July 22, 2015 By

The Idea of Islam Today: Towards Non-Orientalist Genealogies

This is a transcribed speech of Talal Asad delivered at the American University of Beirut as part of an international symposium in honor of Talal Asad held by Arts and humanities initiative at the University.

Tonight I will take up the concept of tradition and explore it in a more straightforward and elaborated manner. I used the term tradition to signify two things: discursivity and embodiment,  which I think I should distinguish much more explicitly and see their connections. The two are connected in the minutiae of everyday life and through various temporalities.  But I think they need to be distinguished for analytical purposes. As I understand it, Embodied tradition is a way of changing oneself over time, of acquiring through language, aptitudes, sensibilities and propensities until language itself becomes redundant. Typically embodied traditions express desire for attachment to and completion of a present, that is simply unfinished time. Embodied tradition has times of beginning, of growth and completion, times of finitude and weakness, times of hope and despair. In discursive tradition, by contrast, humans and objects tend to inhabit linear time, moving forward indefinitely and at a more abstract level, reflecting on realities outside as well as of oneself. Some critics recently argued for real experience as against abstract theory. But this epistemological binary does not really interest me, at least not in this paper. The experience that I want to focus on in my exploration of tradition is the one we can see in adjectival sentences like an ‘experienced’ mountaineer, or an ‘experienced’ actor, or an ‘experienced’ soldier. Both discursive and embodied traditions encapsulate a sense of lived time. Tradition, I should add, doesn’t define a world in the way I think of it. It is a location in and orientation to it. Texts that found discursive tradition are not exhaustive. Because other texts, or traditions for that matter, that deal with behavior and interpretation become part of those foundations, illuminating and developing them. In any living tradition, there are arguments about whether exegetical texts or texts belonging to other traditions are authoritative. And if so, why? These arguments and exchanges indicate that founding texts are moments in ongoing conversations. So, in principle, a tradition can accommodate rupture, recuperation, reorientation and splitting as well as continuity. For an individual, there are not only continuities but also exits and entries. But in a critical sense, both discursive and embodied traditions are given, not invented. Thus, when reform is proposed by someone who has a tradition and wants to reform it, there is an assumption explicit or implicit that its essence must be preserved through reinterpretation or rearrangement. It’s through questions of time and authority, as articulated by the idea of tradition, that I want to think about politics in Egypt today. But I begin by discussing how some followers of Islamic tradition invoked and expounded and noted the antipathy towards the tradition by self-styled secularists. I then ask how the notion of sovereignty, that is sovereignty both of the subject and the state in our globalized world, makes it difficult for embodied tradition to flourish.

Over the last several decades before the recent coup, whenever I visited Egypt, I often heard criticisms of the so-called Islamic awakening or ‘sahwa’. Critics regarded themselves as modern. So signs of what they identify as religion in public offended them. What they found offensive was not directly political. The anxiety was focused on two aspects: what they saw as the danger of religion intruding into politics on the one hand; the fastidious emphasis on ritual as evidence of blind obedience to authority and therefore antipathetic to the autonomous modern self, on the other. One’s claim of the right to display religious belonging publicly posed risk to national unity since national polity is or should be based on recent argument about collective interests. The criticisms my friends had of Islamic tradition echo a historical debate about religion since the early enlightenment, that is partly based on a new psychology that emerged in Europe in early modernity; a psychology focusing on such interior states as sincerity, authenticity and the will and claiming a clear-cut antithesis between freedom and authority. Since the 17th century, ritual has been spoken of as often as tradition. It looks to the past as continuous and unchanging. It consists of formal and inauthentic actions. It’s based on non-rational thought. It reflects submission of the will to authority. It prioritizes social convention of a person’s sincerity and freedom of action. This view epitomized in the Protestant rejection of Catholic ritualism has eventually become modern common sense. The assumption that tradition is anti-modern can be and has been counted in several ways.  Thus Adam Seligman and his colleagues have recently argued that the formal character of ritual has the function of smoothing social life whereas rigid adherence to one’s actual feelings, that is being sincere, would seriously disturb it.

