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The Brink

Genealogy and Tradition as Methods in Islamic Studies

As Talal Asad’s notion of a discursive tradition has become a mainstay in Islamic Studies, how has it contributed to the larger debate on continuity versus rupture? And how does Asad’s anthropologically-informed definition of Islam shed light on the tension between genealogy on tradition?

The discipline of Islamic Studies, as all academic disciplines, has no shortage of debates. This roundtable probes one such debate by asking whether contemporary pietistic movements can be understood as being continuous with a discursive tradition of ethical formation, or whether they reflect the specific concerns and preoccupations of modernity. Behind the surface of this debate looms the larger one on continuity versus rupture and the notion of Islam as a discursive tradition. It is this larger debate that will be the primary focus of my brief remarks.

The notion of Islam as a ‘discursive tradition,’ as articulated by Asad, is a conceptual framework that seeks to transcend a simple temporal and textual understanding of Islam by pointing towards its transhistorical, transmitted and embodied nature.[1] Crucial to Asad’s understanding of Islam as a discursive tradition is that it continually remains open to reformulation through the practices of debate, mediation and modification, thereby enabling vitality. Reflecting more recently on the notion of a discursive tradition, Asad expands it further by stating, “In principle tradition can accommodate rupture, recuperation, reorientation, and splitting—as well as continuity. Tradition is singular as well as plural. For subjects there are not only continuities but also exits and entries.”[2] Asad’s conceptual framework of Islam as a discursive tradition was the result of his early critique of the definition of religion and its application by anthropologists to the study of non-Western religions. More specifically, Asad critiqued a specific Geertzian approach to defining and studying religion and instead preferred to use the concept of tradition. Though his incisive intervention in the field of anthropology was embraced by many scholars within the field of Islamic Studies, it is not without its challenges. In many ways, the challenge mirrors the difficultly of translatability, something Asad himself continually interrogates. The challenge is the following: due to the absence of a robust methodological debate between genealogy and tradition in Islamic Studies and the dominance of the historical-philological method as a mode of inquiry, is it possible to invoke the notion of an Islamic discursive tradition without reducing it to the dichotomy of rupture and continuity? Through an exploration of how scholars of Islamic Studies can use historical methods to study moments of change and employ an anthropologically-informed definition of Islam, I shed light on the tension between genealology and tradition to demonstrate caution when employing Asad’s concept of discursive tradition.

Genealogy as a mode of historical inquiry was theorized by Foucault who described it most succinctly as a “history of the present.” In a more expansive definition, David Scott describes it as,

a perspectival form of historical analysis concerned with tracing out discontinuous lines of ‘descent’ (identifying ‘the accidents, the minute deviations—or conversely the complete reversals—the errors, the false appraisals, and the faculty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us’), as well as ‘emergence’ (that is, the particular play of forces and powers that produce effects of knowledge. [3]

It is clear why this ‘perspectival form of historical analysis’ has methodologically aligned well with Islamic Studies: early scholars in Islam were animated by questions surrounding origins, textual transmissions and the development of institutions and concepts throughout history.  While on the surface it would be safe to assume that in Genealogies of Religion, Asad adopts a fully genealogical approach to the definition of religion, he instead is interested in the ideological assumptions which allow “Western concepts and practices of religion” to “define forms of history making.”[4] Crucially for Asad, once religion is defined in the West, that definition is assumed to be both “transhistorical and transcultural” and is then deployed for both “the confinement, and the defense of religion.”[5] Against this defined notion of religion, Asad famously stated, “There cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.”[6] Thus, while the genealogical mode of historical inquiry reveals theway in which the definition of religion has been temporally constructed, it does not shed light on the power relations and the conditions which enabled a specific definition to take root. To rectify this, Asad turns to the concept of tradition which he sees as “concerned with the conditions that produce meanings….with the disciplines that cultivate thought, desire, and behavior, and aim at particular virtues.”[7]

It is against this backdrop that Asad presents his now famous definition of Islam as a discursive tradition. Defined succinctly, he states, “An Islamic discursive tradition is simply a tradition of Muslim discourse that addresses itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future, with reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present.”[8] This notion of Islam as a discursive tradition allows Asad to move away both from a genealogical mode of historical inquiry, and from a universalized western definition of religion. At the same time, he does not completely disavow the merits of a genealogical mode of historical inquiry as “how the past is related to present practices” is crucial for him. [9] It is for this reason that David Scott has aptly noted a tension in Asad’s work between the competing, yet interlinked, paradigms of genealogy and tradition. More specifically, Scott notes the ways in which a genealogical framework often seeks to reveal discontinuities, whereas a tradition framework tends to emphasize continuities. How Asad himself navigates this tension can best be revealed in his study of colonial power and the transformations it brought about to Islamic law.

In expounding upon colonial modernity, Asad borrows from the anthropologist Stanley Diamond who characterizes individuals from colonized territories as “conscripts of civilization, not volunteers.”[10] Asad finds this framing particularly compelling as it reveals the intense power imbalance between the colonizer and colonized, even in situations where the latter is seen to ‘participate’ or actively resist. This framing, however, does not fully elucidate the contours of colonial modernity and Asad goes further to describe it as “the creation of conditions in which only new (i.e. modern) choices can be made. The reason for this is that the changes involve the reformation of subjectivities and the reorganization of social fields in which subjects act and are acted upon.”[11] Colonial modernity is thus not simply a specific political and economic condition in which violence is used to extract resources; rather, it generates epistemological and institutional conditions that reorganize individual thought and subjectivity in a manner that authorizes the logics and workings of colonial power.  

