Reading: Talal Asad on “Islam,” Europe, and the civilizational shtick

An excerpt from “Europe Against Islam” (April, 1997):

“If religion is often thought of as a major danger, “Islam” is often represented as a uniquely intractable instance of active religion in the modern world. In the modern world “religion”has-or at any rate, we believe that it should have-its proper appointed place. Islam, presented as a “religious civilization,” is a construct not only of the media but also of intellectual discourse. That is the discourse in which the rich and diverse history of Muslim societies across three continents and one-and-a-half millennia is reduced to the essential principles of a distinctive “religious civilization. ”

Such essentialist characterizations of “Islamic civilization” are carried out sometimes sympathetically and sometimes with hostile intent, but in either case they prompt people to explain the many authoritarian .or violent trends in Muslim countries in terms of an essential “Islam.” There are several objections to such an explanatory procedure, but I shall confine myself here to the most obvious: No liberal in the West would suggest that the Gush Emunim in Israel represent the essence of Judaism, or that the assassination of abortion doctors in the U.S. by pro-Life activists represents the essence of Christianity, Liberal scholars today would rightly object to the suggestion that the powerful authoritarian campaign throughout India for Hindutva (which some observers have likened to Nazism)” expresses the essence of “Hinduism”;yet Western writers continue to identify an essential “authoritarianism” in Muslim countries and attribute it to Islam’s monotheistic beliefs.

The Western intellectual discourse on ”Islamic civilization’’ goes back at least to the first half of the nineteenth century, but in our own day scholars (von Grunebaum, Gibb, Watt, Lewis, Crone and Cook, Geertz, Gellner, and many others) have continued to reproduce it. This discourse is not invariably hostile, but it does make it possible to represent the contemporary Islamic revival as the outcome of a civilizational essence reacting violently in self-defence against the challenge of Modernity. I contend that the very idea of “civilization” -a nineteenth-century invention-is not helpful for thinking constructively about the cultural and political problems of our time. On the other hand “tradition”-often falsely opposed to “modernity” and “reason” since the Enlightenment-is a far more promising concept.

Islam is a major tradition in countries where Muslims live. It is not the only tradition, of course, but one that still constitutes a significant part of the lives of most Muslims. Because Muslim societies are in crisis, Islamic tradition is in crisis too. It has to be defended, argued through, and reconstructed if it is to be viable. I refer here not simply to intellectual traditions, to philosophy, theology, history, etc., which (so we are continually told by critics of Islam) are in a state of decay. I am thinking in the first place of ways of living that are articulated, in diverse conditions, by Islamic tradition. But in order to be viable we should not take it for granted that that tradition needs to be remade in the image of liberal Protestant Christianity.

People are now increasingly conscious of living in a single interdependent world, but Muslim societies have always been variously conscious of their dependence on other civilizations, especially on the Hellenic and Persian worlds and on Indian, Chinese, and African societies. Muslim empires in the past (contrary to what has been alleged about Islamic intolerance) were more tolerant of a diversity of religions and cultures than Europe was. Hence, even Europe may have something to learn from that history of comparative tolerance. Western scholars who concede this history sometimes insist that non-Muslims lived under Muslim rule as “second-class citizens. ” Such expressions seem to me entirely anachronistic because no one in those hierarchical empires was “a citizen,” and the mass
of Muslim subjects can not in any meaningful sense be regarded as part of “the ruling class.” Besides, Muslim rulers often employed Christians, Jews, and Hindus in positions of power and trust-who therefore had authority over Muslims. In saying this I do not intend to imply that Muslim rulers and populations were never bigoted and never persecuted non-Muslims. The social and moral assumptions around which such empires and kingdoms were constructed are, of course, no longer viable, but they did embody certain principles of toleration that were absent not only in Latin Christendom, but in post-Enlightenment European states too. They did not require everyone (whether Muslim or not) to live according to a single set of “self-evident truths. ”
What I wish to emphasize here is that the zealotry so characteristic of many Islamic political movements in recent times is a product not of the mainstream historical tradition of Islam. It is the product of modern politics and the modern state. Many academic commentators have pointed to the modern ideologies and organizations characteristic of contemporary Islamicists. Such analyses are nearly always conducted to demonstrate
the speciousness of the claim to authenticity made by these movements. By asserting that there is a sharp split between “traditional Islam” and “modern developments” these analysts imply that authentic (“traditional” ) Islamic tradition cannot become genuinely modern.

