Monday, February 3, 2020

Translating Religion, Affective Communities in Search of a Discursive Tradition

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. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Once more on the origins of Islam - and the role of 'ordinary believers'

In recent years, the study of early Islam has become quite a vibrant field, first moving towards the consensus on treating Islam as a ‘late antique’ religion and as part of the Near Eastern oecumene on matters ranging from the relationship between religion and violence to the perpetuation of monotheism (and henotheism), and then considering that the ‘standard’ narratives of the coming of imperial Islam in the region has tended to overemphasise the uniformity of the development of doctrine and practice and to marginalise the roles of non-Sunni-jamāʿī elites in that process. More even than that, a thorough double movement decolonisation of the study of early Islam is required: a critical appraisal of the sources and methods of orientalists, as well as provincialisation not just of those methods but also of the hegemonic assumptions of what constitutes (in a singular manner) the 'Islamic tradition'. 




Jack Tannous’ study furthers the process of considering early Islam within its wider pluralistic late antique context by arguing for the role of ‘simple believers’, the illiterate and agrarian Christians who broadly constituted the majority of the inhabitants in the Near East for some centuries after the advent of the message of Muḥammad in the Ḥijāz. The proper development of the spread of Islam can be gauged by the slow rate of conversion and 'Islamisation'/'Arabisation'. 

In the preface, Tannous tells us that the study is motivated by two questions. First, what does it mean for someone relatively illiterate and theologically uninformed to belong to a church in late antiquity, especially where confessional identity might be defined by conciliar creeds that deploy sophisticated theological concepts that are not exactly quotidian? Second, how did the Middle East become transformed from being the cradle of Christianity and a Christian space to one in which Christianity was a minority? The two questions are closely linked. One cannot understand the process of conversion purely through the prism of elite transformation and power strategies. Rather, if one wants to gauge how things may have changed one ought to consider the ‘simple believer’, however difficult it may be to establish and define. It is worth stressing that his approach is not a rather dismissive attitude to equating simple with simple-minded; rather by ‘simple’ he intends a lay category of agrarian, mostly illiterate and uninitiated into theological inquiry and debate. The culture of learned theologians – both Muslim and Christian of various confessions – tell us something about intellectual history but not much necessarily in themselves about the processes of social history. Tannous also offers another angle on the debates about Islam in the early period. He contends that if we wish to appreciate what Islam brought and changed we first need to understand what it might have meant to be a Christian and the nature of intra-Christian debate and polemic in Arabic, Syriac and Aramaic – it is those religious attitudes that need to be engaged to understand that world. That much of what was happening focused on intra-Christian debates and conflicts is already apparent from a number of the early Christian (Syriac and Greek) sources which spend much time of questions of heresy, orthodoxy and the relationship with various centres such as Constantinople. 





The argument ranges over four parts, one interlude and two historiographically important appendices. Part one introduces us to the simple and the nature of the fractures between Christians in the world into which Islam emerged. Part two engages the intra-Christian debates and arguments between the council of Chalcedon in 451 (and the splits between the official imperial and dissent doctrines and the important distinction over Christology) and the emergence of Islam in the 7th century. The interlude considers some evidence for continuity through these periods into the 9th century by examining the evidence of the Syriac sources. Part three looks at what ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ may have meant in that period from the 7th to the 9th centuries and introduces broadly the notion of the simple Muslim believer as well in terms of the converts. It is useful that the main focus is not on the socio-political and economic benefits – and even the realisation that conversion in the early period may not have led to a sharp demarcation in doctrine and practice (some of the evidence from the Syriac writings from Qatar suggest that Church authorities were rather worried about the social and even liturgical mixing of Christians and converts). 



Similarly, it is important for us not to project our contemporary notions about religion, belief and conversion to the lives of people in late antiquity. But what did conversion mean and entail? – and we have the paradox from both Muslim and Christian sources over the anxiety of overlapping beliefs and practices as well as the desire to differentiate and draw up boundaries. This is significant also in the light of the recent thesis of Fred Donner on the believers’ movement and the debate over the exact point at which ‘Islam’ becomes an exclusive and highly distinct identity – Tannous criticises that thesis in chapter 12. 



