Some academics of Islam fail to realize that they are minor intellectuals in a tradition of ultimate commitment—call it the Modern Project. They are not the mujtahids of modernity, but commentators doing clerical work about the apex thinkers of another tradition, Islam. Within the Project their views about ultimate questions are totally irrelevant, yet they are assigned to define and deconstruct our entire tradition, and expect us to “engage” with them and apologize when we do theology in our “academic” work. Not all academics of Islam do this, and many understand quite well where they stand in the intellectual economy, but too many have other pretensions.
They do theology in their own way, writing minor commentaries in light of their Project’s metaphysical commitments about those interesting Muslim specimens—like pharmacists writing about herbs. If you told them what they were doing—how their metaphysical presuppositions bear on what they do—they probably would not understand the words.
Imagine a Muslim expecting a Buddhist or a Hindu to engage, not with a theologian like Ghazali, but a natural philosopher like Biruni or with Ibn Khaldun in an exchange about their ultimate commitments—not about chemistry or sociology, but about the truth and the good. I don’t think it would occur to us Muslims to send out a scientist or historian to another tradition to do that. But the Project doesn’t see it that way. Their top level thinkers, without exception, cannot be bothered to actually know anything about Islam. They almost seem to take pride in it. Can you think of a major scientist, philosopher, or artist of any authority in the Project who understands Islam well?
So why should we care what these intellectual service workers have to say about our tradition? They take our tax dollars and then treat us Muslims as guests in their universities and tut-tut about us doing “theology” or being “faith-based” in our work. Those are our universities. No major research institution can exist without the federal funding. Not Harvard, not Princeton, not Yale—none of them, never mind the public universities which obviously could not.
I am not taking aim at honest scholars who are motivated by genuine intellectual curiosity and love for knowledge, who often do wonderful work. Those folks never sneer at Muslims of commitment doing intellectual work. This is not an insider/outsider question. But I am talking about the hard edge of the so-called “anthropology of Islam”, people who are doing speculative philosophy about human nature under the guise of “ethnography”. I am talking about people who think that their pathetic continental “Theory” is somehow equipped to understand the Islamic intellectual tradition. I am talking about historians whose views about the truth, knowledge, and morality count for nothing in the broader intellectual culture but who flippantly prance around the Islamic tradition with historical dogmas masquerading as discoveries. They have no skin in the game, and we should say so.
The best metaphor to understand what some woke Muslim academics are are trying to do to Islam is cosmetic surgery.
Cut what you don’t like, and use implants to fill in any gaps, until you get precisely the shape of wokeness.
When you say you are going to “queer” Islam or any part of it, you are announcing a project of total destabilization and dissolution until all that remains is an identity without any moral or intellectual legacy.
“Queering” Islam is not going to “rescue” it from the oppressive ideologies of modernity. That is really the most insane claim I’ve seen recently. It’s like Trump calling himself a friend to “the blacks”.
“Queer theory” is NOT simply theory about or by queer people. No. It is an anti-rational political project meant to destroy the possibility of stable knowledge. “Queering” is not only LGBTQ related, though it started there.
“One feature common to all queer perspectives is critique of what is perceived as normative, destabilising the status of norms as ‘given’ or taken for granted… no position is safe or stable from a queer perspective.” -Erica Li Lundqvist “Leaving Islam from a Queer Perspective”
Thomas Dowson: “Queer theory is very definitely not restricted to homosexual men and women, but to any one who feels their position (sexual, intellectual, or cultural) to be marginalized”
In this respect one should mentally replace “queer theory” and “queering” with “hyper-deconstruction”. That’s what it is—the bleeding edge of postmodernism. It is philosophical quackery.
One cynical trick is that if you oppose “queering” or “queer theory” it means you are targeting queer people. This is false. “Queering” means a hyper-anti-essentialism about everything e.g. disability or fatness.
If people want to do “queer theory” that’s really their business. Your time is yours to waste. But when it comes to “queering Islam” you are trespassing.
“The Quran is teeming with queer potential” spouts a confused man who thinks the Mevlevis wear women’s skirts, in a TED-talk plugged by Amina Wadud, an icon for woke Muslim academics.