The theoretical objection to ritual and tradition was, therefore, because they were not the expression of feeling or meaning but the management of feeling by the use of established formalisms. Again, there was another line of questioning. The principle of precedent embodied in tradition is also known to be crucial to modern law. In the common law, the legal reasoning in prior judicial decisions is followed unless there are very strong reasons to do otherwise. Finally, respectful attention to objects, texts, buildings and landscapes that have survived from the past becomes valuable evidence in the present for reconstructing that past as effectively as possible. Critical assessment of such evidence is central to the making of veridical historical narratives. So discursive fidelity to the past, one might say, is central to the modern discipline of history. And yet, you might object, none of this surely proves that religion should have a place in modern politics even if some forms of tradition are nevertheless necessary to modern life. Some continuity with the past may be necessary because it facilitates social intercourse or because it provides a measure of predictability to the law and therefore to the state. But religious tradition bases itself on unquestionable authority whereas democratic politics requires public argument capable of being brought to a rational conclusion. I return to this and other liberal claims about politics later. But first, I want to talk a little about the Islamic concept of tradition so that it might help us think about the time and authority of politics in Egypt today.

In 2009, I was in Cairo and had weekly conversations with the Khathib of the Sulthan Hassan Mosque, Sheikh Usama al-Sayyid Al-Azhari. I was particularly interested in how he understood Islamic tradition. He talked about the education of good character through the practices of devotion and discipline but insisted that the ethical formation of the individual as a human being could not be a matter for the individual alone. It should also be done through interactions among people and in several social locations such as house, school, mosque, media and the street. In each location, there were proper and improper ways of behaving and interacting with others, behavior that had to be learned. It results simply in a situation where practice mattered. It was that learning to practice aptly that would have been learned in the past. What was critical in traditional devotion according to him was not only initial guidance by an authoritative teacher, whether parent or sheikh but its perfectability. It was in this exercise of the soul as Ghazali put it that spiritual orientations and sensibilities could be learned and recognized. Thus repetition of the same paradoxically creates a difference, transmuting vise into virtue and also inability to ability. What Sheikh Usama was saying about embodied tradition was not therefore to be confused with self-fashioning, a process well-known in the ancient world and revived in the European renaissance. Christian thought and practice have rejected self-making from the beginning and developed an alternative in monastic discipline that taught willing submission. Augustine expressed this rejection in a memorable warning: “hands off yourself”, he said, “try to build up yourself, and you build a ruin”. The individual, in other words, shouldn’t imagine that he\she was sovereign. It should be stressed however that the doctrine of obedience wasn’t unqualified. Because opposition to false claims of authority was itself an essential form of obedience. The Islamic tradition shares this doctrine with Christianity and has developed it even more vigorously. This should not be surprising incidentally. Since  Islam developed in late antiquity- in a world where Byzantine and Sasanian empires ruled and Christian, Judaic and Mazidian traditions flourished- Muslims interacted with Non-Muslims;  inherited institutions and ideas from that complex history and went on to develop them in diverse but distinctive ways. But with the growth of the commercial society, possibilities of self-invention have been opened up for much of the population and justified as the right of the sovereign self. However, many critics have pointed out that that form of embodiment is based on the illusion of sovereignty, to the extent that the individual behavior is not an obedient response to the call of the market. According to this critical view, the market, like any coercive force, requires consumers to submit. This formulation, however, is not entirely persuasive. Because it runs counter to most people’s feeling and experience of free choice in the market. The assumption that underlies the disciplines of embodied tradition whether of Augastine or Gazzali- that coercion can also be internal ( and therefore one is not free if external coercion is absent)- comes from a different direction. This is expressed in the idea, ancient as well as modern, that one is a prisoner of one’s own emotions from which one can be freed only by reason, hence the notion of action, which is where one is in control, as it were.

