari`a: 
ikhtilaf al-umma rahma [difference within the Islamic tradition is a 
blessing]. This is where the notions of ijtihad and ijm`a come in. As modes 
of developing and sustaining the Islamic tradition, they authorize the 
construction of coherent differences, not the imposition of homogeneity.

Of course there are always limits to difference if coherence is to be aimed 
at. If tolerance is not merely another name for indifference, there comes a 
point in every tradition beyond which difference cannot be tolerated. That 
simply means that there are differences which can't be accommodated within 
the tradition without threatening its very coherence. But there are, of 
course, many moments and conditions of such intolerance. One must not, 
therefore, equate intolerance with violence and cruelty.

On the whole, Muslim societies in the past have been much more 
accommodating of pluralism in the sense I have tried to outline than have 
European societies. It does not follow that they are therefore necessarily 
better. And I certainly don't wish to imply that Muslim rulers and 
populations were never prejudiced, that they never persecuted non-Muslims 
in their midst. My point is only that "the concept of plurality," as you 
put it, is not foreign to Islam.

Talking of pluralities of interpretations within the Islamic tradition, 
some scholars make a distinction between the Sufi [mystical] and Salafi 
[reformist] tradition within Islam. You have criticized the ways in which 
these two traditions are often mapped onto rural/urban, folk/elite, and 
oral/scriptural dichotomies, respectively. Yet it is hard to deny the 
substantial differences between Sufi and Salafi thought. How can one 
fruitfully engage with these differences without falling into simplistic 

Unfortunately, people continue to make these simplistic contrasts. It is 
true that for some sections of the Islamic tradition, such as the Hanbali 
tradition that is officially dominant in Saudi Arabia today, Sufism is 
thought to be quite different from what is defined as the central Islamic 
tradition. But the definition of the central Islamic tradition according to 
Saudi Hanbalis is not, strictly speaking, a Salafi one either. Wahhabi 
Islam has a specific connection with a particular state--even when it 
constitutes a contemporary language of opposition to the regime. This is a 
complicated question, and I don't want to get into details here. All I want 
to say here is that it's not as if there were only two options in Islam-- 
Sufi or Salafi. For reformers like Muhammad `Abduh, these were not mutually 
exclusive categories. `Abduh, one of the founders of the Salafiyya [reform] 
movement, always accepted the Sufi tradition. Certain aspects of his 
relationship with Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, including the Sufi language of 
love in which they sometimes communicated, can only be explained in terms 
of their familiarity with Sufism. `Abduh thought that certain kinds of 
reform were necessary for contemporary Islam, but he regarded these as 
compatible with Sufi thought and values. This was not a new attitude. The 
great medieval reformer, Imam Ghazali, was at once a scripturalist (an 
elitist, if you like) and a Sufi.

I think that most Salafi reformers would be critical of Sufism when it 
transgressed one of the basic doctrines of Islam: the separation between 
God and human beings. I've heard criticism of Sufi practices that seemed to 
imply the possibility of complete union with God as opposed to the 
possibility of complete openness to God. I think that that is the crucial 
point for many people who are critical of Sufism.
There is, incidentally, an interesting debate that occurred in the 
eighteenth century between Muhammad `Abd al-Wahhab (the Arabian reformer) 
and the chief qadi of Tunisia (whose name escapes me) about the so-called 
worship of saints' tombs which some reformers see as a feature of the Sufi 
tradition. The argument is over whether the frequenting of tombs and the 
invoking of saintly blessing constitutes `ibada [worship] or ziyara 
[visitation]. The qadi argues that this is not a case of `ibada, for the 
very reason that visitation to the Prophet's tomb at Mecca is not `ibada. 
The Prophet, after all, can't be worshipped (worship is reserved for God 
alone), but visiting his tomb is an act of piety that elicits blessing. I 
don't think that `Abd al-Wahab was persuaded by this argument, but there 
was an argument. The denunciation by some sections of the Islamic movement 
of other Muslims as kufar [infidels; sing. kafir] is, of course, a 
termination of argument. Even worse, it is a quasi-legal judgment which 
carries serious penalties.

It is curious that those in Islamic movements who declare other Muslims to 
be kufar are also the ones who argue that the door of ijtihad [exercise of 
independent judgment in a theological question] is open in Islam. Yet the 
entire idea of ijtihad, as an exercise in debate and reconsideration of 
scholarly argument, seems to contradict the kind of closure entailed in 
declaring someone a kafir.

Many Muslims would not accept, of course, that ijtihad is open to the 
introduction of new interpretations. Incidentally, among Sunnis, ijtihad is 
much more a central part of traditional Hanabli doctrine than of other 
schools-- for them the gate of ijtihad was never closed. But although they 
are open to the principle of ijtihad, they are hostile to what they regard 
as its arbitrary use. They are similar, in some ways, to the Khawarij in 
the seventh century who were prepared to call other Muslims kufar, even to 
make war on them. They decided that certain things were open to ijtihad and 
others were not. To talk about some things in the light of ijtihad was 
simply to open the door to kufr [infidelity]. So it is a question of where 
you draw the conceptual boundaries, and what action follows from the way 
you draw those boundaries.