Some think what I’m saying is overblown, but too often Muslim intellectuals want to argue over history or do journalism about the present. One also has to see what’s coming, and what we’ll be leaving our kids and students.
Queer theory is coming for the whole thing. If you think queer theory, actually a total project of hyper-deconstruction, will stop at LGBTQ rights, you’re dreaming.
There’s a real “We have to burn the village in order to save it” feeling to “queering Islam”. Think of it like this: Instead of feeding the homeless, “demarginalize” them by bulldozing everyone else’s houses.
Again, it’s not queer or a theory, but a project to destroy everyone’s ability to think in terms of right and wrong. It is hyper skepticism about everything except their own right to draw a salary.
The insight that we are “always already” in something or other leads people to a kind of determinism and a belief in an invisible boundary beyond which exist forces that control us in ways that we cannot ever actually know. We are produced by a structure from which there is no escape, no getting on the outside of.
But this deduction from the always-already to a cultural determinism has a hidden but necessary premise, which is a certain vision of what a human being is and what the world is. Cultural determinism is usually laid out as an argument, a set of steps, based upon a set of premises from which if-thens follow. But the fact of always/already is not enough to conclude that cultural determinism is true. It requires also an understanding of what is already/always there, and also who is plunged into that always already. If there is always already an ideological structure, then what is that structure and what is it made from?
It is not the case the mere acceptance that we are plunged into some already and always experience necessarily means that one must subscribe to a form of relativistic determinism. It means that only if it that “always/already” part is combined with a certain set of assumptions about the kind of thing that human beings are. If it presupposes the Darwinian view, the always already does necessitate cultural determinism. But if one presupposes another view of human beings (e.g. the Islamic one), then the always already does not necessitate determinism.
That is, the very entity that is able to grasp the fact of an already/always also has to grasp that the way that it interprets the already/always is going to be contingent on the picture of the world into which it is placed.
The very fact of the always/already does not arbitrate between the picture of the world that makes the already/always determinate and the picture that leaves the possibility of freedom open. Rather, one must choose between those two pictures for some other reason.
Think of bodily space: The fact that one always begins from somewhere in three dimensional space and ends up somewhere else in three dimensional space does not itself tell you how that change in location occurs. The very fact of those dimensions being “always already” given does not tell you how movement occurs. In other words, it may be the case that the three dimensions are there from beginning to end, but that does not tell you how to interpret what accounts for the changes. What are the forces at play? If, as in the mechanical philosophy, you suppose that everything is contact causation, then the only way that an object can move from one point in space to another is by being pushed around by other objects in one’s direct vicinity the way a lever uses a fulcrum. Therefore, the fact of movement is explicable only in terms of nearby objects and the behavior of those objects is where one looks to explain movement. But then, as with Newton, you might decide that there are such things as gravity, and while the very same three dimensions are still always there, the interpretation one gives for how those objects move in those three dimensions is radically different, since one is no long simply looking at the nearby objects that touch, but at all objects and especially large ones far away.
Now, a mechanical philosopher could not point to the inescapability of the three dimensions of bodily space as proof for his hypothesis about the mechanical nature of objects. But the non-mechanical nature of objects (which was made plain with gravity) does not erase the three dimensions in which we experience the non-mechanistic nature of bodies. That is, the always already given three dimensionality does not help to decide which picture of causation is right.
The always already active in all idea is like that. If I were to say that a ball is always somewhere and already somewhere, where “somewhere” means a certain position in three dimensional space, that fact cannot help me decide whether the ball is governed by Cartesian mechanics, Newtonian gravity, or quantum mechanics.
The question is what kind of entity is already always in the “is-can-ought” inner-space and what is the nature of how its immediate experiences determine it? The analogous choice (as between contact causation and gravity, for example) is something like: Are one’s conscious positions revisable in a true way, or are they merely ephemeral and changing? And saying one is already always within cannot tell you the answer, even though it can rule out certain conceptions such as a kind of disembodied view from everywhere, a fully formed rationality parachuting into life.
