The incoherence of “Islam” as a “discursive tradition” (excerpt from a work in progress)

Some people might be interested in this excerpt from a short book I’m working on about the “conceptualization of Islam”. This section is about the logical problems of Talal Asad’s conceptualization of Islam as a “discursive tradition”. Just the text, no footnotes. Very much a draft.

Islam as a “discursive tradition”

The other major conceptualization of Islam to consider was introduced by Talal Asad in his 1986 article “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” which has become something of a touchstone for other scholars working on conceptualizing Islam. As the title suggests, it was prompted by anthropologists’ failure to provide a useful concept of “Islam” to use in their work, despite previous unhelpful attempts. Much of Asad’s attention is given to often valuable critiques of those efforts. When it comes to his own contribution, having discussed the shortcomings of other views, he states, “Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogenous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” For Asad, a successful anthropology of Islam must use the right concepts, and for him the right concept for Islam is “discursive tradition.”

But what is “discursive” and what is a “tradition”? Here is where Asad’s conceptualization immediately runs into logical trouble. He says:

A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. These discourses relate conceptually to a past (when the practice was instituted, and from which the knowledge of its point and proper performance has been transmitted) and a future (how the point of that practice can best be secured in the short or long term, or why it should be modified or abandoned), through a present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions, and social conditions). 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. (20)

If Islam is a discursive tradition, and if a tradition “consists essentially of discourses,” that makes Islam a “discursive set of discourses.” If tradition consists essentially of discourses, then no new information is added by the modifier “discursive.” To say “discursive tradition” in this way is like saying, “unmarried bachelor.” It is redundant. Moreover, if Islam is a discursive tradition, does this mean that there are there non-discursive traditions somewhere? If such non-discursive traditions exist — that is, if some traditions do not consist essentially of discourses — then Asad’s own definition of “tradition” is wrong or incomplete.

One might look for a way out of this impasse in the temporal aspects of tradition Asad mentions regarding the past, present, and future, but this will not help either. Any discourse relates to a past, a present, and a future. How could it not? One could say that Islam is distinctive in being very old, being incredibly vast and variegated, and being likely to endure — that is, it has a long past, a massive present, and an open future — but these are merely differences in scope. One might say that Islam is a “longstanding discourse” or even a “mega-discourse.” But discourses are discourses, whether small or large. If one were to reverse the phrase and say that Islam is a “traditional discourse” the maneuver would solve no problems, since utilizing Asad’s own definition of tradition one would simply produce the same result that was produced by unpacking “discursive tradition,” namely, “Islam is a discursive discourse.”

It is important to note — crucial, actually — that when Asad speaks of “discourses” he is using the technical sense established and developed by Foucault and his adherents. “Discourse” in this sense does not refer to an everyday notion of communication or debate. No one who reads the words “discursive” or “discourse” in the general neighborhood of Foucault should think of the idiomatic meaning of these words; one is dealing essentially with homonyms. “Discourse” in this technical sense refers to the assertion of power through language, to mechanisms of control that are disguised as — or appear in the form of — rational practices. Power is the cause, ideas are the effect. “Discursive” refers not to the exchange of ideas qua ideas, but to the way in which power constructs ideas — constructing not only this or that idea but also constructing the very subject who is taken to be the originator of those ideas.

Some have characterized Asad’s conception of “discursive tradition” as a combination of Foucault’s “discourse” and Alisdair MacIntyre’s “tradition,” (M. Sulaiman) but such a combination is simply incoherent, not least because MacIntyre completely rejected the basis of Foucault’s notion of “discourse,” and MacIntyre’s own definition of tradition completely rules out the basic presuppositions of Foucault’s vision. For MacIntyre a tradition is “an argument extended through time” and an argument is actually an argument, or can be one potentially if the parties involved do it correctly. That is, there exists for MacIntyre the possibility for rational human beings to exchange ideas and to both agree and disagree about elements of their common tradition freely. MacIntyre, in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition, discussed at length the internal self-contradiction of Foucault; Foucault presupposes “standards of reason-giving, reason-accepting, and reason-rejecting” but claims to reject them asserting that language and ideas are ways in which power relationships construct the subject.

