August 1, 2011 § 1 Comment
As i move toward writing my thesis i have been surveying various critiques of the Asad-inflected anthropology of Islam. There are those that one can dismiss out of hand, of course, but then there are those that need to be taken more seriously – including that the anthropology/study of Islam as influenced by him (particularly as in Politics of Piety) does not recognize certain kinds of violence, that its central concerns have in the past few years come to form a canon that places too much emphasis on ‘discourse’, and that it locates agency in the province of the self-fashioning individual. Indeed, one of the primary (and very compelling) methodological arguments of Amira’s book is an attempt to open the vocabulary of virtuous self-cultivation (embodied and discursive practices, etc.) to a vocabulary of encounter, excess, and alterity. Here is a recent contribution to this roster, Samuli Schielke’s “Second thoughts about the anthropology of Islam, or how to make sense of grand schemes in everyday life.” Its central argument: that there is altogether too much “Islam” in “the anthropology of Islam”, or, in other words, that that ‘anthropology of Islam’ is not quite an anthropology of Muslims. I appreciate the general sentiment that in the past few years the phrase “Islam as a discursive tradition” has come to be “less often about an actual inquiry into discursive traditions” – or, as Asad first wrote about it, a way of studying Islam – “and more often about an attempt to find a frame that allows one to look at Islam as a whole” (4a), to establish what Islam ‘is’. I also appreciate that this has consolidated the formation of a set of ‘canonical’ concerns and research questions that may occlude others. Schielke then argues that this type of analysis too easily devolves upon a stark and systemic (perhaps polemical) difference between the liberal/secular and the Islamic, with a view to articulating a political critique of the former. Rather than emphasizing “competition between pious and secular sensory regimes,” that is, we should instead try to represent the “unpredictable coexistence of different nuances, moments, and registers” that make up daily life – complexities and ambiguities expressed for instance in the way stickers of du’a and Nancy Ajram are applied side by side on an Egyptian minibus (11). Rather than replicating the opposition religious/secular, we should start with the “existential concerns and pragmatic considerations” that inform the practice of living life. This will facilitate moving away from the exceptionalism that has come to dominate the anthropology of Islam and help us recognize that the way people “live Islam…may not be so different from the ways they live capitalism and love. In all these cases, we are talking about great hopes, deep anxieties and compelling promises about grand schemes and powerful persons that will lead to practical solutions, promises that people try to follow and to put in practice” (14).
I don’t disagree with Schielke’s general argument; then, too, there’s always the possibility that those “existential concerns and pragmatic considerations” and the way they are narrativized might themselves reflect the opposition religious/secular. More broadly, I do think Asad’s own work is expansive (and generous) enough to admit many of these critiques. But there it is. Ramadan kareem…
Updated 110911: i just read the new preface to the forthcoming 2012 edition of Politics of Piety on Amazon preview, and she seems to address many of the criticisms people have had of the book since then, situating its argument in relation to broader societal pressures and power. i particularly appreciated her comments against characterizing the Egyptian revolution as “post-Islamist” or “secular”.