This is the advantage to conceptualizing the inner space as a three dimensional manifold of descriptive, theoretical, and normative ideas, since one can use the bodily metaphor to separate out the fact of a given set of parameters and locations from the fact of change and its nature. Yes, our descriptive, theoretical, and normative ideas are already and always given, but that does not tell us how those ideas change. It does not tell us how ideas or beliefs get revised. Yes, we have all sorts of conscious and even unconscious beliefs about what is real, what is rational, and what is right, but that does not tell us how those ideas change, how they might go from being unconscious to conscious or vice versa, and so on. All that we can say for sure is that by the time we begin to attempt wisdom we already have a position on all sorts of things. How we get from one position to another is not decidable by the fact that we start with such positions, but by something else.
So to use an example: suppose there is metal ball buried a few inches in the sand. According to one theory of the nature of bodies and change, one has to first move some sand touching that ball before one could move the ball, because the only way to move the ball (according to this mechanical view) is to touch the ball or to touch things that are in contact with it like the sand. But according to another theory, the ball can be moved first and then the ball would move the sand out of the way to move toward the magnet because a magnet can attract the ball without doing anything to the sand at all. In the latter theory, in fact, both ways of moving the metal ball can work—it can be moved mechanically through touch contact, or it can be moved magnetically without touch contact.
The question then is: does the ball act on the sand first, or does the sand act on the ball first, or can both happen?
Now, the fact that there is a ball and sand and they are already there in three dimensions of space cannot tell you which theory is right.
Therefore it is invalid to conclude from the fact of the “always already” that human beings are imprisoned in a cultural structure that determines everything. It does not follow.
Now, this way of looking at the already-always has the further advantage of not being self-refuting, unlike the deterministic way of looking. If the determinists are right, then they are determined to hold that view about determinism and therefore the insight is without value at all. The philosophy of cultural determinism undermines itself logically. But the always already view that also adds activity means that the entity who realizes this always and already status could be real without it leading to any logical problems. If the view is wrong, it is only empirically wrong, and not logically impossible as in the case of the deterministic view.
And in fact that is really as far as any “proof” about such things can go, since skepticism is always a demand with regards to probability and not deductive necessity. The skeptic is always presenting an imaginative picture and asking for deductive proof within that picture. The answer to the skeptic is not an impossible skepticism-proof argument (since deduction can only flow from premises set by the skeptic) but the combination of presuppositions with an argument about those presuppositions. If my view is logically unproblematic but my presuppositions are empirically far-fetched (according to some), it’s still better than your combination of premises and argument which is logically impossible by the standards we both agree to even if the picture of the worlds feels better to you.
The “that’s only what you are obligated to believe to be true but not what is actually true” just mixes up the definition of truth, since the standards of proof can only ever be determined outside of or prior to the procedure of the proof. What is the difference between what is true and what one is obligated to believe to be true anyway? That is when you bid the skeptic good day.
(This is an addendum to my article “Muslims Are Not a Race”. I would recommend reading that first in order to fully understand this post. I discuss “racialization” there, but am expanding on it here.)
Every justification for defining Islamophobia as a type of racism depends on the concept of “racialization.” But the defenders of the notion that Islamophobia is racism do not seem to actually understand what “racialization” means. Racialization must include the belief on the part of the “racializers” that the group being “racialized” is biologically different. This is not my opinion, but reflects the understanding of those who originated the notions of “racialization” and/or “racial formation.”
That means, if one is being precise about “racialization,” that Bosnians can be racialized, Rohingya can be racialized, and Uyghurs can be racialized, but “Muslims” cannot be. The difference is important. Aggregating all the different conflicts in which a Muslim population is subtly or openly racialized does not justify the definition “Islamophobia is a type of racism” but can only permit one to say, “Racism is a type of Islamophobia.”
It’s not impossible that Muslims could be racialized at some future point. For example, researchers could propose an as-yet-unidentified gene that causes people to embrace or remain in Islam, making Islam a biologically determined behavior. Then Muslims qua Muslims would be racialized. But that hasn’t happened.
Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness
But what is Muslimness, and what does it have to do with race?