Reason and rationality, as aspects of the constructed-by-power subject, are therefore also constructed by power relationships. One cannot ascribe this notion of rationality to MacIntyre or imagine that it can somehow be reconciled with MacIntyre’s own clearly stated vision of rationality and his clearly stated rejection of Foucault’s basic premises. Indeed, while the stated definition of tradition as a set of discourses makes “discursive tradition” redundant, attempting to use evoke MacIntyre’s conception of tradition makes “discursive tradition” an oxymoron.

It is clear that this notion of discourse as constructed by power relationships is indeed what Asad has in mind. In critiquing previous attempts by anthropologists to situate “orthodoxy,” Asad wants neither to deny the importance of orthodoxy nor to reduce orthodoxy to a set of doctrines, simplifications which he believes other anthropologists have fallen into. He says, “Orthodoxy is not a mere body of opinion but a distinctive relationship — a relationship of power to truth.” But the kind of power he has in mind is not the power of the ideas qua ideas. Let us recall that doctrines, teachings, and communications are things that are potentially right, and therefore they can be persuasive or coherent or inspiring or satisfying, but Asad mentions none of these possibilities. Rather, orthodoxy is about the ability of “social, political, economic etc.” power to “regulate, uphold, require, or adjust.” Orthodoxy simply is that relationship of power.

Yet Asad also wants to emphasize that the arguments and ideas in Islam (whatever these really are) are not lacking in nuance and complexity, and that traditional orthodoxy is not merely a set of simplistic commands established by a small group of rule-makers. He notes that “reasons and arguments are intrinsic to traditional practice” (and here one must assume me means “practices proper to a set of discourses”) and so an anthropologist ought to describe and analyze those reasons and arguments. He goes on:

It is here that the analyst may discover a central modality of power, and of the resistance it encounters — for the process of arguing, of using the force of reason, at once presupposes and responds to the fact of resistance. Power, and resistance, are thus intrinsic to the development and exercise of any traditional practice. (23)

The themes of “power” and “resistance” within a “discourse” are straight out of Foucault. The primacy of power runs through Asad’s overall construction of a concept of Islam, but it is not made clearly because it is marred by the initial redundancy and confusion around the concept of “tradition.”

There are two ways to restate what I take to be the core of Asad’s underlying argument (namely, what is left when the definitional confusions about tradition are removed). The minimalist version of the argument is that Islam should be studied as a discourse (as Foucault understood that term) in which case one is arguing for anthropologists to be methodologicallyFoucauldian as concerns the conceptualization of Islam. The maximalist version of the argument is that Islam simply is a discourse, in which case one is being — for lack of a better term — metaphysically Foucauldian as concerns the conceptualization of Islam, meaning that one should accept Foucault’s account of human nature and human relationships as well as his other basic presuppositions about knowledge, truth, and morality.

Again, Asad does not deny something called rationality in Islam, and he rejects those who see Islam as “unchanging, repetitive, and non-rational” (Anjum 670) but the question is: what precisely does he mean by rational? Let us recall the role of power. Power relationships are not unchanging, and they are not repetitive, neither in the modern West nor in the Islamic world. Therefore, one should expect that the subjects who are constructed by those evolving power relationships would not be unchanging or repetitive either — neither in the West, nor in Islam. But change that comes randomly or deterministically is different from change that comes from the actual free choice of rational beings. Does “rationality” simply refer to the existence of complex, nuanced, contentious arguments existing as things out there? If so, then rationality could be the product of random processes, or deterministic ones, or it could be the product of actually free rational agents. One must specify which of those three options it is. Does “creativity” simply refer to the fact that ideas which did not exist before exist today, or does it mean that someone actually freely thought of something new in light of something old? In short, one must know and indeed always presuppose the answer to the question: what is a human being such that one can distinguish between a person being rational and a person being non-rational?

When Asad defends Muslims against accusations of rigidity, imitation, repetitiveness, and ossification, it seems inescapable, in light of his own conception of discourse and traditions, that his argument amounts to something akin to the following: “Islam’s constructed-by-power ideas are just as dynamic, varied, and sophisticated as the West’s constructed-by-power ideas.” One might agree with Asad about the comparability of the two civilizations’ dynamism, variation, and sophistication, but that is quite separate from the question of what ideas and arguments themselves are, and where they come from. And this is no trivial matter, since no version of Islam could possibly accept the metaphysical presuppositions about human nature, knowledge, and morality embedded in Foucault’s notion of “discourse.”

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