Talal Asad's work has for some time been essential reading for those trying to make sense of Islam in the present, as a 'religion' and within the construction of the modern post-Enlightenment construction of that term, as a set of practices, as identities, and as most importantly a discursive tradition. And the need to engage with his work is evident even among those most critical of him - one thinks of Shahab Ahmed (for a critical response, see Zareena Grewal here) and his rather misconstrued understanding of the discursive tradition and more recently Kevin Reinhart's rather unusual take on the big, cosmopolitan tradition of Islam swiping at the anthropologists.
Asad’s latest work, Secular Translations, is a continuation of his engagement with the anthropological and philosophical process of ‘translation’ combined with his major work in the last two decades of tracing the parallel and connected genealogies of the concepts of the secular and the religious.
It is arguably also his most explicit engagement with the canon of modern European philosophy – and especially liberal thought – deployed to decentre the narratives about the rise of the liberal, secular self in the exclusive space of modern Europe. In this sense, we can connect his work to other attempts at decolonising epistemology in metropolitan academia and especially rethinking liberalism.
Each of the three chapters – originally the first set of Ruth Benedict lectures delivered at the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University in 2017 – reflects continuities with his previous work: the first chapter on ‘Secular equality and religious language’ recalls Formations of the Secular (Stanford University Press, 2003), the second chapter on ‘Translation and the sensible body’ engages with Genealogies of Religion (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993) and his On an Anthropology of Islam (DC, 1986), and the third chapter ‘Masks, security and on the language of numbers’ is reminiscent of the controversies over his On Suicide Bombing (Columbia University Press, 2007).
Perhaps his most striking insight – and this demonstrates both the optimism and the pessimism of the work – is not just the Wittgensteinian turn to language games and forms of like in order to understand ‘sensibilities’ such as religion and secularity (one thinks of the late Ernest Gellner taking his own turn to the Austrian late in life) but that the rise of calculative reason – or what Heidegger would have called technology – is expressive of our selfhood as well as denying its agency.
Translation as an expression of the body is similarly affective. Asad thus seems to replace the tyranny of (liberal, universalising) reason with ‘sensibility’, a notion of an inner conviction that one’s experience preponderates over any reasoned argument that might be presented. Thus we live in an age of ‘sensibility’ and not of reason despite all the rhetoric of the ‘end of history’ with the triumph of the liberal, individual self (as Fukuyama and Seidel would have it), a fact of the vacuum of moral language and understanding that MacIntyre condemned as ‘emotivism’ in After Virtue(Duckworth, 1981).
Chapter one begins with Robert Skidelsky’s affirmation of liberal moral values and secularization as ‘Christianity’s gift to the world’ based on the notion of ‘equal liberty’. Of course, since Skidelsky is citing Siedentrop one could easily to make the point about Christian claims to equality being exclusive by also quoting Siedentrop’s identification of the enemy of the liberal self and its hard-fought liberties – Islam. There follows an extensive, broad consideration of philosophical arguments about liberty from Mill, Kant and Rawls through to Benjamin and Habermas. One of the key issues is legal equality and the notion of sovereignty; the double-edged nature of this could be well explained by Giorgio Agamben’s conception of homo sacer and the state of exception and it is somewhat surprising that Asad does not go there. Or to cite Derrida’s famous iterative sense of being equal ‘before the law’. Similarly liberalism collusion with cruelty in the name of equality is mentioned – one could quite easily extend that to the intimate relationship between liberalism, religious suppression and imperialism (on a side note, one is reminded on liberalism of the excellent recent volume edited by Faisal Devji and Zaheer Kazmi on Islam after Liberalism, Hurst, 2017). Asad finally notes the failure of Habermas’ notion of translating religious language into secular and cites the problems posed by aspects of Muslim women’s veiling in Europe. One could equally – no pun intended – cite the problem of agency in equality by considering some of the arguments posed by religious communities concerning dignity and the right to religious liberties against civil liberties which are coming to the fore in ‘secular vs religious’ clashes on matters of morality such as LGBTQ+ issues in the public sphere. Throughout this book I keep thinking of Agamben – and it really would be interesting to see Asad’s engagement with the Italian philosopher and exegete’s work.
