Thinking about Political Theology with Talal Asad
“Political theology” is not a term central to the thought of the anthropologist Talal Asad (b. 1932). Indeed, he writes critically about some of its common uses. Meanwhile, much contemporary literature in the interdisciplinary field of political theology cites and engages his wide-ranging work, particularly when it steps outside the histories of the West. In this brief essay, we note how his writings problematize referential use of “political theology” across the many languages and grammars of life. Rather than establishing structural analogies or historical filiations between religion and politics, Asad urges attention to shifts in the grammar of concepts and practices across different situations. Rather than exposing a secret religiosity behind secular politics, his inquiries offer an anthropology of the secular.
Asad often frames his writing as “thinking about” a theme or a set of concepts. In his practice, thinking about is an anthropological methodology developed through a sustained engagement with Michel Foucault and Ludwig Wittgenstein. With Foucault, Asad highlights the historical and epistemological partiality of modern discourses on religion and secularism and relates triumphant accounts of the secular to the operation of power and to geopolitics. With Wittgenstein, Asad notes not only the general limitation of language in understanding the world but also the embeddedness of languages as part of distinct forms of life. What matters to a concept (like “political theology”) is not the contextual determination of its linguistic or cultural meaning, nor an a priori reality that precedes language and discursive practice, but the grammar that makes it legible as part of a form of life.
Genealogical and anthropological modes of defamiliarization emerge in this context not simply as the methods of distinct disciplines but as the means necessary for observing the embodied quality of language and the location of concepts embedded in practices. These means are central to learning; they are antidotes to the elision of difference and of incommensurability in the practice of thinking and interpretation.
The Grammar of Concepts
Asad argues that the secular is “neither continuous with the religious that supposedly preceded it (that is, it is not the latest phase of a sacred origin) nor a simple break from it (that is, it is not the opposite, an essence that excludes the sacred)” (Formations, 25). The relationship between the religious and the secular cannot be critically narrated in terms of continuity or rupture, since the conceptual differentiation of religious and secular domains already begs the question of such a narration. Nor is it enough to demonstrate the contingency of these concepts, namely, all the various ways that “the secular” overlaps with “the religious.” An inquiry into the secular must show how such contingent formations “relate to changes in the grammar of concepts—that is, how the changes in concepts articulate changes in practices” (Formations, 25). On the one hand, Asad’s anthropology of the secular explores the disjuncture between Christian and secular life that emerged in Europe but has come to bear on the emergence of new discursive grammars in the modernizing world. On the other hand, he provincializes that break and problematizes its historical expansion. The postcolonial distribution of geopolitics and the unique historicity claimed by modernity are central to Asad’s wariness of the translation of different phenomena in the terms of political theology. In other words, pluralizing “political theologies” does not solve the limitation of “political theology.” Pluralizing political theologies still generalizes the Western-European history and historiography of Christian and political life over and against different histories and grammars of religion and politics.
Asad’s anthropology of the secular can be read as a critical engagement with political theology insofar as that field conceptualizes social and political phenomena in the terms of “religion.” In reflecting on this approach—widely taken up with regard to such varied forms as nationalism, Nazism and Communism, and pre-modern and pre-nationalist political organization and symbolic action—Asad also directly comments on the key reference of this field. When Carl Schmitt famously writes that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts,” due both to their “historical development” and their “systematic structure,” Asad draws attention to the “differential results” of secularization rather than its “corresponding forms.” There is no overarching or transhistorical essence to religion or politics, he insists. Instead, the practices that such concepts “facilitate and organize differ according to the historical formations in which they occur” (Formations, 189-191).
Yet this does not mean that “history” is simply the ground of emergent, contingent possibilities, nor that it is analytically sufficient to demonstrate the instability of meaning across different contexts. Indeed, Asad shows instability (for instance, of secularization’s “corresponding forms”) to be internal to the operation of modern power. When it comes to “religion,” for example, he emphasizes how the “very essence of religion was differently defined” across historical moments even in premodern Europe. Along with concepts of the sacred and myth, religion was constituted as part of the modern episteme that Asad identifies as “the secular” and through the political rationality of “secularism.” Consequently, Asad underscores the politics of narrative descriptions of secular modernity and interrupts genetic readings of secularism as the trace of Christianity. Whether reading Schmitt, Hans Blumenberg, Jean-Luc Nancy, Marcel Gauchet, Charles Taylor, Slavoj Žižek, or others, he avers that what is key is not the structural analogy or historical connection between religious and secular discourse but how each articulates elements of a tradition in distinct practices and embodied concepts.
