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. 


On Liberalism

Recently the word liberalism have gotten a lot of bad press. From the public statements made by certain public figures, it’s the scourge of all social and political ills in the country. The problem here, at least for me, is they never define what is liberalism.

  Continue reading “On Liberalism”

The separation between church and state: Clarifying a concept

Yesterday, my fb was abuzz with postings and comments on those who support and against the mix between politics and the church. What I find interesting here about this debate is no one seek to clarify the underlying concepts that are driving the debate. Rather it is assumed everyone understood the idea behind the concept of separation between church and states. Continue reading “The separation between church and state: Clarifying a concept”

Stop Political Thuggerism!

In the early hours of April 19th, a group of student activists camping at Dataran Merdeka lobbying for free tertiary education found themselves attacked by a group of unidentified men. Their camps were looted and destroyed while being verbally abused. Apparently, this group wanted the students to leave the Dataran and cease their lobbying. Continue reading “Stop Political Thuggerism!”

Please, I’m not a Zizekian!

One of the oft repeated jokes of Groucho Marx employed by the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek goes like this: He may look like an idiot and sounds like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He is an idiot. To rephrase this joke, I may look like a Zizekian and sounds like a Zizekian. But don’t let that fool you, I’m a Zizekian. Indeed, looking at some of my blogs and tags which I get on FB whenever Zizek comes up, one would assume I’m a Zizekian. Continue reading “Please, I’m not a Zizekian!”

Can Malaysians Do Political Philosophy?

political-philosophy-essential-texts-steven-m-cahn-paperback-cover-artA friend of mine, Ahmad Fuad, posted an essay in his Facebook entitled “Do Malaysians Need Political Philosophy?” Basically he is arguing for the need for political philosophy in the country. What caught my attention was his observation of how we disavow the need for serious thinking about the nation’s politics. For Malaysians, we are either indifferent to political philosophy by saying (i) it is too abstract or it’s a Western invention that is not applicable to the country; or (ii) we are cynical “hell, politics is about bread and butter issues! We don’t need some airy-fairy theory to tell us what is politics!”

Continue reading “Can Malaysians Do Political Philosophy?”