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. 


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”

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!

Why Mills and Orwell matter: Reflections on the Allah judgement

Today I decided to write because I’m upset. I’m upset because the Appeals Court have ruled that the Catholic newspaper, The Herald, have no right to use the Malay word “Allah” in the Malay section of the paper (you can read the news here and the background to this sorry mess here). 

Continue reading “Why Mills and Orwell matter: Reflections on the Allah judgement”

Healing a Divided Nation

This piece was written for Berita NECF (July – Sept. 2013) where I gave some thoughts on post-GE 13 and the Church.

EARLY this year, Malaysians were outraged by a video which showed a speaker shouting down a university student at a forum with the now infamous phrase “Listen, listen, listen”.

This video demonstrated an ugly truth about ourselves: We are indeed a nation divided. We are divided along racial and religious lines which have led us, particularly in the past few years, to start shouting “listen, listen” without attempting to truly listen to those who are different from us.

Listen, if I may be permitted to use the word, we are divided because we have built walls that insulate us from those who are different from us. We built those walls so that we can remain comfortable as to who we are. Those walls insulate us from listening to what others have to say about us and also about themselves. To listen to others is an uncomfortable exercise. It’s uncomfortable because it forces us to re-examine the picture we have of ourselves. It forces us to face the fact that we are part of the problem as to why the nation is divided.

Let me now shift the “we” as a nation to “we” as a community of faith, i.e. Christians.

In this time when walls are being built, we are called to the ministry of reconciliation. Although the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) and NECF have been involved in this ministry at the national level, more can be done particularly at the community level. The local church needs to be involved in this ministry in their communities.

It could be argued that the local churches are involved in this ministry through outreach which focuses not only on meeting spiritual needs but also physical needs. And through its outreach ministry, the church becomes an agent of reconciliation between God and man. For most Christians, the practice of reconciliation is often limited to salvation.

However, there is another dimension to reconciliation. Reconciliation is also about engaging with people of other faiths. We live in a country that is multi-religious, and are familiar with the challenges that this poses. Yet, somehow we don’t engage fellow citizens enough on a religious and cultural level to seek common ground. Is it because we build walls around ourselves due to our fears and ignorance of those who are different from us? Perhaps we need to rethink our theology with regards to reconciliation as not just being merely about salvation but also one that seeks to advance thecommon good.

Indeed, seeking the common good is biblical. For example, in Genesis, we observe that all people, made in the image of God, are endowed with dignity. Preserving this dignity entails a pursuit of the common good. This includes things like the freedom of worship, the right to life, to be treated equally under the law, to justice and other democratic values which enable all persons to live with dignity and flourish to their full potential.

Do we care enough about the common good or are we at risk of insulating ourselves behind our walls? Now, more than ever, we need to create spaces for people from different faiths to come together to share a conversation on common challenges. We each, whatever our religion, struggle with being faithful to one’s faith and with being a citizen of Malaysia. Through such conversations, we can learn much from one another and start the process of tearing down the walls that separate us.

Such conversations are crucial as they lead not only to mutual understanding but also to finding the common good which binds us together as a nation. No doubt such conversations are difficult to begin because it requires an openness and humility to learn from those who are so different from us. It also requires willingness to take the first step to initiate such conversations at a time when walls surround us.

And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22:39)

As Christians, the task of listening is made more challenging because it forces us to examine ourselves in the light of Christ’s commandment to “love our neighbour” (Matthew 22:39). For how can we love our neighbour if we are ignorant as to how they define themselves in terms of their religious and/or racial identity? How is love possible if we do not understand their fears and hopes?

Yet, we are called to this ministry of reconciliation because we are reconciled with God and with each other (2 Corinthians 5: 17-19). And as Malaysians, we live at a juncture of our nation’s history where reconciliation is urgently needed. This then is the challenge which confronts us today.