I believe that these commentators are mistaken in making this sharp opposition. But more important, they rarely go on to ask themselves what their conclusion indicates about modern historiography and the modernizing state. They fail to note that it is the unprecedented ambition of the latter, its project of transforming the totality of society and subjectivity in the direction of continuous productive progress, that creates a space for a
correspondingly ambitious Islamicist politics. Islamic history had no such space. That space, with its totalitarian potentialities, belongs entirely to Western modernity.

Indeed, there was no such thing as a state in the modern sense in Islamic history-or, for that matter in pre-modern European history. There were princes, of course, and dynasties (the modern Arabic word for “state,” dawlah, is an extension of the classical Arabic word for “dynasty”), who headed centralized institutions for securing law and order, extracting tax, etc. But there was no state in the modern sense of a sovereign structure that stands apart from both governors and governed, which it is the government’s duty to maintain, and which articulates, through the territory it controls, the entirety of society.


Western orientalists, as well as Muslims who call for the establishment of an Islamic state, have taken for granted that the rise of Islam in the seventh century saw the establishment of a theocratic state in Arabia, one in which religion and politics were indissolubly fused together. For Islamicists and orientalists later Muslim history is seen as a falling away from that model, a process in which a separation occurred between religious and political institutions. For Islamicists this separation constitutes the betrayal of a sacred ideal that Muslims are required as believers to restore; for orientalists the lingering connection defines a schizophrenic compromise that has always prevented a progressive reform of Islam. (These political histories, incidentally, should not be confused with the belief held by pietists that successive generations after the Prophet declined in virtue.)

But contemporary Muslim scholars are beginning to ask whether it is right to represent Islamic history in these terms at all. That representation, it may be argued, is the product of a nineteenth-century European historiography in which the modern categories of “religion” and “state” are used anachronistically. After all, the Prophet Muhammad did not seek divine authority for all his political actions, and it is known that his followers often argued with him without being branded apostates. He had to rely on personal loyalty and on persuasion to keep his followers because he possessed no coercive state institutions. Indeed, it was the Prophet’s immediate political successor, Abu Bakr, who first undertook military action against fellow Muslims throughout the Arabian peninsula designed to subordinate them by force to centralized political authority. It was he who introduced the argument that obedience to an Islamic prince was a necessary part of being Muslim.

However, I stress that even the principle of subordination to an Islamic prince does not constitute an Islamic state in the modern sense. This is a complex historical and theological theme which cannot be pursued here. I touch on it merely in order to question the idea that the indisputable fact of an original Islamic theocratic state remains the real cause
of contemporary Islamicist ambitions.
In my view it is irresponsible to invite readers to regard Islamicist politics as an outgrowth of tendencies essential to an original politico-religious Islam. The idea that Islam was originally-and therefore essentially-a theocratic state is, I argue, a nineteenth-century European one, developed under the influence of evolutionary theories of religion. Of course its European origin does not in itself render it invalid. My reason for mentioning that nineteenth-century origin is simply that if today’s Islamic militants have accepted this perspective as their own, this does not make it essential to Islam. (It is necessary to add, however, that my argument is not intended to undermine the validity of any kind of “politicized Islam”; I claim only that “a religious state” is not essential to the tradition of Islam. )

It also won’t do to represent all forms of Islamic revival as merely accidental growths caused by deteriorating economic conditions combined with Western ideologies. People respond to contemporary conditions, they are not passively determined by them. Their traditions and interpretations of history, and therefore their formulation of the problems they face, are part of these conditions.

In fact, Islamic movements of revival predate the impact of Western modernity in Muslim countries. Thus in the eighteenth century (to go back no farther) there were several attempts at social reform and theological renewal in the Muslim world. In general the reforming thinkers took pains to distinguish between the absolute truth of the divine text and the authority of interpretive positions adopted by traditionalists and legal scholars over the centuries. Perhaps the most interesting of these eighteenth-century thinkers was Shah Waliyullah of Delhi, writing at the time of the breakup of the Mughal empire in India. In Arabia, at the same time, the Najdi reformer Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhab joined forces with the Saud family to establish the political entity that eventually became today’s Saudi Arabia. A little later, in the second half of the eighteenth century, Osman dan Fodio developed far-reaching educational and political reforms in West Africa on the basis of a carefully argued Islamic position. Like other Muslims of their time, they accepted unquestioningly the divine authority of the Qur’an, and the exemplary status of the Prophet. Yet each produced remarkably distinctive theological and practical solutions to what he perceived as the principal problems of his place and time. The rich and subtle thought of Shah Waliyullah contrasts with the austerity of Ibn‘Abd al-Wahhab, and the latter’s rigor with Osman dan Fodio’s principled flexibility. These and other Islamic reformers have their intellectual heirs today, Muslims who attempt, with varying resources and in very different conditions, to address the problems of the modern
world. They should not be seen, therefore, as simply reacting to Western ideas and conditions.