What Shaikh Usama was trying to describe was more interesting in the light of what the critics in Cairo complained about. What he sought to convey was the idea of intention itself being constituted in the repeated acts of body and mind within a social context. In fact, like the mastery of all grammer, the ability to perform devotions well required not only repetition but also flexibility in different circumstances. It was not simply a matter of acting as in the past but of acquiring a capability for which the past was a beginning. Shaikh Usama insisted that there was a social dimension to the disciplines of devotion. What I found intriguing about his discourse was the attempt to tie Amr bil Maroof to the virtue of friendship. Suhba, ikhva and muhashara were the terms he used as a matter of responsibility and concern for a friend rather than  policing. The language and attitude in which one carries out that duty were integral to what ‘amr bil maroof’ was. According to Shaikh Usama, a just society was possible only if its individual members learned the virtues through tradition and were helped to do so by relatives, teachers and friends. If you meet even a stranger, he said, you should behave towards him as though he were a friend unless you have good reason not to do so. One could reprove a person kindly, he said. But if urging him to reform fails to produce a positive result, one should boycott him until he changes. Because this is the duty of friendship. One implication here, although Shaikh Usama did not articulate it, is that speaking or acting harshly may sometimes be necessary to make someone listen.

Five years after I met Shaikh Usama, Abdel Munim Abul Futhuh, who was a presidential candidate in 2012, invoked the tradition of Amr Bil Maroof self-explicitly in answer to one of my questions about the uprising and the coup and the role of Egyptian religiosity in those events. “This religiosity”, he said, “is a definite fact. The Egyptian personality includes deep faith and devotion to the sacred and a sense of considerable interpenetration between everyday life and the sacred. But this religiosity is not always accompanied by social, political and legal consciousness. And sometimes it’s merely formal and superficial ritual. The importance of religiosity in the 25th January 2011 revolution was that it formed the moral background to the conscious  of the revolution even if its discourse did not display that clearly. As for the events of 3rd July and later, the powerful propaganda that preceded 3rd July joined in distorting and treating with contempt the Islamists in preparation for the events of 3rd July and after. And the matter reached the point of doubting even what is sacred. This was what weakened the values and meanings of fundamental religiosity that forbids the shedding of blood, commands what is right and forbids what is wrong and tyrannical and so millions of people confirmed and excused and supported ugly behavior that was without historical precedent. So here was where superficial religiosity failed because of its separation from values and norms”.

Abu-l-Futuh’s observation on the massacres of pro-Mursi protesters by the military regime extends amr bi-l-maruf into an explicitly political context. But it’s political in a direct sense as a condemnation of collective cruelty whereas, I would suggest, Amr bil Maroof could also be seen politically in another sense, that is in helping someone  acquire virtues relevant for politics and not as an institution of the state, which I will come to later on, but rather in relation to the idea that Shaikh Usama suggested of friendship.

So let me turn now to the January 2011 uprising and what followed it. In what sense can those events be seen in terms of tradition, I ask myself?. The uprising expressed an aspiration to bring down the system and make a new beginning; a democratic tradition that would flow from that beginning. But, of course , a beginning never guarantees hope for future. Alertness, imagination and argument are required to respond to the various threats and opportunities opened up in starting a democratic tradition. Paradoxically the first weakening of the promise of a new beginning in the January uprising was the army’s deposition of Mubarack. Most activists were delighted at what they saw as the solidarity of army with the people. What many observers missed, I think, was that it was not the uprising that undermines state authority, but the weakening of the state authority that allowed the uprising to explode. And it was the rebels’ failure to recognize that fact that, I think, gave them an exaggerated sense of their own power and led to their failure to distinguish between friends and enemies. When the state authority crumbled, the supreme council of the armed forces stepped in and slowly started rebuilding it, when people talked about a transitional period. There was therefore some confusion of the time required for realizing the people’s will with the time for restoring the sovereign state’s majestian forcefulness. Arguments about political legitimacy raged in Egypt after July 2013 coup, although it was not clear how those who make the claims and counterclaims saw the relationship of legitimacy to legality, a relationship which is in any case not very easy to define.

