Some Thoughts on Talal Asad’s “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category”


A couple of weeks back I was going through my bookshelf when I came across Talal Asad’s “Genealogies of Religion” collecting dust. I bought this book a few years back and promptly forgotten about it when I put it on my bookshelf nice and new. Such is the fate of my books until chance brought them back to my attention. Now in my defence, as one who makes a living as an academic, books are essentially part of my “means of production”, as Marx would put it, with the caveat that I’ll only need it if I need to do a particular research that needs that reference. I digress …

The reason I decided to pick up the book to read was because of recent events in which the public sphere is being saturated with religious discourse which piqued my interest once again on the relationship between politics and religion – my doctoral thesis was on the same subject which I kind of lay aside once I finished it but that a story for another day. 

This book is a series of essays where Asad, an anthropologist, explores how religion as an historical concept that emerges from the West has come to be applied as a universal concept. Now, I’m not going to do a book review here nor an exploration of the ideas in the book. Rather I’m just going to give some thoughts on the chapter which forms part of the title of this blog. 

OK, lets begin.

In this chapter, Asad begins by critiquing those who wanted to find an essentialist definition of religion that is grounded on the assumptions:

  • that religion (truth) and politics (power) is separate.
  • religion is simply belief that informs everyday life.

His begins his critique that such assumptions are in themselves the product of a historical process which we call modernity that originated in the West which then spread through the rest of the world. He argued that rather than separating truth and power, one needs to see that truth and power as intertwined, i.e. religious beliefs are deeply rooted in everyday practices. In short, for truth to be “truth” it requires the disciplining power to mould a believer into a certain religious outlook and practices which excludes other point of view and practices. For example, what constitutes orthodoxy (correct beliefs and practices) requires some sort of disciplinary mechanism in the form of exclusion, spelling out of heresies, etc. 

Rather than offering an alternative to the essentialist definition of religion, he argued for an approach that views religion as a specific set of discourse and practices that was inform by specific historical circumstances which requires any scholar who is interested in this phenomenon to unpack in a specific society. Now for some of you, this will sound somewhat familiar. This is because this chapter and the rest of the chapters were informed by Foucault and Nietzsche.

This essay is quite insightful but densely packed with theoretical insights which makes it a hard reading for me. Had to read it a couple of times just get to his arguments. I think the fault lies with myself by letting go of the discipline of reading long and theoretically informed pieces in favour of short hypertext with loads of soundbites via the screen .. Damn you Google! 

Now what is my point for blogging about this chapter in particular. Well actually, this chapter rekindle my own research interest on the interplay between politics and religion in the local context by looking at this phenomenon from the knowledge/power perspective. More importantly, to look with suspicion those who claim the continuity of their political demands is rooted in the past rather than the historical complex that created such demands and its effects on society. 

I hope this to be the first of a series of blogs – and hopefully more academic papers – on the interplay of religion and politics in the local context. Just have to wait and see. 


Random musing on a lazy Sunday afternoon: Plato vs Aristotle.

I was just going through my library shelves just now when I noticed that my collection on Plato (around ten books plus the complete works) far outweighs that of Aristotle (two books). It was then that I remembered that I read somewhere that one is either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. Well no surprise who I’m partial to.  Continue reading “Random musing on a lazy Sunday afternoon: Plato vs Aristotle.”

Malaysian Insider Closes – but genie is out of bottle

A piece I wrote for Aliran on the shutdown of Malaysian Insider and why it’s not the time to mourn but to do something about it.

The Malaysian Insider started its life at a time when Malaysia was experiencing a spring tide in democracy when the ruling party was deprived of its customary two-thirds majority in Parliament at the 2008 general election.

More importantly, 2008 witnessed the mushrooming of alternative media on the internet (news portals). These provided Malaysians with alternative news about the state of affairs in the country. In so doing, these news portals have enlarged the country’s restricted media space that had stifled the public sphere, so vital for democracy to flourish.

You can read the the whole article here.

Christianity and the Malaysian Middle Class

A sociological exercise on faith and the middle class. Part of a larger work, i.e. my PhD thesis, which was extracted for a smaller essay. It’s published in Business of Faith website. I want to thank Dina Zaman (Director of Imam Research) who edited the larger work which subsequently became this essay.

Continue reading “Christianity and the Malaysian Middle Class”

Is local theological discourse anaemic?

In the past few days, I been revisiting Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” where I was struck by his imagery of theology. In the first thesis, Benjamin stated:

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides. Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device. The puppet called ‘historical materialism’ is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. 

Here, theology is described as “wizened and has to keep out of sight”. This imagery struck a chord with me because despite the political and social changes that is taking place in society, local theological discourse is very anaemic with regards to such changes.

It seems that the focus is on the personal and the spiritual without much work being done to engage with the wider society. With the exception of one or two local theologians, I find myself wishing more will come forward to take the challenge of making local theological discourse more vibrant and contemporary by reflecting on public issues that affect the faith community as citizens of a nation.

This, as I see it, is the challenge for our theologians.  


A tribute to the Tiger of Jelutong

A piece I wrote in Aliran as a tribute to the late Karpal Singh:

The unexpected passing of Karpal Singh, the legendary lawyer and politician, have left a void in Malaysia. Karpal, also known by his moniker ‘The Tiger of Jelutong’, was in the forefront of many battles in Parliament and the courts in the quest to bring about a better Malaysia for all.

Guided by principles of justice and truth, Karpal the lawyer was in the forefront of the struggle to safeguard the constitutional rights of all Malaysians. His clients ranged from his one time political foe Anwar Ibrahim to a teenager sentenced to death for possessing firearms in a politically explosive case. 

Karpal also contributed to the nation-building process as a politician. His efforts provided the necessary checks and balances while deepening the democratic process in the country.

Indeed so great were his contributions to the nation that people from all walks of life paid tribute, either through articles or paying last respect at his funeral, to the man who have touched their lives in some ways. 

In his own words, the Tiger of Jelutong gave us a clue as to the legacy which he wishes to leave behind, “The fight goes on. You knock out one Karpal Singh, a hundred Karpal Singhs will rise.” The Tiger roars no more but let a hundred tigers roar!