In the FAQ section, in response to the question, “Why is Islamophobia racism when Muslims are not a race?” the authors state:
Scientifically no population is a race. Races are not natural but come about by bundling together features such as appearances, attitudes, and behaviour and mapping them on to a population, and placing the resulting group in a racial hierarchy. Muslims are increasingly being treated as other populations regarded as different races. Despite Muslims being from diverse ethnic backgrounds, they are often racialised and discriminated against based on their name, their perceived cultural identity or beliefs.
But there are two different kinds of ideas here. First we read about “populations regarded as different races” and “placing the resulting group in a racial hierarchy.” In this respect the authors of the definition are correct, as this dynamic occurs all the time. That is, populations (e.g. the Irish) have been categorized as a racial group and placed in a hierarchy. But then the authors introduce a completely different idea of “being treated as other populations regarded as different races.” What does this mean? Notice that they do not assert that Muslims are being “regarded as a different race” or “placed in a racial hierarchy” but rather they speak of Muslims “being treated as other populations regarded as different races.” There is apparently some kind of gap between “treatment” of Muslims and the “regarding” of races, but that difference is not explained. The authors then claim that Muslims are “racialised” without at all explaining what that means, and they then state the uncontroversial fact that Muslims are in fact “discriminated against based on their name, their perceived cultural identity or beliefs.” But they have not at all established that such discrimination is racism.
Also, the question of whether there are actually races in a biological sense is actually beside the point. The argument “Muslims are not a race” does not presuppose or rely upon on the belief that other groups are the real races. Rather, what is presupposed in saying “Muslims are not a race” is that no one, not even the most vicious anti-Muslim bigots who also believe in race science, believe that Muslims as Muslims constitute a racial group, regardless of whether races are socially constructed or real.
It is precisely that notion of regarding populations as different races and placing them in a racial hierarchy that must be present in order for there to be “racialization.” Otherwise, one is dealing with other forms of discrimination. Simply mistreating someone based upon their physical appearance the attending stereotype is not always racism.
Consider a clip from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David’s character realizes that by wearing a red MAGA hat people will avoid him (which is what he wants). An annoying friend stops trying to spend time with him. He gets glares in a restaurant but also plenty of welcome elbow room at the sushi bar. A scary biker threatens him but sees the hat and quickly backs off. Larry’s friend hears about this hat gambit and says, “No one’s gonna wanna be anywhere near you,” and Larry says, “Exactly, it’s a great people repellent.”
So is Larry being “racialized” here? Are Trump supporters “racialized”? No, because while in this case people are stereotyping based on appearance, no one imagines that MAGA people are an actual biological race and no one places them into a racial hierarchy. People’s avoidance of Larry is a form of prejudice and discrimination, but not a racial one. Is there any doubt that in Cambridge, MA or Berkeley, CA a man wearing a MAGA hat would generally be treated worse than the same man without it? That’s why the storyline in the show is funny. It doesn’t need to be explained, because it’s obviously true.
The following represents the form of argument defending the idea that Islamophobia is a type of racism, but recast in terms of Trump supporters:
“MAGA-phobia is a type of racism that targets the expression of Trump-support or perceived Trump-support.”
“But Trump supporters are not a race!”
“But they are treated like one. By name, by dress, by place of residence. You don’t even have to be a Trump supporter.”
One must be precise about “racialization.” It is not merely discriminating against a group in ways similar to racial discrimination. Racial groups are often treated unfairly by other racial groups, but that does not make every instance of group unfairness an instance of racism. The fact that you can “spot” a Muslim headscarf or mistake a Sikh for a Muslim or know that the name Abdallah is a Muslim name does not have to involve any matters of race at all. To make a negative judgment about someone based on physical appearance is not racialization. Racialization is not based merely on physical appearance, but on appearance connected with some underlying biology. To assume that any woman who wears a headscarf is Muslim, or that men named Abdallah should be subject to extra screening at the airport, taken on their own, is not “racialization” in this sense.
So, while everyone acknowledges that Muslims are not a race, the counterargument is always some form of, “But Muslims are racialized.” an assertion that functions to cover up a total non sequitur. Can anyone explain, consistently and coherently, why discrimination against a woman based upon the wearing of a headscarf is a type of racism, but discriminating against a tourist accidentally wearing a MAGA hat wouldn’t be?
