March 13, 2016

On why the Asadian turn in Islamic studies isn't far enough

I've written before on this blog about the profound influence Talal Asad's Geneaologies of Religion had on my thinking and scholarship. As with many books that become semi-canonical in the academy, however, Geneaologies has inspired a host of lesser works, combining astute theoretical insights on the Islamic tradition with often astounding shortsightedness and naive idealism (For which, see my review of Wael Hallaq's The Impossible State
). The critiques of liberalism, secularism and the secular nation-state by Asad, Hallaq, Saba Mahmood and others have succeeded admirably in historicizing these processes of formation and dealing with the particularist and paradoxical edge of secularism's universalist Enlightenment aspirations. 

The aforementioned theorists have been markedly less successful in critiquing  the particularist edge of their own favored discursive and governing traditions. As I've said before, dealing with the Islamic tradition as a 'tradition' doesn't solve the problem it purports to. It only circles back to it by way of a shifting battleground in the same war. For the battle over the Islamic tradition contains precisely the impulse which Asad, Hallaq and Mahmood critique so trenchantly in liberal secularism: the tendency of a governing order to define and put limits on cosmic understandings of human destiny. Secularism is certainly the western state's attempt to do that, but the theorists I mentioned don't go far enough in recognizing the paradoxical nature of attempts to govern the divine, and to place those who don't submit to that governance beyond the pale. They don't deal with the most striking instances of the Islamic tradition's own attempts to govern religious order, and the manifest shortcomings of these attempts, predicated as they are on an unsustainable line (created by the Islamic tradition) between monotheism as order, piety, rational ground and sanctity, and polytheism as shirk, rebellion, illogic and disobedience.

The irony that this is virtually the same line christocentric secularism draws between itself and islam should not be lost on the astute observer. The reasons for this are many, but at least part of it is that Christianity and Islam both are entangled with Aristotelian paradigms, that inform their approach to logic, order, being and presence. Another limitation is a shared legacy of monotheism, which drastically narrows the ability of either tradition to conceive poly or non-theistic ethical traditions. The lack of serious philosophical engagement with non-monotheistic african traditions, as well as non-theistic Asian concepts of the same, stymies them saying anything of deeper relevance to those interested in how mystical imagination can inform governance.

In point of fact, the critique of secularism is defensive. Asad and others working in the US and European academies want to create space for "piety" (as they understand it) to operate more freely in the western public sphere as well as in academia. But they have no answer at all to the problem of governance in the modern middle east or modern society more generally, especially the tension between religiously particularist modes of governance and a presumably neutral state. They have little to say on how secularism might be mystical, or how it might positively inform governance outside the United States and Europe (and what little they do say, I might add, seems to me incredibly shortsighted and privileged by their own positionality) They are able to show that the state is rarely, if ever neutral, but quite unable to conceive a theory of the self and good governance that would serve as a viable alternative to that of secular individualism. I am suggesting here that one reason they are unable is that their own visions are constrained (at least discursively) by an imagination of Abrahamic traditions as being at the center of the earth.

Their attempts to sympathize us to those with religious commitments is an important and vital project. But it leaves unanswered the vitally important questions about how a non-secular governance might look that did not discriminate among its members by religious affiliation. Such a project is vitally important in a time of seemingly ever-expanding religious bigotry at home and abroad.


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