When analyzing the violence-collective and individual-which we witness in Euro-American countries, perceptive analysts point to the conclusion that something is structurally wrong with their political systems as well.as with their economies. That conclusion is certainly widespread among most Muslims about their own countries. (It is often wrongly stated by Westerners that Arab-Muslims are allergic to self-criticism. Such statements confuse despotic rulers with the people they rule.) In any society whose inhabitants undergo and acknowledge a wide-ranging social crisis, intense and passionate conflict over principles of renewal are almost inevitable-and thus zealotry finds its place, as European history surely  attests. In this respect those who insist on secularism as the solution to all our political ills are no different from the zealots who speak in the name of Islam-or, for that matter, in the name of any other living religious tradition.

Muslim residents in Europe should certainly not be confused with states and political movements in the Muslim world-even if there are sometimes connections between them. But in any case, we should not give in too easily to the demands of European nationalists for absolute and exclusive loyalties from their citizens. One can participate in a responsible and committed fashion in political structures without conceding the validity of such demands. As it is, bankers and trade-unionists, intellectuals, scientists, and artists, all have personal and professional attachments that transcend the borders of the nation state. Jews, Catholics, and recent immigrants in a world of increasing migration, all have loyalties that are not exhausted by the constitutional demands of the nation state. Why should Muslims in Europe be expected to be different?

It is often asked whether Muslim communities can really adjust to Europe. The question is more rarely raised as to whether the institutions and ideologies of Europe can adjust to a modern world of which culturally diverse immigrants are an integral part. Europeans were, after all, ready to change their attitudes to accommodate Jewish communities with an unprecedented respect.

It is only since the Second World War that we encounter the frequent use of the term “Judeo-Christian civilization” as an indication of that change. The new idea of Judaism as an integral part of “Christian civilization”- and not merely a prelude to or a tolerated margin of it-has credibility not because of an indisputable “objective” past, but because Euro-Americans now wish to interpret and reconstruct another kind of relevant past for their civilization. (Of course anti-Semitism is not dead in Europe or America. But anyone who aspires to respectability in the liberal democracies of the West cannot afford to be identified publicly as an anti-Semite.

There is no good reason whatever why, as Muslim immigrants become full members of European states and the European Community, Europe’s past achievements-for that is what talk about its “civilization” amounts to-should not be reconstructed in richer and more complex ways, in order to accommodate Islamic history. After all, much of the intellectual and social history of medieval Christendom is intimately linked to that of medieval Islam.

So, too, one hopes that another kind of history-for-the-present may emerge in countries where Muslims are in a majority-overlapping with that of other societies, and connected to them by a multiplicity of relations, in a fashion quite unlike the one envisaged by Huntington. This does not mean that the differences between Muslims, Christians, and Jews should be synthesized into a lowest common denominator to which all can happily subscribe. Nor does it mean that every identity should become so mobile that-as some post-modernists would have it-no one can be continuously one kind of moral being belonging to a distinctive community.

What it does mean is that the members of each tradition should be prepared to engage productively with members of others, challenging and enriching themselves through those encounters. Too often in post-Enlightenment society “to tolerate” differences simply implies not taking them seriously. This has certainly been the attitude behind religious toleration bequeathed to the modern secular state by the European Enlightenment. But it is no longer adequate to regard “religion” simply as a type of private belief. In a political world where everyone is said to have the right to construct himself or herself, “religion” is now also a base for publicly contested identities such it is at the very centre of democratic politics, from which only the most determined anti-democratic power can keep it out.”

*************

See also “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam

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One Response to Reading: Talal Asad on “Islam,” Europe, and the civilizational shtick

  1. Pingback: Closing the week 27 - Featuring Public Religion — C L O S E R

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