As far as I can tell, it is only Islamophobia theorizers who have tried to use “racialization” in a context in which no notion of racial distinctness is involved. To my knowledge no recognized definition of “racialization” or “racial formation” in the literature can correctly be applied to Muslims. It does not work with Islam and Muslims, because “racialization” must include a belief that the group in question is actually biologically distinct. It is not enough that a group is being mistreated based upon stereotypes. It doesn’t matter if races are real or not, whether or how they are socially constructed. Racialization only happens when the people perpetrating the discrimination believe that they are dealing with people who are objectively racially different.
Some Muslims are trying to make “Muslimness” into a racial attribute, but it simply isn’t, because no Islamophobe thinks Muslims constitute a biologically distinct group. That’s why “racialization” cannot rescue the Islamophobia=anti-Muslim racism idea.
Some of those who support the notion that Islamophobia is a type of racism are realizing the problems themselves, and are growing concerned that white converts might somehow claim to have given up their whiteness by embracing Islam. Some scholars claim that white converts (and some would include merely light-skinned Muslims of any origin) actually increase their privilege through embracing Islam. Would my imaginary English friend Whitey Willoughby Jr. (who dresses and speaks just like he did before he converted to Islam) be the victim of “racism” if he wasn’t hired for a job because the employer found out he had recently converted to Islam? When people get nervous about white converts being “racialized” it becomes clear that we all know Islamophobia is not only racism, but some people are pushing hard on the idea that we are only supposed to care about Islamophobia when it actually is racism. The exception made for these converts shows how incoherent the application of racialization to Islam really is. Recently I was told by the head of a Muslim organization specializing in anti-racism training that while a white Muslim (a difficult term to define) could be the victim of Islamophobia, he could not be the victim of racism. The unintended consequence of such a stance is important: If white Muslims cannot be the victims of racism, then one is forced to say that not all Islamophobia is racism, or, that white Muslims are not really Muslim in some important way. Can white Muslims be racialized without being the victims of racism? The logical inconsistency is inescapable.
Islamophobia theorizing that restricts itself to racism actually fails to account for many reasons why Muslims encounter obstacles in life. Some manifestations of Christianity are racist, but the notion that all Christians are hostile to Islam simply out of racism and not because it represents a formidable challenge to their theological beliefs is simply absurd. Why bend over backwards to reframe every instance of sectarianism as racism? Some Zionism is racist, but can anyone seriously claim to understand Jewish attachment to Israel, and hostility to Israel’s main adversaries, without accounting for the Holocaust and the founding of Israel as a kind of redemptive event for modern Jews? Don’t many liberals look down on religion because it is has a vision of social life they find too oppressive, which began in relation to other Europeans? There are many causes of anti-Muslim sentiment, and it is not hard to find racist elements mixed in with all those factors, but that is not the same as saying that Islamophobia is simply racism.
Some anti-Muslim sentiment–often a large part of it–is fueled by racism. But not all of it, and it certainly makes no sense to define Islamophobia simply as “a type of racism,” any more than it makes sense to describe drug addiction as a form of alcoholism.
Besides, the idea just doesn’t seem to be catching on. Most people outside of Islamophobia studies, even those most attuned to racism, seem to reflexively and automatically to list Islamophobia alongside other kinds of bigotry and not only as a form of racism. In the long run it will be self-defeating to continue declaring that “racialization” somehow is a good answer to “But Muslims are not a race!” especially when the slightest scrutiny or inquiry reveals that the term cannot be correctly applied to Muslims or Islam. The efforts expended to jump on the anti-racism bandwagon will come to nothing when the actually racialized groups (i.e. those who are seen as biologically distinct) come to realize that Muslims are leeching from their hard-won political capital. Worse, the Muslims who tried to reduce their deepest commitments to a mere identity, in the hopes of becoming a member of the woke team, will in the long run be forced to choose between the substance of their religion and their new political allies who think all the non-woke parts of Islam need to go.
In short, pushing a definition that rings false to almost everyone is both intellectually weak and politically counterproductive. Muslims and others dealing with specific problems should not push universal definitions that are meant to address their limited concerns at the cost of analytical coherence and with the effect of reducing Islam as such to a secondary cultural signifier.