Max Weber’s famous classification of political authority, which he calls legitimate domination, into three ideal types is significant to invoke here. Of the three- traditional authority, charismatic authority and rational-legal authority, only the rational legal is given a basis in legality. The basis of the other two- traditional, charismatic-have nothing to do with legality, the latter being a kind of revolutionary legitimacy and the form of being an unthinking attachment , for Weber, to the past. Growth is its primary function and rulers thus become receptive to arguments about privatization and marketization. It is the continuous dislocation effected by the logic of the market that renders embodied tradition increasingly precarious. The solidarity enabled by market promoted fashion by the way is not to be confused with the embodied traditions because fashion, as everybody knows, is ephemeral like things in the market. As in other parts of the modern globe, the idea of freedom in Egypt has merged with the idea of free-market expressed, for example, in the supreme constitutional courts or reforms of the bureaucratic laws held to be keeping back private enterprise. In the period of economic and political liberalization, a large number of NGOs have created an expanding space or what is called civil society. Middle class activists with institutional funding from Euro-America and entry to western networks seek to teach fellow citizens to claim their rights as free individuals from their state and to produce more efficiently in a free economy. One result has been that the civil society has become further alienated from the predicament of the urban and rural poor. Market time with its emphasis on the sovereign consumer not only undermines much of the continuity of everyday life but also disrupts the time necessary for democratic deliberation. Several years ago, prominent Egyptian social critic and political economist Khalal Ameen bewailed what he saw as a change in people’s behavior. Promise keeping, pride in one’s work and loyalty to old relationships are hardly valued. The space of genuine friendship, critics say, is disappearing and with the growth of consumerism deepening cultural differences. Continuity with the past, which is central to friendship, is devalued. When some people speak of growing corruption in Egyptian society, it is the sovereign self they claim to see emerging everywhere. When others welcome modernization of Egypt, it’s individual autonomy, economic efficiency, and indifference to religious identity that they point to. A new form of governmentality has emerged. Hostility to the presence of religion in the public sphere seems to be largely based on the idea that it would be reactionary and divisive, that it would rely on the absolute authority of the past rather than on self-governing individual’s capacity for reason. And yet religion unsurprisingly has not been excluded from the state. Thus Azhar has acquired an increasingly public rule in the post coup era working in close collaboration with the ministry of religious endowments. The present Grant Shaikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed At-Tayyib aspires not only to great prominence in the public domain but also to greater collaboration with the state in the extended regulation of Mosque’s preachers, Islamic research centres, some university faculties and so on. And he seeks to project an Islam which he calls appropriate to the 21st century. That Islam more often referred to as moderate or liberal Islam is clearly one that recognizes itself as being a force in the exercise of sovereign power and instrument of modern sovereignty. So Shaikh Ali Gomma, previous Grand Mufthi of Egypt, denounces the Muslim brotherhood as a sectarian minority, as heretics, as khavarijs, as the dogs of hellfire and so on and therefore deserving of slaughter by the military protectors of the nation. I stress this not as an example of religious violence (all states use violence although their styles differ) but as an example of compatibility of theological discourse with the modern state.

One of the questions I have raised in my talk is why liberals in Egypt seek to exclude religion from political space. And the short familiar answer is that liberals tend to see future as continuous progress of  mankind led by a secular state in which tradition is an outmoded attachment to the past, a past that must be overcome. But there is another connected problem often overlooked. Many critics have an understandable concern at the attempts to impose an Islamic personality on a country containing diverse traditions and identities. But the crucial question is not why an Islamic identity should or should not be imposed, but what it is about the modern state that seems to require a homogenous political identity. The modern state seeks a singular personality for itself in the exercise of sovereignty and claims that this is necessary for the unity and modernization of its subjects. The desire to preserve the unity of people rests on a political metaphysic that is shared by liberals and Islamists alike, a metaphysic that underpins the modern concept of sovereignty and state which is the belief that there is such a thing as a homogenous nation, that a homogenous nation should be represented by a state and that the state must reflect the nation’s singular personality. One may recall here a remark Michel Foucault once made in relation to the Iranian revolution. “Concerning  the expression ‘ Islamic Government,’ he said,  why cast immediate suspicion on the adjective ‘Islamic’? The word ‘government’ suffices, in itself, to awaken vigilance.” Critics of Foucault have taken his comments on Iran as evidence of his romance with political Islam. But they are mistaken in my view. He is posing a question about the modern state’s practice of sovereignty. For the modern state is held together by technologies of power and instrumental knowledge not by moral ideals and general consent. For Foucault, the genealogy of the modern state is to be found not in legal constitutional histories, but in the evolution of the concept and practice of politics as an autonomous apparatus of control over the life of entire society through the state.