Two Examples: Laïcité and Political Fear
Over recent decades, these methodological concerns have animated Asad’s queries into (among others) Christian monasticism and ritual, just war and terrorism, humanitarianism and violence, cruelty and pain, religious criticism and secular critique, Islamic reform and colonial modernity, and statistical reason and state power. In this section, we present two examples to illustrate his approach to political theology.
In our first example, Asad analyzes the French debates over schoolgirls wearing veils to discern the distinct character of French secularism. The veil becomes a site for the French state to rearticulate “conjunction and disjunction,” that is, to congeal the particular effects of universal declarations (“Trying to Understand,” 517). Even as French secularism claims to have inherited Christian universalism, what becomes apparent is the sheer “distance” between the two (518). In what Asad identifies as “the political theology of laïcité,” the modern state takes up the theological problem of representing an invisible deity. Just as an icon links “the presence of the divine to the cultivation of the human spirit,” so too the republic “realizes itself in its citizens” through deploying the right “signs.” This political-theological analogy, however, dissolves the distinction between “spiritual” and “temporal” registers characteristic of pre-modern Christian discourse, rendering invisible the force of secular power. “By attaching the sign of sanctity to the modern concept of the abstract, de-Christianized state, it seeks to make political power exercised in the name of the nation untouchable, even as it is unspeakable” (520).
When the French Republic forbids schoolgirls from wearing headscarves, then, laïcité emerges as “the mode in which the Republic teaches the subjects in its care about what counts as real, and what they themselves really are, in order better to govern them by letting them govern themselves” (521). At stake in this public education is not only the autonomy of individual desire but what counts as knowledge of reality itself. “What seems to emerge from this discourse is not that secularism ensures equality and freedom but that particular versions of ‘equality’ and ‘freedom’ ensure laïcité.” The invisibility of secular power should not be taken for granted, Asad further insists, because “the limits to the state’s transcendence, as well as the excess generated by its passions, both continually undermine the clarity of its theology of signs” (522). This limit and excess together yield the traction necessary for critical-anthropological inquiry into French secularism.
Our second example of Asad’s thinking about political theology is drawn from his discussion of fear and suspicion around the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Political fear of the military and of Islamists were explicitly voiced in public discourse, but other kinds of fear also proliferated. In a video-recorded call for civil disobedience in January 2011, the activist Asma Mahfuz recited the Qur’anic verse 13:11: “God says that He will not change the condition of a people until they change themselves.” While some Muslims invoke this verse to justify a political quietism, Asad notes how for Mahfuz “the verse does not urge a turn to private virtue; [rather] it invites a rearrangement of emotion and attitude in order to engage more effectively in the political world. ‘Never fear the government,’ she ends. ‘Fear only God!’” (“Fear and the Ruptured State,” 292).
Asad’s argument is not that the Egyptian revolution was actually religious rather than secular, nor that this was an instrumentalization of religion for political purposes, nor that there is a hermeneutic range to Islamic politics. Instead, he anthropologically draws attention to the place of fear in political life. Fear is a “complex sensibility,” one that “may be seen as the site at once of a fusion of the sensorium with the language and practice that help shape fear as an intention.” In place of lingering with a psycho-structural parallel between a subject’s fear of the state and fear of God, Asad observes how “language in use transcends individual intention by carrying and releasing traces” — some of which are theological, others not — “to which other speakers and listeners may connect” (293). What is key to understanding fear in this site is not its structural correspondences nor its moral quality but “what one makes of the feeling, how it defines the character of subjection or confrontation” (293).
In both these two examples, Asad’s approach to political theology notes a structural correspondence (the secular republic’s theology of signs; fear of God and of the authoritarian state) only to turn to its differential results. In doing so, he invites us to think about how embodied traditions disclose forms of life under shifting conditions of power. Notably, these inquiries do not yield a set of abstract theories about religion and politics; his formulations remain analytically close to the sites he is thinking about.