It seems that one of the elements in the process that paved the way for conversion was that violence, disagreement, confessional chaos and the contestations over truth following Chalcedon made the simple believers perhaps somewhat sceptical of exclusive claims and more adaptable to holding positions and practices that may to the theologian seem to be contradictory – clearly such phenomena were visible in ‘exclusively’ Muslim contexts as well as we see especially from some of the historical and heresiographical literature. This is also a section that troubles – if belief was a spectrum, why would someone convert? And why then would someone apostasise (the subject of a recent volume by Christian Sahner)? 



Tannous is correct to point out the weaknesses in the method of some who have written on conversion: for example, Bulliet’s study of genealogies and the use of ‘Muslim’ names is clearly problematic – the former can be forged and the latter – at least insofar as Arabic –adopted even when their bearers were avowedly Christian. Conversion relied about structural continuities – holy men and the realm of the sacred, and the mosque taking the place of the church. This, Tannous argues, is expressed in the anxiety in the Muslim sources about influence from Christians – the prohibitions (or not) about quoting from the Christians and their scriptures, knowledge of Syriac, of traditions and so forth. Part four focuses on the shared world and reintegrates the simple Christian believers into the social history of Islam and recovers their voices. The social interaction and everyday life – not the written theological text – seems to be the place to search for the gradual processes of transformation – multi-causal as they were. 

The appendices then turn to the methodological issues of source criticism – since there is no explicit methodological preliminary to the study. Appendix II is relatively modest and argues that it is proper – if we pay attention to the Syriac sources – to refer to the conquests as ‘Arab’. Appendix I is, on the other hand, an interesting essay on the sources that may be profitable for a class on Islamic history. In the debate between the radical sceptics and the ‘gullible’, Tannous places himself somewhere in the middle suggesting that while ‘literary analysis’ (beloved of the sceptics) is a valuable tool, literary Pyrrhonism as he calls it is a dead end if one wishes to write social history. A reflective source-critical approach that engages the sources (not necessarily with a heightened hermeneutics of suspicion) is probably emerging as the consensus of the field. His case study is an element in the canons of Jacob of Edessa that he uses to shed light on the nature of the Christian sources – and then on the Islamic ones – taking into consideration the positions of Abbott, Motzki and Schoeler juxtaposing them with Goldziher and Schacht. It seems clear that he broadly concurs with the position of Schoeler. The more radical positions of Shoemaker and others are absent – but to be fair in good measure, since the function of the short appendix is to shed light on his own method and not write a monograph on Quellenkritik



The scope of the study is 500 to 1000, so there is a sense in which it parallels and acts as a foil to Garth Fowden’s Before and After Muhammad.  From the perspective of someone like Aziz al-Azmeh, his notion of Islam and ‘paleo-Islam’ and his monograph The Emergence of Islam, Tannous’ work will probably seem to be hopefully old-fashioned and orientalist no least for decentering the Arabic from our accounts of the Middle East after Islam. 




But instead of locating his work within the Crone paradigm of understanding Islam beyond the Arabic sources due to the hermeneutics of suspicion, Tannous argues for something that is more in vogue among historians: connected histories, and in this case connected ‘transconfessional’ histories of the Middle East. Just as connected histories forgo the historiography of nation-state, so too should transconfessional histories dismiss the projection of the ‘millet’ system’s religious balkanisation on an earlier period of history. Non-Muslims as imperial competitors and as shared inhabitants of the world had a part to play in the formation of Islam as much as those who claimed to be from within the traditions. 

Has Tannous convinced? As he suggests in the conclusion, in some ways the monograph is an experiment in what might happen if we change our assumptions about early Islam and the region prior to that and turn our attention away from the privileging of the learned culture of a few key garrison towns such as Baghdad, Kufa, Basra, Wasit and Fustat. If we assume that the conquests – and the link between religion and violence discussed by the late Thomas Sizgorich – were part of the late antique norm, and that the rise in literary and theological works in Syriac and Arabic tell us rather little about the numbers on the grounds being instead indicators of the transmission and reception of Hellenic learning, then it is perfectly plausible to consider that the majority of the Near East up until the 10th century may well have constituted simple believers who identified themselves as Christian. The social history of the region is not necessarily contiguous with the intellectual history of early and classical Islamdom. He makes a strong case for considering the simple believer – a history of early Islam from below perhaps in a connect transconfessional manner that accords with my own taste for a ‘decolonised’ approach to Islamic history. But, given his rather fluid approach to identity (which is not unreasonable), whether he explains how the region transformed and how simple Christians became Muslim is another matter.