Though in his early conceptualization of colonialism Asad does not reflect on its consequences for the Islamic discursive tradition, these two strands are brought together in his later work, Formations of the Secular. In his chapter on colonial law and Islamic legal reform, Asad is concerned with “why the reform looked to Europe rather than build upon preexisting Sharīʿa traditions.”[12] Intentionally setting aside the discourse on native resistance, Asad is interested in how and why Islamic law transformed to accommodate secular liberal governance that was introduced through colonial power. According to him, the larger social and cultural changes brought about by colonialism encouraged the accommodation of ideas that eventually served to buttress secular governance. He explores a variety of reform projects, one of the most important being that of Ahmad Safwat who applied the idea of ijtihad to distinguish between law and morality. Crucially for Asad, Ahmad did so not by abandoning the Quran, hadith and classical modes of legal reasoning, but by relying upon them to make a tradition-based argument.[13] For Asad, it therefore marks an instance of ijtihad being used “in the cause of a modernized and modernizing state.”[14] While here many scholars may point towards the arguments of Safwat and other reformers as marking rupture within the discursive tradition, Asad would likely disagree with this characterization. Though in Formations of the Secular he is keen to point out the consequences of colonial modernity, he is also adamant that intellectual traditions are not homogenous. As he notes elsewhere, “an anthropology of Islam will therefore seek to understand the historical conditions that enable the production and maintenance of specific discursive traditions, or their transformations—and the efforts of practitioners to achieve coherence.”[15] Returning to the case of Safwat, Asad elucidates the ‘historical conditions’ that produced a new form of Sharīʿa discourse and the efforts of Islamic modernists to ‘achieve coherence;’ however, the drastic change in the conditions of the debate and the nature of the arguments are not necessarily constitutive of rupture within his framework.

There is of course another framework through which the case of Safwat and the other reformers can be read as rupture—the framework of genealogical inquiry. In his illuminating and thoughtful study of Muhammad Bakhit al-Muti’i (d. 1935), the Mufti of Egypt, Junaid Quadri looks at the transformation of tradition in colonial modernity through the lens of the Hanafi legal argumentation. He notes that within Asad’s “circumscribed and expansive”[16] definition of Islam, he seeks to erect “boundaries.”[17] In doing so, Quadri asserts that “traditions can be divided further, into even narrower groupings….that allow adherents to speak of a common history.”[18] Thinking then of the Hanafī tradition as a specific tradition that entails certain modes of reasoning and doctrinal positions, Quadri sheds light on the ways in which Hanafī scholars inhabiting colonial modernity were “much more accommodating of the entry of modernist epistemologies into its own conceptual thought-world than scholars have made it out to be.”[19] Though Quadri does not go as far as to define the scholars he studies as representing a discursive disjuncture, he points towards the ways in which Asad’s definition of Islam as a discursive-tradition may be “too broad a category for historical purposes.”[20] It is important to note that Asad is not seeking to construct a historically stable set of discourses that can be used to measure the life breath of the Islamic tradition, nor is Asad opposed to the erection of boundaries. In fact, he states, “A tradition is in part concerned with the way limits are constructed in response to problems encountered and conceptualized. There’s always a tension between this construction of limits and the forces that push the tradition onto new terrain, where part or all of the tradition ceases to make sense and so needs a new beginning.”[21] While Asad notes that traditions aspire for coherence, they often to not attain it due both to “political and economic” constraints and the “inherent limitations” in traditions themselves.[22]

Though scholars of Islam invoke Asad’s definition of an Islamic discursive tradition to resist overly restrictive textualist conceptions of Islam, they often do so without situating it within his broader methodological intervention in his own discipline of anthropology. Crucially, his approach seeks to displace the primacy of the historical genealogical method with the expansiveness of tradition. Similar to the difficulty of translating the western definition of religion into the study of Islam, there is also a challenge present when employing Asad’s notion of Islam as a discursive tradition while remaining bound to the dominant historical methods in the field of Islamic studies. If done unreflexively, it results in reading continuity or rupture too quickly, stymieing further reflection on the actual nature of transformation. This does not mean that Asad’s notion of a discursive tradition cannot be used by scholars of Islam; rather, when scholars of Islam do invoke it, they should be conscious of the broader consequences and pitfalls of methodological mixing.

[1] Talal Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” Qui Parle, 17:2 (2009): 14.

[2] Talal Asad, “Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today,” Critical Inquiry 42 (2015), 169.

[3] David Scott, “The Tragic Sensibility of Talal Asad,” in Powers of the Secular Modern: Talal Asad and His Interlocutors, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006), 138-9.

[4] Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 24

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] Talal Asad, “Appendix: The Trouble of Thinking,” in Powers of the Secular Modern, 289.

[8] Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology,” 20.

[9] Ibid., 20-1.

[10] Talal Asad, “Conscripts of Western Civilization?” Dialectical Anthropology, vol 1., ed. C. Gailey, (Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1992). 333.

[11] Ibid., 337.

[12] Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 212.

[13] Ibid., 240.

[14] Ibid., 236.

[15] Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology,” 23.

[16] Junaid Quadri, Transformations of Tradition: Islamic Law in Colonial Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 11.

[17] Ibid., 12.

[18] Ibid., 14.

[19] Ibid., 7.

[20] Ibid. 14.

[21] Asad, “Appendix: The Trouble of Thinking,” 289.

[22] Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology,” 23.

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