In place of drawing historical filiations or structural analogies between religion and politics, Asad emphasizes how knowledge and critique are embedded in inherited and collective forms of life. Alongside his anthropology of the secular, his attention to “tradition” can also be read to decenter the debate of political theology or to reoccupy the space allotted to it in modern discourse. As an analytic term, tradition (drawing from Foucault and Alasdair MacIntyre) foregrounds questions of authority and temporality. It traces the joining of discursivity and materiality in everyday living, in sensory experience and embodied practice. Knowledge and critique thus emerge as collective processes that are central to a living tradition. So too do the key themes of political theology (sovereignty, community, justice). But in place of that field’s reliance on historical narrative and a conceptual binary between religion and the secular, Asad observes that a tradition may be refigured by secular power. The secular is not the outside of tradition; rather, tradition provides an analytic point of entry to understand the work of secularization (thus “aspects” of Islamic reform, for instance, are both the “precondition” and the “consequence” of “secular processes of power”: Formations, 256). In this sense Asad’s anthropology of the secular resonates with Walter Benjamin’s attention to continuous and conflicting tensions more than with claims to disenchantment and exposure (cf. Formations, 62-66).
Learning about traditions is thinking about the possibilities of common life and its forms; but it is a thinking strained when “the language we have inherited is so inadequate for our worldly experience,” when neither “secular reason nor religious faith” can meet the “crisis generated by…the basic thrust of modern civilization — our institutions, our desires, our politics, and our entire form of life” (“Thinking About Religion,” 431). Thinking about political theology with Talal Asad leads to thinking about the difficulty of the present.
- Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford UP, 2003)
Because the secular is so much a part of modern life, Asad here pursues it through its “shadows”: as it bears on notions of myth, embodiment, agency, pain, and cruelty. The book then turns to the political doctrine of secularism (entangled in human rights, minoritization, and nationalism) and the historical process of secularization (through transformations of law and ethics in colonial Egypt).
- “Trying to Understand French Secularism,” in Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, eds. Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan, 495-527 (Fordham UP, 2006)
Focused on the so-called Islamic veil affair and the Stasi commission report, Asad here reflects on laïcité as the articulation of “organizing categories” typical of French political culture (and distinct from those of medieval Christendom). The headscarf worn by Muslim women thus comes to be understood as a “religious sign” violating the “secular personality” of the French Republic.
- “Fear and the Ruptured State: Reflections on Egypt after Mubarak,” Social Research 79, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 271-298
In this essay, Asad relates political fear and suspicion to the bodily sensorium and intention and to the ambiguities and limitations of political discourse. He centrally addresses the limitation of “religious” vs. “secular” as ways of making sense of the 2011 Egyptian uprising and other contemporary confrontations.
- “Autobiographical Reflections on Anthropology and Religion,” Religion and Society 11, no. 1 (September 2020): 1-7
Published as part of the journal’s “portrait” series and followed by colleagues’ commentaries, Asad here traces the development of his interest in anthropology as a mode of reflection on difference, rooted also in what he calls his “fractured biography.” Born in Medina and raised in British India, he witnessed the violence of Partition and studied anthropology at Edinburgh and Oxford. He presents his “struggle to articulate [his] ideas and criticisms” through his engagements with Marx and Wittgenstein, for instance, but also through his relationships with his father (the famous Jewish convert to Islam Muhammad Asad, whose Qur’an translation is widely read today) and his mother (whose embodied religion “did not offer itself to hermeneutic methods”).
- “Thinking About Religion through Wittgenstein,” Critical Times 3, no. 3 (December 2020): 403-442
Asad’s latest essay draws on Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language and everyday life to consider the category of “religion” viz. the fundamental disagreement within the Islamic tradition on divine representations in the Qur’an. He elaborates on the place of abstraction, disagreement, and critique as part of a living tradition; identifies essentialist notions of religion and enlightened rationality as part of the modern drive for total knowledge and control; and suggests that modern civilization is particularly inept at addressing human finitude and the suffering of living beings.