The modern sovereign territorial state can’t have the unity of a tradition because the lives of people within it are too disparate in the things they value in order to form a real community. It’s precisely because of this diversity that democracy presents itself as an assemblage of political and legal devices for addressing the ineradicable presence of difference, disagreements, and even mutual antipathy in the modern state with the minimum of damage. And wise skills and sensibilities required to engage democratically must be acquired by the experience of tradition both discursive and embodied. It is, in my view, quite wrong to imagine that democracy is all about unity. It is not, on the contrary.  So instead of responding to the question- a secular or religious state- one might try to imagine what politics not focused on sovereign territorial state might look like. If one did so, one would need to draw on older ideas that have been pushed out of the narratives of the secular progress since pre-modern times such as the absence of rigid territorial boundaries and so on. The primary question is how far rights and duties attaching to civil status can be negotiated just as they now are in international law. But whereas the latter regulates relations among sovereign states, one might think of a plurality of grouping, each with its own institutional order and purpose but often overlapping in membership and\or territory engaged in negotiation. Some authorities would be subsidiary to others for narrowly defined purposes. But none would have the comprehensiveness and finality claimed by the sovereign territorial state. Among these authorities would be a variety of traditions defined not by bounded territory or by exclusive membership but embedded in networks of commercial, cultural, spiritual and intellectual relations extending unevenly beyond various borders, an arrangement that some have called a commonwealth. One could belong non-exclusively to a people without thinking that it must therefore complete itself by having its own territorial state. The idea of numerous non-hierarchical domains of normativity opens up the possibility of a very different kind of politics and of policies that would always have to address numerous interlinked bodies. Democratic procedures to deal with differences and disagreements would include civil pressures directed against authorities including civil disobedience to make governance accountable.  Something like the tradition of Amr bil maroof not connected with any central power or authority could form programs of subject formation as well as incitement to protest against political power. There would be neither the authority nor the technical ability of state apparatuses to impose a single legal order. It would be impossible to aim at capturing state power or to impose single identity when there is no state. In sum, if state sovereignty were to be replaced by more complex forms of authority, time and belonging, neither secularism nor political Islam would have any raison d’etre. Of course one may point to what one thinks of as a better future just as I do to; but getting there is quite another matter. Given the world we are living, the mere suggestion that the sovereignty be abandoned borders on fantasy. Today no state accepts the violation of its sovereign rights although that is precisely what happens to weak states that are unable to do much about it. For in practice, there are rights overriding the principle of sovereignty that only powerful states can exercise. Thus the US and Israel insist on their right to use preemptive violence against another state or against a foreign population on grounds of self-defense as well as of the duty to intervene by force in another state in order to protect a population against massacre by its own rulers or by sectarian elements whom the state is unwilling or unable to restrain. But all sovereign states are invested in the continuous search for global markets, for investment capital and military security and driven by ever present desire for increasing profit, conception and power under the auspices of various international corporations. It is this excess generated by continuous unstoppable desire that embodied traditions sought to restrain even if often it failed to do so. But in our world, the sovereign individual and the sovereign state, each reflecting the other and neither able to change the world for the better, are both in my view trapped. That is the tragedy, I think, not merely of Egypt but of our time.  Thank you

Transcribed by Saad Salmi



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