The second chapter begins with the late Christian theologian Lammin Sanneh’s reflection on the nature of the mission in Africa and the relative success of Christian translation as opposed to Muslim resistance to translate the word of God based on some form of theological ‘inlibration’. Asad questions the basic of untranslatability with its concomitant assumption that if that is the case then true cultural plurality in Islam is somehow inauthentic. This allows him to open a question on the relationship between the exoteric and the esoteric and the apparent and allegorical in Qurʾanic language (and the uses of our embodied existence). He moves onto discuss elements of Islamic legal practice and notions of human dualism via Ghazālī. The privileging of Qurʾanic language – and this is an interesting insight – reflects a concern about secularisation and not the chauvinistic privileging of Arabic over other languages. One might also point out – in addition to Asad – that the hadith that talk about the heavenly language being Syriac or something other than Arabic would tend to suggest that there is no special status to Arabic as such. Qurʾanic language is the performative action of the body, a ritual form of life (again Wittgenstein). Here again the discussion of intention and action recalls his Genealogies of Religion. He also juxtaposes a number of concepts: intention vs will, the authenticity of the ‘true self’ against that of the tradition. He ends up reverting to his notion of a discursive tradition. But the key point is to critique any sense of the privilege of Christian religious language over others by using a discursive, critical genealogical approach.
The final chapter concerns power and politics, involving a critique of the nation state, more explicitly starting with a reflection on Mauss on masks. Our public personhood is a matter of affecting masks and presenting meaning in the public sphere. However, the act of research into the public sphere is not a mere facility of reading. Conventions and structures act as masks of subjugation and securitisation, indeed even the ritualization of public life. At the heart of this chapter there seems to be a concern with selfhood and its emergence but it is not fully developed – not even as a critique of Eurocentric accounts including Skinner et al (again one thinks of Agamben – but also of Richard Sorabji’s wonderful monograph on the Self). The state’s distrust of those masks is a reason for the reinforcement of security. He ends with the problem of numbers and democratic nation states – and here one thinks of Appadurai. The calculation of the modern democratic nation state leads to a secular logic and thus he returns to Skidelsky cited already in chapter 1. Islamophobia is merely a result of this calculus.
The epilogue reiterates why these lectures are continuous with Asad’s previous work on language, thought, religion, secularity and politics, not least the privileging of the ‘Christian’ and the ‘secular’ in modern nation states – and one might also link this with another endeavour with Butler, Mahmood and others on the possibilities of ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ critique and reason. The concern with a sort of decolonisation of thought seems to be clear: religion, secularity, Christianity, security, power and a whole set of concepts needs a radical rethink using some reflections on Islamic texts but also of the critical elements of Euro-American thought as well – somewhat like Chakrabarty on ‘provincializing Europe’, expect taking religious texts and their ‘intentions’ more seriously. This is linked to his sense of the failure of the modern will, of the modern democratic nation-state, of epistemology not least because as he puts it those structures are even ignorant of that fact that they have failed, they have not produced a collective form of life that is radically different – even from the liberal end of history signalled in a previous generation. His only solution – and it seems the next step of the decolonisation – is to take the Qurʾanic injunction of ‘amr biʾl-maʿrūf’ more seriously as a collective form of life, of mutuality, of a means for unthinking the way in which we conceive of sovereignty. In that sense his solution is both pessimistic – about the possibilities and scope of decolonisation – and optimistic that despite our intuitions and evils that humans may still bear within themselves the capacity to produce a conducive collective form of life. That conundrum – and its hope – in one sense is a very serious contribution and suggestion for contemporary Islamic thought. One hopes that people will engage with Asad – especially when they might disagree (since not everyone accepts the failures of which he talks). Asad remains essential reading - and by extension his school.