Do we need to re-think the meaning of Tradition ?

In International Relations, Development theory as well as cultural analysis, often one hears that ‘tradition’ ideas are evil, and must be gotten rid of, on our way to ‘modernity.’ Indeed, if one looks at the development of the West, on is way to Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, much of the tension was between ‘tradition,’ exemplified by the Church and ‘modern’ ideas, that were ‘secular,’ ‘modern’ and ‘progressive.’ Especially, in liberal, progressive circles, tradition is a taboo word; that connotes backwardness, illiteracy and a lack of ability to ‘move with the times.’

In America too, this tension has played out and continues to animate itself in media discourses, popular debates and everyday scenarios. But the question is,  is ‘tradition,’ really all that it is made out to be? And is ‘modernity’ all that ‘modern.’ And how are the two linked together, in contemporary ethical life? I will try to answer this, in this short post.india-culture-heritage

Two scholars are helpful in understanding the notion of ‘tradition’ and its relation to modernity. One of them is Alasdair MacIntyre, a Philosopher and the second being Talal Asad, an Anthropologist, who is most well-known for his writings on Islam. Both are considered authorities in their field of study and have contributed much to our understanding of the world we live in. First off, let us start with the definition that each offers of tradition. Asad says that tradition consists of ‘discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history. These discourses relate to a past, and a future, through a present.’ (1986, p.14). His definition of tradition is one of inherited discourses, and he goes on to build the idea of a ‘discursive tradition,’ meaning one which is constantly in dialogue with the others and with itself and hence, is ‘alive.’

On the other hand, MacIntyre argues that a tradition is a shared conversation between a set of people and one that is often born into. I did not choose to be born into an Indian, Muslim family and inherit the traditions that came with it. I may have adopted a few others, along the way, through travel, reflection and life-experience; but the ones that I most closely relate to, are the ones that I am deeply ingrained in. Tradition, then, according to MacIntyre is a ‘shared conversation through time about the rule, ends and overall direction of a given set of practices,’ (Hannan, 2012. P.394).

So, between Asad and MacIntyre’s definitions, we have a lot of similarities in how they understand the role of tradition. Both see it as something that one is born into, one that one inherits. How does one deal with it, then? MacIntyre develops his notion of tradition to talk about one’s ‘narrative self,’ as embodying the stories that one tells and how  these impact our sense of our own self, own sense of our ‘traditions,’ and how we keep them alive. Similarly, Asad talks about a ‘discursive tradition,’ as being a dynamic formulation of tradition, in that, one seeks to relate one’s tradition to current practices, based on how one understand how things were done in the past. This necessarily doesn’t mean that one kowtows to what was done in the past and preserves everything therein. A ‘discursive tradition,’ in Asad’s view is ‘alive’ and ‘active’, in that it seeks to question both the present and the future, and also the past.

Both scholars make a very important point that no matter how ‘modern.’ Our conceptions of our life, they are deeply rooted in some ‘tradition.’ For example, all talk of ‘justice’, ‘mercy’, ‘progress,’ are not just Western constructs that are post-Enlightenment ideals, but have evolved over centuries and under certain specific historic conditions. To deny this is to lie to oneself, both Asad and MacIntyre seem to be saying.

The difference between them seem to be in the amount of focus that each puts on the power relations. While Asad words in a Foucaldian tradition, that seeks to understand power-relations between those who create knowledge and those who are at the receiving end of it, MacIntyre seems less interested in these aspects and he is interested more in the ethical dimensions of the problems at hand.

These two formulations of tradition challenge us to re-think what tradition is. In a classical Burkean sense, tradition is seen as something that had no scope for disagreement or reasoning. Asad shows, through his work that this is not the case and in the particular case of Islamic tradition, there has been and continues to be contestation, debate, arguments – in the realm of tradition. Even in the ‘Western tradition,’ for instance, one can see that our conceptions of justice, equality and law and order have evolved and continue to evolve, making it ‘discursive.’


Hannan (2014) Ed. Philosophical Profiles in the Theory of Communication: With a Foreword by Richard J. Bernstein and an Afterword by John Durham Peters. Peter Lang Publishing Inc.

Asad, T (1986). Towards an Anthropology of Islam. Georgetown University Press.

How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “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 structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

Egypt and the Challenge of Islam in the Public Sphere

“Know that you can have three sorts of relations with princes, governors and oppressors. The first and worst is that you visit them, the second and better is that they visit you, and the third and surest that you stay far from them, so that neither you see them nor they see you.” – Abu Hamid Muhammad Al Ghazzali. (d.1111)

While Ghazzali’s advise seems apt for all those Islamic leaders who are interested in ‘preserving Islam’ and ‘Islamic ethics’ in any society, the reality is quite different. Almost every time a religious group has come to power, it gravitates to acquire more power, hence becoming more ‘worldly’ than spiritual. This trend has remained somewhat consistent: from the Catholic Church to Islamist parties in Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and the rest, though some are more restrained than the others. The question that is on several people’s mind is this: Should Muslim Brotherhood (MB) still be part of the political landscape in Egypt? Despite the ban on MB and being labelled a ‘terrorist’ outfit, should the group and its cadre be allowed to participate in the political sphere? These are some questions that will continue to haunt both the Egyptian people as well as the international community. While the ground realities in Egypt preclude any rational dialogue and much of the decision making seems to be taking place in the realm of realpolitik and the struggle for survival is dictating the tactical steps that the Egyptian ruling elite is taking; strategic foresight in this case requires a different approach.

