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

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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.