A friend pointed me to a book What is Race? Four Philosophical Views, which contains extended discussions of racialization and the nature of race. Sally Haslanger, one of the four contributors, has the closest thing to a definition of racialization. While the word racialization is used throughout the book, it is rarely defined explicitly. She writes (p. 25-26)
Notice the requirement that one observes or imagines “bodily features” as evidence of ancestral links to a geographic region. This simply doesn’t work with Islam or Muslim believers. Christians and Muslims can be indistinguishable in their bodily features and in the ancestral links to a geographic region–think of Bosnians and Croats, or Lebanese people.
One must draw a sharp distinction between bona fide racialized groups and groups that are allegedly “treated like” racialized groups. That “treated like” is the thing that pops up when racialization is applied to Muslims. “Treated like” is too vague and does too much work, as I noted above.
There are people out there who imagine “bodily features” as evidence of ancestral links to a geographic region. That has to be part of racialization for Haslanger, and it’s easy to see this belief among racists even if they won’t say it in so many words.
But that belief, explicit or implicit, is completely absent with regard to “Muslims”, and so people who want to say that Muslims are racialized will insert the language “treated like a racialized group”. But that is a huge conceptual leap.
I have yet to see a definition/theorization of “racialization” or “racialized group” that does not explicitly make some kind of belief about the bodily nature of the group in question a necessary condition—aside from the case of Islam example where people insert “treated like” language. Why do none of the theorists of racialization (except some Muslims and non-Muslims whose work has no significance in race studies in general) ever include language like that? Are Muslims “treated like” they have distinctive bodily features? I don’t think anyone can make that argument cogently.
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.”
For those who are interested, here are the three relevant threads from me (originally posted on Twitter in late May 2020):
Advice to young academics: Too much “Islamic studies” today is 3rd-rate postmodern cultural critique — lazy riffing about Muslims as a variegated bundle of racial/gender/sexual groups with “Islam” as a symbolic cultural marker. Don’t be absorbed by that blob as many others have.
One witnesses the spectacle of tenured scholars at major research institutions who cannot even properly read classical Arabic subjecting a great Islamic polymath (or an entire field) to an analysis through a “Foucauldian” framework or “queer theory” or some other vanity project
Scholars in “Islamic studies” write entire books that are structured as an analysis of [aspect of Islam] through Foucault. No reason to even justify why one does it. Foucault can simply be presupposed without argument. It’s astonishing.
Many grad students and even early career professors don’t realize (I didn’t) that there are entire fields in academia that are almost entirely useless — actually worse, because they take promising scholars from work that is substantial and needed.
I have interviewed many job candidates, and it’s astounding how much immersion in continental “theory” degrades a scholar’s ability to think, write, and speak clearly. Many smart people didn’t get the job because they couldn’t explain what they were researching.
It’s sad to simply ask someone “How would you explain that idea to a freshman?” and watch them self-destruct. People whose research was heavily based on primary sources almost always perform far better than those immersed in postmodern “theory”
There is much that is valuable about academic Islamic studies, and there are many projects that are left undone because talented young scholars are wasting their time with junk.
Having said all that, I’m tenured and I can get away with talking like this. Remember, never pick unnecessary fights and always try to find areas of overlap. You’ll be often pleasantly surprised by the goodwill you find if you don’t keep a chip on your shoulder and are courteous.
Follow up on my thread about “theory” (i.e. *bad* philosophy) in Islamic studies: If you disagree with postmodern theory folks or criticize their Parisian apex philosophers they will first tell you that you just don’t understand the stuff, or they literally call you names.
But then if you carefully offer a researched critique and cite their sources, they will just dismiss it with some version of the gambit: “Your very question itself shows you are part of the structure of oppression.” Or more name-calling and emojis. Or just pretend it’s not there.
This inability or unwillingness to respond to or even enterain critique or questions is something scholars should avoid at all costs. It’s what happens when your apex philosophers teach you that truth and goodness are really just about power relationships.
Of course not everyone who “does theory” does this (lots of nice people), but if you are a scholar and attempt to offer a critique or openly disagree you will definitely get this kind of anti-rational pushback from a sizable cohort who often get vulgar and vicious about it.
