xbn .
The Brink

Pious Disjuncture and the Discursive Condition

Formulating a rigorously historicist approach to contemporary cultures of Islam can build on Asad’ pivotal concept in The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam: not the “discursive tradition,” but the discursivity of tradition. Already implicit in its reiterative tradition, the modernity of Islam consists in the reconfigured powers of discursivity beyond discourse.

This roundtable describes Islamic studies caught between an emphasis on modernity’s structural forces (the “synchronic” lens) or the prevailing “diachronic” foregrounding of discursive continuities informed by the work of Talal Asad. Though I suggest a somewhat modified diagnosis in my comments, I heartily endorse Aaron Rock-Singer’s call for renewed scholarly approaches to historical and contemporary Islam, which his own work exemplifies. While Islamic studies draws its theory from many quarters, I think he is also right to reference Asad by name. Whether scholars explicitly draw inspiration and insight from his thinking, we are all indebted to him—not least when we propose to move beyond him. To borrow Michael Naas’s reading of Jacques Derrida, to critically “take on the tradition” one will already have taken it on as inheritance.[1] “Taking on” Asad in both senses, this piece reads his early conception of discursivity and tradition together with Derrida’s concepts of “arche-writing” and “iterability,” to highlight how scholars might bring their very different approaches into conversation to move Islamic studies forward. While the longer journal article will also elaborate a critique of Asad, here I leave that aside to introduce a new theoretical framework centered on Muslim practices of ‘writing’ as pious disjuncture.

The Discursivity of Discourse

Written alongside his critique of religion, Asad’s watershed essay disclosed the Eurocentrism informing the anthropology of Islam. But it targeted distinct assumptions and guiding classifications grounded in the closely related discipline of comparative religion. The two arguments differ. Asad’s critique of religion, of course, provincialized liberal and protestant representationalism, which privileged abstract and immaterial spirit over its corporeal medium. It further specified Islamic traditions’ eschewal of abstraction, indeed of mediation altogether, for embodied discipline. In contrast, “The Idea” dismantled comparative religions’ distinctions informing contemporary anthropology: between the universalist “world religions” with script and scripture—the “Great Traditions” of the text—and the ostensibly provincial religions—the “little traditions”—of unlettered peoples ‘limited’ to immediate present of orality and ritual. If his broad critique eschewed abstraction, his narrower critique entailed a careful attribution of abstraction as a capacity of all Muslims.

While this background remained largely implicit, Asad charged anthropologists with perpetuating it by separating a rigid ‘scripturalist’ Islam “claiming its authority from sacred texts” from a rural, illiterate ‘ritualist’ Islam “authorized by the uncheckable memories of oral cultures” and “sacred persons.”[2] For Asad, of course, that anthropologists of course privileged the latter made no difference: the field still conceived of each Muslim context as “essentially unique and sui generis,” that is, as a product of ‘local culture.’[3] Tied to this, he argued, it denied unlettered Muslims the dignity of consciousness, treating embodied practices as mindless “imitative” ritual.[4]  

In reframing Islam as a “discursive tradition,” Asad’s key innovation (in my view) remained implicit but vital throughout. That is, his essay identifed Islam not merely with discourse in the ordinary sense of script or educated speech, but with discursivity, that is, with re-iteration and difference. If implicit, the distinction was nevertheless pivotal. In Asad’s reading, discursivity constituted Islam’s condition of possibility as a ‘living’ tradition: it allowed, on the one hand, a shared set of texts and embodied interpretive methods and practices to grow and endure as a distinctive tradition in varied historical and cultural contexts; and it allowed, on the other hand, Muslims’, shared consciousness “as Muslims,” that is, as subjects and not objects of this tradition. Put otherwise, if anthropologists still attributed greater civilizational consciousness to people ‘with writing’ as technical medium, Asad’s extended discursivity to Islam in general. Insofar as all Muslims practice Islam in “response to the discourse” of other Muslims, e.g., in awareness of “‘the correct model,’” all Muslims are conscious of themselves as subjects of a tradition which exceeds their immediate or present time and place.[5] For anthropologists (and other scholars of Islam), Asad concluded, “The proper theoretical beginning is therefore an instituted practice (set in a particular context and having a particular history) into which Muslims are inducted as Muslims.”[6]

Asad’s essay responded to anthropology as a discursive tradition and provided what it lacked at the time: a theory and method attuned at once to Islam’s general or collective history and defining interpretive processes and to Muslims’ particular contexts and interpretive acts. And it did so without reducing Islam’s generality to an unchanging code or structure, or by assimilating Muslim differences to ‘local’ culture. In so doing, Asad established discursivity—indeed, consciousness of discursivity—as constitutive of Islam’s historically embedded institutional structures and interpretive processes on the hand, and of Muslims’ subjectivities and embodied experiences on the other. At the same time, the essay responded to anthropologists’ urgent need to reconceptualize Islam in light of the field’s overall attention to the historical and structural transformations of global modernity. If Asad’s broader work sought to distinguish Islam’s embodied traditions from Europe’s representational concept, his inaugural essay did so not in contrast to a European modernist tradition. Rather, it demonstrated the centrality of discursivity to Islam’s historical-structural reality of large-scale interconnections on the one hand, and to Muslims’ defining universalism and historical self-consciousness on the other.

