October 1, 2009

Saba Mahmood interviews Talal Asad (excerpts)

full interview here.
Asad discusses modernity, religion, what agency is, Islamic reform, the difference between dependency theory and postcolonialism, and much much more. This is one of the best 'summations' of the various nature of Asad's intellectual pursuits and it maps out a great 'space' for scholars to follow up on his work in local contexts. Although its from 1996, over ten years ago, it is still a great read.

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 its 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 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.


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