Photo credit :
Photo credit :

As the New York Times reported about the bomb blasts in Cairo today, “A crowd of more than 200 people was demonstrating in support of General Sisi and against the Muslim Brotherhood. “The people want the execution of the Brotherhood,” they chanted, waving Egyptian flags and holding signs depicting a profile of General Sisi in dark sunglasses against the profile of a lion, or, in other posters, of a hawk.” The mood in the country is anything but calm and factions supporting the General and those on the side of MB have become more entrenched.

Jose Casanova, one of the most eminent theorists of Sociology of religion points out, the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ religion is one of the key points of contention from a secular perspective. But he is careful to delineate the differences between the types of secularizations, which he identifies as being of three kinds: secularization as separation of state and religion, secularization as decline of religious practices and secularization as marginalization of religion to a privatized sphere. He has argued for the public inclusion of religious parties in the political sphere. His is a slightly complicated argument, but one worthy of examination.

I quote Casanova at length, where he points to the benefits of public religion: “The public impact of religious critiques should not be measures in terms of the ability of any religion to impose its agenda upon society or to press its global normative claims upon the autonomous spheres. In modern differentiated societies it is both unlikely and undesirable that religion should again play the role of systematic normative integration. But by crossing boundaries, by raising questions publicly about the autonomous pretentions of the differentiated spheres to function without regard to moral norms or human considerations, public religions may help to mobilize people against such pretentions, they may contribute to a redrawing of boundaries, or, at the least, they may force or contribute to a public debate about such issues. Like feminist critiques or like republican virtue critiques of modern developments, they will have functioned as counterfactual normative critiques.” This is a critique that many secularists in Egypt are not able to heed. Perhaps the atmosphere has become too vitiated and the camps so entrenched in their views that any discussion of alternatives seems impossible.

As Casanova points out further, the fusion of the ‘Church’ and ‘State’ that took place in the Christian domain is exceptional and the only case. Once the Western Roman Empire disintegrated, it became a salvation religion with the political structure of an imperial state. There is no reason to believe that Islam or any other religion will go this route, even with the establishment of religious communities in charge, politically. Casanova argued for the maintenance of Secularism in terms of differentiation between religion and state, and institutions and religion. Within that religion can have a role to play in public sphere, with some conditions.

New York Times also reported in a short statement posted online, the Brotherhood said it “strongly condemns the cowardly bombings in Cairo, expresses condolences to the families of those killed, demands swift investigations.” It blamed the “coup authorities” for deteriorating security and the failure to apprehend the perpetrators of previous bombings. While this may be seen as a way to wash their hands off any blame, there is growing suspicion that the MB was in some way involved. While these debates are ongoing and it will be years, if not decades, before there is any consensus on how best to deal with opposition parties in the country; it is important to remember, that, as Talal Asad points out the history of how Secularism came to be part of the discourse in the Muslim world. In Egypt, the introduction of European laws, in lieu of Shari’ah in the 19th century was a precursor that finally lead to the total unification of state power and abolition of the dual structure of courts, in favor of European-derived laws. This, he points out was partly as a result of European coercion and also Egyptian elite’s infatuation with European ways. The Islamists urge to gain power of the state and bring back the Shari’ah laws should be understood in this context. There is also great anger that the democratically elected government of Mr.Morsi was ousted by a coup. So, it is back to square one, for the Egyptians.

This is not to say that there is just one conception of Islam and the state. There are also devout Muslims and scholars, who have called for a ‘Secular state.’ Abdullahi An’naim, another scholar of Islam has pointed out in Islam and the Secular state that by a secular state, he means “A state that is neutral regarding religious doctrine, one that does not claim or pretend to enforce Shari’ah – the religious law of Islam – simply because compliance with Sharia cannot be coerced by fear of state institutions or faked to appease their officials.” He further points out that it is perfectly possible for a Muslim majority state to be secular and yet remain true to Islam. In fact, this is what is needed in our modern era, when pluralism is a fact of life and homogenous populations in most countries is a thing of the past. “As a means to being religious, I need the state to remain secular,” he adds. An’naim has argued that the future of Shari’ah law is a secular state. By this he means that a state that represents Islamic ethos is one in which there is no fear of favor of any one particular religion and this in essence means a secular state.

An’naim’s is a radically different take on Islamic societies. His vision may be more applicable in our times, where any mention of religion in the public sphere is bound to raise suspicions. Although this vision requires buy-in from all parties, he does see a role for Islamist parties to participate in the political sphere. Afterall, they should not be barred from the political sphere, just because of their religious affiliation. This would be truly un-democratic and against the liberal ethos that the secularists are supposedly upholding.