For the past three decades, coinciding with the aftermaths of the Cold War and post-September 11th imperial wars, an Asadian approach combining a critique of secular liberal modernism on the one hand with a phenomenologically oriented study of Muslims’ embodied subjectivities has been vital and appealing to scholars rightly critical of our disciplines’ complicit orientalizing tendencies.[7] The problem however, as Rock-Singer discerns, is the absence of an equally rigorous analysis of modernity’s “synchronic”—indeed, synchronized—structural forces. If the Asadian critique of Euro-American modernism is well established, the field needs to distinguish modernism from modernity and bring an investigation of the latter into view without sacrificing a critique of the former.

In short, the field needs a discursive conception of Islam keenly attuned to structural as well as to phenomenological difference in a distinctly global age—one that conceptualizes difference within Islam and between Islam and other traditions but without finding the same difference everywhere. Drawing on my Muslim teachers and on key anthropological studies of Islam, and informed by traditions of Derridean deconstruction, my current approach accepts an irreducible disjuncture between general structuresand individual knowledge and experience. Focusing on Muslim broad conceptions of writing as marking disjuncture, I read the deep resonances and kinship between Islamic universalism, ritual, and text on the one hand, and global modernity’s planetary communications and capital on the other. While this approach remains indebted to Asad’s conception of discursive traditions, and specifically to discursivity, it conceptualizes writing along the lines theorized by Jacques Derrida. 

Writing, the Foreign

Although Asad rejected Derrida’s conceptions of religion, the resonances between their conceptions of writing, discourse, and discursivity are nevertheless compelling.[8] Similar to Asad’s critiques of religion and secularism, Derrida identified specifically Christian theological legacies in contemporary Western epistemologies, anthropology included. Intertwined with Greek ontological thought, Derrida argued, Christianity conceptualized being as pure and undivided presence (God) preceding and originating being as appearance or phenomenon (Christ). Indeed, inasmuch as Christianity is predicated on recognizing the event of God’s appearance (Christ), it holds their being and presence as one. Being is one, pure and undivided, and present to itself as origin both before and after it is present to the world as appearance. In his earlier critique of Greek ontology, Derrida identified an analogous conception whereby being as pure and undivided presence (Logos, Idea) precedes and originates—and remains undivided and present with—being as appearance (voice, speech). What Derrida characterized as Western “logocentrism” he also called “phonologism,” that is, the conception of voice as the being and presence of Logos or thought.[9] In deconstructing phonologism in Greek and subsequent western traditions, Derrida highlighted the repeated (and evidently necessary) distinction of voice over writing, with the proclaimed immediacy and living presence and being of thought in voice upheld against the ostensible mediacy and lifeless artifice of writing.

Yet, as Derrida argued, Christian and Greek onto-theology informing contemporary Western thought remained irreducibly ambivalent. Similar to Asad’s rejection of anthropologists’ valuation of non-literate ‘folk’ Islam over a rigid ‘scripturalist’ Islam, Derrida severely criticized Claude Levi-Strauss’s deeply ethnocentric, Edenic depiction of a people ‘without writing’ living in the immediacy of unblemished presence.[10] Against this, prefiguring Asad’s attribution of discursivity to non-literate Muslims, Derrida theorized “arche-writing” or “trace”—an originary difference—as the ‘founding’ possibility of speech and writing, indeed of the living present itself. The revealed origin (God or Logos), he argued, will not have been one and pure, but already ‘marked’ by revealability. Conversely, to be recognizably distinct, every present and unique act will have differed from itself: both repetitive and unique, the act “takes on the tradition”—supports and puts at risk the reiterative chain in which it takes place. For Derrida, therefore, whether sovereignty lies with the reiterative tradition over the unique event or the converse cannot be decided. Indeed: the responsibility of the reader entails living, for a brief time at least, this disjuncture.

