of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam.
By Talal Asad. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore. 1993. Pp 335. ISBN 0-8018-4632-3. Price PB £13.00.
Like cogito in philosophy, the self in the anthropological discourse of our times has turned reflexive. It no longer looks at the non-moi of Europe with the self-assurance of an overlord but with the self-doubts of a fellow human. For the other it confronts today is no more a vanquished barbarian but a competing architect of meaning. Thus, at a time when every pillar of Western self - faith, empire, reason - seems to have cracked, if not actually collapsed under the weight of history, the quest for Western identity has once again been linked to the challenge of the other. The emergence of reflexive anthropology, thus, betokens a response to the elevated status of the other as a rival maker of meaning. It betrays a search for a new definition of Western identity; an identity that is more significant than any contingency of history and more edifying than any will-to-power. Talal Asad's present work, notwithstanding its opaque and belaboured title, makes a distinctive contribution to the current debate on Western identity and guides us in the cognitive minefields of anthropological discourse with an aplomb and daring that is truly reassuring.
The West, notes Asad, is more than a mere Hegelian myth that inhabits the historical imagination of Europe: its Geist informs every contemporary discourse and the grand dialectic of its history has subsumed - for better or worse - all local histories and teleologies. Hence, it is not surprising that by engaging with Western history, Asad is able to string together in a single anthropological inquiry about 'discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam' such disparate topics as Medieval Christian rituals and contemporary Islamic theologies, cultural hermeneutics and cross-cultural scandals, religious debate and political power-talk, and the like. Nor is there anything incongruous about the fact that the landmarks of Western history that Asad wants to survey are best approached through such postmodernist gateways as 'genealogies, archaisms, translations and polemics.' For Asad seeks to demonstrate that the discourse of historical anthropology, that takes the cultural hegemony of the West as the object of its inquiry, also yields a hermeneutic capable of relativizing the West itself.
Asad's bid for the deconstruction and historicisation of Western values results in the demasking of 'religion' as a secular concept. Obviously, it is not a original insight. Both devout believers and sensitive 'phenomenologists of religion' (Cf: W C Smith: The Meaning and End of Religion. New York, 1962) have for many decades protested against the kind of epistemological reductionism that perceives the integrative worldview of 'faith' as an optional metaphysics of 'belief'. What is distinctive and gratifying about Asad's analysis is the Foucauldian focus on power: he is extremely alert to the ways in which the theoretical search for an essence of religion invites one to separate it conceptually from the domain of power. It may be, Asad observes wryly, 'a happy accident that this effort of defining religion converges with the liberal demand in our times that it be kept quite separate from politics, law and science - spaces in which varieties of power and reason articulate our distinctive modern life. This definition is at once part of a strategy (for secular liberals) of the confinement, and (for liberal Christians) of the defence of religion.'
For all its other benefits, however, the liberal theory of the separation of religion from power brings no epistemological dividends to the understanding of Islam. For to insist that politics and religion - two distinct essences that modern society succeeds in segregating both conceptually and practically - have been coupled in the Muslim tradition, Asad argues cogently, is 'to take up an a priori position in which religious discourse in the political arena is seen as a disguise for political power.' Consequently, Asad vigorously challenges Clifford Geertz's generic definition of religion and asserts with confidence that no universal definition of religion is possible, 'not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.' Or, viewed differently, Asad suggests that in order to achieve self-realization, a historically specific Islam is not obliged to severe itself from the existing sources of power. In sum, Asad's genealogy of the anthropological idea of religion as 'a particular history of knowledge and power out of which the modern world has been constructed' is a masterly feat of penetrating scholarship.
What distinguishes Asad's work and raises his argument above the rest, however, is neither the choice of his subject matter nor the novelty of his ideas. As a serious analyst of Western identity and a responsible critic of its ideology, Asad has many redoubtable precursors. For instance, Abdullah Laroui in many ways foreshadowed his critique of cultural anthropology, just as he anticipated the problematique of Western identity that Asad seems to be examining today (Cf, Les crise de intellectuels arabes, Paris, 1974). Similarly, Edward Said's, equally Foucauldian, deconstruction of Orientalism or his, more recent, thesis about the affinity of Culture and Imperialism (London, 1993) may also be construed as a parallel text to Asad's reflections on power and discipline. However, whereas Laroui is patrician and frustratingly Hegelisant and Said imperiously magisterial and sweeping in his approach, Asad is assiduous and perspicacious in the extreme. Not the one to choose the comforts of surveying the world from a citadel, he always toils hard to acquire a concrete and detailed vision of the terrain he explores. Thus, whether the subject be the limits of 'Religious Criticism in the Middle East' or 'Pain and Truth in Medieval Christian Ritual', whether it be a critique of 'The Concept of Cultural Translation in British Social Anthropology' or a survey of 'Multiculturalism and British Identity in the Wake of the Rushdie Affair', Asad invariably manages to introduce the reader to new facts and expose him to novel interpretations. In short, Genealogies of Religion is an intellectually demanding, but also very rewarding work, by an exceptionally gifted 'historian of the present'.