In Genealogies of Religion, Talal Asad explores how religion has come to be a unique historical category. Western forms of history-making have been biased by its own concept of religion. The Western world typically privileges its own history over others, and uses it as a biased lens through which to view other histories, religions, and cultures.
“History” can be a dynamic concept. People everywhere are making, contesting, borrowing, and reconstructing their own cultural existence. History is the unceasing work of human creators and as such it is unstable. Generally speaking, modernity has removed the omnipotent veil of religion and relegated it to the private sphere. Furthermore, once it became a matter of individual taste (and was equal among other considerations) it became more political; modernity has put religion and politics side-by-side. Asad posits that the search for the essence of religion necessitates this conceptual separation of it from the domain of power. He proceeds from Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion (shortly before demonstrating that no universal definition of religion is plausible):
“Religion is a system of symbols which act to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.” (30)
Religious symbols cannot be understood apart from their historical relations with nonreligious symbols in and of social life. Religious symbols cannot be abstracted and studied objectively; they are inextricably bound up with certain cultures and tend to support the dominant political power. While this does not mean they are purely a vacuous social construction, their authoritative status has to be understood as a product of historically distinctive disciplines and forces.
Asad notes that rituals and rites were once performed to shape, mold, educate, or reinforce certain behaviors, ideas, or disciplines, but now they are more symbolic in meaning. One of the major factors in the Reformation was the question of the nature of the sacraments: is the Eucharist symbolic of Christ’s blood, or the real blood itself?
Asad then traces the progression of medieval Christian uses of pain and discipline. Judicial torture (to extract confessions) and monastic disciplines (to cultivate proper characteristics like humility or devotion) were widely used and were evidence of attempts to wrestle with the notion of divine power vs. human agency. This demonstrates the gradual shift of religion from universal to individual, from institutional to self-imposed. (My conclusion, not his)
While Ernest Gellner’s essay “Concepts and Society” is inherently faulty, it remains popular in British universities because of its ease of comprehension and reproduction. Due to modern imperialism and capitalism, there exists an inequality of languages in the world that makes translation and criticism simultaneously impossible (199). Anthropologists who wish to describe (instead of moralize) will consider a tradition on its own terms and can thus better compare it with others. They must, however, suppress their personal distaste for particular traditions if they wish to understand them. So while most Westerners view the Muslim tradition as having an unnatural aversion to change and criticism, the truth is their practice of nasiha (communal correction from any upstanding Muslim to another) demonstrates their capacity for gentle, kind correction. There is simply a fundamental difference in what is “rational”. Modern liberalism (Western) teaches that one is responsible only for oneself, while nasiha (Muslim) reflects the principle that “well-regulated polity depends on its members being virtuous individuals who are partly responsible for one another’s moral condition—and therefore in part on continuous moral criticism” (233).
Asad ends with a look at how Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses sparked controversy in Britain between Muslims and the dominant Anglo culture. Multiculturalism is tricky, in that it can veer too far in any direction—on the one hand, it can stamp out all cultural difference/uniqueness, creating one bland homogenous culture; on the other hand, it can ignore the power of latent individual and institutional racism. The presence of unassimilated immigrants constitutes a perceived threat to social cohesion and authority. Governments should respond by divining homogeneities and differences, not homogeneities versus differences. Anthropologists can assist (through their discursive interventions) in articulating the politics of difference in the spaces defined by the modern state.
Asad, T. (1993). Genealogies of religion: Discipline and reasons of power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.