Asad (implicitly) and Derrida (explicitly) both conceptualized ‘writing’ as not merely a discursive medium but as discursive condition: for Asad, as discursivity constituting and marking all acts of Islam, for Derrida, as “arché-writing” constituting and dividing the pure present from itself. While of course Derrida’s lack of expertise in Islam kept him from drawing links to isnad, practices of Qur’anic citation and recitation, and more, the proximity of Derrida’s and Asad’s thought suggest numerous possibilities for reading these most basic elements of historical and contemporary Islam. By thematizing acts of writing as “pious disjuncture,” my approach begins, as many Muslims do, in recalling that while life must be lived in the present, it is neither sui generis nor self-contained, but a brief passage—a state of disjuncture—which rituals may momentarily dissolve and only death can resolve. In ethnographic terms, this framework attunes to acts of citation and reiteration—whether in a state-run mosque or online, in public daʿwa or a silent duʿa—by which Muslims mark and remark or call and recall this fact. Asad rightly emphasized, of course, that “not everything Muslims say and do belongs to an Islamic discursive tradition,” and he insisted that analysis start where Muslims act “as Muslims,” that is, where they mark or remark the difference. Muslims’ consciousness of this difference, I think, characterizes as much the quotidian micro-rituals of ‘pious disjuncture’ as it does the formal rituals of collective prayer and pilgrimage. And it links these to Islam’s reformist ethos and renewal movements, to Islam’s universalist call for believers to identify precisely not with their present context or socially assigned roles, but beyond these as Muslims.[11] This approach reads these not as representations making the universal God present, but nor as embodying a “sovereign” and “copresent” discursive tradition, as Asad more recently put it.[12] Rather, recognizing the irreducible difference between these, it understands acts of pious disjuncture as acts of writing: mediatizing (i.e., presenting) or marking the trace, in the present, of an order of reality irreducibly foreign to it.

Global Modernity and Islamic Universalism

While scholars have long since dispensed with opposing Islam and modernity, theorizing modernity in Islamic terms remains challenging. By tracing long histories of ‘pious disjuncture’ and acts of marking or the foreign, particularly in relation to traditions of Islamic authority and reform, we can highlight not an opposition but an extraordinary kinship and resonance between Islam’s universalism and global modernity. My own interest dovetails with debates and insights linking global communications and capital on the one side, and the twentieth century proliferation of an everyday reformist ethos and informal daʿwa practices and piety movements on the other. Specifically, the historical inseparability of text, ritual, and universalism finds tremendous resonance and mass appeal in a time of globalized communications and proliferating modes of ‘writing,’ which are neither precisely textual nor ritual, neither purely pious self-making nor self-aggrandizing. Contemporary Muslims’ enhanced capacity to mark the place of foreignness (in informal daʿwa, in recognizably Islamic dress or grooming, for example) speaks to desires to embody globalityperhapsas much as universality.

[1] See Michael Naas, Taking on the Tradition: Jacques Derrida and the Legacies of Deconstruction (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 2003).

[2] Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Occasional Papers series, 1986), 6

[3] Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, 6

[4] Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, 15.

[5] Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, 15.

[6] Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, 15, original emphasis.

[7] Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, 14.

[8] See Asad’s contributions to a roundtable discussion of Derrida’s work. Jacques Derrida, “Above All, No Journalists!” in Religion and Media, ed. Samuel Weber and Hent de Vries (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 56–93.

[9] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1976).

[10] Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 278-93.

[11] James T. Siegel, The Rope of God, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000 [1969])

[12] Talal Asad, “Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today,” Critical Inquiry 42.1 (September 2015). 166–214, https://doi.org/10.1086/683002.

Introduction: The Roots of Islamic Piety

In the introduction to the symposium “The Roots and Ruptures of Contemporary Islamic Piety,” Aaron Rock-Singer elucidates the questions within contemporary Islamic studies that stand between the completeness of historical narratives and the ruptures of Muslim intellectual, social, and cultural life.

The Multiplicity of the Premodern Islamic Tradition

The school of Talal Asad has identified virtue ethics as the primary model constituting the continuity of premodern Muslim thought with movements of the modern period. But is this model really the most characteristic common denominator of premodern Islamic thought?

Using Cognitive Science to Reconceptualize Islamic Ethics and “Islamist” Socio-political Movements

This article explains how insights from recent research in cognitive science can be used to rethink the related phenomena of traditional Islamic ethics and modern Islamist socio-political movements.

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?

Pious Disjuncture and the Discursive Condition

Formulating a rigorously historicist approach to contemporary cultures of Islam can build on Asad’ pivotal concept in The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam: not the “discursive tradition,” but the discursivity of tradition. Already implicit in its reiterative tradition, the modernity of Islam consists in the reconfigured powers of discursivity beyond discourse.

The Inheritances of Immigration

Muslim French are heirs to a rupture that has become a continuity. While the Islamic revival in France is often framed as a movement of “modern” young people distancing themselves from their parents’ and grandparents’ “traditional” forms of Islam, many young Muslims describe their religiosity in terms of the inheritances of immigration.

Salafi Piety: A Story of Radical Rupture

This post examines the Islamic movement that most explicitly patterns itself on early Islamic history –Salafism – and the way in which its distinctive social practices are fundamentally indebted to modern questions and challenges of visibility and social performance.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!