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Talal Asad: The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam

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Zach Korsmit

on 18 October 2013

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Transcript of Talal Asad: The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam

Talal Asad: The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam
A Discussion
Talal Asad
Current Information:

- Anthropologist at City University of New York

- Specializing in Anthropology of Religion; High interest in the Middle East and Islam
Context: Debate on Islam – One or Many?

– distinct localized versions of Islam, that developed through unique histories and environments – islams vs Islam


- there is only one true Islam - unchanging

Asad vs Geertz
Geertz uses
religious symbols of power
Asad urges anthropologists not to make
theological claims
be easily identified through a
collection of symbols

Islam is a way of life

Alex Lausanne, Maya Kvam, Brooke Hutton, Samantha Keller, Zachary Korsmit, Mohammed Aarij Jawald
Talal Asad

- Born 1933 in Saudi Arabia and brought up in Pakistan

- Attended a missionary school where he was one of the few Muslims among a majority of Christians
Talal Asad

- Studied in Edinburgh

- Moved to Oxford and worked with Evans-Pritchard

- He was taught at New School, Oxford, Khartoum, Sudan and Hull

- Founded a journal with colleges: Review of Middle East during his time at Hull
Map courtesy of BBC news
Islam's Beginnings
One of the Prophet’s companions brought gifts as well as the Islamic belief system to China in roughly 650CE, though the records are sparse. The emperor at the time ordered China’s first mosque to be built, which still stands today. There have been times when Islam has been strictly outlawed in China, yet the faith survives.
Islam's Expansion around the Globe
Chinese Muslim Girls
Kul Sharif Mosque, Russia
Areas in Russia with a Muslim Majority
The Larabanga Mosque in Ghana, built in the 13th century and one of the oldest standing mosques in West Africa.
The Great Mosque of Kairouan, founded in 670 in North Africa, city of Kairouan, Tunisia.
West Africa
Saudi Arabia
United States of America
Asad: How to organize diversity for the study of anthropology?
Orientalism: ‘Great’ And ‘Little’ Traditions
• A
– a dual Islam with dual social structure and policy

• For anthropologists, neither Islam ‘more real’ than the other

• concept introduced by
anthropologists and historians in

• popularized by Geertz and Gellner
Asad Disagrees
•No essential Islamic structure, and not bounded to the Middle East

• No ‘blueprints’ for world religion and socio-political structure
Asad vs Weber
Talal Asad confronts Weber’s ideological opposition between “tradition” and “reason”

ASAD: What is Islam?

• Anthropologists need to rethink object of study and concepts they use to approach Islam

Eickelman: Breaking of Dichotomies

“Study of Islam and Local Context”

• Anthropologists need a
notion of context

• Uses historical context to find a
Middle ground

Orthodoxy and Power Relations

• not just body of opinion, but a

• Orthodoxy = doctrine that c
laims authority from sacred texts

• Doctrine denotes process of teaching

Reformists -
One Islam

• Believes in one Islam, that can only be gained through reading the

Max Weber (1864 – 1920).
Upper-class, Prussian.
With Durkeim and Marx, was an architect of modern social science and founder of sociology.
Interests act on ideas and shape activities
Religion shapes the way people think

Weber’s Rationalism
: serves to make symbolic systems and human behavior more systematic, logically ordered and methodically controlled.


“Ideal Types”

"Discursive Tradition

“…it is generally impossible to define beliefs and practices, because it is generally impossible to define beliefs and practices in terms of an isolated subject”(p3)

“… ‘the world of Islam’ is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not a self-contained collective agent” (p11)

“Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs and morals. It is a tradition” (p14)

: “the most urgent theoretical need for an anthropology of Islam is a matter not so much of finding the right scale but of formulating the right concepts”
: “The idea that traditions are essentially homogenous has a powerful intellectual appeal, but it is mistaken.” (p44)
: Islam was the polar opposite to Puritanism.
Edward Said
(1935 - 2003). Palestinian-American scholar.

Authored “Orientalism” (1978).
Post-Colonial Theory

Said refers to a general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian and North African socieities born out of European Imperialism and outsider interpretations.

The West essentializes these societies as static and undeveloped fabricating a view of Oriental culture that can be studied, depicted and reproduced.

Implicit in this approach , writes Said, is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible and superior.

Asad asks 3 questions at the beginning of his article:

1) What is regarded as worth recording about other’s beliefs and customs?

2) By whom is it recorded?

3) In which social project are the records used?

“The argument here is not against the attempt to generalize about Islam, but against the manner in which the generalization is undertaken.” (Asad, p5)
First French academic sociologist

Born April 15th 1858 at Epinal

Son of a Rabbi, studied Hebrew. Old Testament and the Talmud

Interested in Catholicism as well

Attended prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure

Emile Durkheim
Durkheim and Asad
"No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structures and religious ideology interact."

‘The family that stays together prays together’

Asad and Durkheim
Durkheim's major argument is that all forms of religion can be understood as true since what they are representing is their society.

"The variety is traditional Islamic practices in different times, places and populations indicates the different Islamic reasonings that different social and historical can or cannot sustain."
Asad never defines a true Anthropology of Islam.

Asad proposes that you must find the right question before you can seek to answer the question.

Asad's paper tackles a larger issue then Islam itself .

Debate and conflict are a natural process.

Nothing is static, life changes
Discussion Questions
1. In different locations around the world (ie. France, Quebec) wearing religious symbols or garb is restricted or prohibited. Alternatively in other locations (ie. Iran) individuals must wear certain religious symbols or garb.

If you were to do an anthropological study on this topic in both of these places, would you expect to reach the same conclusion that Asad did about the anthropology of Islam? Why or Why not?
Discussion Questions
2. Do you agree or disagree with Asad's position of there being no one "true" Islam? Do you believe this sentiment can be applied on a global scale and to other religions around the world? What are the pros and cons to this type of stance?
Thanks For Participating!
'Great' Traditions
Jama Masjid, Delhi
'Little' Traditions
• Discursive tradition:
is key to what Islam is there today

• Should approach local Islam with an

Interpretation/Re-interpretation of text

Islam as a
'Discursive Tradition'
• 'Traditions' = Discourses that instruct practitioners, that have been established and therefore have a history

• Discourses are
- have a past, present and future

Traditions and History
• How modes of communication affect religion

• Impact of Literacy and intellectual ‘Technology’ = reproduction changes from

• Historical view
Transmission and Reproduction
of Religion
Whirling Dervishes, Turkey
Full transcript