That’s why I advise young scholars to keep out of that blob. Don’t let them bully you into thinking that the only way to care about racism, or women’s rights, or the oppressed, is *their* way. Don’t let bully you into thinking that sophistication begins and ends with them.
I’ll give a concrete example. S.H. Nasr has been talking about the relationship between power and knowledge production and epistemic/ideological frameworks for half a century. He’s done as much to foreground African, SE Asian, other expressions of Islam as anyone…
Not to mention his work on ecology waaaaay before anyone else in the Muslims world. He’s been teaching Muslims to reclaim their own epistemic selves for decades and to learn their own history from their own point of view.
So it’s silly that when one objects to the anti rational underpinnings and moral nihilism of postmodern philosophy one is accused of not caring about the poor and oppressed. Or of not understanding the connection between truth and power. One can be sophisticated without them
And it’s not just because I’m a traditional Muslim. Here’s Devin Stewart giving his view on religious studies theories:
I’m genuinely curious if somewhere there exist people who are indignant and outraged at the idea that being a scholar of Confucianism requires the ability to read Chinese.
Incidentally I never claimed nor do I think that one must know Classical Arabic to be a scholar of all things related to Muslims. But to do scholarship about the content of the Quran or Hadith or Ghazali or Ibn Arabi? Absolutely.
There was just a whole to-do about people writing about Rumi who don’t read Persian. Those VERY SAME PEOPLE are upset at the suggestion that Arabic is necessary to study Islam. I see an inconsistency there.
Some remarks on “theory” for those who might not really know what that means in the context of academic Islamic Studies. When I started grad school I had only a dim notion of it while others really had already been immersed. It probably does not mean what you think it means.
Theory as a general term refers to that which is not pure input/data but rather an intellectual process (a formula, algorithm, rule of thumb recipe,) for taking experience and finding patterns, connections, groupings, etc. A theory processes noise into signal.
So one’s “theory” is one’s rules or guidelines of interpretation, of taking some aspect of the world and making it more intelligible through new concepts or categories. Ideally it helps you to sort out necessary connections from those which are merely probable or possible.
When scholars talk about the theoretical part of their work, they mean, “What set of ideas/concepts are you using consistently and coherently to interpret and understand what you are writing about? Would someone else using those same concepts get the same result?
In other words: a theoretical claim is, “If you have x then you have y. And if you have y you might have z.“ Another scholar might then say, “Actually no, if you have x you only *might* get y, but z follows from y necessarily.” That is a theoretical exchange.
So a theory, when made explicit, is a kind of if-then formula, a sorting mechanism for reorganizing our experience of the world. Now that is extremely broad, and in a sense is means that the theoretical is very closely related to or even coterminous with rationality.
The role of theory as the concepts or ideas we use to make experience more intelligible is as old as philosophy — for the world of nature, human relationships, law, metaphysics. It’s essentially impossible to not have a theory in that general sense of an interpretive framework.
Now within the halls of academia (in the social sciences and humanities one must emphasize) when people say “theory” they say it the way Muslims say “al-Kitab”. There are lots of books, but when you just say “the book” it’s understood to mean one book in particular (the Quran).
When you hear that use of “theory” with no qualifier they don’t mean the general category of the theoretical or rational or philosophical. They mean it the way Sufis talk about “the way”. Not just any way, but a very special and particular way.
When you first start out you don’t realize that you are hearing “theory” but they mean Theory™. What is Theory™? It’s a very specific set of continental ideas form folks like Foucault, Derrida, the Frankfurt School, with a lineage going back to Nietzsche and Marx. It’s complex
My point being: to argue against Theory™ is quite different from arguing against theory. Some fanatics pretend that opposing Theory™ is the same as opposing theory. That is a dishonest use of ambiguity. Theory is indispensable in all intellectual endeavor. Theory™ isn’t.
So if you follow discussions recently about theory vs. texts in Islamic Studies it’s not about theoretically unsophisticated Arabic readers vs. super nuanced analysts of religion. It’s about anti-rational and morally skeptical philosophy and its appropriateness in studying Islam