In examining world traditions, theorists of religion have often contrasted 
deistic religiosity with a "traditional" sensibility that emphasizes, for 
example, correct bodily practices, literal understandings of texts, etc. 
Deism, on the other hand, is associated with an abstract understanding of 
the idea of divinity, sacred texts, and general principles of a religious 
doctrine. Evolutionary models of religious theory associate deism with a 
post-Enlightenment conception of religion, of which Post-Reformation 
Christianity is considered paradigmatic, and Islam, Hinduism, and certain 
forms of Judaism are associated with a literalist understanding of 
religion. Even if we reject an evolutionary model of religious development 
in history, there are obvious differences in the focus on correct bodily 
practices in some of these religious traditions. Given your emphasis on 
historicizing the concept of religion, and on the inimical relationship 
between religious discourse and bodily practices (particularly in medieval 
Christianity), what do you suggest are some ways to engage with this 
characterization of religious traditions as deist and/or literalist?

I think this is a false opposition, because abstract principles and ideas 
are also integral to various Islamic, Judaic, and pre-Reformation Christian 
traditions. Abstract ideas are relevant not only for theology, they are 
important also for programs aiming to teach embodied practices. I talk 
about these programs in Genealogies of Religion. In this sense abstract 
ideas are not opposed to embodied practices. This point applies to the way 
Christian virtues are developed in the monastic context, and it applies 
equally to the way nasiha constitutes an embodied practice, as I try to 
show in my book. The point is that, in contemporary Protestant Christianity 
(and other religions now modeled on it), it is more important to have the 
right belief than to carry out specific prescribed practices. It is not 
that belief in every sense of the word was irrelevant in the Christian 
past, or irrelevant to Islamic tradition. It is that belief has now become 
a purely inner, private state of mind, a particular state of mind detached 
from everyday practices. But although it is in this sense "internal," 
belief has also become the object of systematic discourse, such that the 
system of statements about belief is now held to constitute the essence of 
"religion," a construction that makes it possible to compare and evaluate 
different "religions." These systematic statements, these texts, are now 
the real public form of "religion."

So I think the contrast one should make is between the development of 
prescribed moral-religious capabilities, which involve the cultivation of 
certain bodily attitudes (including emotions), the disciplined cultivation 
of habits, aspirations, desires, on one hand, and on the other hand, a more 
abstracted set of belief-statements, "texts" that contain meanings and 
define the core of the religion.

Now, insofar as certain modern forms of religiosity have been identified 
with sets of abstracted belief-statements which have barely anything to do 
with people's actual lives, you get the curious phenomenon of Christians, 
non- Christians, and atheists allegedly believing in or rejecting religion, 
but living the same kind of life. Now, if this is the case, then clearly it 
is different from embodied practices of various kinds. I think the 
important contrast to bear in mind is the difference between this kind of 
intellectualized abstracted system of doctrines that has no direct bearing 
on or relationship to forms of embodied practices, and lives that are 
organized around gradually learning and perfecting correct moral and 
religious practices. The former kind of religiosity is much more a feature 
of modern religion in Europe and, indeed, a part of what religion is 
defined to be: a set of belief-statements that makes it possible to compare 
one religion to another and to judge the validity--even the sense--of such 
abstract statements. This state of affairs is radically opposed to one in 
which correct practice is essential to the development of religious virtues 
and is itself an essential religious virtue. After all, while you can talk 
about certain belief- statements as being credible or non-credible, true or 
false, rational or irrational, you can't really talk like that about 
embodied practices. Practices aren't statements. As Austin pointed out in 
How to Do Things with Words, they are performatives and not constatives. We 
do not say of performatives that they are believable or unbelievable. We 
inquire, instead, as to whether they are well done or badly done; 
effectively done or ineffectively done. So different kinds of questions 
arise in these two contexts. That is the opposition one has to bear in 
mind, and that is partly what my two chapters on monastic discipline are about.

In Islam, this is what matters, and if Muslims simply argue about whether 
or not a particular doctrine is "true Islam," and if the answer to that 
question makes no difference to how they learn to live, how they develop 
distinctive Islamic virtues, then it makes no difference whether that 
doctrine is the same as Christianity or not, because the way in which they 
live is the same, or pretty much the same. That is the point one has to 
bear in mind. The crucial question, it seems to me, is this: Are there 
practical rules and principles aimed at developing a distinctive set of 
virtues (articulated by din [religion]) which relate to how one structures 
one's life? That is what I mean by embodied practices.

Since you mostly focus on medieval Christianity in your book, I am curious 
if you think that this sense of embodied practice also exists in parts of 
the contemporary Islamic world, where the cultivation of correct bodily 
practices actually modifies the way people live on a daily basis?

Yes, I think it does in some areas. I tried to describe some aspects of 
that in the context of the Wahhabi concept and practice of morality, as 
opposed to post-Kantian conceptions of morality. In varying degrees, you 
continue to have this sense of morality in parts of the Muslim world, 
although it is gradually becoming eroded there as elsewhere. I think that, 
in a way, the recent Islamist movements have a sense that the pursuit of 
correct bodily practices is important and has to be somehow reinstituted 
where it has eroded, and protected wherever it exists. Unfortunately, 
Islamists often tend to link the maintenance of these practices to the 
demand for a modernizing Islamic state. This seems to me very problematic 
for all sorts of reasons. Anyway, the learning of these moral capabilities 
did not originally depend on the existence of a modernizing state. Yet now 
most Islamic movements are concerned to capture the center that the modern 
state represents, instead of trying to cut across or dissolve it.

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